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Former ANC Leader Walter Sisulu Laid to Rest - 2003-05-17

In South Africa, one of the great heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, has been laid to rest. Walter Sisulu died nearly two weeks ago at the age of 90.

Nearly 30,000 people gathered in Soweto's Orlando sports stadium to pay their last respects to the man known as Tata, or Father, Sisulu. Among them were current and former presidents of several African countries, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

But one former leader stood out as a lifelong friend of Walter Sisulu. When Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress more than 60 years ago, it was Walter Sisulu who recruited him. In 1964, the two men were sentenced together to spend the rest of their lives in the notorious prison on Robben Island.

Mr. Mandela was visibly moved by the death of his friend and mentor. "Today, we stand at the grave of one of the greatest among that generation of great freedom fighters," said Nelson Mandela. "We take leave of a man of whom I have already said in these sad days since his death, that from the moment when we first met, he has been my friend, my brother, my keeper, my comrade."

The former president said he would not weep for his fallen friend, because Walter Sisulu would neither expect it nor approve of it.

Former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged the mourners to celebrate, while remembering the life of Walter Sisulu. "So whilst we bring our condolences and our expressions of sorrow to the Sisulu family, we have come to celebrate a wonderful life, poured out so unselfishly on behalf of others, lived so amazingly humbly," said Desmond Tutu.

South Africa could not give Walter Sisulu a state funeral, since he never held elected office, served in the military or had a government job. But as a mentor to generations of South Africans, and as one of the architects of the anti-apartheid movement, he was buried in a "special official funeral," with many of the honors reserved for a fallen leader.

President Thabo Mbeki told the mourners that the democratic South Africa of today is trying to live up to Mr. Sisulu's teachings and honor his example. "Even when he has passed beyond the vision of the human eye, Walter Sisulu will continue to do what he did while he lived," he said. "He will continue, still, to breathe into all of us the liberating spirit of freedom."

The mood grew more somber as the ceremony moved from the sports stadium to the cemetery. Mr. Sisulu's casket was given a military escort, borne on a gun carriage through the streets of Soweto, covered with the South African flag.

Soldiers solemnly folded the flag and handed it to his widow, Albertina Sisulu. They were married for 58 years, and he spent 26 of them in prison.

At the graveside, one of their granddaughters read a statement on behalf of a heartbroken Mrs. Sisulu. "What do I do now, Walter, without you? The first time you were taken away from me by the evils of the past, I was kept alive by the knowledge that we would overcome, our efforts would bring you back in my arms," she said. "We were victorious, and indeed you came back. But now, the cold hand of death has cruelly taken you for good. You have left an empty void in my heart, and a pain so deep."

Walter and Albertina's son Max Sisulu told his mother the pain searing her heart is the same pain burning in the hearts of the Sisulu family and the South African nation.

With a lone bugle sounding the Last Post, Mr. Sisulu's coffin was lowered into the ground.