Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, prominent anti-apartheid activist and the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, died in a hospital on Monday after a long illness at the age of 81.
“She succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones,” Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s family said in a statement.
Ms Madikizela-Mandela was married to Mr Mandela from 1958 to 1996.
Mr Mandela, who died in 2013, was imprisoned through most of their marriage and Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s own activism against white minority rule led to her being imprisoned for months and placed under house arrest for years.
“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 recognisable faces,” the family said.
Ms Madikizela-Mandela was convicted in 1991 for kidnapping and assault, for which she was fined.
She faced these allegations again during the 1997 hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that investigated apartheid-era crimes.
She was accused of endorsing brutal violence, including the “necklacing” of alleged informants – placing burning car tyres around their necks – and was found guilty of kidnapping in the case of murdered teenage activist Stompie Moeketsi.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found her “morally accountable” for violations by her personal bodyguards.
As a parliamentarian after South Africa’s first all-race elections, she was convicted of fraud.
Still, Ms Madikizela-Mandela remained a venerated figure in the ruling African National Congress, which has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
She was a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle who continued to tell the party “exactly what is wrong and what is right at any time”, said senior ANC leader Gwede Mantashe.
The ANC, which was the main movement against apartheid, had lost popularity in recent years in part because of scandals linked to former president Jacob Zuma, who resigned in February.
Nobel laureate and former archbishop Desmond Tutu, a periodic critic of the ruling party over the years, 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.”
Ms Madikizela-Mandela had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year, according to her family.
She had back surgery a year ago.