NEW YORK — Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose hallowed place in the pantheon of South Africa’s liberators was eroded by scandal over corruption, kidnapping, murder, and the implosion of her fabled marriage to Nelson Mandela, died early Monday in Johannesburg. She was 81.
Her death, at the Netcare Milpark Hospital, was announced by her spokesman, Victor Dlamini. He said in a statement that she died “after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year.”
The South African Broadcasting Corp. said she was admitted to the hospital over the weekend complaining of the flu after she attended a church service Friday. She had been treated for diabetes and underwent major surgeries as her health began failing over the past several years.
Charming, intelligent, complex, fiery, and eloquent, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela (Madikizela was her surname at birth) was inevitably known to most of the world through her marriage to the revered Mandela. It was a bond that endured ambiguously: She derived a vaunted status from their shared struggle, yet she chafed at being defined by him.
Ms. Madikizela-Mandela commanded a natural constituency of her own among South Africa’s poor and dispossessed, and the postapartheid leaders who followed Mandela could never ignore her appeal to a broad segment of society. In April 2016, the government of President Jacob Zuma gave Ms. Madikizela-Mandela one of the country’s highest honors: the Order of Luthuli, given, in part, for contributions to the struggle for democracy.
Ms. Madikizela-Mandela retained a political presence as a member of Parliament, representing the dominant African National Congress, and she insisted on a kind of primacy in Mandela’s life, no matter their estrangement.
“Nobody knows him better than I do,” she told a British interviewer in 2013.
Increasingly, though, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela resented the notion that her antiapartheid credentials had been eclipsed by her husband’s global stature and celebrity, and she struggled in vain in later years to be regarded again as the “mother of the nation,” a sobriquet acquired during the long years of Mandela’s imprisonment. She insisted that her contribution had been wrongly depicted as a pale shadow of his.
“I am not Mandela’s product,” she told an interviewer. “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy” — references to South Africa’s white rulers under apartheid and to her burning hatred of them, rooted in her own years of mistreatment, incarceration, and banishment.
While Mandela was held at the Robben Island penal settlement, off Cape Town, where he spent most of his 27 years in jail, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela acted as the main conduit to his followers, who hungered for every clue to his thinking and well-being. The flow of information was meager, however: Her visits there were rare, and she was never allowed physical contact with him.
In time, her reputation became scarred by accusations of extreme brutality toward suspected turncoats, misbehavior and indiscretion in her private life, and a radicalism that seemed at odds with Mandela’s quest for racial inclusiveness.
She nevertheless sought to remain in his orbit. She was at his side, brandishing a victor’s clenched fist salute, when he was finally released from prison in February 1990.
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born to a noble family of the Xhosa-speaking Pondo tribe in Transkei. Her first name, Nomzamo, means “she who must endure trials.”
Her birth date was Sept. 26, 1936, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and many other sources.
Her father, Columbus, was a senior official in the so-called homeland of Transkei, according to South African History Online, an unofficial archive, which described her as the fourth of eight children. Her mother, Gertrude, was a teacher who died when Winnie was 8, the archive said.
As a barefoot child she tended cattle and learned to make do with very little, in marked contrast to her later years of free-spending ostentation. She attended a Methodist mission school and then the Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, where she befriended Adelaide Tsukudu, the future wife of Oliver Tambo, a law partner of Mandela’s who went on to lead the ANC in exile. She turned down a scholarship in the United States, preferring to remain in South Africa as the first black social worker at the Baragwanath hospital in Soweto.
One day in 1957, when she was waiting at a bus stop, Mandela drove past.
“I was struck by her beauty,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Some weeks later, he recalled, “I was at the office when I popped in to see Oliver and there was this same young woman.”
Mandela, approaching 40 and the father of three, declared on their first date that he would marry her. Soon he separated from his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a nurse, to marry Ms. Madikizela-Mandela on June 14, 1958.
Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was thrust into the limelight in 1964 when her husband was sentenced to life in prison on charges of treason. She was officially “banned” under draconian restrictions intended to make her a nonperson, unable to work, socialize, move freely, or be quoted in the South African news media, even as she raised their two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa.
In a crackdown in May 1969, five years after her husband was sent to prison, she was arrested and held for 17 months, 13 in solitary confinement. She was beaten and tortured. The experience, she wrote, was “what changed me, what brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate.”
After blacks rioted in the segregated Johannesburg township of Soweto in 1976, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was again imprisoned without trial, this time for five months. She was then banished to a bleak township outside the profoundly conservative white town of Brandfort, in the Orange Free State.
Ms. Madikizela-Mandela’s exclusion from what passed as a normal life in South Africa took a toll, and she began to drink heavily. During her banishment, moreover, her land changed. Beginning in late 1984, young protesters challenged the authorities with increasing audacity. The unrest spread, prompting the white rulers to acknowledge what they called a “revolutionary climate” and declare a state of emergency.
When Ms. Madikizela-Mandela returned to her home in Soweto in 1985, breaking her banning orders, it was as a far more bellicose figure, determined to assume leadership of what became the decisive and most violent phase of the struggle. As she saw it, her role was to stiffen the confrontation with the authorities.
The tactics were harsh.
“Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we will liberate this country,” she told a rally in April 1986.
She was referring to “necklacing,” a form of sometimes arbitrary execution by fire using a gas-soaked tire around a supposed traitor’s neck, and it shocked an older generation of antiapartheid campaigners. But her severity aligned her with the young township radicals who enforced commitment to the struggle.
In the late 1980s, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela allowed the outbuildings around her residence in Soweto to be used by the so-called Mandela United Football Club, a vigilante gang that claimed to be her bodyguards. It terrorized Soweto, inviting infamy and prosecution.
In 1991 she was convicted of ordering the 1988 kidnapping of four youths in Soweto. The body of one, a 14-year-old named James Moeketsi Seipei — nicknamed Stompie, a slang word for a cigarette butt, reflecting his diminutive stature — was found with his throat cut.
Ms. Madikizela-Mandela’s chief bodyguard was convicted of murder. She was sentenced to six years for kidnapping, but South Africa’s highest appeals court reduced her punishment to fines and a suspended one-year term.
By then her life had begun to unravel. The United Democratic Front, an umbrella group of organizations fighting apartheid and linked to the ANC, expelled her. In April 1992, Mandela, midway through settlement talks with President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa, announced that he and his wife were separating.
Two years later, Mandela was elected president and offered her a minor job as the deputy minister of arts, culture, science, and technology. But after allegations of influence peddling, bribe taking and misuse of government funds, she was forced from office. In 1996, Mandela ended their 38-year marriage, testifying in court that his wife was having an affair with a colleague.