Winnie Mandela, South Africa’s first lady of the anti-apartheid struggle, has died

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, passionate anti-apartheid activist and ex-wife of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, has died at age 81.

The news was first confimed by Madikizela-Mandela’s personal assistant, and then by her family in a statement, who said that Madikizela-Mandela had suffered from a long illness and died peacefully. “Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against Apartheid. She fought valiantly against the Apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country,” the statement read. “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.”

A social worker who graduated top of her class in 1955, Madikizela-Mandela was offered a scholarship to further her studies in the US, but chose instead to work at the largest yet woefully under-resourced hospital in Soweto, Baragwanath. She was already passionately involved in the fight against racial segregation in South Africa when she met Mandela at the age of 22. They were married in 1958, and their relationship, while fraught, would endure despite intense political activity and Mandela’s 27-year-long imprisonment before their divorce in 1996. The couple had two children together.

Madikizela-Mandela was not spared the apartheid government’s attention while her husband was in prison. She was jailed and held in solitary confinement for her political activity several times, including during her first pregnancy, and was banished for a period to a small town in the rural Free State province. For her resistance, she earned the moniker “Mother of the Nation.”

Madikizela-Mandela was an enigmatic but controversial political figure in South Africa who faced criticism for her alleged involvement in anti-apartheid violence. She was fired from her government post by Mandela in 1995, and would face down charges of assault and kidnapping related to her anti-apartheid activism in the early 1990s, and fraud and theft in the early 2000s. She denied all allegations.

After her divorce from Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela remained an active member of the ANC’s top decision-making body, the National Executive Committee.

-Quartz Africa