Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death leaves behind brutal legacy

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died at the age of 81.

Hailed as mother of the 'new' South Africa, Ms Madikizela-Mandela's legacy as an anti-apartheid heroine was undone when she was revealed to be a ruthless ideologue prepared to sacrifice laws and lives in pursuit of revolution and redress.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela died peacefully on Monday (local time) surrounded by her family following a long illness that kept her in and out of hospital since the start of the year, family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement.

"She fought valiantly against the apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country," he said.

"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."

Her uncompromising methods and refusal to forgive contrasted sharply with the reconciliation espoused by Mr Mandela as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the racial division and oppression of apartheid.

The contradiction helped kill their marriage and destroyed the esteem in which she was held by many South Africans, although the firebrand activist retained the support of radical black nationalists to the end.

A crowd of around 200 people soon gathered outside her Soweto home, singing and dancing. A number of national and local politicians arrived and police closed the street to traffic.

President Cyril Ramaphosa led an outpouring of grief over her death in South Africa.

"Today we have lost a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a comrade, a leader and an icon," said Mr Ramaphosa.

Retired South African cleric and anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists."

Born on September 26, 1936, in Bizana, Eastern Cape province, Ms Madikizela-Mandela became politicised at an early age in her job as a hospital social worker.

She caught the eye of Mr Mandela at a Soweto bus stop in 1957, starting a whirlwind romance that led to their marriage a year later.

After Mr Mandela was jailed for life in 1964 for sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government, Ms Madikizela-Mandela campaigned tirelessly for his release and emerged as a prominent anti-apartheid figure in her own right, undergoing detention, banishment and arrest.

She punched the air in the clenched-fist salute of black power as she walked hand-in-hand with Mr Mandela out of Cape Town's Victor Vester prison on February 11, 1990.

For husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later to the end of centuries of white domination when Mr Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

But their marriage began to fall apart in the years after his release. The couple divorced in 1996, nearly four decades after they were married. They had two children together.

The end of apartheid marked the start of a string of legal and political troubles for Ms Madikizela-Mandela.

As evidence emerged in the dying years of apartheid of the brutality of her Soweto enforcers, the "Mandela United Football Club", her soubriquet switched from "Mother" of the nation to "Mugger".

Blamed for the killing of activist Stompie Seipei, who was found near her Soweto home with his throat cut, she was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and assaulting the 14-year-old because he was suspected of being an informer. Her six-year jail term was reduced on appeal to a fine.

She and Mr Mandela separated in 1992 and her reputation slipped further when he sacked her from his cabinet in 1995 after allegations of corruption. The couple divorced a year later, after which she adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela.

Appearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up to unearth atrocities committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle, Ms Madikizela-Mandela refused to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out in her name.

Only after pleading from anguished TRC chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu did she admit grudgingly that "things went horribly wrong".

In its final report, the TRC ruled that Ms Madikizela-Mandela was "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC".

Four years later, she was back in court, facing fraud and theft charges in relation to an elaborate bank loan scheme.

"Somewhere it seems that something went wrong," magistrate Peet Johnson said as he sentenced her to five years in jail, later overturned on appeal.

"You should set the example for all of us."

Reuters