SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters) – Thousands of South Africans paid tribute on Wednesday to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a memorial service in Soweto, the township at the forefront of the battle against apartheid and where she is revered for her role in the struggle.
Mourners, many clad in the green and yellow colours of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), danced and sang in a soccer stadium under gray skies.
“‘Mam’ Winnie contributed a lot to our struggle so it’s befitting that we are here today. We came to mourn and at the same time celebrate that we have freedom,” said Lucky Tshabalala, 37, a Soweto native and self-employed contractor.
“She means everything to me,” he said.
Madikizela-Mandela campaigned tirelessly for her husband Nelson Mandela’s release from jail during the years of white minority rule and became a liberation hero in her own right. But her legacy 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.
Blamed for the killing of activist Stompie Seipei, who was found near her Soweto home with his throat cut, she was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and assaulting the 14-year-old because he was suspected of being an informer.
Her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine and a 2-year suspended sentence on appeal.
But her death last week at the age of 81 after a long illness was met by an outpouring of emotion on the streets of Soweto and senior ANC leaders came to pay homage at the gates of her home in the Johannesburg township.
She will be buried in Johannesburg on Saturday after almost two weeks of mourning.
“In life and death you remain unbreakable,” David Mabuza, South Africa’s Deputy President said at the memorial service.
“Yours was a revolution of love seeking to usher a more huname world for all the children in our land, black and white.”
A leftist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), was holding is own memorial in the town of Brandfort in the Free State province, to where she was banned for a decade by the apartheid government in the 1970s and 1980s.
EFF leader Julius Malema, an admirer of Madikizela-Mandela whose fiery he evokes, said last week she had been prevented from ascending to the presidency of South Africa by misogynists in the ANC.
For many South Africans, the most memorable image of 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 Feb. 11, 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.
Their marriage began to fall apart in the years after his release. The couple divorced in 1996, nearly four decades after they were married. They had two children together.
“She inspires me and wish other women in the current struggle could be like her,” said 18-year-old Zanele Ngubo, who was born after the end of apartheid.
Writing by Ed Stoddard,; Editing by Angus MacSwan