Accessibility links

Breaking News

State Funeral Requested for South African Activist Walter Sisulu - 2003-05-06

South Africans are mourning the death Monday of anti-apartheid stalwart Walter Sisulu. The president has asked the cabinet to grant Mr. Sisulu a state funeral, and he said flags will be flown at half-staff beginning Wednesday.

All day, a steady stream of mourners made their way to the Johannesburg home of the Sisulu family. Old friends, comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle, and government leaders came to pay their respects to Mr. Sisulu's widow, Albertina, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Walter Sisulu was an African National Congress leader, and a hero and mentor to several generations of anti-apartheid fighters.

He recruited Nelson Mandela into the ANC in 1941. Now, the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner said, South Africa has lost a remarkable man, and a leader among leaders. Mr. Mandela used Mr. Sisulu's clan name, Xhamela.

"Xhamela has never been president of the ANC. He had never been a member of Parliament. He has never been honored as some of us were honored. Nevertheless, he stood a head and shoulders above all of us. What was the reason for this? Because he had the gift of humility," he said.

Mr. Mandela said their lives were intertwined for 62 years. He was the best man at the Sisulus' wedding. His first wife was Mr. Sisulu's cousin.

In the Rivonia Trial of 1964, both men were convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison on the notorious Robben Island.

Another Rivonia defendant, Ahmed Kathrada, told South African state television Mr. Sisulu was the source of great courage for him during the trial. "Especially the Rivonia trial, where there was a possibility of a death sentence. We were much younger, and it was the leadership of people like Mr. Sisulu and Mr. Mandela that gave us the courage, that made us come to a decision that no matter what happens, we were going to fight this as a political trial," Mr. Kathrada said.

Mr. Kathrada believes Mr. Sisulu has never gotten the recognition he deserves.

That is largely because he never asked for it. After his release from Robben Island in 1989, he became deputy president of the ANC. But he refused to run for office in the 1994 elections, or take a job in the first ANC-led government.

Mr. Sisulu was most comfortable working behind the scenes.

President Thabo Mbeki was among the mourners paying special tribute to Mr. Sisulu's humility and unselfishness. "Because he was a very humble person, not many of our people in the country realized the centrality of his contribution to the South Africa that we have today," Mr. Mbkei said.

The mourners praised Mr. Sisulu for his leadership, strength and humility, but also for his patience and gentle nature.

He was a man who suffered greatly at the hands of the apartheid authorities. Before his incarceration on Robben Island, where he eventually served most of his 26 years in prison, he was repeatedly banned, arrested, attacked and harassed. His family, who he adored, endured similar hardships, and many of his children went into exile.

But despite all that, he never became bitter. In his last interview with VOA, Mr. Sisulu said the goal of his struggle was equality for all. "And to be bitter, therefore, would defeat my basis, my very development. And therefore I must avoid becoming anti-white. There were times when I became anti-white, but I controlled that because the broad outlook was not that. We were demanding that this country must be for all," he said.

Deputy President Jacob Zuma says he was an inspiration, especially to the younger generation in the anti-apartheid struggle. "The whole country, probably the whole world will agree that a great leader has fallen, a leader with a great heart," Mr. Zuma said.

Mr. Sisulu's family said he will probably be buried in Johannesburg, where he lived for most of his life.

Although he never had a government job, President Mbeki has requested a state funeral for the man known to much of the nation as Father Sisulu.