Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has publicly endorsed the charismatic but controversial Julius Malema, who earlier this year was expelled from the African National Congress, newspapers reported Thursday.
And the former wife of anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela also appeared to snub Mandela's current wife, Graca Machel.
Madikizela-Mandela made a public appearance with Malema at Qunu, the home village of her former husband, anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela, as the country celebrated his 94th birthday Wednesday, The Sowetan newspaper reported.
"Thank you very much for making us see in our lifetime that it is possible to liberate our people economically and better their lives," Madikizela-Mandela said in a tribute to Malema, who once led the ANC's youth league.
"Thank you very much for leading that campaign because it is as a result of your emphasis, the youth league's emphasis, on the role we should be playing as freedom fighters," she added.
The firebrand Malema, whom Madikizela-Mandela referred to as her "grandson", was once a vocal campaigner for President Jacob Zuma, at one point vowing to "kill" for him.
But his fiery rhetoric eventually became too much, as Malema advocated seizing mines and farms and called for "regime change" in democratic Botswana.
He was sent packing from the ANC in April, ostensibly for insubordination, but still has a power base in the youth section of the movement, the ANC Youth League, some of whose members insist he is still their leader.
Madikizela-Mandela, who has also been accused of populism, castigated the ANC a week ago saying the party was abusing the Mandela family name, pulling it up only when needed, yet treating the family shabbily.
She said it was "most painful" that 18 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa "we still have people who say we have failed them."
"Our country is in deep trouble as we make promises, and the promises are not fulfilled," she added.
Winnie had also been scheduled to inaugurate a child care centre with Mandela's wife Graca Machel. But Machel, after being kept waiting for an hour, eventually left.
Winnie later arrived for the ceremony in the company of the former youth league leaders.
"It's a pity that my little sister Graca left," she said.