Thousands of mourners gathered in South Africa’s Soweto township to bid farewell to anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela this morning, in a funeral ceremony that united the nation as people from various political divides celebrated her life.
Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s death on 2 April at the age of 81 after a long illness was met by an outpouring of emotion across the country, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition parties holding memorials in remembrance of her courage in the struggle to end white-minority rule.
The official funeral service for the ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela took place in Soweto – a Johannesburg township at the forefront of the battle against apartheid where she lived.
The burial ceremony will take place later in the day, ending a nearly two-week mourning period declared by the government.
Mourners sang and cheered as her body was brought into the Orlando stadium where the funeral service was taking place.
The 40,000-seater stadium was full to capacity, with many mourners clad in the green and yellow colours of the ANC.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said that just as South Africa grieved for her, it was comforted by the profound meaning of her life.
“In death, she has demonstrated that our many differences along political party and racial lines and the numerous disputes we may have are eclipsed by our shared desire to follow her lead in building a just, equitable and caring society,” he said.
“Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power. It was those in power who, insecure and fearful, visited upon her the most vindictive and callous retribution. Yet, through everything, she endured. They could not break her. They could not silence her.”
Members of the leftist party and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), also attended in large numbers.
Also present at the service were South Africa’s former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, as well as foreign dignitaries from Kenya, Namibia and Lesotho.
During Nelson Mandela’s 27-year incarceration for his fight against apartheid, Ms Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for his release and for the rights of black South Africans undergoing detention, banishment and arrest.
For many South Africans, the most memorable image of Ms Madikizela-Mandela is her punching the air in a clenched-fist salute as she walked hand-in-hand with Mandela out of Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on 11 February 1990.
For husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later to the end of centuries of white domination when Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
“Mama Winnie and her spirit must be with us all the time. She means a lot to everyone, old and young,” 72-year ANC member David Mantambo said.
Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy, however, was later tarnished.
As evidence emerged in the dying years of apartheid of the brutality of her Soweto enforcers, known as the “Mandela United Football Club”, some South Africans questioned her ‘Mother of the Nation’ soubriquet.
In 1991, she was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault, but her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence on appeal.