She was the most polarising woman in South African politics and remained so until her death at 81 this week.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela proudly carried her marital surname even though she spent just a short few years with her husband Nelson, who she married in 1958 before he was locked up for 27 years. The marriage would last just two years after he was released from prison, not all that surprising considering for his years of incarceration the closest he got to Winnie and their two daughters was through a glass partition in visiting rooms.

At his inauguration in 1994 I battled my way past Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat and sought out Winnie Mandela in the hope of getting an interview. She was polite but declined, telling me it was Nelson's day and it most certainly was, the first democratically elected black President of the Republic.

Barry Soper with Winnie Mandela at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994. Photo / File
Barry Soper with Winnie Mandela at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994. Photo / File

Winnie did her bit to ensure that happened, fighting the apartheid regime during her husband's imprisonment and being detained regularly by the Government. She was held in solitary confinement for a year, was tortured and was subjected to house arrest before being banished to a remote village.


She finally returned to Soweto to continue the struggle, a township she never left. But to see living in Soweto as her badge of honour, as many have attributed to her, is a failure to understand her gated mansion there wouldn't be out of place in Remuera.

And to deify this woman would be a step too far, considering the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela and chaired by her fellow Sowetan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who lived a stone's throw away from her.

The blight on Winnie Mandela's public life was the establishment of the so-called Mandela United Football Club. The commission said opponents of Mandela and the club were branded as informers which saw them being executed, usually with a "necklace" - a car tyre soaked in petrol, placed around their neck and torched.

She was also implicated in the death and kidnapping of a 14-year-old youth who was beaten and later had his throat slit. She was acquitted of all but the kidnapping, but the incident is seen as the greatest stain on her legacy.

The commission found that Winnie Mandela herself was responsible for the gross violation of human rights. It was only after an emotional plea by Desmond Tutu during the hearings that she finally apologised.

The South Africa of today mostly isn't the country envisaged by her late husband Nelson and unfortunately looks set to become even worse.