Winnie was always interested in politics and while working at the hospital her interest grew manifold especially after she shared a dormitory with Adelaide Tsukudu who went on to marry the African National Congress (ANC) president, Oliver Tambo. Adelaide often spoke about her future husband and his friend the charismatic legal partner, Nelson Mandela.
Winnie met Nelson Mandela in 1957 and married him a year later. However, despite having two children her married life was very lonely. Mandela would always be out attending ANC meetings, or handling legal cases and the Treason Trial.
In October 1958, Winnie took part in a protest against the Apartheid government which was organised by the ANC Women’s League. The police arrested 1000 women who were a part of this protest. Her first encounter with prison life exposed Winnie to the appalling condition of South African prisons which further strengthened her resolve to struggle against the Apartheid.
On March 30, 1961, a few days following the massacre of 69 people at the hands of the police during a Pan African Congress (PAC) anti-pass demonstration at Sharpeville, the police launched a raid on Nelson Mandela’s house. They then arrested Nelson Mandela after which Winnie was left alone to fend for herself.
After Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie Mandela became actively involved in political activities for which she was often detained by the police. On 12 May 1969, Winnie was arrested by the police and was kept in solitary confinement for 17 months.
She was later confined to the town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State from 1977 to 1985 and was not allowed to leave the town between 6 pm to 6 am because of which she was unable to meet her husband Mandela in prison.
Even under confinement, Winnie organised campaigns for equal rights because of which she promoted by the ANC as a symbol of their struggle against apartheid. She and her supporters were constantly harassed and tortured by the apartheid police. She was so severely tortured that she eventually became addicted to painkillers and alcohol to put up with the back pain caused by the police beatings.
In late 1985, Winnie decided to return to Soweto in an act of defiance against the government. In 1986, she started protests against the practice of ‘necklacing’ that is immolating people alive using tyres and petrol. She started dressing in military uniform and appointed the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) members as her bodyguards.
With her bodyguards, she started to settle family disputes at her house and delivered judgments which eventually lead to activities such as kidnapping and murder. She was accused of several murders during this time.
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In retaliation to the murders committed by MUFC, student of Soweto burned down Winnie’s house in 1988. The ANC heavily criticised her actions after she failed to discontinue her alliance with MUFC despite being instructed to do so by her husband Nelson Mandela.
In 1988, 14-year-old Stompie Sepei was abducted by the MUFC on Winnie’s orders and was tortured to death as they forced him to admit that he was sexually abused by the Methodist minister Rev. Paul Verryn. However, Winnie was acquitted of all charges, except the kidnapping of Stompie, due to lack of evidence. Her sentence of six-year imprisonment was then reduced to a mere fine.
In February 1990, Winnie was first time seen with her husband, Nelson Mandela, as he was released from prison after 30 years. However, Mandela soon filed for divorce in April 1992 citing Winnie’s unfaithfulness. Their divorce was finalised in March 1996.
Additionally, Winnie was fired from her position of the head of the ANC social welfare department, as a she was embroiled in rumours of corruption. But, she continued with her campaign for the ANC in South Africa's first non-racial elections and also secured a position of Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in May 1994. However, she was asked to leave the position within a year after she was again caught amidst rumours of corruption.
Despite rumours of corruption, Winnie was still very popular with her followers and was elected as the president of the ANC Women's League not once but twice i.e. in December 1993 and April 1997.
In 2003, Winnie Mandela helped to control a hostage situation at Wits University, where a student who failed to pay his tuition fees held a staff member captive at knifepoint.
On April 2003, Winnie Mandela was found guilty of 43 counts of fraud and 25 counts of theft and was sentenced to five years in prison. After she received order of imprisonment from the court, she resigned from all leadership positions with the ANC.
In July 2004, she successfully re-appealed against the courts’ order after which her sentence was reduced to three years and six months as she was convicted of theft.
Winnie’s absence from politics did not hamper her popularity amongst her supporters as she won the National Executive Committee election on 21 December 2007 with a majority of 2,845 votes.
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She went on to voice her opinion against the anti-immigrant violence that occurred between May and June 2008 and blamed the government for failing to provide decent housing facilities to the public.
In the post-apartheid period, the ANC seemed to distance itself from Winnie. So, she went to form close association with Bantu Holomisa and Julius Malema. She was also a political patron of Malema who formed his own party named Economic Freedom Fighters after quitting ANC.