Dressed in sombre black, Albertina Sisulu sat still and quiet on Saturday, watching as her children, President Thabo Mbeki and a host of other dignitaries sprinkled soil into the grave of her husband of almost 60 years, African National Congress veteran Walter Sisulu.
Earlier, her granddaughter, Vuyelwa Sisulu, read a moving tribute on her behalf, saying: ”Walter, what do I do without you? It was for you who I woke up in the morning, it was for you who I lived.
”Your passing was a great shock to me. It was for you who I woke up in the morning, it was for you who I lived.
”You were taken away by the evils of the past the first time, but I knew you would come back to me. Now the cold hand of death has taken you and left a void in my heart,” she said.
Vuyelwa covered her face with her hands and broke down as she approached her grandmother, Mbeki, and other dignitaries who were seated in the shade under a large marquee in front of the grave.
However, Sisulu’s daughters could not contain themselves as the coffin was lowered into the ground. They sobbed incessantly. Their mother’s expression remained calm throughout; so many tears already shed privately, according to those close to her.
Albertina Sisulu was the first person to sprinkle soil into the grave. She was followed by her children, Mbeki and his wife Zanele, former president Nelson Mandela, Deputy President Jacob Zuma, ANC leaders, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Lesotho Prime Minister Phakalitha Mosisili.
Sisulu was buried at the Croesus cemetery in Newclare, Johannesburg on Saturday — a day before he turned 91. He died in his wife’s arms at their Linden home on May 5.
Sisulu’s grave is on a special family plot set out and donated by the Johannesburg city council. The plot, decorated with flowers was created to ”reflect the character of a person we are burying here”, said ANC deputy secretary general Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele.
She said: ”He (Sisulu) was a humble, warm and passionate person. Wherever he was there was peace.” Any tree planted on the plot would symbolise peace.
Next to Sisulu’s grave was a big tombstone of Bill Jardine, a member of the Gauteng Legislature who died on July 31, 1998. Sisulu was one of the senior ANC leaders who stood out among his peers while fighting for an unracial, democratic South Africa.
For that, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, serving 26 years on Robben Island. He served a year less than his close friend Mandela. Raymond Mhlaba, Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada were sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12, 1964 but, with Sisulu, were released in October 1989, almost a year before the ANC was unbaned.
Earlier on Saturday, family members and Cabinet ministers attended a private funeral service at the Sisulu’s Orlando home. Before the coffin departed for Orlando Stadium for a mass public service, SA National Defence Force members replaced an ANC flag with that of South Africa’s.
As early as 6.30am, Soweto residents lined the streets to catch a glimpse of proceedings. Others were chanting, dancing and ululating as dignitaries made their way into the Sisulu home.
A neighbour recalled how Sisulu hid at her house all those years ago while apartheid’s top security forces were in pursuit of Sisulu.
”I allowed him into my house, his children played with my children, and they never caught him until later,” she said, declining to be identified.
At the stadium, about 20 000 thousand mourners sang struggle songs as leaders arrived. Others even disobeyed appeals from organisers when told to remain silent.
Mugabe and Mandela were the most cheered when they arrived at the stadium. The leaders sat underneath a white marquee, just in front of the coffin.
A helicopter monitored the army truck and gun carriage, which slowly conveyed the coffin all the way to the graveside. Soweto residents lined up along Mooki Street, New Canada and Commando Road as the procession passed. A baby was seen with Sisulu’s poster held in front of him.
In his tribute, Mandela said Sisulu was a humble leader who always groomed young people for leadership; someone who sought unity where there were divisions.
”His greatness as a leader derived from his humility, and his ingrained belief in and respect for collective leadership, he knew and taught us that wisdom comes from sharing insights,” a frail-looking Mandela said.
”The spear of the nation has fallen … let us pick up the spear now to build a country after the example that Walter Sisulu has set for us.” – Sapa