South African anti-apartheid campaigner and former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died aged 81, her spokesman confirmed.
She died in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness, spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement. Her family is expected to issue a statement later in the day.
The former wife of Nelson Mandela, known as “mother of the nation” had been admitted to hospital in January with a kidney infection.
Winnie met anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in 1957 and they were married a year later.
They had a short-lived marriage and two children together before he was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was eventually released in 1990.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s high-profile marraige and anti-apartheid activism meant she was well-known, however her past was littered with dark controversies.
Born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, and always known simply as “Winnie”, she was married to Nelson for 38 years — one of the most storied romances of modern history.
Most of their marriage was spent apart, with Nelson imprisoned for 27 years, leaving her to raise their two daughters alone and to keep alive his political dream under the repressive white-minority regime.
In 1990 the world watched when Nelson Mandela finally walked out of prison — hand in hand with Winnie.
But they separated just two years later and divorced in 1996 after a legal wrangle that revealed her affair with a young bodyguard.
With or without Nelson, Winnie built her own role as a tough, glamourous and outspoken black activist with a loyal grassroots following in the segregated townships.
“From every situation I have found myself in, you can read the political heat in the country,” she said in a biography.
Winnie was born September 26, 1936, in the village of Mbongweni in what is now Eastern Cape.
She completed university, a rarity for black women at the time, and became the first qualified social worker at Johannesburg’s Baragwanath Hospital.