She marched against South Africa's apartheid regime, spent 10 years under house arrest, and raised five children as well as nieces, nephews and grandchildren while her husband spent 25 years as a political prisoner.
On Tuesday, it was time to honor Albertina Sisulu, the widow of Nelson Mandela's mentor Walter Sisulu and beloved in her own right for her strength and warmth during the long struggle against South Africa's white rule.
Mandela, who turned 90 earlier this year, was among the well-wishers at a gala luncheon on Albertina's 90th birthday.
Walter Sisulu, who died in 2003, spent 25 years imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Mandela, whom he had brought into the African National Congress. He was known as one of the ANC's foremost strategists, but also one of its humblest, never earning the international acclaim accorded Mandela.
While Walter Sisulu was in prison or in hiding, his wife, a nurse, was left to raise the couple's five children until his release in 1989, a year before Mandela was freed.
Albertina Sisulu also participated in such watershed anti-apartheid events as the 1956 march by thousands of South African women protesting pass laws. She spent months in jail and 10 years under house arrest.
Children also activists
The Sisulu's children were also anti-apartheid activists — four were imprisoned or forced into exile by South Africa's white government — and now are prominent in politics and journalism.
Albertina Sisulu, her son Max and her daughter Lindiwe were all in the first multiracial parliament elected in the 1994 vote that ended apartheid.
With discipline and generosity, she took grandchildren, nieces and nephews into her home, keeping the family together. Many other black families crumbled in the face of prison or exile, or simply under apartheid-era laws that kept working men from their wives and children.
"(She) became the grandfather and the grandmother, the mother and the father," 36-year-old Linda Zizwe Sisulu, who grew up in his grandparents' Soweto home, said in an interview on the birthday he shares with his grandmother.
"Unfortunately we only spent limited amounts of time with our grandfather. But our grandmother was always there for us," he said, crediting her with teaching him discipline.
His grandfather Walter gave him the name Linda Zizwe, which roughly translates as having faith in the next generation. His grandmother nicknamed him Ginyibhulu — "swallow the Boers" — South Africa's white settlers.
'Role model of our struggle'
Speakers at Tuesday's lunch compared Albertina Sisulu to Mother Teresa and her family to the Kennedys. The ANC called her "a living icon and role model of our struggle."
Family friend Saki Macozoma said when Walter Sisulu spoke at Macozoma's 1991 wedding, he stressed the importance of defending the family.
The Sisulu marriage of nearly 59 years is proof that strong families can be the foundation of a strong nation, said Macozoma, a leader in the ruling ANC party and a prominent businessman.
The birthday lunch was also a fundraiser for the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa, which opened the year Sisulu died and provides free heart surgery for babies and children across Africa.
Linda Zizwe Sisulu said his grandfather took a special interest in educating and caring for children after his release from prison, so the children's heart center "represents him 100 percent."