April 3, 2018


Winnie Mandela, who died yesterday aged 81, was once synonymous with the fight against apartheid in South Africa

More by Martin Minns

Winnie Mandela: “Mother” Or Murderer? “Heroine” Or Hate Figure?

Winnie Mandela: “Mother” Or Murderer? “Heroine” Or Hate Figure?

As Nelson Mandela’s wife and the leading campaigner for her husband’s release, Winnie Mandela, who died yesterday aged 81, was once synonymous with the fight against apartheid in South Africa, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ T-shirts and the refrain from The Specials 1984 hit “Free Nelson Mandela”. But her name also became associated with mob violence, murder and corruption.

In 1958, Winnie Madikizela married lawyer and anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela. Following his incarceration on Robin Island in 1963 Winnie Mandela spent the next 27 years campaigning for his release. The image of her, at times demur, at others defiant and revolutionary with her clenched fist raised in the air, was constantly on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and television screens.


This image of Winnie Mandela was surpassed by the film and photos of her hand-in-hand with her husband after his release from prison on February 11, 1990.

With Mandela’s release and the transition of apartheid South Africa to the ‘Rainbow Nation’, Winnie Mandela became even more of an icon and if she had died then she would have been hailed as the “mother of the nation”.


Yet even before Nelson Mandela’s release his wife’s reputation had been severely tarnished with the calls to her supporters to burn suspected traitors with fuel-filled tyres around their necks, the infamous “necklaces”, and her personal bodyguards, the equally infamous ‘Mandela United Football Club’, accused of murder and torture at her behest.

On January 1, 1989, the body of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi was found three days after he had been abducted by the MUFC. Many people at the time and since, have blamed Winnie Mandela for his murder.

With the good times after Nelson Mandela’s release and election to the presidency of South Africa, Winnie was able to bask for a time in the glow of the international support and affection felt for her husband but gradually her reputation was further diminished.

In 1996 the Mandela’s were divorced, only six years after Nelson Mandela’s release.


In 2003, Winnie Mandela was convicted of 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft over allegations that she and her financial advisor had in effect stolen money from a funeral fund. She was sentenced to five years in prison but later the conviction for theft was overturned and the sentence for fraud was reduced to a three-year and six months suspended sentence.

Nearly 30 years after the release of Nelson Mandela, the news of Winnie Mandela’s death was relegated to the third item on some international news stations, rated behind the news that rail workers in France have gone on strike and Russia’s President Putin visiting Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Still for millions of people the news of Winnie Mandel’s death will illicit the thought “Rest in Peace”. It is also sad but true, however, that many people will be thinking “burn in hell”.


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