Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: Divorced but never rejected

  • People
  • Tuesday, 10 Dec 2013

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela attends a mass in memory of her former husband, the late South African President Nelson Mandela, on Dec 8, 2013, in Johannesburg.

The marriage ended, but the bond was never broken.

THEIR love affair ended more than 20 years ago yet the evidence of the past few weeks is that a fundamental bond was never severed.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela could be seen almost daily visiting her former husband Nelson Mandela at the Mediclinic heart hospital in Pretoria, South Africa. Although they divorced in 1996, observers might be forgiven for inferring that they remained the loves of each other’s lives to the end. Madikizela-Mandela continued to be a presence in Mandela’s life despite his remarriage in 1998 and was sometimes seen laughing and joking with her successor, Graca Machel.

At 76, Madikizela-Mandela is a giant of South African history, the subject of books, films and controversy.

She was born Nomzamo (Xhosa for “she who will go through trials”) Winifred Madikizela in the rural Transkei, her childhood “a blistering inferno of racial hatred” in the words of British biographer Emma Gilbey. She moved to Johannesburg and became South Africa’s first black female social worker.

It is easy to forget that Nelson and Winnie were once an impossibly glamorous couple, a township equivalent of Burton and Taylor. She was 22 and standing at a bus stop in Soweto when he first saw her and charmed her, securing a lunch date. But Mandela was married with three children and devoted to the struggle against apartheid.

“I would be picked up after work,” Madikizela-Mandela has recalled. “Nelson, a fitness fanatic, was there in the car in gym attire. I was taken to the gym, to watch him sweat! That became the pattern of my life. One moment, I was watching him. Then he would dash off to meetings, with just time to drop me off at the hostel. Even at that stage, life with him was a life without him.”

After a divorce from his first wife Evelyn, Mandela married Winnie in 1958. But soon he went underground and, in 1962, was put on trial. He would spend 27 years in prison.

Mandela married Winnie, his second wife, in 1958. – AFP

Madikizela-Mandela carved her own name in struggle lore. She was regularly detained by the apartheid government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for a year and banished to a remote town.

When she returned to Soweto she became a part of the ANC campaign against the regime. “We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol,” she told a township crowd. “Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”

Necklacing meant putting a burning tyre around a perceived traitor’s neck. Most notoriously, she was accused of ordering the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei, 14, who was beaten and later had his throat slit. Madikizela-Mandela was acquitted of all but the kidnapping, but the incident remains the greatest stain on her legacy.

On Feb 11, 1990, she was at her husband’s side when he walked free from prison. But the marriage was dead. In 1992, Mandela announced South Africa’s most famous love story was over.

Mandela and his wife Winnie raising their fists and saluting cheering crowds upon his release from the Victor Verster prison near Paarl, after 27 years' incarceration, on Feb 11, 1990. The power couple officially divorced in 1996. – AFP

Still an ANC MP and living in Soweto, Madikizela-Mandela has continued to divide opinions but has never been banished from the former president’s home. – Guardian News & Media

Related story:

The gracious lady beside Mandela

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