One is passionate and captivating, both in her rage and in her charm. The other is steadfastly cool, inspiring and mature. Both are freedom fighters who lived and loved, married and mothered, on the front line of a war that is finally won. With their country now free, but still far from fair, the women continue their struggle as members of South Africa's parliament.

Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, Mothers of the Nation. That's what they're often called, both inside of South Africa and without.

Each married a man -- Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu -- who rose from the streets of Soweto to become a patriarch of the modern liberation movement. And each helped broaden the traditional role of South African women by fighting alongside men in the political trenches. During the decades that their husbands and other key leaders spent in prison, both women were instrumental in keeping the struggle alive -- Mandela using the glamorous force of her celebrity to personify defiance, and Sisulu directing the United Democratic Front, an alliance of hundreds of community organizations that kept the rank and file mobilized after the African National Congress was banned.

So Mandela and Sisulu became pillars for their people, symbols of strength.

The closer they came to their goal of killing off apartheid, however, the more they parted ways. While Mandela's popularity soared internationally among the political, check-writing elite, Sisulu stayed poor and provincial. Where Mandela came to be worshiped, as a biographer puts it, Sisulu was trusted. Sisulu continued to work as a nurse and midwife, moving among families and motivating people of all ages, while Mandela acted erratically, her polemics coarsened, and her base of support shifted to the young and distraught.

If they were both Mothers of the Nation, was one becoming Mommie Dearest while the other remained Mama True? It was -- and still is -- hard to tell from afar.

"It's wrong, really. I'm not a Mother of the Nation,' " Sisulu said, blushing this week over a lunch of grilled pork chops and black beans at a Bethesda hotel. She made this rare trip to the States to accept an award from a nonprofit organization called Medical Education for South African Blacks, honoring her "lifetime of determined action at great personal sacrifice in the successful struggle for freedom and equality for the people of South Africa."

It seems that Sisulu's achievements have always shone brighter than her personality. She is described as quiet, unassuming, lacking political ambition. Here is how she explains herself: "The struggle, I would say, was not for ambitious people. The best thing to be is determined. So I may appear as though I am quiet. But they say it's an empty thing that makes noise, and I didn't want to be associated with empty things, because my goal was really to struggle for freedom."

At 78, she's got the soft, slightly stout shape of a "gogo," as grandmotherly figures are often called in South Africa. Her face is calm and smooth, even as she rattles off the dates and places of her many arrests -- she is widely recognized as the most-banned person in South Africa.

"Winnie is a Mother of the Nation,' " Sisulu said firmly, as she shrugged off the title. "She is the first lady, because Nelson has been president. We belong to her, all of us. She is our mother."

That's the way it is -- despite the disturbing public dramas that Winnie Mandela has acted out in recent years: convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a young boy who was later murdered by a member of her "soccer club." Accused of misappropriating funds from her political party, the ANC. Rebelled against by the leadership of the ANC Women's League after she tried to involve them in a commercial venture with actor Omar Sharif. Unable to prevent the Father of the Nation from divorcing her. Extravagant escapades, foolish flings: no matter. She's still the Mother.

"And as far as Mama Winnie is concerned, I wouldn't like to say anything more about her," said Sisulu.

There was a time when they were close, when Sisulu would have known that she and Winnie Mandela were going to lay down their heads in the same city at the same time, as they did in Washington this week. There was a point at which Sisulu tried to save Mandela from herself, tried to convince her to disband the "soccer club," which served as her bodyguard. "As a woman, I tried to pull her out of that," Sisulu told an interviewer several years ago. "We {the ANC} are a family, Winnie and I were never enemies, I tried to help her, but . . . "

Mandela, 61, has slimmed down since discovering recently that she is diabetic. She also seems to have forgone the elaborate African gowns she long favored for the tailored suits worn by Western ladies who lunch a lot. She chose to wear a white one with black piping, and a short, straight wig to American University this week, looking smart and sedate as she addressed students. The talk had been sponsored by the school's Kennedy Political Union, and she graciously recalled a visit from Sen. Ted Kennedy and some of his family during the years she was banished to the small, desolate South African town of Brandfort.

"I have come to share something of my life," she said, taking on a humble tone. "Reflected in that life is something of South Africa. Not because I am South Africa, but because South Africa is in me."

She told of her beginnings, her family and her people, the Pondo. She spoke of the de-Africanization of her country, the obliteration of ancient traditions by European customs during colonization. ("I was aware of this process as a child.") Since the divorce, granted in March, she has taken to reaching back to those roots, often hyphenating Mandela with her family name, Madikizela. She comes from the Transkei -- a southeastern region that produced many other heroes against apartheid: Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani.

As for the present, Mandela allowed that Americans must be "puzzled" by some of the stories they hear about her. She recalled the years her husband was in prison, "at first for five years, then for life. I learned to deal with the police . . . to be tough . . . to survive. I want you to know where I come from so you can tell where I'm headed. I'm like thousands of women in South Africa who lost their men to cities and prisons. . . . I stand defiant, tall and strong."

She paused for the applause to die down, and then took aim at her ex. "Recently I was reminded of my suffering," she said. "When my husband divorced me, he said I was no exception, and I'm not the only woman who suffered." Indeed, Nelson Mandela told the court that "many women in this country suffered far more."

When a male student asked whether Winnie Mandela was considering running for president, she giggled girlishly. "I am an African woman," she answered coyly. "It would be an affront to the president if, once he's in power, that little woman even mentioned what you said."

Sisulu softened as she spoke of the young Mandela. "I introduced her to politics," she remembered. "She was newly married when we went to jail together, in 1958." It was Winnie Mandela's first arrest; she was pregnant with her first child, which she nearly miscarried. After being roughly handled and forced to stand in a cramped cell, she had begun to hemorrhage. Sisulu's midwifery saved her.

The women shared a lot more than politics in those days. They were neighbors in the Orlando section of Soweto, and their husbands were fast friends. When Nelson Mandela first moved to Johannesburg, he was 22, jobless and wanted to study law. It was Walter Sisulu, then a real estate agent, who took him in. Soon, they were caught up in politics, becoming leaders of the ANC's Youth League, and its guerrilla force, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

It was also at the Sisulu house that Nelson Mandela met his first wife, Evelyn Mase. She and Albertina Sisulu were studying nursing together.

That was in the early 1940s, when Albertina was becoming active in the South African Women's Federation. "If we had been strong enough to know our role as women in the society, I think things would have been much better," she says now. "Women must know their rightful places. We were very few then, you know, because politics were only for men, and women were supposed to be home and raise children, do the housework, whatever. In parliament today, we are proud to say we've got 90 women {out of a total of 419}, five of whom are {cabinet} ministers."

She stops abruptly and seems to sink a bit. She is thinking of her eight children -- five of whom she birthed and three other relatives she raised as her own after their parents died. Each child has been arrested and jailed along the way. Two of them -- Lungi and Lindiwe, who serve in parliament with their mother -- grew up in exile. About Lindiwe, Sisulu says: "That she's alive and normal is a miracle." Police grabbed the young woman during the 1976 Soweto student uprising and beat her for days. "When she was released, they just dropped her at the gates," Sisulu said. "She was thin as a stick, and mentally you could see that she was . . . affected."

Whenever Albertina Sisulu was arrested, the children had to fend for themselves, because their father was jailed for life on Robben Island. "It's not 15 years in South Africa," she said. "It's life. You die in jail. That's what is meant. Oooof! South African jails . . .

"The whites in South Africa had it coming," she continued. "They are lucky because we are not going to put them in jail. The first meeting of the national executives, when {Nelson} Mandela introduced this to us, we all stood up and said, He's now mad.' We thought he was mad, to say we must reconcile. Shooo!"

Sisulu says her anger at whites in general has since dissipated. "I'm patting my shoulder. I've done very well. How can I be angry? I'm happy."

Only personal grudges remain. For the brave, scarred warriors against apartheid, there are losses that can't be filled, time that is gone, innocence corrupted. There are feelings that are dead. Emotions that are foreign. Things that cannot now, perhaps ever, be spoken.

After Mandela's speech, a small boy asked her how she kept from being afraid during the dangerous years. She answered grimly that most South Africans haven't known fear for a long time.

"We have seen too much." CAPTION: Two divergent paths intersect: Albertina Sisulu, top, in Washington to accept an award, and Winnie Mandela at American University this week. They once shared a cause, but their personalities have taken them in different directions. CAPTION: