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S.Africa mourns anti-apartheid icon ‘Ma’ Sisulu

Anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu, one of the last contemporaries of Nelson Mandela, was hailed Friday as a colossus of the struggle and a mother to South Africa, after her death at 92.

Sisulu and her late husband, African National Congress (ANC) leader Walter Sisulu, were key figures in the fight against white-minority rule, enduring decades of persecution by the apartheid regime.

In South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, when Mandela became the country’s first black president, Sisulu won a seat in parliament, capping her lifetime in politics.

President Jacob Zuma late Friday visited the home of “Mama Sisulu” to pay respect to her family.

“We got sad news that our mother had passed on… The nation must be strong. We need to remember the contribution she made and the example she set,” Zuma told reporters.

The president’s office also said Sisulu would have an official state funeral.

“President Zuma has instructed that the national flags should be flown at half-mast at every flag station in the country and all our foreign missions abroad from Saturday, June 4 until the evening of the burial. This shall also apply to the burial site,” read the statement.

However the family and presidency were still working on the details of the funeral.

Zuma earlier paid tribute to Sisulu and said she “was one of the foremost mothers of the nation and the last of the colossuses of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa.”

Sisulu’s daughter Lindiwe, the country’s defence minister, arrived at her mother’s house in northern Johannesburg on Friday as a stream of top-ranking government and ANC leaders came to pay their respects.

Many rememberd Sisulu as not only a struggle hero but a second mother to the children of Mandela and others whose activist fathers were imprisoned or forced into exile.

“She gave me unconditional love, she called me her son, I called her my mom and she was my second mother,” said Dali Tambo, whose father, Oliver, was president of the ANC and spent more than three decades in exile.

Mandela’s family recalled how Sisulu cared for Mandela’s children when he and her husband were imprisoned together on Robben Island after being sentenced to life in jail on charges of plotting to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“It is a well-known fact that the Sisulus and the Mandelas share a strong bond that spanned generations,” the family said in a statement.

“It is these family ties that saw Mama Sisulu being the primary guardian and caregiver of (his first wife) Evelyn Mandela’s children during the long period of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.”

Sisulu remained close to Mandela after her husband’s death in 2003. She was among the first people to visit the 92-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner when he fell ill with a respiratory infection in January and was hospitalised for two days.

Mandela’s foundation said: “South Africa has lost a treasure.”

Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in Transkei on October 21, 1918, Sisulu married Walter in 1944, with Mandela as the best man.

A nurse by profession, she joined the ANC women’s league in 1948 and helped organise the women’s movement against apartheid-era pass laws, segregated education and other discriminatory legislation.

Her activism and her association with top ANC leaders saw her held in solitary confinement, sentenced to house arrest and banned from political activity, while her five children were also arrested and expelled from the country.

She was reunited with her husband — with whom she shared a relationship that The Star newspaper on Friday called “South Africa’s greatest love story” — in 1989.

She served four years in parliament before retiring from politics in 1998.

Many in South Africa fondly linked her career as a nurse to her role as a national matriarch.

She was “a midwife of the South African liberation, a true mother of the nation,” The Star said in an editorial.