JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Albertina Sisulu lamented what apartheid did to her family, but lived to see her children become leaders in a democratic South Africa.
The veteran of the anti-apartheid movement died Thursday at the age of 92.
African National Congress spokesman Brian Sokutu, said Sisulu “dedicated all her life to the ANC and to the defeat of apartheid and ushering in of constitutional democracy in South Africa.”
Her husband, Walter Sisulu, who died in 2003, spent 25 years in custody on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, whom he had brought into the ANC, now South Africa’s governing party. Mandela was the best man when Walter Sisulu married Albertina Notsikelelo in 1944.
While her husband was on Robben Island, Albertina Sisulu raised the couple’s five children alone. She spent months in jail herself and had her movements restricted.
Sisulu, trained as a nurse, campaigned against apartheid and for the rights of women and children. She was a leader of the United Democratic Front, a key anti-apartheid coalition in the 1980s that brought together religious, labor and community development groups. She also was a leader in the ANC and the ANC’s women’s wing.
She was once quoted as saying, “Over the years I got used to prison, banning and detention. I did not mind going to jail myself and I had to learn to cope without Walter. But when my children went to jail, I felt that the [oppressors] were breaking me at the knees.”
Today, daughter Lindiwe Sisulu is defense minister. Son Max Sisulu is speaker of the National Assembly. Daughter Beryl Sisulu is South Africa’s ambassador to Norway.
Albertina Sisulu also served in parliament, taking a seat after the first all-race elections in 1994 and serving four years.
Max Sisulu’s wife, writer Elinor Sisulu, described the couple at Walter Sisulu’s gala 90th birthday celebration shortly before his death, listening to tributes by Mandela and others with “rapt attention, holding hands under the table like teenagers.”
Cape Town’s revered former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said of the couple: “They gave themselves for the cause of liberation, utterly, selflessly, with no thought of reward.”
Albertina Sisulu took part in some of the iconic moments of the anti-apartheid movement, including the launch in 1955 of the Freedom Charter, which proclaims “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” She was a leader in 1956 of a march on Pretoria by thousands of women of all races opposing the extension to women of pass laws — which restricted the movement of black South Africans. The slogan of the 1956 march was, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
She also witnessed some of the struggle’s darkest moments. In 1997, she was called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to help South Africans confront and forgive their brutal history.
Albertina Sisulu testified before the commission about the Mandela United Football Club, a gang linked to Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, accused of terrorizing Soweto in the 1980s. She was accused of trying to protect Madikizela-Mandela during the hearings, but her testimony was stark.
She said she believed the Mandela United Football Club burned down her house because she pulled some of her young relatives out of the gang. She also testified about hearing the shot that killed her colleague, a Soweto doctor whose murder has been linked to the group. Albertina Sisulu, a nurse at the doctor’s clinic, said they had a “mother and son” relationship.