Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist and former wife of Nelson Mandela, died on Monday, April 2. She was 81.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that Madikizela-Mandela was admitted to the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg over the weekend after complaining of the flu. A family spokesperson said in a statement to Us Weekly that the politician, who also suffered from diabetes and recently underwent several major surgeries, “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,” the statement continued. “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.”
Madikizela-Mandela was married to Mandela from 1958 to 1996, though he was imprisoned for 27 years of their union for his fight against apartheid. While Mandela was incarcerated, Madikizela-Mandela became his public spokeswoman and eventually an activist in her own right.
While campaigning for her husband’s release, the so-called “Mother of the Nation” was arrested on numerous occasions and once spent 18 months in solitary confinement. The couple walked hand-in-hand out of Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town when Mandela was released in February 1990.
But Madikizela-Mandela was also a controversial figure because she endorsed violence to advance the anti-apartheid movement. Her security detail, known as the Mandela United Football Club, was behind many violent incidents, including the 1989 murder of activist Stompie Moeketsi. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault in connection with the 14-year-old’s death, but her six-year jail sentence was reduced on appeal to a fine.
Madikizela-Mandela was elected president of African National Congress Women’s League in 1993. The following year, she was elected to Parliament and re-elected in 1999. She was convicted in 2003 on dozens of counts of theft and fraud, leading to her resignation from her Parliament post. Her conviction was later overturned on appeal. She maintained a low profile in the years that followed.
Mandela died in December 2013 at the age of 95. He made no mention of Madikizela-Mandela in his will.
Madikizela-Mandela is survived by the former couple’s daughters Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, 60, and Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane, 57.
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