The last of the anti-apartheid heroes

Published on Pambazuka News, by Elizabeth Barad, July 21, 2011.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, Elizabeth Barad reflects on the lives of anti-apartheid heroes, the late Walter and Albertina Sisulu and Helen Suzman.

I love each and every one of you,’ said Nelson Mandela who celebrated his 93rd birthday on 18 July. ‘If my pockets were big enough, I would take you all back home with me,’ he added at a dinner I attended, hosted by then-President Bill Clinton. Mandela, known as ‘Madiba’ (an honoured name of the Xhosa tribe) is the last, most revered and important heroe of the anti-apartheid movement. 

Another hero of the struggle, Nontsikelelo Albertina Ndlangisa Sisulu, died in June. Mandela was best man at her wedding to Walter Sisulu, who recruited Mandela into the African National Congress (ANC). They were tried together for treason and sent to Robben Island for life. Albertina nominated Mandela for the 1994 parliamentary vote that made him president and she served in the first democratic parliament … //

… I was delighted that Albertina remembered our appointment which I had made two weeks before, but failed to confirm because I had flown to Cape Town to meet with another ant-apartheid campaigner, Helen Suzman. Suzman was an MP for 13 years and the only one to openly condemn the whites-only apartheid regime.

A feisty and outspoken woman, she was publicly critical of apartheid at a time when this was rare among whites. When we lunched at the MPs’ dining room, another parliamentarian greeted her, but Suzman refused to speak to him, saying, ‘I can’t acknowledge him or his pro-apartheid views.’ When I later saw Suzman in her home in a suburb of Johannesburg, she firmly excoriated the newly-adopted, multi-coloured South African flag saying, It looks like a neon sign in Vegas … //

… Helen Suzman and Ma Sisulu once more at the opening of the Walter Sisulu Environmental Centre a year after Walter’s death. I saw Albertina after Walter was released from prison. Leaving an executive meeting of the ANC, now being the deputy president of the ANC Women’s League, she greeted me with open arms. She commented, ‘It’s good having the old man home, but sadly, he needs a light left on every night because of his fears from all those years in prison.’

Walter, known as ‘the old man’ because of his stature and snow-white hair, was released from prison in October 1989 after 26 years in prison. Mandela would not come out until the next February; he thought it right that Walter, his mentor, should be freed first. Walter, who had been the secretary-general of the ANC during apartheid, was elected ANC deputy president in July 1991. He died in his wife’s arms in 2003. Their grandson, Shaka, said, ‘They were an incredible duo and the old man was always sure to make known just how appreciative he was of Gogo.’ (Gogo was Shaka’s name for his grandmother.)

Mandela said at Walter’s funeral, ‘Xhamela (Walter Sisulu) is no more… A part of me is gone…. I now know that when my times comes, Walter will be there to meet me, and I am almost certain he will hold out an enrolment form to register me into the ANC with that world, cajoling me with one of his favorite songs we sang when mobilizing people behind the Freedom Charter…. I shall miss his friendship and counsel…Till we meet again…Go well, Rest in Peace,..Hero among heroes.’

Too ill to attend Albertina’s funeral, Mandela had his wife, Graca Machel, read his message to Albertina which said, ‘It is difficult to describe the pain and sadness in my heart as I bid goodbye to a sister with whom I shared so much; you are part of my being – you and Walter…You are indeed one of the greatest South Africans.’ Acknowledging the passing of the heroes of the struggle, Mandela went on to say, ‘You are joining our distinguished loved ones. Now I smile when I imagine how you all join hands and hold a leadership caucus and look down on us from an ANC branch up there.’ (full text).

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