TRIBUTES poured in today for South African anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu, who died last night at the age of 92, one of the last contemporaries of Nelson Mandela.
Sisulu and her late husband, African National Congress (ANC) leader Walter Sisulu, were key figures in the struggle against white-minority rule, enduring decades of persecution by the apartheid regime before.
In South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, when Mandela became the first black president, Sisulu won a seat in parliament, capping her lifetime in politics.
President Jacob Zuma said on Friday that “Mama Sisulu”, as she was affectionately known, had “reared, counselled, nursed and educated most of the leaders and founders of the democratic South Africa”.
“We must thank her most profoundly for the selfless service to all South Africans and humanity at large, for her generosity of spirit and for teaching the nation humility, respect for human dignity and compassion for the weak, the poor and the downtrodden,” Zuma said in a statement.
“Mama Sisulu was one of the foremost mothers of the nation and the last of the colossuses of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said “South Africa has lost a treasure” in Sisulu, a close friend of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Mandela and Walter Sisulu were imprisoned together on Robben Island after being sentenced to life in jail on charges of plotting to overthrow the apartheid regime.
Albertina Sisulu remained close with Mandela after her husband’s death in 2003. She was among the first people to visit the 92-year-old former president when he fell ill with a respiratory infection in January and was hospitalised for two days.
“A stalwart in our freedom struggle and in the early years of our new democracy and a pillar of strength for the Sisulu family when her husband Walter was in jail, she served as an example of selflessness and service,” Mandela’s foundation said in a statement.
Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in Transkei on October 21, 1918, Sisulu married Walter in 1944, with Mandela as the best man.
A nurse by profession, she joined the ANC women’s league in 1948 and helped organise the women’s movement against apartheid-era pass laws, segregated education and other discriminatory legislation.
Her activism and her association with top ANC leaders saw her held in solitary confinement, sentenced to house arrest and banned from political activity, while her five children were also arrested and expelled from the country.
She was reunited with her husband – with whom she shared a relationship that The Star newspaper today called “South Africa’s greatest love story” – in 1989.
She served four years in parliament before retiring from politics in 1998.
Many in South Africa fondly linked her career as a nurse to her role as a national matriarch.
She was “a midwife of the South African liberation, a true mother of the nation”, The Star said in an editorial.