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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Dies At Age 81


There is news today that South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died at the age of 81. She is, of course, known around the world as the former wife of the late South African President Nelson Mandela. During his 27 years in prison, she was one of the most fierce advocates for the release of Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters. But Winnie Mandela was a central figure in her own right in that nation's transition from apartheid to democracy. We're joined now by NPR Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Ofeibea, as I mentioned, many Americans know her as Nelson Mandela's wife, but she was politically active in her own right long before she married Nelson Mandela. What can you tell us about her political evolution?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was considered the mother of the nation of South Africa for the many years that Nelson Mandela was in prison. And it must be remembered that she was a very young woman. She was his second wife. And for most of her marriage, he was in prison. She was banished to Brandfort by the apartheid government. And yet this was a woman in her 20s and early 30s, but she did not give up. She continued the battle against apartheid and white minority rule. So that's why many South Africans, despite what came afterwards in the controversies surrounding Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, consider her still the mother of the nation who was the one who really, really made sure that the international world knew what was happening in apartheid South Africa.

MARTIN: Remind us what the period of apartheid was like for the country of South Africa and the Mandelas in particular.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, of course, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for most of the time from 1964. So there was this young wife and the other anti-apartheid struggle leaders fighting against the white apartheid leaders who were determined to keep black and other South Africans down. It was a white minority that held power, that held the money and that held the people down. But South Africans did not give up. And despite the fact that their leaders were all political prisoners either on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners were kept, they - Winnie Mandela and others kept the fight alive. And that is why she is held in such high esteem still in South Africa.

MARTIN: But she and her former husband, the late Nelson Mandela, did not always agree about what the best path forward was for South Africa. What was the substance of their disagreement? How did they see things differently?

QUIST-ARCTON: Everybody will remember those images of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela, as she was called then, pumping their fists in the air when he was let out of prison. And everybody thought, at last, the fairy-tale story of the marriage of the Mandelas is going to be allowed to continue after almost 30 years. But that was not to be because in 1991, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of being involved in the kidnapping of this teenage anti-apartheid activist called Stompie Moeketsi. Now, he was found dead after being seized by this group known as the Mandela Football Club, strangely enough. They were supporters of Winnie Mandela. And this gang of young armed men killed Stompie Moeketsi. After Mandela came out of prison, he and miss - and Winnie Mandela were together for a short while, and then there was the divorce in 1996, which many, many South Africans regret. Her legacy is that she fought for the freedom of all South Africans despite the fact that she had to go to trial and was convicted. Many South Africans say she has been the mother of this nation.

MARTIN: So as you note, she is still a much-beloved figure there.

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. South Africa is definitely in mourning. The governing ANC has come out to say that she died after a long illness, she could succumb peacefully surrounded by family and loved ones, and that she is one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reporting this morning on the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She died at the age of 81. Ofeibea, thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.