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, Madikizela-Mandela was seen as the most at home in the world of celebrity culture, and for many of the years just before Nelson 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.
Her Xhosa name is Nomzamo ("She who tries"). She was born in the village of eMbongweni, Bizana, Pondoland, in what is now South Africa's Eastern Cape Province. She was born the fourth out of eight children, which included seven sisters and a brother. Her parents, Columbus and Gertrude, were both teachers. Columbus was a history teacher and a headmaster, and Gertrude was a domestic science teacher. Gertrude died when Winnie was nine, resulting in the break-up of her family as all the siblings were sent to live with different relatives. Madikizela-Mandela went on to become the head girl of her high school in Bizana. After she matriculated she went to Johannesburg to study social work at the Jan Hofmeyr School, despite restrictions on education of blacks during apartheid. She earned her degree in social work in 1956, and several years later earned a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of Witwatersrand. She held a number of jobs in various parts of what was then the Bantustan of Transkei, including with the Transkei government, living at various times in Bizana, Shawbury and Johannesburg. Her first job was as a social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
She met lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in 1957. She was 22 and standing at a bus stop in Soweto when Mandela first saw her and charmed her, securing a lunch date the following week. They married in 1958 and had two daughters, Ezinhle ROOI (born 1959) and Zindzi (born 1960). Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1963 and released in 1990. The couple separated in 1992 and finalised the divorce in 1996 with an unspecified out-of-court settlement. Her attempt to obtain a settlement up to US$5 million, half of what she claimed her ex-husband was worth, was dismissed when she failed to appear in court for a settlement hearing. When asked about the possibility of reconciliation in a 1994 interview, Winnie said: "I am not fighting to be the country's First Lady. In fact, I am not the sort of person to carry beautiful flowers and be an ornament to everyone."
Due to her political activities, Winnie was regularly detained by the South African government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for over a year and banished to a remote town. She emerged as a leading opponent of apartheid 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. She received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1988.
Her reputation was damaged by such rhetoric as that displayed in a speech she gave in Munsieville on 13 April 1986, where she endorsed the practice of necklacing (burning people alive using tyres and petrol) by saying: "With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country." Further tarnishing her reputation were accusations by her bodyguard, Jerry Musivuzi Richardson, that she had ordered kidnapping and murder. On 29 December 1988, Richardson, who was coach of the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC), which acted as Mrs. Mandela's personal security detail, abducted 14-year-old James Seipei (also known as Stompie Moeketsi) and three other youths from the home of a Methodist minister, Rev. Paul Verryn, claiming she had the youths taken to her home because she suspected the reverend was sexually abusing them. The four were beaten to get them to admit to having had sex with the minister. Seipei was accused of being an informer, and his body later found in a field with stab wounds to the throat on 6 January 1989.
In 1991, she was acquitted of all but the kidnapping. Her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. The final report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission, issued in 1998, found "Ms Winnie Madikizela Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC" and that she "was responsible, by omission, for the commission of gross violations of human rights." In 1992, she was accused of ordering the murder of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat, a family friend who had examined Seipei at Mandela's house, after Seipei had been abducted but before he had been killed. Mandela's role was later probed as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, in 1997. She was said to have paid the equivalent of $8,000 and supplied the firearm used in the killing, which took place on 27 January 1989. The hearings were later adjourned amid claims that witnesses were being intimidated on Winnie Mandela's orders.
During South Africa's transition to democracy, she adopted a far less conciliatory and compromising attitude than her husband toward the white community. Despite being on her husband's arm when he was released in 1990, the first time the two had been seen in public for nearly thirty years, the Mandelas' 38-year marriage ended when they separated in April 1992 after it was revealed she had been unfaithful to her husband during his imprisonment. The couple divorced in March 1996. She then adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela. Appointed Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in the first post-Apartheid government (May 1994), she was dismissed eleven months later following allegations of corruption.
She remained extremely popular among many ANC supporters, however. In December 1993 and April 1997, she was elected president of the ANC Women's League, although she withdrew her candidacy for ANC Deputy President at the movement's Mafikeng conference in December 1997. Earlier in 1997, she appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chairman of the commission recognised her importance in the anti-apartheid struggle, but exhorted her to apologise and to admit her mistakes. In a guarded response, she admitted "things went horribly wrong".
On 24 April 2003, Winnie Mandela was found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft, and her broker, Addy Moolman, was convicted on 58 counts of fraud and 25 of theft. Both had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which related to money taken from loan applicants' accounts for a funeral fund, but from which the applicants did not benefit. Madikizela-Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison. Shortly after the conviction, she resigned from all leadership positions in the ANC, including her parliamentary seat and the presidency of the ANC Women's League. In July 2004, an appeal judge of the Pretoria High Court ruled that "the crimes were not committed for personal gain". The judge overturned the conviction for theft, but upheld the one for fraud, handing her a three years and six months suspended sentence.
In June 2007, the Canadian High Commission in South Africa declined to grant Winnie Mandela a visa to travel to Toronto, Canada, where she was scheduled to attend a gala fundraising concert organised by arts organisation MusicaNoir, which included the world premiere of The Passion of Winnie, an opera based on her life.
When the ANC announced the election of its National Executive Committee on 21 December 2007, Madikizela-Mandela placed first with 2845 votes.
Madikizela-Mandela criticised the anti-immigrant violence in May–June 2008 that began in Johannesburg and spread throughout the country, and blamed the government's lack of suitable housing provisions for the sentiments behind the riots. She apologised to the victims of the riots and visited the Alexandra township. She offered her home as shelter for an immigrant family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She warned that the perpetrators of the violence could strike at the Gauteng train system.
Madikizela-Mandela secured fifth place on the ANC's electoral list for the 2009 general election, behind party president and current President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, former President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe, Deputy President of South Africa Baleka Mbete, and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. An article in The Observer suggested her position near the top of the list indicated that the party's leadership saw her as a valuable asset in the election with regard to solidifying support among the party's grassroots and the poor.
In 2010, Madikizela-Mandela was interviewed by Nadira Naipaul. In the interview, she attacked her ex-husband, claiming that he had "let blacks down", that he was only "wheeled out to collect money", and that he is "nothing more than a foundation". She further attacked his decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with FW De Klerk. Among other things, she reportedly claimed Mandela was no longer "accessible" to her daughters. She referred to Archbishop Tutu, in his capacity as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, as a "cretin".
The interview attracted media attention, and the ANC announced that it would ask her to explain her comments regarding Nelson Mandela. On 14 March 2010, a statement was issued on behalf of Winnie Mandela claiming that the interview was a fabrication.
Tina Lifford played her in the 1997 TV film Mandela and de Klerk. Sophie Okonedo portrayed her in the BBC drama Mrs Mandela, first broadcast on BBC Four on 25 January 2010. Jennifer Hudson played her in Winnie Mandela, directed by Darrell Roodt, released in Canada by D Films on 16 September 2011. Roodt, Andre Pieterse, and Paul L. Johnson based the film's script on Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob's biography, Winnie Mandela: A Life. The Creative Workers Union of South Africa opposed the choice of Hudson in the title role, saying the use of foreign actors to tell the country's stories undermined efforts to develop the national film industry.
Mandela was again portrayed in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom by actress Naomie Harris (British actor Idris Elba played Nelson Mandela). On viewing the film, Madikizela-Mandela told Harris it was "the first time she felt her story had been captured on film". Gugulethu okaMseleku, writing in The Guardian, stated that the film had returned Winnie Mandela to her rightful place, recognising her role in "the struggle" that, "for South African women… was more fundamental than her husband's."