Albertina Sisulu lived under nearly unimaginable circumstances for much of her adult life as one of the most harassed opponents of apartheid in South Africa. This was a widely reviled system of segregation laws that restricted nearly every aspect of life, including their political rights, for the country's majority black population. Arrested on several occasions for her activism, Sisulu also spent 26 years waiting for the unlikely release of her husband Walter, one of the leaders of the African National Congress. Unlike her counterpart Winnie Mandela, wife of the country's first post-apartheid president, Sisulu forged a reputation for quiet strength and moral leadership, and is often called the Mother of the Nation.
Born in 1918, Sisulu was from South Africa's native Xhosa ethnic group, whose home was the fertile Transkei district in the Eastern Cape Province. She was named Nontsikelelo, which means "blessings." During her childhood, blacks in this part of South Africa—a country governed entirely by white Europeans of British and Dutch descent—were taxed heavily, and most males paid the fees by migrant labor work in the country's gold mines that took them far away from their families. Sisulu's father did this, and fell victim to the terrible working conditions in the mines, as many did. "One day he started coughing, the next week he began losing weight and soon he could hardly breathe," she recalled in an interview with Times of London writer Alice Thomson. "It was very painful to watch."
Trained as a Nurse
By the time she was 15 years old, Sisulu had lost both of her parents, and vowed never to marry because she now had several brothers and sisters to support. She attended a Roman Catholic school, and from there went on to a nursing program for blacks at what was called the Johannesburg Non-European Hospital. She met Walter Sisulu in Johannesburg after being introduced by his cousin, a nursing classmate of hers. Also a Xhosa from the Transkei, Walter Sisulu had been a gold miner and factory worker before becoming active in the African National Congress (ANC), the leading political organization for South African blacks since 1912. Her future husband, along with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, founded the ANC's Youth League, which took a much more militant stance against their homeland's whites-only regime.
Sisulu had not been politically active before she met Walter, but took up the black nationalist cause eagerly. They married in July of 1944, and began their family in a house in the Soweto, the Johannesburg slum where blacks were confined. She joined the ANC Women's League in 1948, the same year a newly dominant South African government began enacting a much stricter series of segregation laws for blacks, mixed-race residents, and the class of shopkeepers of Indian heritage. A year later, her husband became general secretary of the ANC, while she still worked full-time as a nurse to support them. Both were targeted by South Africa's dreaded internal police for their political activities and arrested and jailed several times each.
In 1954 Sisulu became one of the co-founders of the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), a group that sought to forge alliances with liberal-leaning white women who were also uneasy with apartheid's human-rights abuses. One of the most blatant examples of this was the "pass" law. This required South Africa's blacks to carry a government-issued document with all their personal information whenever they ventured outside an all-black area like Soweto. Police could stop any black person and demand to see their pass, and blacks could not even venture into white neighborhoods without specific permission. When the apartheid government extended the scope of the pass laws, the FSAW responded with organized protests, including one that numbered 20,000 women on a march to the prime minister's office. Sisulu spent two weeks in jail for her role in the demonstration, while her husband and other ANC leaders were in the midst of a five-year trial for treason.
Husband Jailed for Life
ANC leaders like Mandela and Walter Sisulu were eventually forced to go underground. Meanwhile, Albertina Sisulu remained politically active and in 1963 was jailed again; this time she spent nearly 90 days in solitary confinement without a trial. Her treatment in jail was entirely permissible thanks to a new detention law aimed at eliminating opposition to apartheid. Her husband and Mandela were captured that same year, tried again for treason, and sentenced to life in prison, along with six other ANC leaders, in 1964. They were held at the notorious Robben Island facility, a coastal prison from which escape alive was deemed impossible. Sisulu and Winnie Mandela were allowed to visit their husbands twice a year, for 30 minutes each visit. "Walter was a prophet, he told me everything," she told Thomson in the Times of London interview. "He briefed me about life so that when he left I knew what to do."
Sisulu and her husband had five children by then, and adopted two of her sister's children when her sister died. A sympathetic Roman Catholic organization paid for the children to attend a boarding school in Swaziland, which was safer than Johannesburg. By then, all mission-run schools for blacks, like the one Sisulu herself had attended, had been outlawed by the South African government. The ANC was also outlawed, but protests against the apartheid regime continued unabated.
The couple's children grew to be committed to their parents' cause, and several suffered for their efforts. For a number of years the whereabouts of the Sisulus' journalist son, Zwelakhe, was not known. He had been taken into custody, and human-rights abuses in South Africa were so immense that it was common for family members to be given absolutely no information on his incarceration. The couple's daughter Lindiwe was arrested in the mid-1970s and survived torture.
Between 1964 and 1981, Sisulu was under near-continuous banning orders, meaning she was effectively silenced. She could not speak to journalists, be quoted in print, or speak in the presence of more than three persons. She also endured a ten-year period of dusk-to-dawn house arrest. In 1981, the banning orders were finally lifted, and her husband and Mandela were transferred to a Cape Town prison.
Granted Hard-to-Get Passport
Sisulu was arrested again in 1983, and charged with leading ANC songs, distributing literature, and displaying the ANC flag at a funeral of another activist. She was given a four-year sentence, which was suspended on appeal. That same year, she co-founded the United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of anti-apartheid groups. Two years later, after government forces destroyed a black squatters' township near Cape Town, she was again arrested on charges of inciting the overthrow of the government. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
At a Glance …
Born in 1918 in Tsomo, Transkei, South Africa; married Walter Sisulu (a political activist), July 1944; children: seven. Education: Trained as a nurse at the Johannesburg Non-European Hospital. Politics: African National Congress.
Career: Johannesburg, nurse, c. late 1930s-1990; Women's League of the African National Congress, member, 1948; Federation of South African Women (FSAW), co-founder, 1954; 1983, United Democratic Front (UDF), co-founder, 1983; ANC Women's League, deputy president, 1992–.
Addresses: Office—c/o African National Congress, 54 Sauer St., Johannesburg 2001, South Africa. Home—Johannesburg, South Africa.
In 1988, Sisulu was again placed under banning orders, but a new era finally began for South Africa the following year, when the white electorate voted into power a more moderate government. That same year, Sisulu was invited by the governments of the United States and Britain to meet with President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and was granted a passport to travel abroad for the first time in her life. Their informal summit marked the first time an American head of state had met with a representative of a black nationalist group from South Africa.
October 14, 1989, was a historic day in the Sisulu household: all restrictions on her activities and speech were lifted, and on the following day her husband was released. Mandela emerged from prison to worldwide headlines early the next year, the same month that government lifted the ban on the ANC and its activities. A five-year process of negotiation between the two sides began in earnest.
Kept Women's Struggle at Forefront
Despite having entered her seventies by then, Sisulu took an active role in this new era for South Africa as the government moved toward granting full citizenship rights for all. In 1992, she became deputy president of the ANC Women's League, and strongly pushed for full equality for both women and men in the country. "Our women are oppressed three times over," she told Thomson, the Times of London writer, that same year on another visit to the country to meet with British political leaders. "They are oppressed by the traditions and customs of our society that expect them to stay at home as carers; by the government and by the men folk. All family decisions, however trivial, are made by the men, and yet it is the women who feel desperately responsible for their children's future."
Sisulu cast her first vote in a national election in April of 1994 along with millions of other South African blacks, a historic event that took three days. When the votes were tallied, the Mandela-led ANC ticket won 12 million votes, with 3 million going to the party of apartheid, the National Party. After a long career with the ANC, Walter Sisulu died in 2003.
Sisulu's son Zwelakhe went on to become a key executive with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, while daughter Lindiwe became the Minister of Housing in the ANC cabinet. Daughter-in-law Sheila Sisulu became the South African ambassador to the United States. The ambassador recalled in a 1989 interview with Ebony her wedding to Mlungisi Sisulu back in the early 1970s, when her mother-in-law was unable to attend the wedding because of the government restrictions on her. Mlungisi rented the schoolyard across from her house. "He put up a tent and we had the wedding there," Sheila Sisulu told journalist Laura B. Randolph. "My mother-in-law stood at the gate, and we went over to kiss her. She was so strong. She didn't shed a tear, even if under normal circumstances she might have. She was going to maintain her dignity and her strength in the midst of whatever the government tried to throw at her."
Ebony, October 1999, p. 190.
Independent (London, England), December 2, 1997, p. 16.
New York Times, August 24, 1981; July 12, 1986.
Times (London, England), October 5, 1989; October 2, 1992, p. 4.
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