JOHANNESBURG — Zindziswa Mandela, the youngest daughter of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who found her own voice as an activist and poet, died in Johannesburg on Monday. She was 59.
Her death, at a hospital, was announced by Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa. He did not provide a cause of death.
More commonly known by her shortened name, Zindzi, Ms. Mandela was serving as South Africa’s ambassador to Denmark at her death. She was home in Johannesburg awaiting her next posting to Liberia, the president said.
Her death came just days ahead of Nelson Mandela Day, on July 18, an annual celebration held on his birthday. He died in 2013. Her funeral will most likely be limited to 50 people, in line with South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, officials said.
Born on Dec. 23, 1960, in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, Ms. Mandela was 18 months old when her father was arrested and convicted of sabotage and treason. She was 3 when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, off South Africa’s west coast.
At age 12 she wrote to the United Nations, urging it to intervene to protect her mother, herself an anti-apartheid activist, from the South African authorities.
“I am writing this letter to you because if my mother wrote, you might not have [received] it, as most of her letters to her friends don’t reach them,” Ms. Mandela wrote in 1973. “The family and mummy’s friends fear that an atmosphere is being built for something terrible to happen to mummy.”
When, in 1977, the apartheid government banished Ms. Madikizela-Mandela to Brandfort, a town more than 400 kilometers from Johannesburg, Ms. Mandela was sent with her.
She later attended a boarding school in neighboring Swaziland and received a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Cape Town. Soon after graduating, she became her father’s emissary. South Africa’s president, P.W. Botha, had offered to release Mr. Mandela on the condition that he be confined to the semi-independent territory of the Transkei, which had been established by the white National Party administration for Black inhabitants. Mr. Mandela rejected the offer, and his daughter delivered that message to the Botha government.
In February 1985, as the armed struggle against apartheid intensified and South Africa’s townships began resembling war zones, Ms. Mandela addressed hundreds of people in Soweto on behalf of her imprisoned father and her banished mother,
“The prison authorities attempted to stop this statement being made, but he would have none of this and made it clear that he would make this statement to you, the people,” Ms. Mandela told the crowd.
That was the moment Ms. Mandela came into her own as an activist, said Lindiwe Sisulu, a cabinet minister and daughter of the anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu, who was imprisoned alongside Mr. Mandela.
“In her own right, she was a fighter and, if she could, she would have been out in military training, but she had a mother to look after,” Ms. Sisulu told the South African Broadcasting Corporation hours after Ms Mandela’s death was announced.
A member of the Free Mandela campaign, Ms. Mandela was recruited as an underground operative of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, the foremost anti-apartheid movement, according to her official biography.
Ms. Mandela’s perspective of life under apartheid was captured in her anthology of poetry “Black as I Am,” published in 1978. In one poem, “A tree was chopped down,” she recalls a family torn apart, writing: “and the fruit was scattered/I cried/because I had lost a family/the trunk, my father/the branches, his support.”
Ms. Mandela’s own life was marked by tragedy. In 1990 she buried her partner, the father of one of her children, on the same day that the apartheid state announced Mr. Mandela’s release from prison. In 2010, her 13-year-old granddaughter was killed in car accident after attending a concert for the FIFA World Cup.
“She did not have a good life,” Ms. Sisulu said, referring to Zindzi Mandela as a little sister. “For me, she is a tragic figure.”
In recent years, even as a diplomat, Ms. Mandela could be a vocal critic of South African policy. “Dear Apartheid Apologists, your time is over,” she wrote on Twitter in June 2019 amid a national debate over land reform in South Africa, where white farmers continued to control most of the land even after the end of apartheid. “You will not rule again. We do not fear you. Finally #TheLandIsOurs.”
The Afrikaner lobby group, AfriForum, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission accusing her of racism. She refused to back down, later posting, “I am not accountable to any white man or woman for my personal views.”
In February, she tweeted her dismay that F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa, was allowed to attend the State of the Nation Address after he had made comments that all South Africa’s woes cannot be blamed on apartheid. Ms. Mandela said she was “heartbroken” by Mr. De Klerk’s justification of his actions, and posted a photograph of her mother being dragged by police officers and soldiers in 1991.
Ms. Mandela was married twice, first to a businessman, Zwelibanzi Hlongwane, in 1992, and in 2013 to Molapo Motlhawa, a veteran of the armed wing of the African National Congress.
She is survived by her four adult children, her daughter Zoleka Mandela and her sons Zondwa Mandela, Bambatha Mandela and Zwelabo Mandela. Her elder sister, Zenani Dlamini, serves as South Africa’s ambassador to South Korea.