Winnie Mandela

South African activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away “peacefully” on Monday after a long illness, according to published reports. She was 81.

Madikizela-Mandela, who was married to former South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, was a polarizing figure in Soweto.

Although she kept the memory of her husband Nelson Mandela alive while he was imprisoned for 27 years, there were rumors that she cheated on him, spent money lavishly on members of her “Mandela United Football Club”, and used her Soweto enforcers to kidnap members of her opposition.

Winnie was thrust into the world headlines after Nelson Mandela was released from Cape Town’s Victor Vester prison in 1990.

Four years later Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

But their marriage fell apart after allegations of Madikizela-Mandela’s rampant corruption, embezzlement, abuse, abductions and murders. Her reputation was forever destroyed after she reportedly kidnapped 14-year-old activist Stompie Seipei.

He was later found with his throat cut near Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home.

After the Mandelas divorced, she adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela and she remained defiant.

Madikizela-Mandela revealed her contempt for her ex-husband’s ideals in an interview in 2013, saying he had “gone soft in prison and sold out the black cause”.

Only after Archbishop Tutu appealed to her humanity did she finally admit that “things went horribly wrong” within her party.

Madikizela-Mandela was tried and convicted for her crimes and human rights violations. But her 6-year prison term was reduced to only a fine.

In 2000, she was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to 5 years in prison. But her sentence was overturned on appeal.

For all of the suffering she caused, Madikizela-Mandela never served a day in prison.

“You should set the example for all of us,” magistrate Peet Johnson scolded Madikizela-Mandela before her sentence was overturned.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images