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The complex life of Winnie Mandela

Winnie Mandela, and husband, Nelson Mandela, walk out

Winnie Mandela, and husband, Nelson Mandela, walk out of court in South Africa in February 1991. Credit: AP

I remember sitting in Winnie Mandela’s Soweto backyard in the days leading up to her husband’s release from prison in February 1990. Her thick black curls seemed electrified — emblematic of the excitement that could be felt across South Africa as the final preparations unfolded for Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years of incarceration.

Our ABC News crew had taken up residence near Winnie Mandela’s home because we knew she was the best source of information — and her eyes would tell us when the time was right.

As the hours preceding Mandela’s release neared, our ABC team tried to maintain its professional calm as excitement grew in that hot Soweto garden. Our crew had wired the backyard for what would be the first set of network interviews with Nelson Mandela, the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. All of Cape Town seemed in a state of perpetual motion as throngs gathered along the prison route. Winnie Mandela was radiant.

Although the attention that Feb. 11 was on the man who would eventually become president of South Africa as he emerged from Pollsmoor Prison and took the long walk home, Winnie Mandela exerted her influence and prowess. She was more than Nelson Mandela’s wife (they divorced in 1996). She was the country’s first black social worker by the time she married Mandela in 1958. She stood by Mandela throughout his long prison term, and kept alive the African National Congress, which became the dominant political force after apartheid. She was the voice of the movement while her husband’s was silenced.

But Winnie Mandela, who died Monday in Johannesburg at age 81, also was an agitator and a troublemaker.

Her political activism was marred by serious transgressions, including a kidnapping and assault conviction in 1991, for which she was later fined. The incident surrounded the December 1988 murder of Stompie Seipei Moeketsi, a young activist and member of the infamous Mandela Football Club, established by Winnie Mandela for the political mobilization of township youth to fight apartheid.

In 2003, she was convicted of fraud and theft. Her conviction for theft was overturned a year later because she had not gotten personal gain from her actions. The South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that she had committed gross human rights violations.

It was a fall from grace for South Africa’s mother of freedom. And yet, despite it all, Winnie Mandela’s story will never be complete without paying homage to her role in fighting white minority rule. She had many sides, as did the conflict in her country. In the end, history will judge her.

I shall remember her as that charming, lively, optimistic woman who never gave up the fight and welcomed us to her neighborhood when the news media needed to be there.

The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela matters. It matters because it marks the end of an era of civil disobedience that gripped South Africa at a time of painful reckoning with the legacy of discrimination, violence and hostility. Her death matters because it is a reminder that all nations have painful pasts and need figures who transcend hate, as Nelson Mandela did.

And for all the ugliness that attached itself at times to Winnie Mandela, she remains, for many, South Africa’s “mother of the nation.” Her flaws embodied the turbulence of those times in South Africa’s history, and the turbulence of our world today.

May she rest in peace.

Tara D. Sonenshine was editorial producer for ABC News’ “Nightline” in South Africa. She is a former undersecretary of state for public affairs, and now advises international students at The George Washingon University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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