Thousands of mourners gathered at a football stadium in Johannesburg’s Soweto township on Wednesday to bid farewell to late anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Madikizela-Mandela – a stalwart of South Africa’s liberation struggle and the ex-wife of its first democratic president, Nelson Mandela – died on April 2 aged 81.
A state funeral is planned for Saturday.
The stadium was a sea of black, green and yellow – the colours of the African National Congress (ANC) party to which Madikizela-Mandela devoted her life.
Many of the women also wore traditional, brightly coloured headscarves, known as “doeks,” to honour Madikizela-Mandela – who had made them her signature style.
The Soweto Gospel Choir sung South Africa’s national anthem, and many members of the audience – some of whom had travelled long distances in buses to attend the event – sung, ululated and danced.
Madikizela-Mandela’s daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, were in attendance, as was Graca Machel, who was married to Mandela after he and Winnie divorced in 1996, a few years after his release from 27 years in prison.
The freedom fighter and feminist icon – who was married to Mandela for decades, though they were separated for most of that time – suffered greatly under the brutal apartheid system, but, in spite of being beaten, imprisoned and constantly hounded by police, she was never cowed.
Deputy President David Mabuza is among those scheduled to speak at the event, after President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at a separate memorial in Madikizela-Mandela’s hometown in the eastern Cape earlier this week.
Many of Madikizela-Mandela’s many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren, paid tribute to their famous relative in speeches at Wednesday’s memorial.
“Today I’ll be speaking about my great-great-granny … She was a great fighter,” said one small girl.
“Thank you for being the greatest gogo,” she added, using the local word for grandmother.
Adult grandson Bambatha Mandela also paid a moving tribute to Madikizela-Mandela.
” ‘Behind every great man is an even greater woman.’ [Madikizela-Mandela] was the embodiment of this quote … we have lost an extraordinary woman, a mother, a soldier and an icon,” he said.
He added that the family was disappointed to have seen some people trying to drag her name through the mud since her death.
Madikizela-Mandela had a huge grass-roots following, especially among the poor, for whom she was a tireless advocate.
However, she was also a controversial figure to some South Africans for how far she was prepared to go in the struggle for liberation.
Madikizela-Mandela’s reputation had been severely damaged by a speech she gave in 1986 endorsing “necklacing” as a punishment for traitors to the ANC’s cause.
The term refers to the brutal method of placing a tyre around a person’s neck, dosing them with petrol and setting them alight.
She also received negative publicity for alleged affairs with other men while Mandela was on Robben Island and was also criticised for saying in a 2010 interview that her former husband had “let down” black South Africans.
While there has been a national outpouring of grief at her death, radical opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters – set up by former ANC members – has been quick to point out that some of Madikizela-Mandela’s own comrades distanced themselves after the scandals.
EFF leader Julius Malema – who sees Madikizela-Mandela as a mentor and will be speaking at a separate memorial for her organized by his own party on Wednesday – has said the EFF was never ashamed of her and that she should have been South Africa’s president.