Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dies At 81 | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dies At 81

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the wife of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, and a leading anti-apartheid figure in her own right, has died at age 81.

The ruling African National Congress, to which both Mandelas belonged, said in a statement that she died Monday in Johannesburg "after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year."

Madikizela-Mandela was "one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid," the ANC said.

During the 27 years Nelson Mandela was in prison, Madikizela-Mandela was often one of the most outspoken critics of South Africa's white government.

She was most visible in the 1980s, when she was renowned for revving up crowds of young, black activists with her fierce speeches denouncing the country's comprehensive system of racial segregation.

As she raised the couple's two young daughters, she was frequently harassed by the government, which at various times put her in prison, placed her under house arrest, banished her to a remote town and kept her under constant surveillance. She and her daughters were rarely allowed to visit Nelson Mandela in prison.

Yet she also became a polarizing figure mired in multiple controversies.

The most serious was in 1998, when her team of hand-picked bodyguards abducted and killed one of its own members, 14-year-old James "Stompie" Seipei, accusing him of being a government informant.

Madikizela-Mandela denied involvement, but was eventually convicted of kidnapping.

Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and walked out prison with Madikizela-Mandela at his side. He then led the negotiations that would lead to the end of apartheid four years later, while Madikizela-Mandela continued to play a leading role as an activist, frequenly appearing at rallies.

But their relationship was clearly strained and they separated in 1992. They divorced in 1996, while Mandela was serving as the country's first black president.

While she remained popular, particularly among young blacks, her reputation at the national and international level suffered from repeated controversies.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.