Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela; 26 September 1936) is a South African activist and politician who has held several government positions and headed the African National Congress Women's League. She is a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee.
She was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including 27 years during which he was imprisoned. Although they were still married at the time of his becoming president of South Africa in May 1994, the couple had separated two years earlier. Their divorce was finalised on 19 March 1996, though Winnie Mandela continued to be a presence in Mandela's life in later years despite his remarriage in 1998. Winnie could be seen almost daily visiting her former husband Nelson Mandela at the Mediclinic heart hospital in Pretoria where he was receiving treatment. Of all the major figures who came to global prominence during the South African liberation struggle, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was seen as the most at home in the world of celebrity culture, and for many of the years just before Mr. Mandela's release from 27 years in prison, she was his public face, bringing word of his thoughts and his state of mind. She was offered academic honours abroad.
A controversial activist, she remains popular among her supporters, who refer to her as the 'Mother of the Nation', yet reviled by others after the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission found that she had personally been responsible for the murder, torture, abduction and assault of numerous men, women and children, as well as indirectly responsible for an even larger number of such crimes.
Winnie Mandela carved her own name in struggle lore. She was regularly detained by the apartheid government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for a year and banished to a remote town. She emerged as a leading opponent of the white minority rule government during the later years of her husband's imprisonment (August 1963 – February 1990). For many of those years, she was exiled to the town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State and confined to the area, except for the times she was allowed to visit her husband at the prison on Robben Island. Beginning in 1969, she spent eighteen months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. It was at this time that Winnie Mandela became well known in the West. She organised local clinics, campaigned actively for equal rights and was promoted by the ANC as a symbol of its struggle against apartheid. In a leaked letter to Jacob Zuma in October 2008, just-resigned President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki alluded to the role the ANC had created for her in its anti-apartheid activism:
In the context of the global struggle for the release of political prisoners in our country, our movement took a deliberate decision to profile Nelson Mandela as the representative personality of these prisoners, and therefore to use his personal political biography, including the persecution of his then wife, Winnie Mandela, dramatically to present to the world and the South African community the brutality of the apartheid system.
In 1985, Mandela won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award along with fellow activists Allan Boesak and Beyers Naude for their human rights work in South Africa. The Award is given annually by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to an individual or group whose courageous activism is at the heart of the human rights movement and in the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy's vision and legacy.