Sisulu, Albertina (1918—)

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Sisulu, Albertina (1918—)

South African anti-apartheid activist and African National Congress (ANC) official, who is called the "mother of the nation" for her role in the struggle against apartheid. Name variations: Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu; Mama Sisulu. Born on October 21, 1918, in the district of Tsomo, Transkei, South Africa; daughter of Benjamin Boniliawe and Nonani Thethiwe; certified as a nurse; married Walter Sisulu (an anti-apartheid activist and ANC official), on July 17, 1944; children: daughters Nonkululeko, Lindiwe, and Beryl (adopted); sons Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Jonqumzi (adopted), Gerald (adopted), and Samuel (adopted).

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu—better known as Albertina Sisulu—was born among the Xhosa people in the district of Tsomo, Transkei, South Africa, in 1918. At that time, South Africa operated under apartheid, a policy institutionalizing strict racial segregation as well as political and economic discrimination against South Africa's nonwhite majority. "Because I grew up in a rural area where I rarely saw a white face and I had nothing whatever to do with the government, I thought we were independent," Sisulu told Diana E.H. Russell . Orphaned in youth, Sisulu was frustrated in her ambition to become a teacher by the need to support her younger siblings. She later finished grade school and trained as a nurse, which required less schooling than did a teaching degree. She began learning about the injustice of apartheid only when she started working in the black hospital in Johannesburg and was required to be under the supervision of white nurses, even when she held seniority over them. She would work as a nurse in Johannesburg from 1944 to 1981.

Albertina 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 African National Congress (ANC) into a militant nationalist resistance movement. They married in 1944. Serving as best man at their wedding was Nelson Mandela, another ANC leader who later would be imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island for decades, along with Walter. Anton Lembede, chair of the Youth League at the time, warned Sisulu, "You are marrying a man who is already married to the nation."

In 1949, as the movement geared up for the anti-apartheid resistance campaigns, Walter became the ANC's first full-time general secretary. For this, he gave up his income-earning job, and Albertina assumed the task of chief family breadwinner. Over the next 15 years Walter was imprisoned eight times, banned, placed under house arrest, tried twice for treason, and finally, in 1964, incarcerated for life in prison on Robben Island with Mandela and six other ANC leaders. Through these harrowing years, Sisulu had five children and adopted her deceased sister-in-law's two children as well (two more adopted children would later join the family), supporting them all on her earnings as a nurse.

Although she long stood in the shadow of her husband's activism, Sisulu became an important South African political figure in her own right. She joined the ANC's Women's League in the 1940s, serving as deputy president from 1954 to 1963. Also in 1954, she helped form the multiracial Federation of South African Women (FSAW), of which she would later become president in 1980, after the death of Lillian Ngoyi . With FSAW, Sisulu led huge demonstrations against the extension to women of the hated pass laws 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 Madikizela-Mandela and others.

By the 1960s, the women's movement, like the ANC (which had been outlawed in 1960), was being crushed by shootings, arrests, trials and bans. In 1963, with Walter underground in the sabotage campaign of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation," the ANC's organization for armed struggle), Sisulu was held for three months in solitary confinement under the new 90-day detention law designed to crush opponents without bringing them to trial. Seventeen years of continuous bans followed, including ten years during which she was subject to dusk-to-dawn house arrest. Her livelihood was saved by the intercession of the Johannesburg Nursing Association, which demanded that she be permitted to keep working, and by financial assistance from the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. By the early 1980s, after the 1976 Soweto uprising, the women's movement, like the ANC, began to reemerge as the government grappled with massive unrest and attempted cautious reforms.

Sisulu was arrested again in 1983 and sentenced to four years' imprisonment for leading ANC songs, distributing its literature, and displaying its black, green, and gold flag. She managed to get freedom pending appeal and suspension of half the sentence. Meanwhile, also in 1983 Sisulu had helped found the United Democratic Front (UDF), incorporating hundreds of anti-apartheid groups, and was elected one of its three co-presidents while in her jail cell. The UDF's purpose was to oppose a new government-inspired constitution that claimed to provide for non-white power-sharing—with coloreds and Indians only, not with blacks—that was immediately recognized as a sham. As the government responded with increasing violence to peaceful protests, Sisulu and other UDF leaders were arrested and charged, ironically, with fomenting violent revolution. The case was dismissed for lack of credible evidence.

Many of Sisulu's children followed in their parents' footsteps, including Max, the eldest, who at age 17, in 1963, was arrested and held in solitary confinement with his mother. Another son, Mlungisi, was arrested after a national protest in 1984. Zwelakhe, Sisulu's youngest son, became a prominent journalist, but was detained for more than eight months in 1981 and prohibited from practicing journalism or participating in union activities. He traveled to the United States in 1985 to study at Harvard University and upon returning to South Africa was detained again. In addition, Sisulu's oldest daughter, Lindiwe Sisulu , was jailed and tortured in 1976. She also left South Africa, but worked for the ANC abroad.

Despite the persecution, there was evidence that reform was on the way. In 1989, champion

of apartheid President P.W. Botha was replaced as party leader by the more flexible F.W. de Klerk who became president in September. Along with a group of anti-apartheid activists, Sisulu traveled to the United States that year to meet with President George Bush, using the first passport granted to her by the South African government. She was also the first South African black nationalist leader to meet with a U.S. president. De Klerk lifted all restrictions placed on Albertina on October 14, 1989. Walter gained his freedom from Robben Island the following day, and Mandela was released shortly thereafter to assume a key leadership role in the dismantling of apartheid in 1990 and 1991. With the ANC no longer considered an "illegal" organization, Albertina helped resurrect the ANC Women's League to mobilize black South African women, while Walter served as deputy president of the ANC. As the ANC Women's League's deputy president, Sisulu proposed that South African women should participate in shaping a Woman's Charter to be included in an ANC proposal on gender rights for the new constitution. On February 1, 1991, President de Klerk repealed the remaining legislative pillars of apartheid in South Africa.

Sisulu left the presidency of the UDF and became the president of the World Peace Council in Johannesburg in 1992. When free democratic elections were held in South Africa for the first time in 1994, Sisulu—revered as the "mother of the nation" for her sacrifices in the cause of freedom—was elected a member of Parliament.


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Maclean's. Vol. 107, no. 18. May 2, 1994, p. 28.

Russell, Diana E.H. Lives of Courage: Women for a New South Africa. NY: Basic, 1989.

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Williams, Gwyneth, and Brian Hackland. The Dictionary of Contemporary Politics of Southern Africa. NY: Macmillan, 1988.

Lisa C. Groshong , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri