S Africa bids farewell to anti-apartheid icon

Thousands gathered to bury Albertina Sisulu, wife of former ANC general-secretary inprisoned with Nelson Mandela.

    Albertina Sisulu, right, nominated Nelson Mandela for the 1994 vote that made him South Africa's president [Reuters]

    South Africans mourned the loss of a woman celebrated for her role in the fight against apartheid, and for her nurturing of a new generation of leaders.

    Crowds singing hymns and songs from the anti-apartheid era gathered hours before Albertina Sisulu's funeral on Saturday,  eventually filling about a quarter of a 40,000-seat soccer stadium in Soweto.

    Nelson Mandela's tribute, read by his wife Graca Machel during the official funeral listed several of his friends and colleagues that have passed in recent years. He said he felt Sisulu's loss especially deeply.

    "I would have loved to be here today to pay my personal respects but it would be too painful for me to see you go," said Mandela, who at 92 rarely makes public appearances due to his own frail health.

    In his eulogy, President Jacob Zuma said Albertina Sisulu struggled for the unity black and white South Africans showed during the World Cup.

    "As a nation, we made our mother very proud," he said. "We learned from her that we are one people."

    The service followed a week of national mourning during which flags were flown at half-mast across South Africa and at its foreign missions.

    Officials of the governing African National Congress (ANC) lead a series of memorial services in every province.

    Zuma earlier declared Saturday an official funeral with military honours - as close as possible to a state funeral reserved for presidents - saying it should be "befitting for a leader of her stature".

    Albertina collapsed and died at her Johannesburg home June 2 at the age of 92.

    Her husband, former ANC general secretary Walter Sisulu, was given a similar funeral after his death in 2003. Their love endured 26 years of separation while he was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities.

    Albertina was buried next to her husband at a cemetery on the edge of Soweto, the black township synonymous with resistance to apartheid.

    'Big void'

    "For many South Africans, this leaves a big void," Na'eem Jeenah, a political analyst and former anti-apartheid activist told Al Jazeera.

    "The title by which she was known, Ma Sisulu, Mother Sisulu, Mother of the Nation, is one that many people say with great sincerity. So it really does leave a big void in the lives of not just activists but generally South Africans for the icon that she had become, as a champion of the oppressed, of the down-trodden."

    Nelson Mandela, who was best man at the Sisulus' 1944 wedding, wrote in his autobiography about Albertina's "wise and wonderful presence'' in a Soweto house full of people and of fervent political talk.

    Walter Sisulu spent most of his time in prison on Robben Island alongside Mandela, whom he had brought into the ANC.

    While Albertina and Walter Sisulu lived their last years in a leafy Johannesburg neighbourhood reserved for whites under apartheid, Saturday's funeral cortege started at their old house in Soweto.

    The hearse and its convoy made its way to Orlando Stadium, built in 1959, that has hosted sporting events, such as the 2010 Football World Cup.

    Soccer officials postponed one-year World Cup commemoration ceremonies to next month because of Albertina's death.

    Role model

    Albertina, who trained as a nurse, campaigned against apartheid and for the rights of women and children. She was a leader of the United Democratic Front, a key anti-apartheid coalition in the 1980s that brought together religious, labour and community development groups.

    Her activism led to months in jail and restrictions on her movements. She also served in parliament, taking a seat after the first all-race elections in 1994.

    She was given the honour of nominating Mandela for the 1994 parliamentary vote that made him South Africa's first black president.

    Albertina's death was followed by a debate over whether her model of sacrifice and discipline has been abandoned in South Africa.

    "I don't know that we have role models of that calibre in South Africa anymore," Jeenah told Al Jazeera.

    "We really as a nation are preparing to live in an age beyond theirs, to live in an age where they don't exist. And we need to create people of the kind of moral stature and morality and commitment to humanity that these people represented, which is a difficult task today in South Africa."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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