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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – A Biography

Winnie Mandela, South Africa's Mother of the Nation or her own worst enemy?


Winnie Mandela, in 2009 at work as an MP.

Winnie Mandela, in 2009 at work as an MP.

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Winnie is probably the single most controversial politician to emerge from South Africa's liberation struggle, adored by her supporters, who call her the 'Mother of the Nation', reviled as a violent and corrupt criminal by others. She was born on the 26 September 1936, in Mbongweni village, Bizana, in the Pondo district of the East Cape and belongs to the Xhosa people. She was the fourth of eight children. Her mother, who died when she was eight, taught Domestic Science. Her father worked for the Forestry and Agriculture Dept. Her full name is Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela. 'Nomzamo' means 'trial: having a hard time in life' - it seems a hard tag to give a child, but in this case her parents must have been psychic.

Meeting Nelson
Winnie studied social work at the Jan Hofmeyer School in Johannesburg and gained a degree in International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand. She had several different jobs in her home area of the Transkei and became South Africa's first black social worker, based at the Baragwanath Hospital, Johannesburg.
In 1957, she met Nelson Mandela, marrying him the following year. They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. They officially remained married until 1996, although they actually separated in 1992 on the grounds of her adultery during his imprisonment. However they never really had any chance for a married life. The few years they did have before he was incarcerated in Robben Island in 1963 were taken up by endless tours of the country in heavy disguise, by spells in prison and the Rivonia Trials. Their tiny Johannesburg home in Soweto is now a museum.

Mother of the Nation
With Nelson Mandela imprisoned, Winnie took centre stage. A passionate and charismatic speaker, she campaigned tirelessly and often outspokenly, allying herself with the hardline views of the Black Consciousness Movement. Banned and confined to Soweto, she was arrested on several occasions, even spending 17 months in solitary confinement in Pretoria Central Prison. Her children were sent to boarding school in Swaziland. After her involvement in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, she was exiled for years to Brandfort in the Free State. With Nelson emerging as an international figurehead for the political prisoners, the ANC made a conscious decision not only to bolster his image but that of his wife, highlighting the persecution she was suffering at the hands of the authorities. In 1986, she decided to move back to Soweto and confront matters head on, becoming an international celebrity as she outspokenly espoused the cause and raised her husband to superstar status.

Violent crime
Unfortunately, at the same time, things began to go badly wrong as Winnie pushed the boundaries too far. In 1986, she made a speech approving 'necklace killings' as a way of dealing with township dissidents, a barbaric practice that hangs a burning tire around the neck of the victim. Then the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC), Winnie's group of teenage bodyguards, began rampaging ever more out of control. On 29 December 1988, they abducted four teenage boys from the home of Methodist Minister, Rev. Paul Verryn. All four were badly beaten and one, 14-year-old James Seipei, better known as Stompei Moeketsi, was killed. His body was found in a field, with stab wounds, on 6 January 1989. At her trial, Winnie claimed that the boys had been taken to protect them from sexual abuse. She was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. A six year jail sentence was later reduced, but Winnie's reputation was tarnished forever.
Allegations later laid before Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission linked her to 18 violent crimes including eight murders.

Political power
In 1991, Winnie was elected to the National Executive of the ANC, resigning all political posts after her conviction. In 1993, however, she was elected President of the ANC Women's League, a post she held for 10 years.
Following the handover of power in 1994, Winnie Mandela became a Member of Parliament and Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology but the portfolio was removed from her in 2005 amidst allegations of corruption and she was voted out of parliament the following year. In 2003, she was again in trouble, convicted of 58 counts of fraud and 25 counts of theft from a funeral fund. Most of these were later overturned by an appeal court. In 2007, she was re-elected to the National Executive of the ANC (African National Congress). In 2008, she rejoined the National Executive of the ANC Women's League. In 2009, she was returned to Parliament and remains an MP today. She has never remarried.

There have been numerous articles and biographies written. In January 2010, the BBC broadcast a made-for-TV drama, Mrs Mandela, starring Sophie Okonedo, followed by a documentary version. A major Hollywood biopic, Winnie, directed by Darrell Roodt and starring Jennifer Hudson, is currently in production. It is unauthorised and has caused an uproar, with Winnie herself threatening to sue the production and the Screen Actors' Unions in South Africa furious about the use of American actress, Jennifer Connelly, to play the lead.
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