Winnie Mandela, Who Was Married to Nelson Mandela During His Imprisonment, Dies at 81

Winnie Mandela

She was Nelson Mandela's second wife and controversial anti-Apartheid activist.

Winnie Mandela, the former wife of South Africa’s first black president and democratically elected leader, Nelson Mandela, has died.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was Nelson’s second wife, died Monday morning at the age of 81 "after a long illness," family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in statement to the BBC.

“She succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones," Dlamini said.

Following the announcement of her passing, the Mandela family released a statement about the late matriarch. 

“She kept the memory of her imprisoned husband Nelson Mandela alive during his years on Robben Island and helped give the struggle for justice in South Africa one it’s most recognizable faces. She dedicated most of her adult life to the cause of the people and for this was known far and wide as the 'Mother of the Nation.'"

The statement continued: "The Mandela family are deeply grateful for the gift of her life and even as our hearts break at her passing, we urge all those who loved her to celebrate this most remarkable woman."

Winnie was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in 1936 in the Eastern Cape — then known as the Transkei — in South Africa and later moved to Johannesburg where she became a social worker during the Apartheid era and met Nelson Mandela in 1957. The couple married later that year. 

They had two children together, Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane (born 1958) and Zenani Mandela-Dlamini (born 1960).

Winnie was married to her husband for 38 years including the 27 years he was locked away as a political prisoner while protesting the Apartheid regime. 

During her husband’s imprisonment, Winnie became a controversial figure of the anti-Apartheid movement, even landing herself in jail on numerous occasions, including many stints in solitary confinement and even banishment from parts of South Africa by the Apartheid regime. 

Winnie Mandela famously walked hand-in-hand with her husband and lifted her fist in the air in Cape Town, when Nelson was released from prison in February 1990. It was the first time they were seen together publicly in nearly 30 years. 

After Nelson’s release, it was revealed that his wife was involved in legal and political troubles, including her controversial Mandela Football Club (MUFC) enforcers who were blamed for the killing of activist Stompie Seipei. She was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and assaulting the 14-year-old because he was suspected of being an informant for the white government.

Her six-year jail term was reduced on appeal to a fine.

In 1992, two years before Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black and democratically elected leader, she and her husband separated, but she kept his name. 

She was appointed Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in the first post-Apartheid government in 1994 but was dismissed eleven months later following allegations of corruption.

In 1996, while in the middle of his only term as president, the couple divorced but maintained a close relationship. He later remarried former Mozambique first lady Graca Machel, to whom he was married at the time of his death in 2013. 

Winnie Mandela never remarried. 

She is survived by her two children and eight grandchildren. 

As news of Winnie Mandela's passing traveled, many took to social media and released statements about her life and legacy. 

"Even at the darkest moments of our struggle for liberation, Mam’ Winnie was an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free. In the midst of repression, she was a voice of defiance and resistance. In the face of exploitation, she was a champion of justice and equality," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement Monday afternoon.

His statement continued: "Throughout her life she made an everlasting contribution to the struggle through sacrifice and her unyielding determination. Her dedication to the plight of her people gained her the love and the respect of the nation. For many years, she bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of the apartheid state with stoicism and fortitude. Despite the hardships she faced, she never doubted that the struggle for freedom and democracy would succeed. She remained throughout her life a tireless advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalized. She was a voice for the voiceless."

"She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings, and banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists,” anti-Apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement. 

Actor Idris Elba, who portrayed Nelson Mandela in the 2013 film, Long Walk to Freedom, took to Twitter to eulogize Winnie Mandela.