Winnie’s early years

On 26 September 1936, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, one of nine children, was born in Mbongweni, Bizana, a small village in what is now the Eastern Cape. After completing high school, she moved to Johannesburg in 1953 to study at the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work, the first institution to train black social workers in South Africa. She then went on to become the first black medical social worker at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Despite apartheid restrictions that limited education for black people at certain academic institutions, Winnie obtained a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Wits University in 1956.


A portrait of Winnie Mandela. Getty Images


Political activism

In the mid-1950s, she joined the ANC Women’s League and became seriously politically active. When Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1963, the apartheid government turned its focus on her. She was tortured, banished, kept in solitary confinement, and subjected to surveillance. None of this broke her spirit – it only encouraged her activism, and she became a leading figure of the anti-apartheid movement. She established clinics, campaigned tirelessly for equal rights, founded the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association, and was used as a symbol of the Struggle by the ANC, especially overseas.

Meeting Nelson Mandela

In 1957, while standing at a bus stop in Soweto, the beautiful Winnie caught the eye of 39-year-old Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. At the time he was married to Evelyn Mase, with whom he had four children, but their relationship was strained and they divorced in 1958. Winnie and Nelson married that same year, in the midst of the Treason Trial. His proposal was anything but romantic, Winnie recalled in her 1984 memoir, Part of my Soul Went With Him: ‘One day Nelson just pulled up on the side of the road and said: “You know, there is a woman who is a dressmaker, you must go and see her, she is going to make your wedding gown. How many bridesmaids would you like to have?”’ The couple wed in Transkei and had two children: Zenani, born in 1959, and Zindzi, born the following year.


Winnie life story

Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s wedding photo in 1958. Getty Images

Arrests and banishment

In May 1969, police raided Winnie’s home in Soweto and detained her for conspiracy under the Terrorism Act. She was kept in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison for 491 days. After the Soweto Uprising in 1976, she was banished to the small town of Brandfort in the then-Orange Free State where she spent nine years under house arrest. ‘I have lived most of my life alone,’ Winnie said in an interview while in Brandfort. ‘The best years of my life have been spent under banning orders. Exile here means being in prison. It is the extreme isolation that is very difficult. Being isolated intellectually.’ While living in Brandfort – in a house with no electricity, no running water, no floors and no ceilings – Winnie continued her activism by sharing her political ideologies and seeing fellow activists like Helen Joseph.

Winnie life story

Winnie Mandela during her exile in Brandfort in 1977. Getty Images

The Stompie murder

Members of Winnie’s bodyguard detail, the Mandela United Football Club, kidnapped and killed 14-year-old activist James Seipei, known as Stompie Moeketsi in 1989. The convicted murderer, Jerry Richardson, claimed that Winnie had ordered the attack, and she was sentenced to six years in jail on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault. (The charges were reduced on appeal to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence.) Winnie denied the claims to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997. The TRC found that the abductions and assault were carried out on her orders, but not the murder.

Fraud conviction

In 2003, Winnie was convicted of fraud related to loans given to fake ANC Women’s League members, and sentenced to five years in prison (reduced on appeal to three-and-a-half years). She stepped down as president of the League and gave up her position as MP.

Speaking out against xenophobia

Following mass xenophobic attacks across the country in 2008 that left 62 people dead and thousands displaced, Winnie publicly condemned the violence. In 2015, as more attacks occurred, she also took a stand, saying the attacks ‘shattered’ her.

Speaking up for women

During her 80th-birthday celebrations in 2016, Winnie made a speech encouraging South African women. ‘Keep doing as you have been doing, makhosikazi [women]. You have that power to fix this country.’

This Life Story was written by Stefanie Jason, and originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Marie Claire.  

Tributes to Winnie Mandela have been pouring in from around the world, following her death on the 2 April this year.