News Africa

Wednesday 15 August 2018

'Mother of nation' Winnie Mandela was 'brutalised' by hate

February 11, 1990. Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress member Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie raise their fists upon Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl. Photos: AFP/Getty Images/ Gallo Images/Media24
February 11, 1990. Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress member Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie raise their fists upon Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl. Photos: AFP/Getty Images/ Gallo Images/Media24

Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg

Even the name given to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at birth - Nomzamo, "one who undergoes trials" - foretold a life of struggle.

During her nearly 38-year marriage to Nelson Mandela, she fought for black majority rule even as she vowed to escape the shadow of the great man.

Although many South Africans called her the "Mother of the Nation", she would become engulfed in criminal convictions and scandals.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela died yesterday in a Johannesburg hospital at the age of 81 after a long illness, her family announced. She will be honoured with a state funeral on April 14, President Cyril Ramaphosa said last night after paying a condolence visit to her home in Johannesburg's Soweto township.

Over the years, Ms Madikizela-Mandela became a symbol of the suffering caused by South Africa's system of white minority rule known as apartheid. She and her husband began a family before Mr Mandela went underground and then was imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century. Left with two young daughters, Ms Madikizela-Mandela was persecuted by police and banished to a remote town where neighbours were forbidden to speak with her.

As Mr Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison seeking reconciliation and forgiveness, Ms Madikizela-Mandela wanted the perpetrators of apartheid punished. "What brutalised me so much was that I knew what it is to hate," she once said in a television interview. The young Ms Madikizela-Mandela grew up in what is now Eastern Cape province and came to Johannesburg as the city's first black female social worker. Her research into the high infant mortality rate in a black township, which she linked to poverty caused by racism, first sparked her interest in politics.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Photo: Media24 Archives
Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Photo: Media24 Archives

In 1957, she met Mr Mandela, a rising lawyer and anti-apartheid activist 18 years her senior, and they married a year later following his divorce from his first wife. The first five turbulent years of their marriage saw Mr Mandela going underground to build the armed struggle against apartheid, and finally to prison in 1963, while his wife gave birth to two daughters.

Even before they were separated by his long stay in prison, she had become politicised, being jailed for two weeks while pregnant for participating in a women's protest against apartheid restrictions on blacks.

The police later harassed her, sometimes dragging her from bed at night without giving her a chance to make arrangements for her daughters. In 1977, she was banished to a remote town, Brandfort, where neighbours were forbidden to speak to her. She was banned from meeting with more than one person at a time.

The woman who returned to Johannesburg in 1985 was much harder, more ruthless and bellicose, branded by the cruelty of apartheid and determined for vengeance.

In an infamous 1986 speech she threatened "no more peaceful protests".

Instead, she endorsed the "necklacing" method of killing suspected informers and police with fuel-doused tyres put around the neck and set alight. "Together hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country," she said.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela gathered a group of young men known as the Mandela United Football Club, who lived on her property.

But they turned into thugs who so terrorised the black township of Soweto that people set ablaze Ms Madikizela-Mandela's home there. Her bodyguards were accused of the disappearances and killings of at least 18 boys and young men. In the most infamous case, her bodyguards in 1989 kidnapped four boys, including 14-year-old James 'Stompie' Seipei Moeketsi.

He was accused of being a police informer, beaten and his throat slit. In 1991, Ms Madikizela-Mandela was charged with his killing. A court found her guilty of his kidnapping and assault and sentenced her to six years in jail. She appealed and the sentence was reduced to a suspended prison term. She denied any knowledge of any killings, leading the judge to brand her "an unblushing liar".

The newly freed Mr Mandela stood by his wife, urging friends to come to court to show their support. But the marriage that survived decades of prison bars dissolved with a formal separation in 1992, two years after Mr Mandela's release. The couple divorced in 1996, two years after Mr Mandela became president in South Africa's first all-race elections. He accused his wife of infidelity.

She kept his name, adding her maiden name. In 2003, she was convicted on fraud and theft charges and sentenced to five years in jail, though she ended up serving no time.

The conviction appeared to end her career: she quit parliament and resigned as president of the ANC Woman's League and a member of the party's executive committee.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela and her ex-husband appeared to rebuild a friendship in his final years. It was not unusual to see him at public events with her on one side and his third wife, Graca Machel, on the other. George Bizos, a lawyer who represented Mr Mandela at the 1960s trial, recalled how the marriage broke down. "Nelson Mandela called two other senior members of the ANC after his release and he actually said, 'I love her, we have differences, I don't want to discuss them, please respect her'," Mr Bizos said.

"And he shed tears to say that 'we have decided to separate'. He loved her to the end."

Irish Independent

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