Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Can Winnie Mandela's heroism outshine her crimes?

By John Thynne
Producer, The Real Winnie Mandela

Winnie Mandala at Women's day conference
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in typical form

She was known to many as the Mother of the Nation, but Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the once celebrated heroine of the anti-apartheid struggle, is no stranger to controversy.

Now it seems that film-makers on both sides of the Atlantic have seen the dramatic potential.

Jennifer Hudson has been lined up to play the lead role in a Hollywood film of the revolutionary firebrand's life, and the BBC has filmed its own drama, Mrs Mandela, with Sophie Okonedo in the lead role.

But which Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will we see? The central drama in Winnie's life is whether her heroism can outshine her crimes.

Among South Africans today, this is still a deeply divisive issue. To understand why, you need to understand the full story of Winnie's journey from young social worker to fearless leader of the struggle.

Winnie first came to international attention at the Rivonia trial in 1964 - when Nelson Mandela and seven other anti-apartheid campaigners were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Joe Thloloe lived near the Mandelas in Soweto at the time and was deeply impressed by Winnie's defiance.

"Her husband has just been sentenced to life imprisonment, but she's still strong enough to say: 'I will continue the struggle.'

"She knows that she faces exactly the same fate as her husband. It was tremendously courageous of her."

Interrogation and banishment

Left alone to bring up two small children, the apartheid regime made her the target for a campaign of harassment.

Joyce Sikakane worked with Winnie, printing and distributing ANC literature until they were arrested together in 1969.

Winnie Mandela talks about her husband's life sentence after the Rivonia trial

In jail, they were both interrogated by the notorious apartheid torturer, Theunis Swanepoel.

"He ordered me to stand on bricks, he took a pistol from a drawer, pointed it at me and said: 'If you don't talk, you'll be gone.'

"And I remember saying to him: 'What kind of a human being are you... to do this to me?'" Ms Sikakane said.

For Winnie, there was no turning back. In the aftermath of the Soweto Riots in 1976 she began to emerge as a leader in her own right.

Sensing her rising popularity, the apartheid authorities hit upon a new punishment for Winnie - they banished her to a small township, hundreds of miles from her home.

Out of control

But banishing Winnie did not tame her. In exile, her politics grew increasingly radical.

When the BBC interviewed her in hiding in 1981, she spoke of plans to mobilise the country around the growing realisation that black workers were crucial to the economy.

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

"We are the power of this land, these black hands are what has made this country what it is... We can bring this country down to its knees."

By 1985, she had had enough. As unrest gripped the townships, Winnie openly defied the regime and moved back to Soweto.

Increasingly, her rhetoric played to the mob, as when she made her most infamous speech in Munsieville, saying: "With our necklaces we shall liberate this country."

That reference to the gruesome township method for dealing with police informers (burning people alive using petrol-filled tyres) showed how far Winnie had travelled since she too was betrayed by informers in 1969.

This was as big a bomb as Hiroshima for the South African political psyche
Mathatha Tsedu

Many viewed her as out of control. The innocent-sounding Mandela United Football Club, her personal bodyguard, was terrorising the neighbourhood in Soweto.

In 1988, rumours started to circulate that on Winnie's orders, they had kidnapped, tortured and killed a 14-year-old activist, Stompie Moeketsi.

Thandeka Gqubule was a cub reporter on the Weekly Mail at the time. An ANC activist herself, she had long admired Winnie as a leader of the struggle.

She broke the news that Mandela's wife may have been involved in a murder.

"On the one hand I was frightened of the enormity and the implications of the story, and on the other hand I knew that I was a journalist and I was committed to telling the truth," she said.

Winnie's alleged involvement in a murder was political dynamite.

"This was as big a bomb as Hiroshima for the South African political psyche… Is Mandela's wife now a monster that can actually participate in the murder of a child?" recalls Mathatha Tsedu, the political editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

'Complicated' personality

Nelson Mandela's release from jail in 1990 momentarily took the spotlight away from Winnie. Ironically, his release was to signal the start of her downfall.

Their marriage did not survive, as details of Winnie's adultery emerged.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela
Winnie and Nelson Mandela divorced in 1996, after 38 years of marriage

But Winnie did not quietly fade away. Despite convictions for kidnap and fraud, she remains on the political stage.

Last year, at the age of 73, the ANC placed her fifth on their MP list for the general election.

So how does Winnie manage to survive?

RW Johnson, the veteran South African commentator, summed up her popularity.

"She's scary, attractive, powerful, wealthy, an international celebrity - there aren't many people that you can say all those things of... and people respond quite powerfully to that magic," he said.

South Africans seem genuinely split on whether she can be forgiven for her role in the events surrounding Stompie Moeketsi's death.

"Those were extraordinary times and extraordinary behaviours took place, and for those reasons I hope that history judges her kindly and takes the composite contribution of her efforts to the struggle as her legacy," Thandeka Gqubule said.

But others are not so forgiving. Mathatha Tsedu cannot ignore her behaviour in Soweto in the late 1980s.

"I think history will view her as a complicated personality with a streak of leadership… who had a flawed personality that resulted in an atrocity being committed, that became a shame on every one of us occupying any position of leadership in this country."

The Real Winnie Mandela will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 25 January at 2230 GMT.

The film Mrs Mandela, starring Sophie Okonedo premiers on BBC Four at 2100 GMT, before the documentary.

Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer (UK only).

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