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South African anti-apartheid stalwart Winnie Mandela dies at 81

During Nelson Mandela's 27-year incarceration, his wife at the time campaigned for his release and for the rights of her black countrymen.
Image: Winnie Mandela
Nelson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raise their fists and salute cheering crowds upon his release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990.Alexander Joe / AFP - Getty Images file

South Africa's Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an anti-apartheid stalwart and the wife of Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, died on Monday, the Mandela family said in a statement. She was 81.

She died in Johannesburg after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of the hospital since the start of the year.

"She succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones," the family said.

"The Mandela family are deeply grateful for the gift of her life and even as our hearts break at her passing, we urge all those who loved her to celebrate this most remarkable woman."

During Nelson Mandela's 27-year incarceration in his fight against apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for his release and for the rights of black South Africans, undergoing detention, banishment and arrest herself.

"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," the family's statement added.

The ruling but beleaguered African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since Nelson Mandela won the historic 1994 election that overturned racist all-white rule, paid tribute to Madikizela-Mandela.

Just a day before she died, Madikizela-Mandela had celebrated Easter in Soweto, Bishop Gary Rivas told reporters gathered at the Netcare Milpark Hospital.

“An icon, a giant was laid to rest," he said. "We thank god for her life."

But while she was hailed as the mother of the "new" South Africa by some, Madikizela-Mandela's legacy as an anti-apartheid heroine was tarnished by her actions after Nelson Mandela was released.

Her uncompromising methods and refusal to forgive contrasted sharply with the reconciliation espoused by her husband as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the racial division and oppression of apartheid.

The contradiction helped kill their marriage and destroyed the esteem in which she was held by many South Africans, although the firebrand activist retained the support of radical black nationalists to the end.

In her twilight years, Madikizela-Mandela had frequent run-ins with authority that further undermined her reputation as a fighter against the white-minority regime that ran Africa's most advanced economy from 1948 to 1994.

The end of apartheid marked the start of a string of legal and political troubles that, accompanied by tales of her glamorous living, kept her in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

"I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything."

Blamed for the killing of activist Stompie Seipei, who was found near her Soweto home with his throat cut, she was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and assaulting the 14-year-old because he was suspected of being an informer.

Her six-year jail term was reduced on appeal to a fine.

She and Mandela separated in 1992 and her reputation slipped further when he fired her from his cabinet in 1995 after allegations of corruption. The couple divorced a year later, after which she adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela.

Appearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to unearth atrocities committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle, Madikizela-Mandela refused to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out in her name.

Only after pleading from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anguished TRC chairman, did she admit grudgingly that "things went horribly wrong."

Four years later, she was back in court, facing fraud and theft charges in relation to an elaborate bank loan scheme.

Strikingly attractive and with a steely air — her given name, Nomzamo, means "one who strives" — the 22-year-old Winnie caught the eye of Mandela at a Soweto bus-stop in 1957, starting a whirlwind romance that led to their marriage a year later.

But with husband and wife pouring their energies into the fight against apartheid, the relationship struggled before being torn apart after six years when Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

Madikizela-Mandela later described her marriage as a sham and the birth of their two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, as "quite coincidental" to her one true love — the struggle against white rule.

"I was married to the ANC. It was the best marriage I ever had," she often said.

Graca Machel, who became South Africa's first lady when she married Nelson Mandela in 1998, paid tribute to her predecessor in the years afterward.

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 and made no mention of Madikizela-Mandela in his will.

Madikizela-Mandela revealed her contempt in 2010 for the deal her ex-husband struck with South Africa's white minority nearly two decades before.

In a London newspaper interview, she attacked Mandela, saying he had gone soft in prison and sold out the black cause.

"Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out," she said. "Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks."

She also dismissed Tutu, post-apartheid South Africa's moral fulcrum, as a "cretin" and criticized his attempts at national healing as a "religious circus."

"I am not sorry. I will never be sorry," she said. "I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything."