In a ceremony befitting a head of state, tens of thousands of South Africans gathered in the dazzling colors of liberation to pay their respects to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a fierce anti-apartheid activist and the undisputed mother of the South African nation.
Mourners poured into the 40,000-seat Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, where “Mama Winnie” lived for most of her life, their very presence not allowing those who would besmirch her name to rewrite her legacy.
Madikizela-Mandela was married to the late Nelson Mandela for 38 years; 27 of those years saw Nelson imprisoned on Robben Island for his organizing against the brutal apartheid regime in his homeland. While Nelson was jailed, Madikizela-Mandela continued his fight against the oppressive racial caste system on the outside.
The 81-year-old died on April 2 after a long illness. Mandela-family spokesman Victor Dlamini said that Madikizela-Mandela succumbed peacefully, surrounded by her family and loved ones.
Dignitaries who spoke on behalf of the 81-year-old included the presidents of the Republic of Congo and Namibia; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who delivered the eulogy; and supermodel Naomi Campbell, who called her a “heroine of the whole continent.”
Her daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini also spoke.
“She made a choice to raise two families, hers and the beloved country,” Mandela-Dlamini said. “She cherished freedom as much as she treasured family. She protected both from constant assault from the apartheid state.”
To many, Madikizela-Mandela was the personification of a forceful black woman who loved her people and didn’t retreat in the face of oppression.
“You taught young women across the nation that they are just as capable, if not more capable, of standing shoulder to shoulder with men and being totally unapologetic about it,” Deputy President David Mabuza said, describing her as a visionary who championed reconciliation. “Till death, you knew who your enemy was: racial domination, class exploitation, gender oppression.”
“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, according to CNN. “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.”
Rest well, Mama Winnie. Your job was well done.