Winnie Mandela’s death signals the end of an era, the loss of a freedom fighter who – for 27 years – served as the public face of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

But beyond being a firebrand politician and the ex-wife of the late former president, who was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in 1936 in Bizana in the Eastern Cape province.

A social worker by profession, her marriage to freedom fighter Nelson Mandela saw her thrust into a world of political activism in which she was subjected to torture, harassment and banishment by the apartheid regime.

From 1963 when Mandela was imprisoned following the Rivonia trial, Madikizela-Mandela became the public face of her husband’s fight against apartheid while he served a life sentence on Robben Island.

From that period Madikizela-Mandela would be put under surveillance and arrested several times by apartheid police. In 1969, she was detained and spent 491 days in solitary confinement at the Pretoria Central Prison.

Despite her arrest she began to attract global attention as one of the prominent faces of the anti-apartheid movement.

While the police harassment continued after her release from prison, Madikizela-Mandela’s activism and public following continued to intensify until May 15 1977 when she was taken from her Soweto home by police and exiled to the small Free State town of Brandfort.

There she was given the option of leaving South Africa either for Swaziland or the Transkei homeland.
She chose to remain in South Africa, living in Brandfort for eight years where she continued to spread political ideology among locals.

In 1985, she defied government orders and returned to her Soweto home after her Brandfort house was firebombed. Upon her return to Gauteng, then the Transvaal, Madikizela-Mandela’s message of resistance gained traction among the youth in Soweto, many of whom she started to take into her own home.

She formed the Mandela United Football Club, whose members served as her bodyguards in the face of her increasing following. Madikizela-Mandela would later appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to answer to allegations of torture, abduction and the killing of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, for which her former bodyguard Jerry Richardson was convicted.

In 1993, Madikizela-Mandela was elected as president of the ANC Women’s League and a year later, under a democratic South Africa, she was appointed to Parliament under the leadership of her then-husband, where she became deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology.

Madikizela-Mandela was known to have to be opposed to the reconciliatory approach that Mandela and his leadership collective had assumed post-apartheid. Her decreasing tolerance for the reconciliation project culminated in her dismissal from Cabinet in April 1995 for allegedly for defying presidential orders and sowing divisions through her constant criticism of government.

It was only in 2007 that Madikizela-Mandela would make a return to politics after being convicted for fraud in 2003 and resigning from all leadership positions in the ANC.

Despite what some have called a tainted legacy, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela remains affectionately known by many South Africans as “the mother of the nation”.