WINNIE Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of the late President Nelson Mandela, has died in South Africa at the age of 81.

Family spokesman Victor Dlamini said she “succumbed peacefully in the early hours of yesterday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones”.

She had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year for treatments believed to be related to her diabetes condition, and at the weekend she was taken to Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg suffering from flu but did not recover from the infection that spread to her organs.

The first fully trained black social worker in her country, Madikizela-Mandela married her husband after meeting him in 1957 only to be separated from him for nearly three decades when he was imprisoned on Robben Island.

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She was a major figure in the anti-apartheid campaign in her own right, and later resented the fact that she was often defined by her role as Mandela’s wife and “mother of the country”, telling an interviewer: “I am not Mandela’s product, I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”

Yet the enduring image of her life will be the pictures of her standing alongside Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison in 1990.

They later separated and Mandela married Graça Machel, the widow of the former Mozambican president Samora Machel, in 1998 on his 80th birthday, two years after his divorce from Winnie.

Madikizela-Mandela herself knew the inside of the apartheid regime’s prisons.

In May 1969, she was arrested and held for 17 months, 13 of them in solitary confinement where she was beaten and tortured.

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In her memoirs she wrote that her treatment was “what changed me, what brutalised me so much that I knew what it is to hate”.

After the Soweto riots in 1976, Madikizela-Mandela was imprisoned without trial, this time for five months and she was then banished to a township in the Orange Free State as the regime tried to make her a “non-person”.

They failed and she became a symbol of the worldwide campaign against apartheid.

For a long period, Madikizela-Mandela’s reputation suffered from accusations that she had ruled her African National Congress (ANC) supporters with a rod of iron.

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She suffered from the reputation of the so-called Mandela United FC who carried out a string of attacks on suspected police collaborators using burning tyres – the “necklacing” that provoked fury even among the most loyal anti-apartheid campaigners.

She was once accused by senior anti-apartheid activists of involvement in the murder of a 14-year-old ANC militant, Stompie Seipei from Soweto. He was kidnapped by Madikizela-Mandela’s bodyguards in 1989 and was later found dead.

At one point accused of responsibility for Seipei’s death, she was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, though this was reduced to a fine by an appeal court.

In 2003, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of fraud and theft over a bank loan scandal. The judge compared her to Robin Hood but said she should have known better.

On appeal the conviction for theft was overturned, but the fraud charge stuck and she was given a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence.

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Nevertheless she remained a dominant figure in the ANC and was very much back in the public eye when she attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral and memorial services in 2013 when both she and Graça Machel were pictured comforting each other.

Warm tributes have been paid to her. Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband‚ the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces‚ detentions‚ bannings and banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me‚ and to generations of activists.”

ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe said yesterday: “With the departure of Mama Winnie, we have lost one of the very few who are left of our stalwarts and icons. She was one of those who would tell us exactly what is wrong and right, and we are going to be missing that guidance.”

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Winnie was a voice of defiance and resistance. In the face of exploitation, she was a champion of justice and equality.”