Of all the personalities I’ve met in a long journalism career built on intruding into other people’s lives at the most inopportune moments, no one left a more indelible mark on me than a singular, purely-by-chance interview with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died Monday. She was 81.

Madikizela-Mandela was an irrepressible and outspoken voice of the anti-apartheid movement, especially during the 27 years that her husband Nelson Mandela, the first black and freely elected South African president, was imprisoned on Robben Island as a political prisoner of the nation’s racist regime.  Though the couple endured a bitter and highly publicized divorce in 1996, two years after he became president, she remained a highly visible – and often controversial – figure in South African politics and culture.

Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. She was a young social worker when she met Nelson Mandela in 1956 and married him two years later at the age of 22.  Their marriage was difficult from the start as Mandela, a lawyer and leader of the anti-apartheid movement, soon found himself on the run from the government, culminating in his sentencing in 1964 to life in prison on the charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid regime.

While people outside of South Africa knew her as Mandela’s wife and his link to the world beyond his prison cell, those with knowledge of the anti-apartheid movement understood she was much more of an influential insider in the politics of the African National Congress (ANC), which spearheaded the resistance to the government and is now South Africa’s ruling party.

“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement. “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.” She was also very controversial, embroiled in numerous scandals. Most infamously, in 1988, her bodyguards, then known as the Mandela United Football Club, kidnapped four boys that they assumed to be political rivals. This incident led to the death of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi and Madikizela-Mandela’s subsequent conviction on kidnapping charges, for which she was sentenced to six years in prison and later was reduced to a fine. In 1993, she was elected to the ANC’s women’s league and, following Mandela’s election as president, voted into parliament.

“She kept the memory of her imprisoned husband Nelson Mandela alive during his years on Robben Island and helped give the Struggle for justice in South Africa one its most recognisable faces,” her family said in a statement released shortly after her death. “She dedicated most of her adult life to the cause of the people and for this was known far and wide as the Mother Of The Nation.”

I met Madikizela-Mandela in 1985 while reporting as the South African correspondent for The (Baltimore) Sun. On that memorable day, I woke up in a downtown Johannesburg hotel to the news that someone had burned down her home and the backyard health clinic that she ran, while living in forced exile in Brandfort — a dusty township reserved by the government for black South Africans.

Upon hearing the news from a colleague, we immediately chartered a small plane and rushed to take in the scene, firsthand. We arrived in the early August afternoon chill at the charred remains of what once had been a tiny shack and a two-bedroom health clinic. We were among the few journalists to be there that day.

For her refusal to buckle under to the National Party’s strict laws under apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela had been jailed, beaten, and now, forced from her Soweto home to live in the relative isolation of Brandfort, about 40 miles from Bloemfontein, the capitol of the remote and sprawling Afrikanner stronghold of Free State province and more than a five-hour car ride from Soweto.

In 1966, government authorities had banned Madikizela-Mandela to curtail her liberation activities. The banning order, a policy enforced by the National Party to render government critics as a non-person, meaning they were not allowed to speak in public or appear in South African media. In 1977, because of her repeated political activities, she was forcibly relocated to Brandfort, where she wasn’t allowed any visitors without prior government approval. And most significantly, to me at least, she wasn’t allowed to speak with foreign reporters.

But Madikizela-Mandela ignored these restrictions, whenever it suited her freedom fighting purposes.

When I reached her home the morning of the fire I was initially rebuffed by two shotgun-wielding black police officers standing guard over the remains. Neighbors told me she was en route back from Johannesburg, where she had been meeting with her lawyer. Sure enough, she returned home not more than an hour after I’d arrived.

I remember her stepping from her town car, a tall and beautiful, brown-skinned woman in African print dress and towering headdress. Madikizela-Mandela had a regal presence, both enduring and fearsome. A crowd of young children, who had gathered around her house, cheered and chanted liberation songs as she enveloped them with hugs.

In a low, whispery voice that was so unlike the full-throated speeches for which she would later come to be known, she promised to speak to me and the three other foreign journalists waiting for her. But first she wanted a moment alone, to survey the damage to her house. A few minutes later, she waved us over and said she had a story to tell.

She didn’t disappoint. She told us that she knew what had happened despite not having been there to witness it. Her voice had now grown loud and strong enough for the police officers nearby to easily hear what she told us.

“I don’t think, I know,” I quoted her in my article. “The government did this.”

Madikizela-Mandela was confident of her suspicions, noting that the police had raided her home a week earlier, and the fact that the South African security police had called her in Johannesburg both the night before and the morning after the burning. She knew the police kept close tabs on her movements, and that they were aware that her house was empty when it was set aflame.

Though she was noticeably angry at the loss of her home and few possessions – charred bottles of medicine, some food, and a bronze bust of Robert Kennedy given to her by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during a visit there earlier in the year – Madikizela-Mandela said she had only one regret regarding the burning of her home.

“I will not return here,” she said, with a sweep of her arms. “So I don’t know who will provide health care to the comrades and their children in this place.”

With that declaration, she returned to the large black car and was driven to her home in Soweto, defying her banishment and banning order. From that moment until her death, she lived as she chose, daringly taunting anyone – the Nationalist government and, later, even her president-husband – to force her to stray from her rarely popular convictions.

Since that chance encounter, I’ve held a warm place in my head and heart for her and, now, I mourn her death. Over the decades and across the span of the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve followed the highs and lows of her career and life, knowing that she was a complicated and frustratingly troubled soul. Yet, there’s no denying the fact that the work of her life would prove to be a foundational building block in the liberation of her nation. 

Of all of those lives I can recall intruding upon in my career, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stands out as the most remarkable person that I’ve ever reported on or written about because she was critical to both changing the course of history in South Africa and giving inspiration to millions of freedom-loving people around the world, including me.

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