When a vicious tornado swept through the townships of the South African city of Cape Town recently, locals were quick to offer "Winnie" as a name for the unusual phenomenon. A suitable honour, they believed, for the country's most prominent and controversial woman politician, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who celebrates her 65th birthday next Sunday. Weeks after her ex-husband, Nelson Mandela, embraced the comforts of retirement, Madikizela-Mandela again made headlines when she openly criticized as a "disaster" his government's macro-economic Growth Equity and Redistribution (Gear) strategy. With the same fervour she once reserved for apartheid rulers, she was speaking to rural women folk. It is with this sector of the population, along with townships and informal settlements, that "uMama Wethu" (Mother of the Nation) still enjoys great respect, though many in other parts of the political arena have often publicly wished her away. Unlike many of her political contemporaries from the 1960s, the heyday of South Africa's anti-apartheid resistance, Madikizela- Mandela remains socially and politically agile. As the Women's League president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and a minister of parliament in the country's second democratic government, she focuses primarily on the issues of black economic freedom, the plight of rural workers, fundraising and gender equality. But she has also become a powerful weapon for opposition parties, keen to see the figure they perceive as no more than a mere criminal, removed from the country's political playing field. In their recent election campaign, the predominantly white opposition Democratic Party persistently singled her out as a convicted kidnapper and an unrepentant apartheid criminal, undeserving of a government post. Her other detractors often draw attention to the scathing findings of a special Truth and Reconciliation Commission probe into apartheid-era atrocities, including the murders of at least 18 black people by the football club she established in the 1980s. Madikizela-Mandela is most unpopular among white South Africans who will probably never forget her arrogant warning in 1986 that "with these matches, we shall liberate this country". Few, however, would dispute the extent to which Madikizela- Mandela, who only in recent years has put much energy into her role as a grandmother, has sacrificed a normal life for the liberation of her country. Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela was born in rural Bizana in the Transkei to the south-east of the country in 1934, her parents both school teachers. She graduated to become the country's first black social worker and married Nelson Mandela in 1958, just four years before he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. The couple had two daughters, Zinzi and Zenani. "Winnie", as she was affectionately known to the disenfranchised masses, tirelessly campaigned for her husband's release from prison in the face of over two decades of constant police harassment, bannings and house arrests. She was reunited with her husband after 27 years in 1990, but later forfeited the opportunity to become the country's first black first lady after the couple separated in April 1992. Madikizela-Mandela's conviction for her part in the 1980s kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old political activist Stompie Sepei contributed largely to the breakdown of their marriage. She briefly held the cabinet post of deputy Arts and Culture minister after the country's first all-race elections in 1994. Amid rumours that she would make a political comeback after the country's second democratic elections in June, Madikizela-Mandela made her position clear. "I have dedicated the remainder of my life to the struggle of my people and that is where I want to be after elections - in the trenches with my people, making sure their basic conditions are improved," she said.


South African Press Association, 1999
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