SOWETO – She visits hospital daily, comforts relatives and faces an army of reporters clamoring for comment — with Nelson Mandela fighting for his life, his colorful and controversial ex-wife Winnie is back in the limelight.
Since the anti-apartheid hero was admitted to intensive care three weeks ago, his former spouse’s black luxury German sedan has rolled through the guarded gates each day at the heart clinic in Pretoria where Mandela lies.
Just like she did 50 years ago when he was preparing for his treason trial, Winnie has been visiting the man to whom she was married for almost four decades to give moral support.
While the revered leader’s current wife Graca Machel keeps a constant vigil at his bedside, it is Winnie once again who has become the public face of the Mandela family.
Her increased profile has helped to polish the image of the woman who was once an outspoken thorn in the side of the racist white minority regime, but who later became tainted by scandal.
“In recent years Winnie Mandela’s political star and profile has waned because of these scandals,” said Professor Adam Habib, vice chancellor of Wits University in Johannesburg.
“But since Madiba fell ill, her behavior has been exemplary and dignified,” he told AFP, using the clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known.
After Mandela’s daughter recently launched an angry tirade against foreign media camped outside the hospital, comparing them to “vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo”, Winnie appeared before the press pack to smooth ruffled feathers.
“There may be problems here and there and some of you got carried away with the reports and talk about our father in the past tense — we are just here to thank you very much for your support,” she said.
She also criticized a visit by South African President Jacob Zuma and other ruling party figures in April to the home of Mandela, who was shown in television footage frail and dazed, sitting in an armchair.
“I honestly cannot put in words how hurt the family was. It was one of the most insensitive things for anyone to have done,” Winnie told Britain’s ITV News.
“Nobody knows him better than I do and it is extremely painful to see him going through what he’s going through now,” she added. “But it is God’s wish.”
Known as the “Mother of the Nation”, Winnie’s own status as an anti-apartheid icon was cemented by her marriage to Mandela in 1958 after they met in Soweto, where Winnie was a social worker.
“I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie, I knew I wanted to have her as my wife,” Mandela recounted in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
A few years later, in 1963 when Mandela went on trial for treason, she was at his side.
Despite having to deal with arrests, harassment and banning orders herself, Winnie visited Mandela in prison as often as she could after he was handed a life sentence.
When he was finally released in 1990, Winnie was by his side, holding his hand, her other fist raised in a clenched salute.
But their relationship irrevocably broke down by 1992 and in 1996, the couple — who have two daughters — finally divorced.
“If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile with the defendant I would not … I am determined to get rid of this marriage,” a saddened and disillusioned Mandela told a packed Johannesburg courtroom at the time.
On July 18, 1998, Mandela married his current wife Graca Machel on his 80th birthday.
Meanwhile, Winnie was dealing with a series of scandals, including a 1991 conviction for the kidnapping of 14-year-old child activist Stompie Moeketsi, who was killed by her private vigilantes three years earlier.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that Winnie was present at her Soweto home when Moeketsi was savagely beaten along with three other youths.
She was given a six-year-sentence on kidnapping and accessory to assault charges, later reduced to a fine on appeal.
In 2003, she was given a six-month suspended sentence for abusing her position in the women’s league of the ruling African National Congress to defraud a bank.
And in March this year, investigators said they were probing Winnie for the murder of two men she accused of being apartheid spies in the 1980s.
Yet among many ordinary South Africans, especially the poor, she remains immensely popular.
“Like before, she is there. She is the moral support for her family, for her daughters,” said Rachel Mabe, 56.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” added Mabel Tshoke, 59, a retired teacher and former activist. “Winnie always stood by her man.”