‘Winnie!’ South Africa bids farewell to Madikizela-Mandela

  • Mourners raise their hands to salute Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, after her funeral service Saturday at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto, South Africa. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

JOHANNESBURG — Tens of thousands of people sang, cheered and cried as the flag-draped casket of anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was escorted from her official funeral on Saturday, after supporters defended her complex legacy with poetry and anger.

Thunder rumbled and it began to rain as the casket left the 40,000-seat stadium — a blessing, witnesses said.

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Heads of state joined the five-hour celebration of the powerful figure who will be buried as a national hero following lively debate over how she should be remembered after her death on April 2 at age 81.

Often called the “Mother of the Nation” and “Mama Winnie,” Madikizela-Mandela fought to keep South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle in the international spotlight while her husband, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned.

“Long before it was fashionable to call for Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island, it was my mother who kept his memory alive,” elder daughter Zenani Mandela-Dlamini said as the crowd erupted in cheers.

Many South Africans have stood up for Madikizela-Mandela’s memory against critics who characterized her as a problematic figure who was implicated in political violence after she returned from years of banishment in a rural town.

“Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said during his tribute. “Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power.”

He recited Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”

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As the casket left the stadium, another speaker read out Alice Walker’s poem, “Winnie Mandela We Love You.”

Since her death, supporters have visited Madikizela-Mandela’s family home in Soweto, the Johannesburg township where she lived, and condolences have poured in from around the world in remembrance of one of the 20th century’s most prominent political activists.