Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. (Photo: GCIS)

I am so appalled by some white trash know-nothing comments about Winnie Madikizela Mandela, that I need to weigh in… writes award-winning writer, and Nelson Mandela’s authorised biographer, Charlene Smith. 

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. (Photo: GCIS)

If Madiba could forgive and honour her, and then not punish white South Africans for what we put her and others like her through, how DARE you judge her?

Winnie Mandela, when I first met her in 1976, was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen – tall, imperious, with a gorgeous deep voice and a low sexy laugh. I interviewed her after she had to stop work for a cobbler, because security police harassment was so intense, business to the store fell off.

It had been this way for 13 years, ever since the jailing of her husband, Nelson Mandela in 1963. Now that she has died the clichés about her life are rolling in thick and fast. How eager we are to forget, and in refusing to remember we perpetuate the harm she experienced in life.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)  hearings in 1998 found she played a role in the murders of Stompie Seipei (13), evidence suggested she stabbed him twice in the throat, and the deaths of Lolo Sono, and others. In 1992, she was charged with ordering the death of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat. A decade later she was charged and convicted on multiple counts of fraud and theft, but never served jail time.

And yet, she deserves our empathy and I will tell you why.

In the 70s she was a source of inspiration to many young people, some of whom flocked to her home after the 1976 uprising. Some went into exile, others remained and coached by her, became leaders of the United Democratic Front.

Winnie was banished to a dusty village, Brandfort, hundreds of miles from her Soweto home, and that, and an incident in 1969 broke her. In 1969, security branch came to her Soweto home at 3am. She was alone with her daughters, aged 10 and nine. Winnie asked to fetch her sister one street up so the girls would not be alone. The police refused, she was taken and her children left alone.

She spent 18 months in solitary confinement, naked, not allowed to wash, and not allowed out for exercises. She did not know what had become of her girls. When she would speak of this with me, her whole countenance would change. She was not allowed sanitary towels when she had periods, nor water or cloths to clean, and so the blood caked on her. She made friends with cockroaches. I’ve been in the cell at the Old Fort that she was held in. It is narrow with high, thick walls, it is oppressively dark when the door is closed, as it was for 18 months.

I believe she experienced profound Post Traumatic Stress. It was never treated; instead, she was expelled to Brandfort. She had a classic four-room house with a biggish yard. Money from mostly American donors saw her build a large bedroom with a quilt on it made by American sympathisers. She used to wait at the Brandfort post office at around 11am each day for phone calls, or would make phone calls out. People who visited her were arrested and charged.

Winnie was isolated and lonely, it was here that the drinking and drug taking began, and affairs with younger men, including a dreadlocked filmmaker. The conservative black folk of Brandfort township grew to loathe her.

She would get visiting international dignitaries like Senator Edward Kennedy with his large entourage in 1985, but it deepened resentment of her.

When she came back to Johannesburg, in defiance of her banning order, Madiba was already in secret communications with the apartheid government. She formed the Mandela United Football Club, it became an instrument of torture and murder of young men wrongly accused of being spies. At the TRC hearings where its activities were recounted, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who knew her long put his head on the table and cried.

Mandela wrote, “I have often wondered whether any kind of commitment can ever be sufficient excuse for abandoning a young and inexperienced woman in a pitiless desert.”

And so, when he came out of jail in 1990 it was with his hand in hers, even though a few Sundays before his release her explicit love letters to a young lawyer were released. On the night of his return to Soweto, she left the house in the early hours of the morning with the lawyer in full view of the world’s media camped outside.

Zwelakhe Sisulu who accompanied them to the U.S.A. not long after said she would yell at Madiba in hotel rooms. The entourage were not sure how to cope with these outbursts.
Archbishop Tutu revealed, “Mandela said to me that he was never so unhappy as in the period after he was released until he decided to leave Soweto.”

Winnie was unrepentant, she ran up huge bills on Mandela’s tab, was convicted on multiple counts of theft and fraud, and became an embarrassment.

Lots of false pieties will be said about her now. The truth is that once there was a beautiful, proud woman who studied social work with an older woman, Albertinah Sisulu. Through her she met a handsome, brilliant lawyer called Nelson Mandela. They fell in love. He divorced his first wife to marry her. They had two children. Their marriage was passionate. He adored her, I don’t believe he ever loved anyone as much. However, their life was never normal because of his political activities, which she embraced.

When Mandela went to jail he was comparatively safe compared to the perilous life she experienced. The apartheid state punished her because of him, and too because of her; she was an effective conduit for sending young people into exile for military training.

She was a devoted and exceptionally loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I’m not sure how Zindzi, especially will cope now.

Nelson Mandela's Birthday Photo with Winnie Mandela next to him
Winnie Madikizela Mandela seated besides Nelson Mandela on his birthday (18 July) in 2011

Because of the poison that is racism she was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure, and because she was so venerated none loved her enough to give the help she needed.

Winnie is the Conscience of a Nation that has already forgotten the tragedy of apartheid history; even in her death, people do not realize how she suffered, how damaged she became and how it hurt her and those who cared for her most.

South Africa today has one of the worst crime rates in the world, it has millions of damaged people – they are apartheid’s legacy. It is in remembering and healing a wounded people that we honour the legacy of Winnie Madikizela Mandela.


CHARLENE SMITH is a South African journalist and author of 14 published books about South Africa. She is Nelson Mandela’s authorised biographer and presently lives and works in Boston, USA. Visit Charlene’s website here: or follow Charlene on Facebook: CharleneSmithWrites.


Don’t miss Carte Blanche this weekend for an in-depth look at the extraordinary life of Winnie Madikizela Mandela – also available to South Africans abroad if you subscribe to Showmax.