Profile: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa

December 6, 2013 7:45 PM

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Profile: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is one of the most controversial political figures in South Africa.

She was a potent symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle with her then-husband, the iconic Nelson Mandela, for nearly three decades, but her reputation later became tainted by a fraud conviction and murder accusations, which she denied.

Once South Africa's most famous political couple, Mr Mandela divorced her in 1996, but she kept his surname and maintained ties with him.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela often visited him in hospital after he was admitted with a recurring lung infection in June 2013 and featured prominently in celebrations to mark his 95th birthday the following month, leading to critics accusing her of behaving like she was still his wife in an attempt to gain political mileage.

Born in Bizana in the Transkei in 1936, she met Mr Mandela in 1957. He was married at the time to Evelyn Mase but the marriage was breaking up.

The next year they married - she was a young bride, 16 years his junior, glamorous and strong-willed.

However, they were destined to have little time together as political activism and a period in hiding kept Mr Mandela apart from her.

While he was in prison, she took on an increasingly political role, partly because of constant harassment by the South African security police.

She became an international symbol of resistance to apartheid and a rallying point for poor, black township residents who demanded their freedom.

Her resistance to harassment and championing of the anti-apartheid cause led to periods of imprisonment from 1969, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

In 1976, the year of the Soweto riots, she was banished from the township to a remote rural area. This did not end her problems and at one stage her house was burned down.

By the mid-1980s and the start of a long period of township militancy against the white government of President P W Botha, she was back in Soweto and at the heart of the struggle.

Her image and activism drew to her many anti-apartheid activists, including a group of young men who became her personal bodyguards.

Her prominence led to great influence over young, radical township activists but also growing controversy.

As the activists turned on suspected police informers or collaborators, the use of rubber tyres filled with petrol as brutal murder weapons became widespread.

Hung round the necks of the accused and then ignited, they became known as "necklaces" and drew criticism even from the ranks of anti-apartheid campaigners.

At one township rally, Ms Madikizela-Mandela praised activists who with their "necklaces" were fighting apartheid.

Even greater controversy came when she was accused by senior anti-apartheid activists with involvement in the killing of a 14-year-old township militant, Stompie Seipei.

Stompie had been seized by Ms Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards in 1989 and was later found dead.

Members of the ANC leadership accused her of being behind the killing and of conducting a virtual reign of terror in parts of Soweto.

In 1991, after his release, she was charged with the assault and kidnapping of Stompie and one of her bodyguards was charged with his murder.

She denied the allegations but was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

Her marriage to Mr Mandela broke down in the years after his release and they were divorced in 1996.

President Mandela accused her of adultery, and said she had never entered their bedroom after his release from prison while he was awake.

In the same year, Mr Mandela dismissed her as deputy minister of arts and culture - the only post she has held in government since white minority rule ended, though she remains an MP.

Her split from Mr Mandela did little to harm her political standing among poor, black South Africans who saw her as their voice at a time when the ANC had adopted pro-business policies.

When she testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, she arrived at the hearings in a white Mercedes limousine surrounded by bodyguards.

At the commission, ANC members and ordinary township residents accused her of attacks on opponents, of ordering Stompie's murder and of being guilty of involvement in other murders.

In 2003, Ms Madikizela-Mandela suffered another blow when a court convicted her of fraud and theft in connection with a bank loan scandal.

The sentencing magistrate compared her to a modern-day Robin Hood, fraudulently acquiring loans for people who were desperately short of money, but he said that as a prominent public figure she should have known better.

An appeal judge overturned the conviction for theft, but upheld the one for fraud, handing her a three-year-and-six-month suspended sentence.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela backed President Jacob Zuma in the hard-fought campaign he waged to oust his predecessor Thabo Mbeki as ANC leader in 2007 - a decision that did not come as a surprise as she had a bad relationship with Mr Mbeki, who once angrily knocked her hat off when she went up to greet him at a rally.

At the ANC conference in 2007, she was elected to the party's top decision-making body, the National Executive Committee, and in the 2009 general election, she was placed fifth on the list of ANC MPs nominated for parliament, in a clear sign that Mr Zuma saw her as an electoral asset.

Although she still seeks the political limelight and occasionally accuses the government of failing the poor, she no longer shows a hunger for power, suggesting that her era, like that of many of her generation, has ended.


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