Five times Winnie Mandela has let us down

There’s complicated, and then there’s Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. While there is something of a historical revisionism happening in some quarters of our nation these days that brands Nelson Mandela’s second wife a revolutionary and heroic figure, it doesn’t take that much digging to remember the truly awful things she has been responsible for. 

Every time I think about Madikizela-Mandela’s worst failings as a person, I try to temper my thoughts with the knowledge of all that she has suffered: who knows what torture, constant harassment by the apartheid police and over a year in solitary confinement can do to a person? Certainly it could and did snuff out so much of her potential and turn her into an angrier, twisted version of who she could have been, with a seriously warped moral compass. But this history should inspire our sympathy for Madikizela-Mandela – not our hero worship. Lest we forget, here are some of the times Madikizela-Mandela was not the hero we needed. 

1) Necklacing and torture
It doesn’t get more serious than allegations of murder. The Mandela United Football Club acted as something of a violent gang for Madikizela-Mandela during the Eighties. The reports that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were terrifying and symptomatic of the culture of violence that Madikizela-Mandela sought to foster during that period. 

We should never forget 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei. Madikizela-Mandela’s henchmen kidnapped him and three other boys, accusing them of being police informers, on her instruction. Moeketsi was stabbed to death and left in a field near Madikizela-Mandela’s house. In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault with regards to the incident. She has been accused of ordering that Moeketsi and others be killed by her former bodyguards, though has always managed to evade successful prosecution on that count. 

There were also other claims of people being assaulted, abducted and murdered under her watch. Then there were the indirect killings she was responsible for by her public advocacy of necklacing, that unique South African invention Madikizela-Mandela played such an ignoble role in developing, which involved burning someone to death with a rubber tyre around them. 


It was a frightening time, where Madikizela-Mandela’s solution to the apartheid impasse was to meet fire with fire and wreak havoc within her own communities. Say what you will about her husband’s peaceful solution, which some dub a compromise, but imagine what would have been left of the country if we had gone Madikizela-Mandela’s route? 

2) Fraud in the ANC
Madikizela-Mandela seems to have a very lax attitude towards other people’s money, with several cases of being accused of taking what was not hers. In 1992 she was running the ANC’s social development department and gave R160 000 to Dali Mpofu, who was her deputy at the time, and with whom she was allegedly having an affair. In a letter to Mpofu, she wrote: “I tell you I’m in trouble with the Simmonds Street a/c which reflects over R160 000 drawn over a period for you.”

She resigned, but got into further financial trouble later while heading the ANC Women’s League. In 2003 she was found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 counts of theft after she had abused her position as head of the league. Over R1-million was taken from loan applicants’ accounts for a funeral fund, without the applicants benefitting. An appeal judge later overturned the conviction for theft. 

She was also known for her lavish lifestyle and was found guilty by her peers in Parliament of failing to disclose donations and some of her financial interests. 

3) Corrupt governance
Despite everything Madikizela-Mandela has been through, and the price she paid for our freedom, she did not see leadership and governance as sacrosanct and was caught with her hands in the till. She was appointed deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology in 1994 but was dismissed 11 months later, following allegations of corruption.

4) Parliamentary absenteeism
All of the above has not put a damper on Madikizela-Mandela’s popularity within the ANC, which keeps returning her to Parliament, where she appears to do less than nothing. Madikizela-Mandela’s absenteeism from the National Assembly, where she earns nearly R1-million a year, is the stuff of legend. 

One Sunday Times report in 2010 showed that she had been absent for months. When taken to task on the issue by the media in the past she has claimed she was “too busy” to attend Parliament. 

5) Attempts to claim Mandela’s home
Madikizela-Mandela’s latest court application to declare her divorce from Mandela a fraud and thereby get her hands on his home in Qunu is the height of bad taste. Even those who are usually her firmest supporters on social media have commented on the desperation of the act. But in this ill-advised, money-grabbing attempt we see Madikizela-Mandela as she really is: a largely immoral person who will do whatever it takes to put herself first. 

South Africans are so desperate for heroes, we’ll whitewash the sins of those we hope will work another miracle for us. But we’re all out of miracles and are left only with seriously flawed leaders we must hold to account as servants of the people. Enough with the heroic labels for those who do not deserve them. If this is the mother of our nation, I’d prefer it if we be left semi-orphaned.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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