Winnie Mandela, the former wife of South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, died on Monday aged 81, triggering an outpouring of tributes to one of the country’s defining and most divisive figures.
She died in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness, family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement.
Winnie Mandela, who was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, played a high-profile role in the struggle to end white-minority rule but her place in history was stained by controversy and accusations of violence.
“It is with profound sadness that we inform the public that Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away at the Netcare Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg, South Africa on Monday,” said a statement issued by her family.
“She died after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year. She succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones.”
Leading the tributes, anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu described Winnie Mandela as “a defining symbol” of the struggle against oppression.
“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment,” he said.
“Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.”
In the ruling African National Congress (ANC), head of policy Jeff Radebe described her as “an icon of the revolutionary struggle.”
Most of Winnie’s marriage to Nelson was spent apart, with Nelson imprisoned for 27 years, leaving her to raise their two daughters alone and to keep alive his political dream under the repressive white-minority regime.
But her reputation came under damaging scrutiny in the twilight years of apartheid rule.
In 1986, she was widely linked to “necklacing”, when suspected traitors were burnt alive by a petrol-soaked car tyre being put over their head and set alight.
In 1990 the world watched when Nelson Mandela finally walked out of prison — hand in hand with Winnie.
The following year, she was convicted of kidnapping and assault over the killing of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy.
In 1992, the Mandelas separated, and then divorced in 1996, after a legal wrangle that revealed she had had an affair with a young bodyguard.
During her old age, she re-emerged as a “mother of the nation” figure who was feted as a living reminder of the late Mandela and of the long struggle against apartheid.
Just last month, she was shown in television footage joking with Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly-appointed president who paid a courtesy call at her home in Soweto, the township where she lived for decades.
Dressed in full ANC colours of yellow, black and green, she asked Ramaphosa, who is known for his morning runs, “Why don’t you get tired?”
“We can’t get tired when you have given us work to do‚” Ramaphosa said, paying fulsome praise to her appearance.
She had also expressed support for the current leadership of the ANC (African National Congress) party — which her husband led to power in the euphoric post-apartheid elections of 1994.