'Too painful' for Madiba to attend

2011-06-12 08:08

Johannesburg - Children and old women jogged alongside as Albertina Sisulu's hearse made its way through Soweto's humble streets to her grand funeral.

Nelson Mandela called Sisulu "one of the greatest South Africans" for her role fighting apartheid and nurturing a new generation of leaders. She collapsed and died at her Johannesburg home on June 2 at the age of 92.

During Saturday's funeral before a crowd ranging from ordinary Sowetans to government leaders from as far away as Egypt, Sisulu's grandchildren recited the story of her life. She had not been expected to survive the Spanish influenza that was raging when she was born in 1918. She lived on to represent the anti-apartheid movement at home and abroad, and to champion the rights of women and children.

Mandela's tribute, read by his wife Graca Machel during the official funeral with military honours, set off a brief, thrilling rally in which the crowd sang Mandela's name. In his speech, Mandela listed several friends and colleagues he has lost 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. The Mandelas on Saturday were marking the first anniversary of the death of Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani, killed in a car crash on the way home from a soccer World Cup evening concert in Soweto.

Huge crowd

Crowds of mourners began arriving early for Sisulu's funeral, eventually filling about a quarter of a 40 000-seat soccer stadium.

Khesani Chauke, a 30-year-old Soweto resident, sat her four-year-old daughter in her lap, saying it was important for little Navelelo to be part of this moment in South African history.

"Even if she doesn't remember, I will tell her she was here," Chauke said.

Maureen Matlala, 39, boarded a bus on Friday night with neighbours from eastern South Africa to get to Soweto. Despite the all-night drive, she walked into the stadium crisp in the green, black and gold uniform of the ANC Women's League, an organization Sisulu once led.

"She's one of those women who made us who we are today," said Matlala, who grew up hearing stories of the 1956 march on Pretoria that Sisulu helped organise. The march united thousands of women of all races against the extension to women of pass laws that restricted the movement of black South Africans. The crowd cheered when a choir at Saturday's funeral sang the march's slogan - "you strike a woman, you strike a rock."

Sisulu's husband, former ANC secretary general 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 Sisulu was buried next to her husband after Saturday's funeral in a cemetery on the edge of Soweto.

Together forever

The couple's eldest son, Max, said at the funeral the two would never again be separated.

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

While her husband was in prison, Albertina Sisulu, a nurse, raised the couple's five children and several nieces and nephews, and was a mother figure to many other young South Africans, some of them relatives, some not.

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.

Younger Sisulus followed their parents into national service. Daughter Lindiwe Sisulu is defence minister. Max Sisulu is speaker of the National Assembly.

Albertina Sisulu also served in parliament, taking a seat after the first all-race elections in 1994. She nominated Mandela for the 1994 parliamentary vote that made him South Africa's first black president.

Soweto roots

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 black township synonymous with resistance to apartheid.

The funeral site, Orlando Stadium, was upgraded and saw its capacity nearly doubled for the soccer World Cup last year. It was the stage for the opening concert of a tournament that allowed Soweto and the rest of South Africa to show the world how far they had come from a divided past.

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."

Walter Sisulu's 2003 funeral and the 2007 ceremonies for Adelaide Tambo, the widow of Oliver Tambo - who led the ANC in exile while Mandela was imprisoned - prompted soul-searching among South Africans fearful of stumbling into the ordinary pitfalls of corruption and mismanagement after the extraordinary feat of bringing a peaceful end to brutal racist rule. Albertina Sisulu's death has been followed by a similar debate over whether her model of sacrifice and discipline has been abandoned. In a contemporary twist, some of the discussion has been led on Twitter by a Sisulu grandson.

Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, in a sermon that closed Albertina Sisulu's funeral, earned cheers when he said corruption betrayed "the legacy for which her family has striven."

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  albertina sisulu  |  jacob zuma  |  graca machel  |  max sisulu  |  walter sisulu  |  lindiwe sisulu  |  soweto  |  politics

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