South African anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died aged 81, her personal assistant Zodwa Zwane said.

Winnie, the former wife of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela died at Netcare Milpark Hospital in  Johannesburg, South Africa this afternoon.

The couple – famously pictured hand-in-hand as Mr Mandela walked free from prison after 27 years – were a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle for nearly three decades.

However, in later years her reputation became tainted legally and politically.

Family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement; “Winnie died after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year”.

He said “she succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday (today) afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones”.

Mrs Mandela was born in 1936 in the Eastern Cape – then known as Transkei.

She was a trained social worker when she met her future husband in the 1950s.

Her activism and resistance to Apartheid landed her in jail on numerous occasions, eventually causing her banishment to the small town of Brandfort in the then Orange Free State.

Mr and Mrs Mandela were married for a total of 38 years, although for almost three decades of that time they were separated due to Mr Mandela’s imprisonment.

Despite their separation two years after his release, and their divorce in 1996, she kept his surname and maintained ties with him.