Her uncompromising methods and refusal to forgive contrasted sharply with the reconciliation espoused by her husband Nelson Mandela as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the racial division and oppression of apartheid.
"What brutalised me so much was that I knew what it is to hate", she once said in a South African television interview.
They were married for 38 years but were separated for nearly three decades of that time due to Mandela's imprisonment. Though she may not have been imprisoned for 27 years or become president of the ANC, without her contribution and continued work during the apartheid struggle, this country would not have achieved what it eventually did in 1994.
"She died after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year".
Madikizela-Mandela also known as "mother of the nation" reportedly had been admitted to hospital in January with a kidney infection.
However, Madikizela-Mandela's political activism was marred by her conviction in 1991 for kidnapping and assault, for which she was fined.
The couple divorced in 1996, two years after Mandela became president in South Africa's first all-race elections, with Mandela accusing his wife of infidelity.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela with Methil Renuka, Editor, FORBES AFRICA and FORBES WOMAN AFRICA (Photo supplied).
Four years later, she was back in court, facing fraud and theft charges in relation to an elaborate bank loan scheme.
The family said it will release details of her memorial and funeral services when they are finalised. We had to wait for MK to return to SA, so we sent the Transkei defence force to guard him.
A Mandela family spokesperson today confirmed that Madikizela-Mandela had died.
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He also said the president would be at the official flag-off ceremony for the construction of the Lekki Deep Sea Port Project in Epe.
"I feel so sad to learn of Winnie Mandela's death".
"I was married to the ANC".
"I call her the greatest legend of Soweto..." Despite her misgivings, this was still a woman Africa is only blessed to have had.
"It's unfortunate that in our lives we don't interact very easily but I want to state very clearly that Winnie is my hero".
But he added: "Winnie gave me cause for hope".
Ms Madikizela-Mandela steadfastly denied any knowledge of any killings, leading the judge in that case to brand her "an unblushing liar".
As I neared the end of my interview with her, and the cameras were being put away and the mood lightened, she turned to me and asked: "What is the Mandela legacy actually?"
Five years later, she too was jailed by the white minority government she was fighting against.
The former wife of the late Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 81.
Herself an icon of the apartheid movement, she married activist Nelson Mandela in 1958. "Mandela let us down".
She also dismissed Tutu, post-apartheid South Africa's moral fulcrum, as a "cretin" and rubbished his attempts at national healing as a "religious circus".
Winnie's former bodyguard in 1997 claimed that he beat, tortured and killed people whenever she told him to.