(CNN)Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner and former wife of the late President Nelson Mandela, has died at age 81.
“Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid,” the statement said. “She fought valiantly against the apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country.”
Her death came as a shock. “None of us had predicted this,” a family spokesman told CNN.
Madikizela-Mandela was known as the “Mother of the Nation” because of her struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa.
She was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including the 27 years he was imprisoned on an island near Cape Town.
“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 of its most recognizable faces,” the statement said.
The couple were divorced in 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black President. They had two daughters together. Nelson Mandela died in 2013.
A longtime stalwart of the ruling African National Congress, or ANC, political party, Madikizela-Mandela was a member of South Africa’s parliament at the time of her death.
One of the last official visits she received was from current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who went with her to Soweto township last month to encourage people to register to vote in next year’s presidential election.
On Monday, Ramaphosa praised Madikizela-Mandela as “an advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalized” and “a voice for the voiceless.”
“Even at the darkest moments of our struggle for liberation, Mam’ Winnie was an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free,” Ramaphosa said in a statement. “In the midst of repression, she was a voice of defiance and resistance. In the face of exploitation, she was a champion of justice and equality.”
A memorial service for Mandela will be held April 11 and an “official national” funeral will be April 14, Ramaphosa said.
A link to the outside world
Ever the feisty campaigner, Madikizela-Mandela continued to provoke controversy with her attacks on the government and her strident appeals to radical young black followers.
She was expelled from her husband’s cabinet a year later.
Madikizela-Mandela was re-elected for a second parliamentary term in 1999 but resigned four years later after she was convicted of fraudulently taking out bank loans and theft — the loans were used to help poor people.
Her conviction for theft was overturned a year later because she had not recognized any personal gain from her actions.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also accused her of human rights abuses during the apartheid years.
Something of a firebrand, she continued to clash with successive ANC presidents in and out of parliament for the rest of her life.
Tributes to Madikizela-Mandela
Madikizela-Mandela was also close to Julius Malema, the leader of the left-wing populist Economic Freedom Fighters opposition party. He made his tribute on Twitter with a simple black frame and crying emojis.
In 2011, Madikizela-Mandela was the subject of a Hollywood biopic starring Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson, along with an opera that premiered in Pretoria, South Africa. She did not like the film.
“I was not consulted,” she told CNN in June that year. “I am still alive, and I think that it is a total disrespect to come to South Africa, make a movie about my struggle, and call that movie some translation of a romantic life of Winnie Mandela.”
The 2017 British documentary “Winnie” painted a more realistic portrait of her. As the tributes continued to roll in Monday, one of the most tweeted was from the British actor Idris Elba.
“Rest in peace Mama Winnie. My heart is heavy right now,” the actor wrote. You lived a full and important life contributing to the liberation of a nation by force and ACTUAL ACTIVISM. You will never be forgotten.”
South Africa’s parliament said it was “shocked and saddened” by Madikizela-Mandela’s death.
“Today we have indeed lost a great leader, a champion of freedom and development, a people’s hero, and a Mother, and a defender of the down-trodden,” it said in statement Monday. “May her soul rest in peace.”