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May 6, 2003

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton

Tributes poured in Tuesday for the South African anti-apartheid hero, Walter Sisulu, who died Monday night in the arms of his wife and fellow liberation activist, Albertina, at their Johannesburg home. Sisulu was two weeks shy of his 91st birthday.

Nelson Mandela, 84, Sisuluís friend and prison mate, called him a mentor and said his death had left a void in his life. Lamenting the loss of his "comrade" and confidant, Mandela wrote in a mournful statement: "Xhamela [Sisuluís clan name] is no more. May he live forever! His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone."

Sisulu burns his Pass in protest [1960]
Sisulu brought Mandela into the African National Congress (ANC), the movement that fought for and won the liberation of black South Africans from white minority rule. They jointly co-founded the militant ANC youth league with their colleague and late ANC leader, Oliver Tambo.

"During the past 62 years, our lives have been intertwined. We shared the joy of living and the pain," said Mandelaís statement. "Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments. We walked side by side through the valley of death, nursing each otherís bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom."

Albertina Sisulu, too distraught to talk to the media on Tuesday, had earlier described to the national broadcaster, SABC, that she had found a father figure in Sisulu. "I was very fortunate to marry a man like Walter, because Walter married an orphan. I had no mother and no father. So when I met Walter, it took me just a few months to understand he is not a husband to me. He is a father. He has taken my fatherís place."

Mrs. Sisulu said theirs had been a happy marriage, although her husband spent more than a quarter of a century in prison, away from their own five children and the four they adopted. "We never quarrelled ever since we got married. There was no quarrel in this house. He was just my guardian and he used to listen to me. He really was a wonderful man. He didnít have those qualities of men who feel big at times. No! Even when I was making a mistake, he would take time to make me understand that I had made a mistake. And I became shy and apologised. So thatís the life we led. Up to this day, he was very sweet."

Although a towering figure of the liberation struggle, Sisulu with his trademark snow-white hair and black round-framed glasses, was quiet and gentle. A grandfather and great-grandfather several times over, Sisulu retired from active politics in 1994, the year Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of South Africa.

Mandela said Sisulu was never president of the ANC, nor a member of parliament. Nor, he added, did his friend receive accolades from foreign governments or win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. "Nevertheless, he stood head and shoulders above all of us. What was the reason for this? Because he had the gift of humility and simplicity," Mandela told journalists at the Sisulu house on Tuesday.

President Thabo Mbeki, whose late father Govan was a close friend to both Sisulu and Mandela, announced that flags at all government offices would fly at half-mast from Wednesday, as a sign of mourning.

Mbeki told journalists he would ask the cabinet to hold a state funeral for Sisulu, who he described as "a giant of our people". Echoing Mandelaís praise, Mbeki said that many did not realise Sisuluís importance because he was modest and humble. "Our country and people have lost one of our greatest sons, one of the architects of democracy, one of the architects of a non-racial society, of a non-sexist society," said Mbeki.

As well as Mbeki, a succession of senior government and ANC officials, as well as black and white figures of the anti-apartheid struggle, friends and well-wishers offered their condolences to the Sisulu family in a continuing flow of visitors to their home in Linden, a Johannesburg suburb.

Sisulu was born to a poor Xhosa family in Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province) to a black mother and white father in 1912, the year the ANC was created. At 15, he left home for Johannesburg, working as a bakerís assistant, a dairy worker and a gold miner, among other jobs. As a young factory labourer, he found himself taking up labour issues with employers and is reported to have developed the militant streak that led him into the ANC in 1940 and the liberation movement.

Along with Mandela and 154 other South Africans, from all races, Sisulu was charged with treason in 1956. They were all acquitted after a five year trial which failed to neutralise the ANC leadership.

But in 1963, he and others were arrested at the ANCís secret headquarters in Rivonia. After the landmark Rivonia treason trial, he and Mandela, among others, were convicted of plotting anti-government sabotage and were sent to Robben Island, the notorious island prison off Cape Town.

The death penalty was expected but the judge handed down life sentences. For some this was thanks to international pressure of the highly-publicised trial. But for George Bizos, one of four defence lawyers, Mandela and his fellow defendants had Sisulu to thank for the verdict.

Interviewed by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Bizos recalled that Sisulu chose to take the stand at the Rivonia trial and, during cross-examination, devastated the prosecution. "The prosecutor made the mistake of taking him on, and he knocked him for sixes, left, right and centre." The damage Sisulu did to the prosecution case, Bizos said, ensured that the trialists got "life" instead of a death penalty.