13 June 2011
Thousands of people braved the cold weather on Saturday to bid farewell to African National Congress (ANC) struggle icon Albertina Sisulu, who died in Johannesburg last week.
She was laid to rest in a beautifully decorated family grave next to her husband, ANC leader Walter Sisulu, at Croesus cemetery in Johannesburg.
The funeral service at Orlando Stadium in Soweto was a celebration of the life of a woman whom many have called “the mother of the nation.”
It drew mourners from all sectors of society, including foreign dignitaries, among them former presidents and heads of government. School children sang, poets praised and comrades danced and chanted freedom songs as they all extended their goodbyes to the 92-year-old stalwart.
Zambia was represented by former president Kenneth Kaunda, while Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputy, Arthur Mutambara, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Theo Ben Gurirab, speaker of the National Assembly in Namibia, were also there to pay their tributes.
MaSisulu died while watching TV at her home in Linden, and since the news of her passing broke out, tributes have been pouring in from people from all walks of life.
President Jacob Zuma accorded her an official funeral, with her coffin wrapped in the South African flag, while the military paid its respects.
Delivering a sermon at the funeral, Zuma said MaSisulu would be remembered for her outstanding leadership and unifying spirit.
‘An era has ended’
“One of the greatest icons of our struggle has fallen, an era has ended and the nation is devastated, but we are proud to be associated with Mama Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu,” Zuma said.
“We are paying tribute today not just to the wife of our leader, Isithwalandwe Walter Sisulu, she was a leader in her own right.”
When the ANC spoke of the organisation’s selfless struggle, Mama Sisulu’s name stood out as a shining example. Many senior ANC leaders in government, politics and business matured under her guidance, care and love, said Zuma.
“She was their mother and their pillar of strength. Her neighbours here in Soweto have testified that she was their mother too, always available to assist, always ready to provide wise counsel and love.”
The President said very few people can be said to have served their country and people with dedication, commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, respect, selflessness and patriotism like Mama Sisulu has done, adding that few can hope to attract such an outpouring of love nationwide.
“She taught us so much about leadership and ubuntu [humanity]. She upheld many values that we must internalise in our own lives and behaviour.
“From her we learned that you can be a leader and still respect others in actions and deeds, regardless of their station in life or status. When we say working together we can do more, we are endorsing lessons from leaders such as Mama Sisulu.”
Max Sisulu, her eldest son and Speaker of the National Assembly, said at home, MaSisulu had a way of making all her children feel special.
‘She was a political mentor’
“She was a mother, a political mentor to many activists. During her life time, Mama touched and shaped many lives beyond the ANC. Her professionalism as a nurse had earned her respect among the health profession, she was passionate about education,” he said.
The family had been overwhelmed by the support it received in the time of bereavement.
“Even as we mourn, we also celebrate and commemorate a life well lived,” he added.
Tributes also came from her grandchildren, with grandson Linda Sisulu describing his grand mother as someone who loved to tend her garden and use a hosepipe to water her flowers and lawn at the family home.
“She loved to tell the tales of old days … she gave us lesson for our own lives and taught us love for education,” Linda said.
Former President Nelson Mandela scripted a very personal message, describing MaSisulu as his pillar of strength during the difficult time of apartheid.
“It is difficult and saddening to see you go my sister, you are more than a comrade, you are part of my being. Instead of me comforting your children, they had to comfort me … over the last couple of days, much has been said about your life and work.
“You are indeed one of the greatest South Africans, you rightly earned to be the mother of all our people,” Mandela said in a message read to the thousands of mourners by his wife Graca Machel.
Mandela and Sisulu
Mandela and Walter Sisulu became close friends when they met in Johannesburg and were the first leaders who turned the moderate African National Congress into a militant organisation. They were later both imprisoned in Robben Island.
Through her union with Walter, MaSisulu became politically active herself, attending with him the founding discussions of the Youth League. In July 1944, they were married and settled in the cinder block house at Orlando Township, Soweto, which would be their home for 45 years.
MaSisulu also played a leading role in the historic Women’s March on the Union Buildings in 1956, joining 20 000 women in protest against the oppressive pass laws.
During the period 1979 to 1981, she recruited a group of young women and directed them to revive the Federation of South African Women.
In 1994 she was elected to the first democratic Parliament, which she served until retiring four years later. She was a deputy president of the ANC Women’s League, nurse and midwife, and took part in the formation of the United Democratic Front, the 1956 anti-pass march to the Union Buildings and the launch of the Freedom Charter.
Several memorial services took place during the week, with the official memorial being held at the Tshwane City Hall on Thursday.