Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela and prominent anti-apartheid activist, whose reputation was sullied by a kidnapping and assault conviction in 1991, has died at the age of 81, South African media reported Monday.
She was married to Nelson Mandela from 1958 to 1996, but her husband spent most of their marriage behind bars for his own political activities, which made him a symbol of hope for millions of Africans seeking their rights in a country dominated by a racist white minority.
Hailed as mother of the new South Africa, Winnie Mandela’s legacy as an anti-apartheid heroine was undone when she was revealed to be a ruthless ideologue prepared to sacrifice laws and lives in pursuit of revolution and redress.
Her uncompromising methods and refusal to forgive contrasted sharply with the reconciliation espoused by her husband as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the racial division and oppression of apartheid.
The contradiction helped kill their marriage and destroyed the esteem in which she was held by many South Africans, although the firebrand activist retained the support of radical black nationalists to the end.
In her twilight years, Winnie had frequent run-ins with authority that further undermined her reputation as a fighter against the white regime that ran Africa’s most advanced economy from 1948 to 1994.
During her husband’s 27-year incarceration, she campaigned tirelessly for his release and for the rights of black South Africans, suffering years of detention, banishment and arrest by the white authorities.
She remained steadfast and unbowed throughout, emerging to punch the air triumphantly in the clenched-fist salute of black power as she walked hand-in-hand with Mandela out of Cape Town’s Victor Vester prison.
For husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later to the end of centuries of white domination when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
But for his wife, the end of apartheid marked the start of a string of legal and political troubles that, accompanied by tales of her glamorous living, kept her in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
As evidence emerged in the dying years of apartheid of the brutality of her Soweto enforcers, the “Mandela United Football Club,” her nickname went from “Mother of the Nation” to “Mugger.”
Blamed for the killing of activist Stompie Seipei, who was found near her Soweto home with his throat cut, she was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and assaulting the 14-year-old because he was suspected of being a rat.
Her six-year jail term was reduced on appeal to a fine.
Born on Sept. 26, 1936, in Bizana, Eastern Cape province, she became politicized at an early age in her job as a hospital social worker.
“I started to realize the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system,” she once said.