South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has mourned the death of anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, calling her “an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free”.

“It is with a profound sense of loss and deep sadness that we have learnt of the passing away of Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela,” Ramaphosa said on Monday, Xinhua news agency reported.

Winnie, former President Nelson Mandela’s wife, died in Johannesburg Monday after a long illness, for which she had been in and out of hospital since the start of the year, her family announced.

“Today we have lost a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a comrade, a leader and an icon,” Ramaphosa said.

Even at the darkest moments of the struggle for liberation, Winnie was “an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free,” Ramaphosa said.

In the midst of repression, she was a voice of defiance and resistance, said Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa also called Winnie “a champion of justice and equality” in the face of exploitation.

“Throughout her life she made an everlasting contribution to the struggle through sacrifice and her unyielding determination. Her dedication to the plight of her people gained her the love and the respect of the nation,” Ramaphosa said.

For many years, Winnie bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of the apartheid state with stoicism and fortitude, the president said.

“Despite the hardships she faced, she never doubted that the struggle for freedom and democracy would succeed,” Ramaphosa said.

Winnie remained throughout her life a tireless advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalised and was a voice for the voiceless, said Ramaphosa.

He urged South Africans to draw inspiration from the struggles that Winnie fought and the dream of a better society to which she dedicated her life.

Also on Monday, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) lowered its revolutionary banner in honour of the memory of Winnie.

The ANC called Winnie a great woman who was so loved and revered and whose name will forever be inscribed in history.

Winnie’s resilience and courage inspired freedom struggles not only in South Africa, but across Africa and her diaspora, the ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule said.

As one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid, Winnie fought fearlessly against the apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country. Her activism and resistance to apartheid landed her in jail on numerous occasions.

Despite all these attempts to break her spirit, she remained steadfast and refused to cease with her political activism, displaying exemplary courage that made her a role model for many young women activists in South Africa, Magashule said.