Born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela on September 26, 1936, in Bizana, a rural village in the Transkei district of South Africa, Winnie Mandela eventually moved to Johannesburg in 1953 to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. South Africa was under the system known as apartheid, where citizens of indigenous African descent were subjected to a harsh caste system in which European descendants enjoyed much higher levels of wealth, health and social freedom.
Winnie completed her studies and, though receiving a scholarship to study in America, decided instead to work as the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. A dedicated professional, she came to learn via her field work of the deplorable state that many of her patients lived in.
In the mid-1950s, Winnie met attorney Nelson Mandela, who, at the time, was leader of the African National Congress, an organization with the goal of ending South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation. The two married in June 1958, despite concerns from Winnie's father over the couple's age difference and Mandela's steadfast political involvements. After the wedding, Winnie moved into Mandela's home in Soweto. She became legally known thereafter as Winnie Madikizela-Mandel.
Nelson Mandela was routinely arrested for his activities and targeted by the government during his early days of marriage. He was eventually sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment, leaving Winnie Mandela to raise their two small daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, single-handedly. Nonetheless, Winnie vowed to continue working to end apartheid; she was involved surreptitiously with the ANC and sent her children to boarding school in Swaziland to offer them a more peaceful upbringing.
Monitored by the government, Winnie Mandela was arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and spent more than a year in solitary confinement, where she was tortured. Upon her release, she continued her activism and was jailed several more times. Then after the Soweto 1976 uprisings where hundreds of students were killed, she was forced by the government to relocate to the border town of Brandfort in 1977 and placed under house arrest. She described the experience as alienating and heart-wrenching, yet she continued to speak out, as in a 1981 statement to the BBC on black South African economic might and its ability to overturn the system.
In 1985, after her home was firebombed, Winnie returned to Soweto and continued to agitate against the regime even during government media bans. Her actions continued to cement the title bestowed upon her, "Mother of the Nation." But Winnie also became known for endorsing deadly retaliation against black citizens who collaborated with the apartheid regime. Additionally, her group of bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club, garnered a reputation for brutality. In 1989, a 14-year-old boy named Stompie Moeketsi was abducted by the club and later killed.
Through a complex mix of domestic political maneuvering and international outrage, Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment. The years of separation and tremendous social turmoil had irrevocably damaged the Mandela marriage, however, and the two separated in 1992. Before that, Winnie Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting Moeketsi; after an appeal, her six-year sentence was ultimately reduced to a fine.
Even with her conviction, Winnie Mandela was elected president of the ANC's Women's League. Then, in 1994, Nelson Mandela won the presidential election, becoming South Africa's first black president; Winnie was subsequently named deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology. However, due to affiliations and rhetoric seen as highly radical, she was ousted from her cabinet post by her husband in 1995. The couple divorced in 1996, having spent few years together out of almost four decades of marriage.
Winnie Mandela appeared before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, and was found responsible for "gross violations of human rights" in connection to the killings and tortures implemented by her bodyguards. While ANC leaders kept their political distance, Winnie still retained a grassroots following. She was re-elected to Parliament in 1999, only to be convicted of economic fraud in 2003. She quickly resigned from her post, though her conviction was later overturned.
Winnie Mandela continues to be a controversial media figure. In a 2010 Evening Standard newspaper interview, she sharply criticized Archbishop Desmond Tutu and her ex-husband, disparaging Nelson Mandela's decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with former South African President F.W. de Klerk. Winnie later denied making the statements. In 2012, the British press published an email that Winnie Mandela had composed, in which she criticized the ANC for its general treatment of the Mandela clan.
After her husband, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison in 1990, Winnie Mandela shared in his political activities, despite her scandalous reputation. In 1993, Winnie became president of the African National Congress Women's League, and in 1994, she was elected to Parliament. She was re-elected to Parliament in 1999, but resigned in 2003, under a new financial scandal.