South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela dies at 81

South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela dies at 81
Winnie Mandela (Centre) dies at the age of 81

Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela‚ an icon in the fight against apartheid‚ has died at the age of 81.

South African media has her personal assistant‚ Zodwa Zwane‚ saying the former wife of Nelson Mandela died on Monday afternoon at the Netcare Milpark Hospital‚ Johannesburg where she had been undergoing treatment for a kidney infection.

Winnie, as she was popularly known during the apartheid era, has been reported unwell since last year and has been in and out of hospital since the start of the year. In January, she failed to turn up at Makerere University, Kampala, where she was due to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in recognition of her contribution towards the fight and eventual elimination of apartheid in South Africa.

Makerere University had wanted to recognise Winnie in August last year during the Nelson Mandela Commemorative Lecture, but the office of the vice chancellor received information from the South African High Commission in Kampala that she was not able to travel due to ill-health. Instead, it is her granddaughter Zoleka Mandela who attended the event.

Her award was received by Gandhi Baai, Winnie Mandela’s niece, who sang a song in praise of Winnie Mandela after receiving the award.

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe, the Makerere University Vice Chancellor immediately after the graduation ceremony in January this year headed to South Africa to hand her a Makerere PhD gown.

Born in Bizana in the Eastern Cape in 1936‚ Winnie met a younger lawyer and anti-apartheid activist named Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in mid-1950s where she was studying as social worker. In 1958 the two got married and had two children together.

Their marriage, however, was anything but stable or settled and Mandela was in and out of jail for his anti-apartheid activities. Winnie would later say that she was married to Mandela who was also married to “the struggle.”

In 1963, Mandela was arrested and a year later sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He would spend the next 27 years in jail until his release in 1990.

Winnie Mandela was among the activists who kept the anti-apartheid struggle alive from the time her husband and other political activists were jailed in 1964 and remained incarcerated for nearly three decades.

Mandela was among the last to be released in 1990, going on to win the first multi-racial elections in 1994. He and Winnie had, however, separated in 1992 and they officially divorced in 1996.

Mandela retired from the presidency in 1999 but remained active in public life for another decade until around 2010 when he admitted he needed to rest because of old age. He died in December 2013 aged 95.

It’s hard to talk about apartheid, and anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, without mentioning Winnie Nomzano Madikizela-Mandela.

While Mandela was in prison, she took on an increasingly political role, becoming an international symbol of resistance to apartheid and a rallying point for poor, black Soweto township residents who demanded their freedom. She was in and out of jail herself as part of constant harassment by the South African state.

In 1991, after Mandela’s release, Winnie was charged with the assault and kidnapping. She denied the allegations but was found guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment. This was reduced to a fine by an appeal court.

Her split with Mandela in 1996 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.

She continued to be a force within the ruling ANC party ranks. She recently backed Cyril Ramaphosa in the race for the ANC party leadership. Ramaphosa went on to replace Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s president.