By Nomvelo Chalumbira
SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners gathered in South Africa's Soweto township on Saturday to bid farewell to anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a funeral ceremony that united the nation as people from various political divides celebrated her life.
Madikizela-Mandela's death on April 2 at the age of 81 after a long illness was met by an outpouring of emotion across the country, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition parties holding memorials in remembrance of her courage in the struggle to end white-minority rule.
The official funeral service for the ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela was taking place on Saturday morning in Soweto -- a Johannesburg township at the forefront of the battle against apartheid where she lived.
The burial ceremony will take place later in the day, ending a nearly 2-week mourning period declared by the government.
Mourners sang and cheered as Madikizela-Mandela's body was brought into the Orlando stadium where the funeral service was taking place.
The 40,000-seater stadium was full to capacity, with many mourners clad in the green and yellow colors of the ANC. Member of the leftist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), also attended in large numbers.
"I appreciate many things about her. Even though I didn't know her in person, we love our mother. She represents a fighting spirit because even though she lived through the apartheid era, she never gave up," 20-year old college student Gift Mokale said. "I'm very grateful to be here today."
Also present at the service were South Africa's former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, as well as foreign dignitaries from Kenya, Namibia and Lesotho.
During Mandela's 27-year incarceration for his fight against apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for his release and for the rights of black South Africans undergoing detention, banishment and arrest.
For many South Africans, the most memorable image of Madikizela-Mandela is her punching the air in a clenched-fist salute as she walked hand-in-hand with Mandela out of Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on Feb. 11, 1990.
For husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later to the end of centuries of white domination when Mandela became South Africa's first black president.
"Mama Winnie and her spirit must be with us all the time. She means a lot to everyone, old and young," 72-year old pensioner and ANC member David Mantambo said.
Madikizela-Mandela's legacy, however, was later tarnished.
As evidence emerged in the dying years of apartheid of the brutality of her Soweto enforcers, known as the "Mandela United Football Club", some South Africans questioned her 'Mother of the Nation' soubriquet.
In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault, but her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine and a 2 year suspended sentence on appeal.
(Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Clelia Oziel)