Winnie Madikizela Mandela, 81, passed away on Monday. She was one of South Africa’s greatest anti-apartheid leaders and became an icon already in the 1970s. She was the wife of the even greater icon Nelson Mandela, the country’s and world’s best-known prisoner for 27 years, who became the first black president in 1994 to 1999; he received the Nobel Peace Prize, with Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993, South Africa’s last minority white president.

Although Winnie Mandela was a controversial anti-apartheid leader and politician, especially in the 1980s, when she came out of prison more hardened and bitter, she kept the spirit high in public. She was a member of her husband’s cabinet for some years and remained a member of parliament until her death. In 1996, she and her husband divorced, but he treated her cordially, and she became the spokesperson for the family when he passed away at the age of 95 in 2013.

Nevertheless Nelson Mandela, too, was controversial in his life, and he did not always advise against the use of force to dismantle the apartheid regime, and Winnie Mandela was also at times advocating the use of violence as a means to an end. These issues must be understood in the broader South African context at the time. It is not wrong to assume that Nelson Mandela’s political thinking was more pragmatic than the principled non-violence thinking of Gandhi; yet, Mandela borrowed from it, as well as from communism, socialism, and humanism, and from his legal training.

Upon Winnie Mandela’s passing, South Africa’s current president Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of her with most of the superlatives that can be bestowed upon anyone. Also, Desmond Tutu, 86, retired archbishop, Nobel Prize laureate (1984) and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-98), said that Winnie Mandela had given hope and inspiration to many during the difficult apartheid years when people struggled for racial equality, including himself. She was the ‘mother of hope’, he said, and ‘mother of the country’.

Winnie Mandela became much admired by women – and men – during the many years of her husband’s imprisonment. Both she and her husband gave their lives to politics and the cause of the anti-apartheid struggle and the ANC party. They won, although Winnie Mandela said recently that South Africa had not become the country she dreamt of and fought for in her life; so much inequality remains, and change is needed, indeed in the liberal economic field, which has been left much the same as it was before the apartheid-era ended. Maybe South Africa would have been a more equal society if Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders had listened more to Winnie Mandela over the years? But perhaps it wasn’t the time, yet, to listen to women, and to the real grassroots and populists. I believe Winnie Mandela in many ways represented those in a much better way than any of those leaders who have run the country since democratic majority rule in 1994.

A Norwegian friend, Ingeborg Breines, a prominent peace activist and retired UN staff member, attended the UN preparatory meeting in Dakar, Senegal, for the International Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. Winnie Mandela was received in Dakar as a heroine. My friend asked why that was so when there were questions about some of her statements and actions. The women she asked, apparently, saw her as the leader of African women, and they said that what she had done wrong was nothing as compared to all the heavy-handedness and corruption the male leaders had been involved in!

Ten years earlier, in 1985, I worked for the UN in Nairobi, Kenya, where the International Women’s Conference was held that year. I attended some of the sessions, and it was still an early time for the women’s empowerment that followed; in South Africa, apartheid still looked like it would last for long. The importance of role models like Winnie Mandela was essential, and so was that of male role models. A few years later, in 1991, Willem de Klerk visited Kenya before the end of apartheid but after the fall of the Soviet Union, and we were a bit proud of the fact that he had visited Kenya as a child since his grandparents had been missionaries there for several years. I believe we should also give him recognition for his role to end the ugly apartheid era.

When she was young, Winnie Madikizela was an ordinary, good-looking girl from a poor neighbourhood in Soweto, Johannesburg, and she rose to prominence. She was trained a social worker; she was not a political person, indeed not in her younger years. She was, almost by accident, thrust into the political life of her husband when they married in 1958 and she was 22. He was then divorced from his first wife, Evelyn, whom he had married in 1944. Biographers have said that much of the cause of the divorce was Mandela’s controversial political activism, his absence from his family, and his extramarital relationships; all that must be understood in its context and time.

From mid-1964 to the end of 1990, Nelson Mandela served a total of 27 years in prison. His wife Winnie was the most important person in keeping his spirit alive till his release – and his name high and glorious. After that, Winnie and Nelson Mandela would only live together for a few years, and their divorce was announced in 1996. In the end, it was a marriage that survived three decades of prison – his throughout the time, and hers for long periods of house arrest and prison – but the marriage did not last in freedom.

A Norwegian friend and former diplomat, with in-depth knowledge of Southern Africa, Ingebjørg Støfring, helped me formulate a few questions to ponder upon about Winnie Mandela. Well, the questions are mine, not hers, I should underline: First, one would ask if it was really a marriage after Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, only having talked to his wife through the visitors’ window in jail at official visiting hours. Maybe the union that existed had turned into a kind of passionate political and intellectual union, and she may well have had other relationships while he was imprisoned, maybe with his consent?

When Nelson Mandela came out of prison, was it perhaps the ANC party that ran most of the business, not the two individuals, and maybe accusations against her weren’t all true? Probably Winnie Mandela was too strong for the men in the party? Perhaps she was too radical on the left? Maybe the men wanted nothing of a woman having the ear of their iconic leader – at a time when they were all after power and positions? Maybe there is one rule for men in politics, and one for women? In recent years, corruption and misuse of power have become very high in South Africa, and we would agree with Winnie Mandela’s recent statement that her country is far from what she and many others dreamt of during the anti-apartheid struggle for freedom.

May we all, women and men, thank Winnie Mandela in our hearts for all she did for her country, for African, and for the world during her life. The day before yesterday, Archbishop Nelson Mandela said that she helped the world see the cruel face of the apartheid system and end it. Maybe only a woman could have done that, a poor woman originally, a single mother, in a land run by men, white men that time, and later mostly black men? What she did shows what we all can do, albeit in smaller ways, with hard work and dedication, and love for country and humanity. Yes, sometimes with mistakes and wrongs, as none of us is flawless and without fault, and we live and operate in specific contexts and times, perhaps even in worlds a bit detached from reality. Few would match Winnie Mandela’s sacrifices and achievements – her style, energy, and passion. We should remember, too, Nelson Mandela’s life and achievements would not have been possible without Winnie Mandela.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.