South African anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Madikizela Mandela is dead. She was aged 81.
She was the former wife of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela.
Family spokesman Victor Dlamini, according to BBC, said in a statement: “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.”
Retired archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu praised her as a “defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid”, AFP reported.
“Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists,” he added.
President Cyril Ramaphosa – who Mrs Mandela praised earlier this year – is expected to visit the family home this evening, African National Congress (ANC) chairperson Gwede Mantashe told reporters.
He added: “With the departure of Mama Winnie, [we have lost] one of the very few who are left of our stalwarts and icons. She was one of those who would tell us exactly what is wrong and right, and we are going to be missing that guidance.”
Mrs Mandela was born in 1936 in the Eastern Cape – then known as Transkei.
She was a trained social worker when she met her future husband in the 1950s. They were married for a total of 38 years, although for almost three decades of that time they were separated due to Mr Mandela’s imprisonment.
It was Mrs Mandela who took his baton after he was jailed for life, becoming an international symbol of resistance to apartheid and a rallying point for poor, black township residents who demanded their freedom.
Five years later, she too was jailed by the white minority government she was fighting against.
But Mrs Mandela – an icon of the struggle – also found herself mired in controversy.
She was heard backing the practice of “necklacing” – putting burning tyres around suspected informants’ necks – and was accused of conducting a virtual reign of terror in parts of Soweto by other members of the ANC in the late 1980s.
She was also found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for her involvement in the death of 14-year-old township militant Stompie Seipei. She always denied the allegation, and the sentence was reduced to a fine.
Mr Mandela, who stood by her throughout the accusations, was finally released from prison in February 1990.
But two years later, their marriage crumbled. The couple divorced in 1996, but she kept his surname and maintained ties with him.