Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an influential and polarizing leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, has died at 81, according to the BBC.

"She died after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year,” family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement.

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

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Madikizela-Mandela was married to legendary human rights champion Nelson Mandela for nearly three decades, although they were separated for most of their union due to long prison sentences for their involvement in efforts to end apartheid.

Black activist Winnie Mandela is cheered by supporters after appearing in the Krugersdorp Magistrate's court, West of Johannesburg on Jan. 22, 1986 in Krugersdorp, South Africa.
Black activist Winnie Mandela is cheered by supporters after appearing in the Krugersdorp Magistrate's court, West of Johannesburg on Jan. 22, 1986 in Krugersdorp, South Africa.
Image: AP Photo

The couple had two children together.

Madikizela-Mandela disliked being defined by her relationship with Mandela, according to The New York Times, because of how it downplayed her own political commitments and actions.

“I am not Mandela’s product,” she told an interviewer, according to the Times. “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy” referring to apartheid authorities.

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Indeed, Madikizela-Mandela is remembered for being a more radical figure than her former husband, according to the Times.

While Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, Madikizela-Mandela rose to prominence by relaying his messages to followers, but she also developed a distinct style of politics that was partly shaped by her own run-ins with the law.

In 1969, she was imprisoned for 17 months without a trial and was regularly beaten and tortured, according to the Times.

This experience “[is] what changed me, what brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate,” she wrote.

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Then in 1976, she was banished by authorities to the conservative, primarily white town of Brandfort where she was prevented from politically organizing. In isolation, her political views turned harsher, according to the Times.

Although these measures were meant to stifle her political ascension, they served to heighten her appeal throughout much of South Africa, according to France 24, earning her the nickname “mother of the nation.”

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When she returned to her home in Soweto in 1985, she became the leader of a radical movement to end racial oppression that sometimes veered into violence.

Her tactics were denounced by The United Democratic Front, an influential anti-apartheid group, and she eventually issued an apology for violent actions saying “Things went horribly wrong.”

Madikizela-Mandela continued to spark controversy after apartheid ended.

She was removed from her post as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology after being accused of taking bribes and misusing government funds, according to the Times. She was then convicted of accepting fraudulent loans as head of the African National Congress’ Women’s League in 2003.

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For many people, these instances of corruption complicate her reputation; others focus on the accelerating role she played in ending apartheid.

Either way, she’s become a symbol for a country that has struggled to overcome a brutal past.

“While there is something of a historical revisionism happening in some quarters of our nation these days that brands Nelson Mandela’s second wife a revolutionary and heroic figure,” the columnist Verashni Pillay wrote in South African newspaper The Mail and Guardian, “it doesn’t take that much digging to remember the truly awful things she has been responsible for.”


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Winnie Mandela, Firebrand of Anti-Apartheid Movement, Dies at 81

By Joe McCarthy  and  Jana Sepehr