Winnie Mandela, Controversial Ex-Wife of Nelson Mandela, Dies at 81

Oren Dorell, USA TODAY, April 2, 2018

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the controversial former wife of legendary South African President Nelson Mandela, died Monday, her family said. She was 81.

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She was married to the human rights icon from 1958 until their divorce in 1996. For 27 years of their marriage, he was imprisoned by the minority-white apartheid regime.

The couple separated after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990, and he became president of South Africa in 1994. He accused his wife of infidelity. After the divorce, she kept his name and added her maiden name. {snip}

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“She dedicated most of her adult life to the cause of the people and for this was known far and wide as the Mother Of The Nation,” it said.

Her controversial reputation stemmed from harsh comments that appeared to promote violence and were critical of her famous ex-husband, along with accusations of murder and a conviction for bank fraud.

Jesse Jackson, the American civil rights leader, told USA TODAY that the former South Africa first lady was a “huge force” in the Free South Africa movement who deserves credit for helping to keep the anti-apartheid push strong during her husband’s 27 years in prison.

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela joined the struggle to end apartheid after working as a hospital social worker in the 1950s. Around that time, she met her future husband, who was a lawyer and human rights activist. After he was arrested for his political activities, she raised two young daughters alone.

She campaigned for his release and to rally support in South Africa and internationally for the anti-apartheid movement. She was also imprisoned and tortured, and she faced constant security threats.

When apartheid ended, she became a member of Parliament and served as deputy minister of arts and culture.

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South African authorities arrested her in 1969 under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, and she spent more than a year in solitary confinement, where she was tortured. After her release, she was banished to the Free State, a province of South Africa, where her home was firebombed twice, according to a website belonging to the South African presidency.

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“We have no guns — we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol,” she said at a rally in Soweto. “Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.”

“Necklacing” was a method of torture and murder used on suspected police informants, where a tire filled with gasoline was forced around a person’s body and set on fire.

In 1997, her bodyguard from the 1980s, Jerry Richardson, told South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee that he beat, tortured and killed people whenever she told him to. His boss sometimes participated in the beatings, Richardson said. Madikizela-Mandela denied the murder allegations, but later apologized to the families of two of the victims.

She was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for two of the deaths, but the sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.

In 2003, she was sentenced to four years in prison on dozens of counts of theft and bank fraud. A judge ruled that she profited from loans to poor people who could not get them without a letter from her.

In a 2010 interview with the British Evening Standard newspaper, she criticized former archbishop Desmond Tutu and her former husband. She lambasted Nelson Mandela for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with former South African president F.W. de Klerk, the white leader who negotiated with Mandela to end apartheid.

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She also retracted any apology she gave: “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”

Tutu, a Nobel laureate, noting Madikizela-Mandela’s death, described her as “a defining symbol” of the fight against apartheid.

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