The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s marriage survived three decades of prison — but not freedom

Anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, wife to Nelson Mandela, died on April 2 in Johannesburg at age 81. (Video: Reuters)

Nelson Mandela had been a free man for just a few moments when the iconic pictures were snapped. In them, his right hand was held aloft, clenched in a fist that had become a symbol in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and racism around the world.

His left hand clasped the hand of his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who had spent three decades fighting for her husband’s release — while only seeing him during prison visiting hours.

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Their marriage had endured his incarceration and hers. It had weathered her hard-won ascendance in the movement to end systematized racism in Africa’s southernmost country and his inability to be a physical presence in his family’s life.

In the end, it was a marriage that survived prison, but not freedom.

Two years after walking out of Victor Verster Prison in 1990, Mandela announced that he was seeking a divorce from Madikizela-Mandela. She was having an affair with a younger colleague, Dali Mpofu, he said.

But the couple’s problems ran deeper, Mandela said. His wife only entered his bedroom when he was asleep. They had barely spoken in months. And since his release from prison, he had been “the loneliest man.”

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died Monday after being in and out of the hospital all year, her family said. Although her marriage to Mandela is highlighted in the news obituaries about her, she was a revolutionary in her own right who is still called the Mother of the Nation.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, South Africa’s ‘Mother of the Nation,’ dies at 81

Their marriage lasted 38 years, but as the Telegraph’s Graham Boynton wrote in 2013, “most of it [was] conducted in parallel worlds. … By the time he reemerged in February 1990, the world — and Madikizela-Mandela — had changed.”

Mandela first saw Madikizela-Mandela at a bus stop in Soweto, he wrote in his memoir. She was 22 and the nation’s first black female social worker. He was 18 years her senior, married with three children and a fixture in the struggle to end apartheid.

They got Indian food a week after they met. He was amused by her reaction to the spicy curry but was already smitten.

Nelson Mandela, ex-president of South Africa, dies at 95

“I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight,” he wrote in his biography. “But I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”

A short time later, he divorced his first wife and married Winnie.

As The Washington Post’s Stephanie Hanes wrote:

The two developed what others described as a passionate relationship. They held hands in public; they went to jazz clubs. There was the occasional blazing argument — such as when Nelson tried to teach Winnie how to drive — but Nelson seemed amused by the young woman’s fire, [biographer Emma] Gilbey wrote.
Not a year after their first date, Nelson showed Winnie the house of a dressmaker and told her she should get fitted. He asked how many bridesmaids she would like to have, Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela recalled in her autobiography.

They had only been married for a few years when Mandela was imprisoned after being convicted of a treasonous plot to violently overthrow the government — and sentenced to life in prison.

His wife faced her own struggles as she fought a racist political system. Over the ensuing years, Madikizela-Mandela would be arrested, harassed and “banned” — forbidden from most social contact, Hanes wrote. Beginning in 1969, she spent 18 months in solitary confinement. She was interrogated unceasingly and forced to sit upright for so long that she blacked out.

“My whole body was badly swollen, I was passing blood,” she wrote in her memoir of her imprisonment. “The whole experience is so terrible, because I had left little children at home in bed and I had no idea what had happened to them.”

She appeared to endorse violent reform of government and fatal repercussions for police informers. She was accused of ordering the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei, according to the Guardian.

The 14-year-old, one of the youngest people in the anti-apartheid movement, was accused of being a police informer. He was beaten, and his throat was slit later. Madikizela-Mandela was acquitted of all except the kidnapping but has long been connected to the death.

Through it all, as the New York Times wrote, Madikizela-Mandela “served as her husband’s surrogate, testifying to his continuing adherence to the struggle and campaigning for his release. She did so in the face of great pressure by the South African security forces.”

“She endured the persecutions heaped upon her by the government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the struggle for freedom,” Mandela said in announcing that he wanted a divorce. “Her tenacity reinforced my personal respect, love and growing affection.”

But it was far from a conventional marriage, as she conceded in her memoir:

“I had so little time to love him. And that love has survived all these years of separation … perhaps if I’d had time to know him better I might have found a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time.”

During their divorce hearing in 1996, Mandela conceded that his estranged wife had suffered greatly and praised her efforts while he was imprisoned.

Still, it was as acrimonious as any other. He accused of her infidelity, which she did not refute. She unsuccessfully sought half of her estranged husband’s $5 million in assets. A judge made her pay court costs.

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