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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Winnie: 'Africa's Evita'

By Keith Somerville
BBC News Online

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is still one of the most controversial political figures in South Africa.

Her conviction on fraud and theft charges just adds another chapter to the already dramatic story of the woman once called the "mother of the Nation" by many black South Africans but now called the "mugger of the Nation" by some.

She denied the fraud, characterising them as the latest part of a long-running campaign to drag her name through the mud.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela retains massive grass-roots support
Still an MP for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Ms Madikizela-Mandela has frequently come into conflict with President Thabo Mbeki and the ANC leadership but has retained support among poor, grassroots supporters of the party.

She recently offered to go to Iraq as a human shield in case of a United States-led war.

Born at Bizana in the Transkei, she met the leading ANC activist Nelson Mandela in 1957. He was already married but the marriage was breaking up.

They married in 1958 but were destined to have little time together as political activism and a period in hiding kept Nelson Mandela apart from her.

He was jailed for life in 1964 and only released in 1990.

While he was in prison, she took on an increasingly political role, partly because of constant harassment by the South African security police.

She became an international symbol of resistance to apartheid and a rallying point for poor, black township residents who resisted apartheid.

This led to her being dubbed the "Mother of the Nation".

Banished

Her resistance to harassment and championing of the anti-apartheid cause led to periods of imprisonment from 1969, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

In 1976, the year of the Soweto riots, she was banished from the township to a remote rural area. This did not end her problems and at one stage her house was burned down.

Stompie Seipei
Stompie, 14, was killed during the struggle against apartheid

Suspicion fell on the South African security forces.

By the mid-1980s and the start of a long period of township militancy against the white government of President PW Botha, she was back in Soweto and at the heart of the struggle.

Her image and activism drew to her many anti-apartheid activists, including a group of young men who became her personal bodyguards.

They were known as the Mandela United Football Club.

Her prominence led to great influence over young, radical township activists but also growing controversy.

As the activists turned on suspected police informers or collaborators, the use of rubber tyres filled with petrol as brutal murder weapons became widespread.

Hung round the necks of the accused and then ignited, they became known as "necklaces" and drew criticism even from the ranks of anti-apartheid campaigners.

At one township rally, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela praised activists who with their "necklaces" were fighting apartheid.

Even greater controversy came when she was charged by senior anti-apartheid activists with involvement in the killing of a 14-year-old township militant, Stompie Seipei.

Disgrace and divorce

Stompie had been seized by Ms Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards in 1989 and later found dead.

Members of the ANC leadership accused her of being behind the killing and of conducting a virtual reign of terror in parts of Soweto.

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
The Mandelas were married for 38 years

From prison, Nelson Mandela continued to support his wife.

In 1991, after his release, she was charged with the assault and kidnapping of Stompie Seipei and one of her bodyguards was charged with his murder.

She denied the allegations but was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

This was reduced to a fine by an appeal court.

Her marriage to Nelson Mandela broke down in the years after his release and they were divorced in 1996.

President Mandela charged her with adultery.

Political fortunes

Her split from Nelson Mandela did little to harm her political standing among poor, black South Africans. In the 1994 and 1999 elections, she was elected as an ANC MP and remains a leader of the ANC Women's League.

At the same time, in a career strikingly like that of the Argentine politician Eva Peron, she became known for an increasingly lavish lifestyle.

When she testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she arrived at the hearings in a white Mercedes limousine surrounded by bodyguards.

At the commission, ANC members and ordinary township residents accused her of attacks on opponents, of ordering Stompie Seipei's murder and of being guilty of involvement in other murders.

She vehemently denied the accusations, calling them ludicrous.

This dented but did not destroy her political career. She remains popular with those who feel the ANC has not done enough for the poor.

This has brought her into conflict with President Thabo Mbeki. At the 25th anniversary of the Soweto riots, in June 2001 she clashed publicly with the president.

Her conviction for fraud and theft is the latest mark on her increasingly stained reputation.




SEE ALSO:
Winnie Mandela saves the day
06 Feb 03  |  Africa
Eyewitness: Winnie in the dock
09 Jul 02  |  Africa
Winnie Mandela faces fraud trial
08 Jul 02  |  Africa
Winnie Mandela: Fallen political heir
30 Oct 98  |  Truth and Reconciliation
The Winnie factor
27 May 99  |  South Africa elections
Country profile: South Africa
28 Nov 02  |  Country profiles


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