Struggle veteran and “Mother of the Nation” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died at the age of 81, her family has confirmed.
“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,” the statement read.
“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.”
Madikizela-Mandela “fought valiantly against the apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country”, the family said.
“Her activism and resistance to apartheid landed her in jail on numerous occasions, eventually causing her banishment to the small town of Brandfort in the then Orange Free State.
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. 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 said it was “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”.
Details of the memorial and funeral services will be made public once they have been finalised.
Born on September 26, 1936, in Bizana, Eastern Cape, Madikizela-Mandela became politicised at an early age in her job as a hospital social worker.
“I started to realise the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system,” she once said.
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.
– Additional reporting by Reuters