South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was married to Nelson Mandela and tirelessly campaigned for his release, has died after a long illness, her family says. She was 81 years old.
Winnie passed away on early Monday afternoon while surrounded by her family and loved ones at a hospital in Johannesburg. A family spokesman said she died after a long illness for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year.
“Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against Apartheid,” the family said in a statement. “She fought valiantly against the Apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country.”
Winnie was a driving force in ending apartheid in South Africa and tirelessly campaigned for the release of Nelson during his 27 years in prison. The couple separated in 1992 and officially divorced in 1996, when Nelson served as the country’s president.
The end of apartheid marked the start of legal and political problems for Winnie, who was blamed for the murder of a 14-year-old activist who was accused of being a police informer. The case, along with other accusations of human rights abuses and a fraud conviction, tarnished her public image.
Winnie later returned to politics and served as a member of parliament since 2009.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said Winnie’s passing is a “hard blow” for the organization. “All South Africans are indebted to Mama Winnie, whether they acknowledge it or not,” Foundation Chairman Professor Njabulo Ndebele said in a statement.