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South African Anti-Apartheid Leader Walter Sisulu Dies - 2003-05-06


Walter Sisulu, one of South Africa's most beloved anti-apartheid leaders, has died at the age of 90.

A spokesman for the African National Congress says Walter Sisulu died after a long illness Monday, two weeks short of his ninety-first birthday.

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was one of the leading lights of the anti-apartheid struggle. A former political prisoner, he was the first man to lead the ANC after it was legalized, during the arduous negotiations leading up to South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

Former President Nelson Mandela has said Mr. Sisulu's death has "carved a void." In a statement issued late Monday, he said, "A part of me is gone."

The two men's lives were, in Mr. Mandela's words, intertwined for 62 years, since they met in 1941. They stood trial together, not once but three times, including the famed Treason Trial ending in 1961. In the 1964 Rivonia Trial, both men were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island.

Mr. Sisulu served 26 years in jail. Released in 1989, he was one of the first ANC leaders to go free as the apartheid government began to negotiate its own demise.

Mr. Sisulu was born and raised in the rural Transkei region in the south of the country. He was largely self-educated, and worked as a miner and factory worker before devoting his life to the ANC and the struggle against apartheid.

He was the first full-time secretary general of the ANC, and he helped organize the party's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The entire Sisulu family was part of the struggle against apartheid. His wife, Albertina Sisulu, is fondly called "the mother of the nation" by devoted ANC members. Their five children also have distinguished themselves. One of their daughters, Lindiwe Sisulu, is South Africa's current Minister of Intelligence.

Last year, at Walter Sisulu's 90th birthday celebration, Nelson Mandela thanked him and his family for giving themselves so completely to the struggle, despite much personal suffering.

In his statement on Mr. Sisulu's death, Mr. Mandela's parting words to his old friend were in the Xhosa language they shared: "Hamba kahle, Xhamela. Qhawe la ma Qhawe!" It means, "Go well, rest in peace. Hero among heroes."