Crowds packed Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg’s Soweto township for the ceremony, which follows a private service at her home.
Mourners followed Madikizela-Mandela’s coffin in procession into the stadium, where the funeral began with the singing of the national anthem.
Her daughters, Zenani Mandela-Dlamini and Zindzi Mandela, and grandson, Zondwa Mandela, are among the speakers at the funeral. Dignitaries include presidents of the Republic of Congo and Namibia.
As one of the country’s most prominent and polarizing figures, she retained political clout long after her divorce from Mandela, the nation’s first black President.
Since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, she served in several government roles, including member of parliament and leader of the ruling party’s women’s league.
Thousands of mourners gathered Wednesday for a public memorial in Soweto, where Madikizela-Mandel lived for decades.
Mourners wore black, green and gold — colors of the ruling African National Congress political party. Others wore T-shirts emblazoned with an image of her.
Deputy President David Mabuza described her as a visionary who championed reconciliation.
“You taught young women across the nation that they are just as capable, if not more capable, of standing shoulder to shoulder with men and being totally unapologetic about it,” Mabuza said. “Till death, you knew who your enemy was: racial domination, class exploitation, gender oppression.”
Mandela’s former wife
Madikizela-Mandela was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including the 27 years he was imprisoned on an island near Cape Town.
While Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, she became his voice, providing regular updates to followers hungry for every little detail on his life.
When Mandela left prison in 1990, she stood next to him, one hand clasped in his as they raised their free hands clenched in fists — a moment memorialized in a photo that became a symbol of his freedom.
While their marriage withstood the battle against apartheid, it couldn’t withstand the pressure of freedom. Mandela accused her of infidelity and they divorced in 1996, two years after he was elected the first black president of South Africa.
At the time of her death, the longtime stalwart of the ruling party was a member of South Africa’s parliament.
Ramaphosa described her as “an advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalized” and “a voice for the voiceless.” Other civil rights icons from around the world around are attending her funeral, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Even at the darkest moments of our struggle for liberation, Mam’ Winnie was an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free,” Ramaphosa said in a statement. “In the midst of repression, she was a voice of defiance and resistance. In the face of exploitation, she was a champion of justice and equality.”
Born in 1936 in what is now known as Eastern Cape province, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela was the daughter of a history teacher.
As a 22-year-old social worker, she married Nelson Mandela in 1958, and stood by him in the years following his 1964 conviction and life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
She led an international campaign calling for his release.
Outside Africa, she was known largely because of her ex-husband, but in South Africa she was the mouthpiece and face of the bitter struggle against the racist regime.
CNN’s Eleni Giokos reported from Soweto, while Faith Karimi wrote from Atlanta and Laura Smith-Spark from London.