Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the Jabulani Amphitheatre, Soweto, in August 1990. Picture: Raymond Preston/Sunday Times
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the Jabulani Amphitheatre, Soweto, in August 1990. Picture: Raymond Preston/Sunday Times

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela never lacked courage. She suffered greatly under the heel of the apartheid system and was one of many who were banished, banned and detained without trial for her opposition to its noxious policies.

She rose to prominence as the wife of Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he spent in jail. But she was far more than just his wife; she was a powerful icon of resistance in her own right.

Madikizela-Mandela knew her mind and she spoke it with indifference to the consequences for her own wellbeing. After Mandela was jailed, she said in 1962: "They think, because they have put my husband on an island, that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!"

These words struck fear into the hearts of the apartheid overlords. They’d bet that once in jail, Mandela would be forgotten and diminished. Instead, they faced the wrath of his fearless wife, who ensured he stayed centre stage.

The fact that they’d miscalculated how to handle Madikizela-Mandela was clear when their campaign to harass her into submission — through detention, banning and banishment to the remote Free State town of Brandfort — failed miserably. Each step galvanised her fiery resistance.

Though many discount her role, even her critics will concede that she was instrumental in how Mandela’s stature grew to that of an international icon by the time he was released from jail in 1990. Nor is her contribution diminished by the fact they would divorce after his release and she would later become bitter about his politics, rejecting his policy of reconciliation.

But the cold facts don’t quite illustrate her importance as a symbol for the disempowered. During the 1980s, a time of brutal repression on the streets, South Africans who were victims of apartheid strongly identified with Madikizela-Mandela. She was an instinctive populist leader, able to project anger at apartheid more effectively than most, openly embracing the symbols of the ANC when it was still illegal to do so.

But by then, Madikizela-Mandela’s embrace of radical politics had gone too far for many within the ANC, who believed she’d overstepped the mark, leading to a string of controversies.

Most prominent of these resulted from the kidnapping and death of the young activist Stompie Seipei at the hands of her Mandela United Football Club, which had a reputation as her brutal enforcement squad.

The football club incident would be the subject of drama at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu would beg Madikizela-Mandela to accept some responsibility for her actions. She grudgingly admitted that "things went wrong, horribly wrong".

She would later recant, and was quoted describing Tutu as a "cretin". "I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and me — because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom."

This week, after Madikizela-Mandela had passed away on the Easter weekend, Tutu praised her. "She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, the detentions, the bannings and the banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists," Tutu said.

Perhaps the final word on her life of struggle and controversy belongs to Madikizela-Mandela herself. She said in 1996: "I am the product of the masses of my country and ... of my enemy."