Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu

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Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu (born 1918) was one of the most important women leaders of the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa. She was a leader of the African National Congress Women's League and the Federation of South African Women in the 1950s. With the imprisonment of her husband, Walter Sisulu, in 1964, she carried on the resistance, becoming in the 1980s a founder and co-president of the United Democratic Front, contributing to the eventual release of the ANC prisoners.

Albertina Sisulu was born in 1918 among the Xhosa people in the Tsomo district of the Transkei, South Africa. Orphaned in youth, her ambition to be a teacher was frustrated by the need to support her younger siblings. She later finished grade school and trained as a nurse at the Johannesburg Non-European Hospital. In later life she attributed to this youthful self-denial and discipline her manifest strength, steadfastness, and courage through a lifetime of political struggle, supporting her seven children while her husband served a life sentence with his colleague Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC).

She met her future husband, Walter Sisulu, in Johannesburg in the early 1940s. Through their courtship she became politically active herself, attending with him the founding discussions of the Youth League, which would transform the moderate ANC into a militant nationalist resistance movement. In July 1944 they were married and settled in the little cinder block house at Orlando Township, Soweto, that would be their home for 45 years. They formed a political union as well. In 1949, as the movement geared up for the anti-apartheid resistance campaigns, Walter Sisulu became the ANC's first full-time general secretary. For this he had given up his income-earning job, and Albertina Sisulu assumed the task of chief family bread-winner.

Over the next 15 years her husband was imprisoned eight times, banned, placed under house-arrest, tried twice for treason, and finally incarcerated for life with Nelson Mandela and six other ANC leaders in 1964. Through these harrowing years Albertina Sisulu had five children and adopted her deceased sister-in-law's two children, supporting her family on her earnings as a nurse. But more, she also became a major political figure in her own right, herself arrested, banned, and imprisoned. Already prominent in the ANC Women's League since 1948, she helped found the non-racial, non-party Federation of South African Women (FSAW) in 1954, later becoming its president. In this capacity she led huge demonstrations against the extension of the hated pass laws to women and against the introduction of the infamous Bantu education system. Her opposition to women's passes brought her first jail sentence in 1958 with Winnie Mandela and others, including Mandela's new baby, which nearly died before they were released.

By the 1960s the women's movement, like the ANC, was being crushed by shootings, arrests, trials, and bans. In 1963, with Walter Sisulu underground in the sabotage campaign of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation," the ANC's organization for armed struggle), Albertina Sisulu was also held for three months in solitary confinement under the new 90-day detention law designed to crush opponents without the need for trials. During Walter Sisulu's subsequent treason trial and conviction in 1964, she led the crowds in singing the ANC anthem and saluting the convicted men as the police van carried them off to life imprisonment. Going later with Winnie Mandela on their first semi-annual half-hour visit to their husbands, Albertina Sisulu was reported to have exclaimed, "Oh, our men are shrinking here! … But their spirit is strong." And so was Albertina Sisulu's as she and her children carried on their family commitment to keep resistance alive.

Seventeen years of continuous bans followed—longer than anyone else's in South Africa—including ten years of dusk-to-dawn house arrest. Her livelihood was saved by the intercession of the Johannesburg Nursing Association and financial assistance from the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF). (The IDAF had secretly provided financial help to the family while Walter Sisulu was imprisoned). By the early 1980s, after the 1976 Soweto uprisings, the women's movement, like the ANC, began to re-emerge as the government grappled with massive unrest and attempted cautious reforms.

Albertina Sisulu was arrested again in 1983 and sentenced to four years' imprisonment for leading ANC songs, distributing literature, and displaying its black, green, and gold flag at the funeral of FSAW stalwart Rose Mbele. She managed to get freedom pending appeal and suspension of half the sentence. Meanwhile, in 1983 Albertina Sisulu had helped found the United Democratic Front (UDF), incorporating hundreds of anti-apartheid groups, and was elected one of its three co-presidents from her jail cell. The UDF's purpose was to oppose a new government-inspired constitution that claimed to provide for non-white power sharing (by co-opting the minority Coloureds and Indians) but was immediately recognized as a sham, for it excluded the Black Africans from any participation and kept white supremacy intact.

The formation of the UDF came at an historic turning point. Seemingly triumphant with this cosmetically reformed but re-entrenched apartheid, President P. W. Botha's government now faced a deepening crisis of popular resistance and disorder from 1984 onwards. The government, declaring emergency powers, answered with violent police and military force amid a storm of outrage. Shootings, whippings, thousands of arrests, mass evictions, and mob rule in Black townships by leaderless Blacks attacking police, local officials, and each other produced a profound change of mood within the country and internationally.

Following the horrific destruction by government order of the Crossroads squatter township near Cape Town in 1985, Albertina Sisulu and other UDF leaders were arrested and charged, ironically, with fomenting violent revolution. The case was dismissed for lack of credible evidence. Yet another mass banning came in February 1988, when the UDF, 16 other organizations, and 18 persons, including Albertina Sisulu, now aged 70, were again restricted. With two of her grown children in exile, one detained in the country for over a year, two grandchildren imprisoned, and Walter Sisulu, of course, still under life sentence, the Sisulu family had surely kept faith with its commitment at a fearful price. But the new round of repressions merely signaled the final bankruptcy of government policy. As conditions within the country and in its international position deteriorated with intensified economic sanctions and mounting alarm in business, political, church, and university circles, the call went up more insistently than ever before: seek genuine negotiations or face catastrophe.

Signs multiplied in 1989 that Botha's term of power was nearing its end with his replacement as party leader by the more flexible Frederik W. de Klerk, who became president in September. A clear signal of the impending recognition of Albertina Sisulu's own prominence as a leader and her symbolic importance as Walter Sisulu's wife: the United States and British Governments invited her to visit President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher "as the patroness of the principal black opposition group in South Africa." Despite her banning order she was granted her first passport by a South African Government anxious to improve its image in the eyes of the world. Before this time no United States president had ever met with an authentic South African Black nationalist leader. But clearly the United States, seeking to restore its credibility among Blacks at home and abroad, now recognized the UDF and by implication the ANC as the essential partners in the negotiated settlement judged necessary to save the future of South Africa. Now also the incarcerated ANC leaders loomed larger than ever as the authentic negotiators, enhanced by their principled refusal to accept Botha's earlier offer of release on condition they accept political immobility. Their essential commitment to moderation and non-racialism was also their great strength: Mary Benson once called them "the African Patriots"—patriots of a common society for all South Africans. Albertina Sisulu and her delegation stood four-square on this proposition. Their message to the American president was that peace could only come with the release of prisoners, the end of repressions, and a national constitutional convention, and to that end he must stick to sanctions and pressure the South African Government to talk on this basis.

On October 14, 1989, came the great turn-about. President de Klerk lifted all restrictions on Albertina Sisulu, and the next day her husband and seven others were released after 26 years of confinement. Nelson Mandela would not come out until the next February, but the die was cast. Consistent with her long struggle, constant and indomitable, she expressed her personal happiness, but it would not be enough. Her husband's freedom would "not minimize the spirit and actions of defiance among our people … until we bring the government to a genuine negotiated settlement … for a full democratic, participatory non-racial South Africa for all."

This was the hallmark of Albertina Sisulu's principled, selfless, and courageous life: unwavering commitment to the non-racial philosophy of human equality and dignity for all in a common society. She held, miraculously, no bitterness toward the whites of her country as people, distinguishing carefully between the apartheid regime and the people. As she stated in 1987, "The Nationalist Government … are the enemies … not the White people. White people are just like you and me … We are all here to stay. All we want is power-sharing … to elect our own government," for a non-racial, democratic united South Africa.

In 1992 as the ANC Women's League Deputy President, Albertina Sisulu proposed that South African women should participate in shaping a Woman's Charter that would be included in an ANC's proposal on gender rights for the new constitution. Later that year, she discussed her belief that education must play a vital role in forming the future of South Africa. She believed that apartheid could only be abolished if women worked together.

In 1994 Albertina Sisulu joined her husband when he returned to Robben Island where he had been imprisoned for 20 years, where he was starring in a film on the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF). Later that year, when Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, she was elected to the South African Parliament. In April 1996 she was honored at the annual dinner of MESAB (Medical Education for South African Blacks, Inc.) in Washington D.C. In 1997 she joined the ANC in the celebration of her husband's 85th birthday. Both she and her husband will be remembered as being dedicated veterans of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggles.

Further Reading

A substantial interview with Albertina Sisulu by Ameen Akhalwaya was published in Africa Report (September-October 1987); another by Diana Russell, Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa (1989); and two brief ones in Ms. magazine (April 1986 and October 1988). See also a short reference article in Sheila Gastrow, Who's Who in South African Politics No. 2 (Johannesburg: 1987). Useful references in the context of the anti-apartheid movement were found in Helen Joseph, Side by Side: The Autobiography of Helen Joseph (1986); Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement (1986); and Benson's autobiography, A Far Cry (London: 1989).

For events in the 1980s see the Institute of Race Relations annual Race Relations Survey, especially for 1984, 1987/1988, and 1988/1989. Interesting press reports on Albertina Sisulu's 1989 delegation to Washington and the release of her husband appeared in The New York Times (June 17, 1989); The Los Angeles Times (June 29 and October 20, 1989); Atlanta Journal (July 8, 1989); Washington Post (June 30 and July 25, 1989); and Boston Globe (October 14, 1989). See also Ms. magazine (July-August 1992); The Times (October 2, 1992); The Guardian (January 25, 1994); and Maclean's (May 2, 1994). Information can also be accessed on the internet by doing a search for "Albertina Sisulu" (August 20, 1997). □