New York Times
POSTED: 1:47 a.m. HST, Aug 3, 2013
SOWETO, South Africa » When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stepped out in late June onto the porch of the home here she once shared with Nelson Mandela, still looking as regal and outspoken as when she was known a quarter century ago as the "mother of the nation," it was like a fiery echo of the past.
"If we sometimes sound bitter," she said, referring to the Mandela family's reaction to the crowd of foreign media that had been awaiting Mandela's death, "it is because we are dealing with a very difficult situation. You can understand our emotions."
Madikizela-Mandela, 76, is, if anything, an expert on the emotions that can be stirred by her family's history and her own as one of the key public figures in South Africa's long struggle for nonracial democracy.
But something else was at work, too. Madikizela-Mandela — she changed her last name from simply Mandela after her divorce from Mandela in 1996 — is very ostentatiously trying to re-enter the public arena and emphasize her claim to part of the Mandela legacy. "Nobody knows him better than I do," she told Britain's ITN. And this move comes after years of political eclipse and a long slide, beginning in the 1980s, from her previous status as the most famous of South Africa's female freedom fighters.
"She has always wanted to be close to the action in the Mandela household," said Justice Malala, a political commentator and former publisher of The Sowetan newspaper. He said a recent Soweto news conference and her subsequent interview with British television "showed that, once again, she is trying to do that. The question is whether there is any legitimacy to that, or whether she is a spent force."
Of all the major figures who came to global prominence during the South African liberation struggle, Madikizela-Mandela was the most glamorous and the most at home in the world of celebrity culture — which is what made her fall from grace all the more startling.
For many of the years just before Mandela's release from 27 years in prison, she was his public face, bringing word of his thoughts and his state of mind.
Still, though, rumors circulated even back then of thuggish behavior by a club she had formed for young Soweto men — the Mandela United Football Club — and these whispered accusations came back to haunt her shortly after her husband's release in 1990.
The following year she was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a minor, 14-year-old James Seipei, who went by the name Stompie Moeketsi. The authorities said he had been fatally beaten by members of her football club, on her orders, because he was suspected of being an informant. She received a six-year sentence that was later reduced to a fine.
The next year, though, she and Mandela separated.
While she was given a role in the Mandela government, after Mandela was named president in 1994, she had little power. She was deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology, but was later fired by Mandela after a series of incendiary comments and accusations of financial mismanagement.
Still, she retained a sizable amount of popularity, especially among some young and radical township residents.
"She has, over the past 19 years, attached herself to a sort of radical fringe in the ANC," Malala said, referring to the governing African National Congress. "She always attached herself to whatever seemed to be the radical idea of the day, but nothing ever came of it."
Madikizela-Mandela was born in the small village of Mbongweni in what is now Eastern Cape province, but moved as a young woman to Johannesburg where she became the country's first black medical social worker. While there, she met and, in 1958, married Mandela, already the head of the African National Congress.
When Mandela went into prison in 1964, she was left to raise their two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. Under the apartheid government, she spent time in prison herself, including a year of solitary confinement.
Shortly after the Soweto uprising of 1976, she was banished by the apartheid government to the remote town of Brandfort, where she was forced to remain until 1985 - at which time she returned to Soweto to resume her public activities.
Her public troubles did not end with the Stompie Moeketsi case, though.
In 2003, she was convicted of theft and fraud for her role in a bank swindle in which ANC stationery was used to obtain loans for nonexistent employees. That sentence, too, was suspended.
Still, she maintained a measure of prominence within party circles, and she was not forgotten. Alfre Woodard, the American actress, played her in a 1987 TV movie called "Mandela," and Jennifer Hudson in a 2011 film called "Winnie," and she has even been a character in an opera.
This year, though, she had two more brushes with the authorities.
In March, police exhumed what they believe might be the bodies of two young Soweto activists who went missing in 1989, shortly after the father of one of the activists saw them in a vehicle with Madikizela-Mandela and members of her football club. The father said she told him that his son was "an apartheid spy." That case is still under investigation.
Not long after the exhumations, the police showed up on her doorstep in Soweto - trailed by local journalists - to confiscate some of her artwork and possessions to pay a debt of about $5,000 to a private school that had admitted her grandniece. No one answered the door, and the debt was quickly paid by her lawyer.
In recent weeks, though, she gingerly reasserted herself on the public stage, showing up several times to visit her ailing former husband in the hospital in the capital, Pretoria, where he had been clinging to life. That recent Soweto news conference was widely seen as a declaration that she intended to claim her share of the Mandela legacy, as did a subsequent interview with Britain's ITN network.
"When it suits the media, I am a murderer," she told the British interviewer, while insisting that all the charges against her were "manufactured by the system I was fighting against."
There is much skepticism here about whether she will be able to pull off yet another political resurrection after her ex-husband's death - or whether that is even what she wants.
"She has always felt that she played a major role in the Mandela story," said William Gumede, a professor of public management at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the author of several books on the ANC.
"Winnie has argued that she played 80 percent of the role in elevating his status while he was in prison," Gumede said. "What she wants now is not so much political power as a place in the Mandela family. But then, they all want a slice of Mandela now."