When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died from illness at age 81 on Monday, she left behind a fraught legacy. The woman who gained fame as Nelson Mandela’s wife earned her place by her own right as a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, an aggressive and outspoken champion of poor blacks in the country under the repressive hand of the white minority government. But she also gained notoriety for episodes of corruption and, more notably, her behind-the-scene role in violence that terrorized her own community and left her fending off accusations of human rights abuses.
While there’s little consensus on the moral balance of her actions, Madikizela-Mandela, born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, was without doubt an uncompromisingly strong figure in South Africa, and no mere wife. She was called the Mother of the Nation, a term that, despite its nurturing connotations, she earned more by her strength and anger than the gentleness and diplomacy often associated with the wives of world leaders.
“On both sides of the apartheid divide—with the white Afrikaner nationalists and the black nationalists—they agreed on what a woman should be, which is to be a wife and stay at home and toe the line,” the British filmmaker Pascale Lamche, who directed a documentary about Madikizela-Mandela, told the Guardian. “And of course Winnie never toed the line: she was volatile and uncontrollable, and that was punished.”
For the majority of the 38 years Madikizela-Mandela was married to Nelson Mandela, her husband was imprisoned, vaulting her to a position as a conduit to the people’s hero—a role she played up despite her limited access to Nelson Mandela, and even after he was freed and divorced her, according to the New York Times.
Her prominence at times led to punishment, as the South African government repeatedly arrested her: most notably in 1969, when she was jailed for 17 months, much of the time in solitary confinement, and tortured; and again in 1976, when she was jailed for five months, according to the Times. She was later banished to a shack in a remote town for nine years.
In this period of her life, she cemented her status as a hero of the people. The resentment and anger that shaped Madikizela-Mandela’s views, fueled in part by those months of imprisonment and torture, incensed whites and alarmed blacks who were aligned with Nelson Mandela’s more measured calls for racial reconciliation. In the town where she was banished, she disregarded rules of segregation, according to the Times. There was evidence of corruption at the time, related to her use of donations to her causes, according to the Post, but those allegations did not come to light until later.
The 1980s changed how the world saw her. She returned home to her black community near Johannesburg as revolutionary momentum picked up. She shocked the international community with an explicit condoning of violence—specifically, an endorsement of “necklacing,” in which a captive would be executed by a gas-soaked tire set aflame around his neck. More alarmingly, she supported a group called the Mandela United Football Club, a group that acted more like a personal gang. According to Reuters, this was when some South Africans started calling her “mugger of the nation.”
In 1989, members of that gang were implicated in the murder of a 14-year-old named James Moeketsi Seipei, known as Stompie. Jerry Richardson, Madikizela-Mandela’s chief bodyguard, would later testify that he tortured and killed people at her behest, and that he murdered Stompie Seipei with garden shears after days of beating him. Madikizela-Mandela participated in the beatings, he said. According to Richardson, he and his accomplices kidnapped Seipei and three other children from a church mission to coerce them into testifying that a white minister had sexually abused them. Madikizela-Mandela vehemently denied any involvement. She was convicted in 1991 of ordering Seipei’s killing, but her punishment was reduced to fines and a suspended one-year sentence. In 1998, a commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu censured her for human rights violations based on testimony from 30 witnesses.
She and Mandela separated in 1992. In the divorce four years later, Mandela testified that his wife had repeatedly and openly cheated on him.
The damage to her reputation was not insurmountable, and after the fall of apartheid in 1991, she remained a prominent political figure, with roles as a member of Parliament and head of the African National Congress Women’s League. She resigned from the latter position in 2003, when she was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud and theft connected to a bank scam. (Her sentenced was suspended and she never served it.) But she remained popular, as she continued to criticize her own party—and Nelson Mandela himself—for allowing harsh economic disparities, and in the late 2000s, she was considered one of the leading political figures in the nation.
In 2016, Madikizela-Mandela made an effort to obtain ownership of Mandela’s home in his ancestral village, which had been bequeathed to his descendants. Also in 2016, according to the Times, she received the Order of Luthuli, one of the country’s highest honors, for her anti-apartheid and pro-democracy work. She remained a polarizing force in South Africa until her death.