Winnie Mandela dead at 81

Winnie Mandela. (Superikonoskop / Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0 via MGN)

Winnie Mandela, leading anti-apartheid activist and former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela, has died.

The 81-year-old passed away on Monday at a hospital in Johannesburg.

"She died after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year," reads a statement issued by family spokesman Victor Dlamini.

"She succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones."

Born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, Winnie Mandela began her career as a social worker and became involved in political causes in her early 20s, around the same time she met lawyer Nelson Mandela.

They wed in 1958 and had two kids, daughters Ezinhle and Zindzi, but they would spend much of their almost four-decade-long union apart after Nelson was arrested in 1962 for his anti-authority stance and sentenced to 27 years behind bars.

Winnie remained a fierce campaigner against apartheid and became known as the Mother of the Nation.

Nelson became South Africa's first black president in 1994, and Winnie served in office as the deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology for two years until their divorce in 1996.