Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu

Biography of South Africa's 'Mother of the Nation'

Albertina Sisulu
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Albertina Sisulu was a prominent leader in the African National Congress and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. She provided much-needed leadership during the years when most of the ANC's high command was either in prison or in exile.

An Early Life

Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born in the village of Camama, Transkei, South Africa, on 21 October 1918 to Bonilizwe and Monica Thethiwe. Her father Bonilizwe arranged for the family to live in nearby Xolobe while he was working on the mines; he died when she was 11. She was given the European name of Albertina when she started at the local mission school. At home, she was known by the pet name Ntsiki. As the eldest daughter, Albertina was often required to look after her siblings. This resulted in her being held back for a couple of years at primary school, and initially cost her a scholarship for high school. After intervention by a local Catholic Mission, she was eventually given a four-year scholarship to Mariazell College in the Eastern Cape (she had to work during the holidays to support herself since the scholarship only covered term time). Albertina converted to Catholicism whilst at college, and decided that rather than get married she would help support her family by getting a job.

She was advised to pursue nursing (rather than her first choice of being a nun). In 1939 she was accepted as a trainee nurse at Johannesburg General, a 'non-European' hospital, and began work there in January 1940.

Life as a trainee nurse was difficult -- Albertina was required to buy her own uniform out of a small wage and spent most of her time in the nurse's hostel. She experienced the ingrained racism of the White-minority led country through the treatment of senior Black nurses by more junior White nurses. She was also refused permission to return to Xolobe when her mother died in 1941.

Meeting Walter Sisulu

Two of Albertina's friends at the hospital were Barbie Sisulu and Evelyn Mase (Nelson Mandela's first wife-to-be). It was through them that she became acquainted with Walter Sisulu (Barbie's brother) and began a future career in politics. Walter took her to the inaugural conference of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League (formed by Walter, Nelson Mandela, and Oliver Tambo), at which Albertina was the only female delegate. (It was only after1943 that the ANC formally accepted women as members.)

In 1944 Albertina Thethiwe qualified as a nurse and, on the 15th of July, married Walter Sisulu in Cofimvaba, Transkei -- her uncle had refused them permission to get married in Johannesburg. They held a second ceremony on their return to Johannesburg at the Bantu Men's Social Club, with Nelson Mandela as best man and his wife Evelyn as bridesmaid. The newly-weds moved into 7372, Orlando Soweto, a house which belonged to Walter Sisulu's family. The following year she gave birth to their first son, Max Vuysile.

Starting a Life in Politics

In 1945 Walter gave up his attempts to develop an estate agency (he had previously been a trade union official, but was fired for organizing a strike) to devote his time to the ANC. It was left to Albertina to support the family on her earnings as a nurse. In 1948 the ANC Women's League was formed and Albertina Sisulu joined immediately. The following year she worked hard to support Walter's election as the first, full-time ANC secretary-general.

The Defiance Campaign in 1952 was a defining moment for the anti-Apartheid struggle, with the ANC working in collaboration with the South African Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party. Walter Sisulu was one of 20 people arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and sentenced to nine months hard labor, suspended for two years, for his part in the campaign. The ANC Women's League also evolved during the defiance campaign, and on 17 April 1954 several women leaders founded the non-racial Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). FEDSAW was to fight for liberation, as well as on issues of gender inequality within South Africa.

In 1954 Albertina Sisulu obtained her midwife qualification and began working for Johannesburg's City Health Department. Unlike their white counterparts, Black midwives had to travel on public transport and carry all their equipment in a suitcase.

Boycotting Bantu Education

Albertina, through the ANC Women's League and FEDSAW, was involved in the boycott of Bantu Education. The Sisulus withdrew their children from the local government-run school in 1955, and Albertina opening her home as an 'alternative school'. The Apartheid government soon cracked down on such practice and, rather than return their children to the Bantu education system, the Sisulus sent them to a private school in Swaziland run by Seventh Day Adventists.

On 9 August 1956 Albertina was involved in the women's anti-pass protest, helping the 20,000 prospective demonstrators avoid police stops. During the march, the women sang a freedom song: Wathint' abafazi, Strijdom! In 1958 Albertina was jailed for taking part in a protest against the Sophiatown removals. She was one of around 2000 protestors who spent three weeks in detention. Albertina was represented in court by Nelson Mandela. (They were all eventually acquitted.)

Targeted by the Apartheid Regime

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, and several others formed Umkonto we Sizwe (MK, the Spear of the Nation) -- the military wing of the ANC. Over the next two years, Walter Sisulu was arrested six times (though only convicted once) and Albertina Sisulu was targeted by the Apartheid government for her membership of the ANC Women's League and FEDSAW.

Walter Sisulu Arrested and Imprisoned

In April 1963 Walter, who had been released on bail pending a six-year prison sentence, decided to go underground and join up with the MK. Unable to discover the whereabouts of her husband, the SA authorities arrested Albertina. She was the first woman in South Africa to be detained under the General Law Amendment Act No 37 of 1963. She was initially placed in solitary for two months, and then under dusk-till-dawn house arrest and banned for the first time. During her time in solitary, Lilliesleaf Farm (Rivonia) was raided and Walter Sisulu was arrested. Walter was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning acts of sabotage and sent to Robben Island on 12 June 1964 (he was released in 1989).

Aftermath of the Soweto Student Uprising

In 1974 the banning order against Albertina Sisulu was renewed. The requirement for partial house arrest was removed, but Albertina still needed to apply for special permits to leave Orlando, the township in which she lived. In June 1976, Nkuli, Albertina's youngest child, and second daughter, was caught in the periphery of the Soweto student uprising. Two days before, Albertina's eldest daughter, Lindiwe, had been taken into custody and held at a detention center at John Voster square (where Steve Biko would die the following year). Lindiwe was involved with the Black People's Convention and Black Consciousness Movement  (BCM). The BCM had a more militant attitude towards South African Whites than the ANC. Lindiwe was detained for almost a year, after which she left for Mozambique and Swaziland.​

In 1979 Albertina's banning order was again renewed, though this time for only two years.

The Sisulu family continued to be targeted by the authorities. In 1980 Nkuli, who was by then studying at Fort Hare University, was detained and beaten by the police. She returned to Johannesburg to live with Albertina rather continue her studies. At the end the year Albertina's son, Zwelakhe, was placed under a banning order which effectively curtailed his career as a journalist -- he was prohibited from any involvement in the media. Zwelakhe was president of the Writer's Association of South Africa at that time. Since Zwelakhe and his wife lived in the same house as Albertina, their respective bands had the curious result that they were not allowed to be in the same room as each other or talk to each other about politics.

When Albertina's banning order ended in 1981 it was not renewed. She had been banned for a total of 18 years, the longest anyone had been banned in South Africa at that point. Being released from the ban meant that she could now pursue her work with FEDSAW, speak at meetings, and even be quoted in newspapers.

Opposing the Tricameral Parliament

In the early 80s, Albertina campaigned against the introduction of the Tricameral Parliament, which gave limited rights to Indians and Coloureds. Albertina, who was once again under a banning order, was unable to attend a critical conference at which the Reverend Alan Boesak proposed a united front against the Apartheid government plans. She indicated her support through FEDSAW and the Women's League. In 1983 she was elected president of FEDSAW.

'Mother of the Nation'

In August 1983 she was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for allegedly furthering the aims of the ANC. Eight months earlier she had, with others, attended the funeral of Rose Mbele, and draped an ANC flag over the coffin. She also, allegedly, delivered a pro-ANC tribute to the FEDSAW and ANC Women's League stalwart at the funeral. Albertina was elected, in absentia, president of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and for the first time she was referred to in print as the 'Mother of the Nation'1. The UDF was an umbrella group of hundreds of organizations opposed to Apartheid which united both Black and White activists and provided a legal front for the ANC and other banned groups.

Albertina was detained in Diepkloof prison until her trial in October 1983, where she was defended by George Bizos. In February 1984 she was sentenced to four years, two years suspended. At last minute she was given right to appeal and released on bail. The appeal was finally granted in 1987 and the case dismissed.

Arrested for Treason

In 1985 PW Botha imposed a State of Emergency. Black youths were rioting in the townships, and the Apartheid government responded by flattening Crossroads township, near Cape Town. Albertina was arrested again, and with fifteen other leaders of the UDF, charged with treason and instigating revolution. Albertina was eventually released on bail, but the conditions of the bail meant she could no longer participate in FEDWAS, UDF and ANC Women's League events. The treason trial began in October but collapsed when a key witness admitted he could have been mistaken. Charges were dropped against most of the accused, including Albertina, in December. In February 1988 the UDF was banned under further State of Emergency restrictions.

Leading an Overseas Delegation

In 1989 Albertina was asked as " the patroness of the principal black opposition group" in South Africa (the wording of the official invitation) to meet with US president George W Bush, former president Jimmy Carter, and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Both countries had resisted economic action against South Africa. She was given a special dispensation to leave the country and provided with a passport. Albertina gave many interviews whilst overseas, detailing the severe conditions for Blacks within South Africa and commenting on what she saw as the West's responsibilities in maintaining sanctions against the Apartheid regime.

Parliament and Retirement

Walter Sisulu was released from prison in October 1989. The ANC was un-banned the following year, and the Sisulus worked hard to re-establish its position in South African politics. Walter was elected deputy president of the ANC, Albertina was elected deputy president of the ANC Women's League.

Both Albertina and Walter became members of parliament under the new transitional government in 1994. They retired from parliament and politics in 1999. Walter died after a long period of illness in May 2003. Albertina Sisulu died on 2 June 2011, peacefully at home in Linden, Johannesburg.

1 - Article was written by Anton Harber in the Rand Daily Mail, 8 August 1983. She quoted Dr. RAM Saloojee, vice-president of the Transvaal Indian Congress and UDF committee member, the announcement of the election of Albertina Sisulu to the presidency of the UDF and the arrest of the 'mother of the nation'.