Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu

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Portrait of Albertina Sisulu taken in the 1950s. © Mayibuye Archives, Photo by Eli Weinberg.

Biographical information


Albertina Sisulu 'the mother of the nation', activist and nurse, who has struggled for her whole life human rights and dignity.

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
21 October 1918
Location of birth: 
Transkei, South Africa
Date of death: 
2 June 2011
Location of death: 
Linden, Johannesburg

Albertina Sisulu was a political activist and nurse and one of the most important leaders of anti-Apartheid resistance in South Africa. She is often referred to as the `Mother of the Nation’. She acted on her ideal of human rights throughout her life, assisted by her husband and fellow activist, the late Walter Sisulu (1912-2003).

It was with Walter that she attended the first conference of the ANC Youth League where Albertina Sisulu was the only women present. In 1948 she joined the ANC Women’s League and in the 1950s she began to assume a leadership role – both in the ANC and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW).  She was one of the organizers of the historic anti-pass Women’s March in 1956 and opposed inferior `Bantu’ education. Her home in Orlando West in Soweto was used as a classroom for alternative education until a law was passed against it.

Both Albertina and her husband were jailed several times for their political activities and she was constantly harassed by the Security Police. 

In the 1960s the ANC moved toward the armed struggle. Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing) was formed Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in 1961. Walter was responsible for framing the organizational units of the National High Command, Regional Commands, Local Commands and cells.

But in 1963 while he was awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a 6 year sentence, Walter  decided to forfeit bail, and to going underground. Apartheid Security Police visited Walter Sisulu's house and found that he had fled. Soon afterwards they arrested Albertina and her young son Zwelakhe. She became the first women to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act.  The Act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them and in Albertina’s case she was placed in solitary confinement incommunicado for almost two months while the Security Branch looked for her husband. 

During this time the Security Police taunted her psychologically. She described one of the cruel forms of torture used by her captors - they would come and tell her lies. They told herfor example that one of her children was seriously ill, and that her husband was dying. Because Albertina was cut off from all interaction with the outside world she had no idea that the police had raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and had arrested her husband and 16 others. She only found out three weeks after she was released from detention.

Just under a year later the Rivonia trial concluded. Six of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Walter was one of them.

Note:Denis Goldberg went to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island (at that time the only security wing for white political prisoners in South Africa) where he served 22 years.

As Walter and his co-accused left the courtroom, Albertina Sisulu, some ANC Women’s League members and other supporters rushed out to form a guard of honour to meet the men. The court officials turned them away, but they sang ‘Nkosi Sikele i’Afrika’ in Church Square in Pretoria in solidarity and mourning.

For her activism Sisulu was put in detained and put in solitary confinement again in 1981 and in 1985. She also suffered bannings and house arrest, but still managed to keep links between jailed members of the ANC and those in exile. 

In 1983 Albertina was elected co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF), and in June 1989, the government finally granted her a passport.  The following month she led a delegation of UDF leaders to Europe and the United States. She met the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the American President, George Bush Snr. In October 1989, the last restrictions on the Sisulu family were lifted and Walter was released from Robben Island.

In 1994, Albertina Sisulu served in the first democratically elected Parliament. She and her husband and son Zwelakhe have won numerous humanitarian awards. On the 2 June 2011 she died at her Linden home in Johannesburg, aged 92.

Growing up, 1918-1940

The Transkei region has become an iconic space in the South African landscape because of the many liberation leaders that were born in that area. Both Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were born not far from Camama, the village in which Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born. It was only when Nontsikelelo started school at a local mission post that she, like Mandela, acquired the European name, Albertina.

In September 1918 the Spanish Flu, a particular strain of the influenza virus that had killed 40 million people worldwide, reached South Africa. The results were as devastating as elsewhere in the world. The conservative estimate is that the epidemic killed a quarter of a million people in South Africa, and the Transkei was no exception as more than 30 000 people died out of a population of 1 million.

Monica Thethiwe (nee: Mnyila), caught the virus and was seriously ill whilst pregnant with her first daughter and her second born, Albertina. Elinor Sisulu, daughter-in-law and biographer of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, records that “Umbathalala, as the flu was called in Xhosa, was particularly lethal to pregnant women and small babies” and the Mnyila and Thethiwe families feared that Albertina would be infected in utero. Despite this when Albertina was born to Bonilizwe and Monica Thethiwe on the 21 October 1918 she was in perfect health bringing great joy to her parents and grandmother.

Even after Albertina’s mother survived the flu she was constantly ill and physically weak. Given his wife’s condition, Albertina’s father decided that his family should stay at the Mnyila family household in Xolobe while he was away working on the mines. Albertina started school in a local primary school in Xolobe that was run by Presbyterian missionaries and it is here that she had to choose a Christian name from a list presented to her by the missionaries. Nontsikelelo chose the name Albertina, her family continue to call her Ntsiki, but she was known as Albertina at school and later the name Albertina Sisulu would become synonymous with the Freedom Struggle in South Africa.

Within her extended family Albertina was the eldest of eight girls and it was her responsibility to take care of the younger girls. Even from a young age Albertina showed strong maternal instincts, and this continued throughout her life. Her leadership qualities and maternal instincts underlined the respect she earned during the struggle when she was referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. Albertina excelled at school in cultural and sporting activities and she showed leadership skills at an early age when she was chosen as head girl in standard five. However, Albertina was forced to leave school on several occasions to take care of her younger siblings (because of her mother’s bad health) and this resulted in Albertina being two years older than the rest of her class in her last year of primary school. Although at the time this did not seem a major inconvenience, later when Albertina entered a competition to win a four year high school scholarship this counted against her as she was disqualified from the prize even though she had come in first place. Angered by the unfair treatment (the competition rules had set no age limit on the prize) Albertina’s teachers wrote to the local Xhosa language newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, making a strong case for Albertina to be given the prize. Fortunately for Albertina the article caught the attention of the priests at the local Roman Catholic Mission who then communicated with Father Bernard Huss at Mariazell. Father Huss arranged for a four year high school scholarship for Albertina at Mariazell College. The Mnyila family was very happy and celebrated Albertina's achievement with the entire village, Albertina recalls that the celebration saying “you would have thought it was a wedding”.

In 1936 Albertina left for Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape and although very nervous she was excited to find that a local girl from Xolobe was a prefect at Mariazell. The school's routine was rigid and strict, pupils were woken up at 4am to bath and clean their dormitories, they would then proceed to the chapel for morning prayers. Although Albertina’s scholarship covered her board and lodging, she had to pay it back during the school holidays by ploughing the fields and working in the laundry room. Albertina only went home during the December holidays but she found this a small price to pay for the opportunity to attend high school.

With high school ending in 1939 Albertina had to decide what she would do after school. She decided that she would not marry but rather become a working professional so that she could support her family back in Xolobe. Whilst at Mariazell Albertina had converted to Catholicism and because she had resolved never to marry she decided that she would become a nun as she admired the dedication of the nuns who taught at the college. However, Father Huss advised Albertina against this as nuns did not earn a salary nor did they leave the mission post, so she would not have been able to support her family in the way she wanted to. Instead he advised her to consider nursing, as trainee nurses were paid to study. Attracted by the practical solution nursing offered Albertina took his advice and applied to various nursing schools. She was accepted as a trainee nurse at a Johannesburg “Non-European” hospital called Johannesburg General. After spending Christmas with her family in Xolobe she left for Johannesburg in January 1940.

Motherhood & Politics, 1940-1960

17 July 1944, Walter and Albertina’s wedding reception in Johannesburg.<em> © Sisulu family collection17 July 1944, Walter and Albertina’s wedding reception in Johannesburg. © Sisulu family collection.

South Africa in the 1940s was defined by incredible economic and political changes, changes that were determined by the Second World War and by the introduction of formal apartheid in 1948. The labour market experienced phenomenal growth because of an increased demand in the manufacturing sector, where goods that were previously produced in Europe, were produced locally because of the war. Many black South Africans were drawn into the manufacturing sector on the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and there was a great increase in the amount of women who joined the labour force for the first time. A small portion of this new group of female migrants moved to the city with the intention of pursuing higher education in the fields of nursing, teaching or social work and it is amongst this group that Albertina found herself. For Albertina, Johannesburg represented a totally different life to the one she experienced in Xolobe. She had heard stories of the tsotsis, of the wild parties and nightlife and of the dangers of living in the city. But despite all this Johannesburg represented a promise of a better life where Albertina could earn a decent wage to support her family back home in the Transkei.

Elinor Sisulu wrote that “Albertina took to nursing like a duck to water” because of her disciplined upbringing and young life caring for others. Although Albertina thoroughly enjoyed being a trainee nurse, she was bitterly disappointed to discover that she would not be able to send home as much money as she had hoped to. Her job required that she buy compulsory items (uniform and stationary) leaving her with a meager wage balance. However, Albertina saved as much as she possibly could and was able to buy clothes for her siblings occasionally.

Albertina led a very frugal lifestyle and hardly left the nurses’ residences to explore Johannesburg, despite many tempting invitations from her friends to attend social events at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. It was only during her second year in Johannesburg that she begun to take part in social activities. She took up tennis, made new friends and ventured out into the city with her cousin Jumba, who was a migrant worker, living in Alexandra.

In amongst all the new experiences that Johannesburg offered Albertina, it was also the place where she experienced racism for the first time. There seemed to be an unofficial policy of racial segregation amongst the staff of Johannesburg General as White nurses, regardless of age or experience, were always superior to their Black colleagues. Albertina was shocked at the way junior White nurses would order Black sisters around; she had never been exposed to such prejudice before. Six months into Albertina’s training she witnessed blatant racism and discrimination against black patients who were admitted to the hospital after a horrific accident at Park Station, Johannesburg’s central bus and train terminus. The accident victims were flooding into the hospital and all staff members were on call, including those who were on leave. The Non-European section of the hospital was swamped with patients and the senior Black medical staff appealed to the hospital authorities to allow Black patients to be treated in the European wards but the White authorities would not allow it. As a result of the lack of available bed space, even seriously injured patients were forced to sleep on the floor. This incident had a profound effect on Albertina as she could not believe that medical practitioners would violate their duty and deny the best possible care to patients on the basis of their skin colour.

Another tragic memory that Albertina associates with Johannesburg General is the death of her mother in 1941. The hospital would not permit her leave to attend the funeral in Xolobe. The hospital matron flatly refused to allow Albertina to return home to mourn her mother’s death, despite interventions and pleas offered by the Catholic priests at Rosettenville (a church near to the Johannesburg General hospital that Father Huss had notified about Albertina’s situation).

Albertina’s introduction into South African politics was directly linked to her relationship with Walter Sisulu. Prior to her relationship with Walter, Albertina had never participated or even thought of involving herself in political activities. In 1941 Albertina met Walter at the nurses’ residence per chance through her cousin Jumba. It turned out that Walter was the brother and cousin of two of Albertina’s closest friends at the hospital, Rosabella (Barbie) Sisulu and Evelyn Mase. Although she was at first hesitant to start a relationship with Walter, because Barbie and Evelyn related to her as an older sister, she eventually decided to take Walter up on his invite to the “bioscope” (movie cinema) and their relationship developed from there. Albertina regularly accompanied Walter to his political meetings, but she did so mainly in a supportive capacity, not with the intention of becoming actively involved. At the inaugural conference of the African National Congress' Youth League in 1944, Albertina was the only woman present, but again her presence at the conference was to support Walter. She did not join the ANC Youth League because it was very much a young men’s organisation at the time.

1944 was also the year that Albertina qualified as a nurse and married Walter Sisulu. Walter wanted to be married in Johannesburg but Albertina’s uncle, Campbell Mnyila, insisted that Albertina be married in the Transkei. After a heated discussion between the two men it was agreed that the couple would be married in the Transkei, although their wedding banns had already been read in Johannesburg (banns are a public recognition, in the form of an announcement made in a church, that two people are about to get married). Albertina and Walter had to change their plans and prepare to be married by the Magistrate in Cofimvaba. On 15 July 1944 Albertina became Mrs. Sisulu and after enjoying a more traditional wedding reception at Albertina’s home is Tsomo the couple returned to Johannesburg and hosted a reception at the Bantu Men’s Social Club where Nelson Mandela was the best man and Albertina’s friend Evelyn (at the time married to Mandela) was one of the bridesmaids.

Albertina and Walter lived at No. 7372 in Orlando, Soweto. The house belonged to Walter’s family, and it was here that their first son – Max Vuyisile – was born in 1945. The Sisulu house was always busy with visitors constantly moving in and out, many of whom were prominent political leaders. Miriam Matsha, Albertina’s sister-in-law, has commented that “the best political education I had was living at No. 7372”. Walter decided to quit his job and join the African National Congress (ANC) full time around 1947 and Albertina accepted the responsibility of supporting the family as the sole bread winner. This was a brave decision to make given that the wages for black nurses were not extraordinary and much in South Africa was about to change with the introduction of formal apartheid.  The ANC only began accepted women as members at the Congress’s 1943 conference and in 1948 the ANC Women’s League was formed. Albertina Sisulu joined as a member; this was the beginning of Albertina's life as an activist in her own right. In 1949 Albertina supported Walter's election as the first full-time Secretary-General of the ANC.

The Defiance Campaign of 1950 to 1952 was a turning point in the national struggle for liberation for many reasons; the mass support it enjoyed sent a strong message to the government about the organisational strength of African leaders, the United Nations recognised that the South African racial policy was an international issue and a UN Commission was established to investigate the situation, the ANC’s membership was increased exponentially, and it heralded a new era of non-racial resistance to Apartheid .

Significantly the Defiance Campaign of 1952 catapulted the ANC’s Women’s League into a new era of action; from this a new breed of women leaders emerged who would later form the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). FEDSAW was launched on 17 April 1954 in Johannesburg. It aimed to establish a broad-based women’s organisation that would not only fight for national liberation, but specifically address issues of gender inequality that were driven by the state against non-white women. The Women’s Charter was adopted at the inaugural conference which was attended by 150 women from all over South Africa. During the early stages of the federation, Albertina was not in a position of leadership but she was actively committed to promoting the ideals of FEDSAW.

Also in 1954, Albertina got her midwife qualification and she was employed by the City Health of Johannesburg as a midwife. The job was challenging as Albertina, like the other Black midwives, had to travel on foot to visit her patients in townships. She used to carry her suitcase full of her apparatus (bottles, lotions, bowls and receivers) on her head. When she visited patients at their homes she would take FEDSAW pamphlets with her and would encourage the women to join the federation.

In 1955 FEDSAW was actively involved in the ANC’s boycott of Bantu Education and Albertina, being absolutely against Bantu Education, threw herself into preparations for the boycott. The ANC Women’s League and FEDSAW aided the boycott greatly by opening alternative schools for children that were supported by the ANC as well as teachers who had resigned from their jobs in protest against Bantu Education. Albertina’s home became an alternative school as her children had been withdrawn from their government schools because of the Bantu Education system. The apartheid state responded by making it illegal to run alternative schools and it announced that it would shut down all boycotting schools permanently. This of course meant that parents had to send their children back to the government schools as well as the fact that the alternative schools were not sustainable in the long term. Several Christian schools decided to continue as private schools rather than being placed under the control of the Bantu Education Department and Albertina and Walter decided to send their children to a private Seventh Day Adventist school despite the considerable financial burden this would place on them.

The 1956 women’s anti-pass protest was a historic moment for South Africa and women’s movements with around 20 000 women gathering from all over the country to march on the Union Buildings demanding to see Prime Minister Stijdom to hand over their memorandum. After the ANC Women’s League’s first national conference at the end of 1955, the League and FEDSAW set up a joint working committee to coordinate the women’s anti-pass campaign. Networks and meetings were organised with regular weekend meetings being held in townships, the success of which convinced FEDSAW and ANC women leaders that a mass protest would be an effective means of protest, despite some reservations from male comrades in the ANC. Transporting women from all over to Pretoria was perhaps the biggest logistical challenge to the march, because of the financial cost as well as police measures to stop this. Albertina was one of the leaders who had to ensure that women bypassed the reported police stops that were barring groups of ten or more women from traveling to Pretoria. It was decided that the trains would be used as these would be harder to stop than busses, and Albertina was at the Phefeni train station at 2am on the 9th August 1956 buying and distributing tickets to women attending the march. The march itself was phenomenal and inspiring, bundles of petitions with more than 100 000 signatures were placed outside the Prime Minister’s Door whilst 20 000 women stood in silence for 30 minutes with their hands raised in the Congress Salute. After singing freedom songs, especially the famous “Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom! Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!” (Now you have touched the women, Strijdom! You have struck a rock, You will be crushed!), the women left the Union Buildings together in unity and solidarity.

During 1958 the South African Nursing Council demanded that all nurses and student nurses supply their identity numbers to the council. Immediately nurses realised that this demand was linked to the government’s attempts to extend pass laws and pass books to women and a demonstration was organised at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. A delegation of nurses leading the demonstration warned the Nursing Council that forcing nurses to carry passes would have a devastating effect on hospital and clinic administration and after considering this the Council dropped the demand for identity numbers. In the same year a demonstration of over 1000 women (led by Maggie Resha, part of the nurses protest at Baragwanath) converged on Freedom Square in Sophiatown to protest against ongoing removals in Sophiatown, women in Alexandra were also protesting against passes. Over 2000 women were jailed for participating in these demonstrations, including Albertina as she was part of a demonstration organised by the ANC Women’s League in Orlando. The women were in jail for three weeks awaiting trial. They had Nelson Mandela as their legal representative and eventually they were all acquitted at the end of the trial.

Within the broader structure of the ANC, women became more respected because of their persistent protesting and their attitudes towards defying the government.

Banning orders, banning orders and more banning orders, 1960-1980

September 1963. Albertina Sisulu speaking after her release from 90-day detention. She was held in detention for information after the sensational Rivonia Raid in July 1963.© Baileys African History Archives, photograph by Drum Photographer.

The 1960s saw the ANC move toward the armed struggle. Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing) was formed through the agency of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in 1961. They were appointed chairman and political commissar respectively. Walter was responsible for framing the organizational units of National High Command, Regional Commands, Local Commands and cells. But in 1963 Walter was awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a 6 year sentence and he decided to forfeit bail and went underground. Security Police visited Walter Sisulu's house and found that he had fled. Soon afterwards they arrested Albertina.

Albertina Sisulu became the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963. The Act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them and in Albertina’s case she was placed in solitary confinement incommunicado for almost two months. During this time the security police psychologically taunted her (by threatening the safety of her children) with the intent of gaining information on Walter Sisulu's whereabouts. Because Albertina was cut off from all interaction with the outside world she had no idea that the police had raided Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and had arrested her husband and 16 others. She only found out three weeks after she was released from detention. Just under a year later the Rivonia trial concluded, 6 of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, Walter Sisulu was one of them. As Walter Sisulu and his co-accused left the courtroom, Albertina, some ANC Women’s League members and other supporters rushed out to form a guard of honour to meet the men. The court officials turned them away, but they sang ‘Nkosi Sikele i’Afrika’ in Church Square in Pretoria in solidarity and mourning.

In order to visit Walter, Albertina was forced to apply for a passbook as no-one was allowed to visit Robben Island without one. This process was very humiliating and degrading for her, she had never owned a passbook and had always resisted attempts by the state or the nursing council to this end. The officials who administrated Albertina’s passbook mocked her by asking her where she had been when others had applied for their reference books years ago. They aggravated circumstances further by deliberately delaying the administrative process.

On top of all of this Albertina was served with a five year banning order (valid until the 31st July 1969) which limited her movement and activities according to ‘Group B’ restrictions. For five years Albertina was not allowed to leave the magisterial district of Johannesburg. Although the ‘Group B’ restrictions were less severe than those of ‘Group C’ (24 house arrest), Albertina’s banning order prevented her from visiting all townships, hostels, villages or compounds where Black people lived. She was also prohibited to visit any factory, newspaper or magazine office, university, school, college, or educational institution, and any Coloured or Asian area, except Orlando where she lived. She was further barred from communicating with any banned or listed person (list of individuals who the state wanted to persecute/were suspicious about) except her husband. In addition to this she was not allowed to be involved with the compiling, printing or distribution of any publication, or to give any educational instruction to any person other than her own children. Albertina was banned from attending social, political or student gatherings – a “gathering” being defined as more than three people present and/or any number of persons of different races being together. Finally Albertina also had to report to the Commanding Officer of the Orlando Police Station every Wednesday.

When Albertina’s permit to visit Robben Island arrived she had to apply to the Chief Magistrate for special permission to leave Johannesburg. In turn the Magistrate had to refer the matter to the security police. Eventually Albertina was able to visit Walter in September 1964, but the same restrictions applied to her in Cape Town and although she informed the police of all of her arrival and departure times, her movements were unashamedly watched over by local police.

Albertina’s first Christmas without her husband was difficult. Over and above the pain of not being with Walter, she was faced with dire financial problems. Her children returned home from school in Swaziland for the December holidays and she was concerned that she might not be able to feed them.  Holiday celebrations were a bleak affair as many of Albertina's friends and comrades were either in prison or in exile. Albertina remembers the following about the 1964 festive season:

“There was hardly anything to eat and I had to close the doors and windows to keep out the aroma of delicious food coming from the houses of our neighbours. We were so lonely. The people who we would normally spend the day with were not there. It was the worst Christmas we had ever had.”

Albertina’s financial woes continued throughout the 1960s as she struggled to afford her children's schooling in Swaziland, but she said that she would rather struggle than subject her children to Bantu education. When she was not at work, Albertina sewed lishweshwe dresses and knitted jerseys and baby clothes to sell for extra money and she also bought eggs at wholesale prices, selling them at a small profit. In these difficult times her neighbors and friends were incredibly kind and supportive. From grocers who allowed her to buy on credit, to friends who would lend her money to buy school supplies for her children, to neighbors who would donate coal for cooking free of charge every month. Anglican priests in South Africa who were friends with Albertina and Walter also helped her out by either paying for the children’s school fees or helping them to secure bursaries from overseas donors.

Even though Albertina was under constant surveillance by the security police she still managed to exchange political information with Walter and network with other activists. In a letter dated 25 November 1965 Albertina cryptically wrote the following:

“Our gardens are not too good at all this year. The drought has been too much. The worms are so powerful that as soon as you put in plants they are destroyed instantly.”

Albertina was making reference to the fact that informers (worms) were defeating the work of the ANC underground (gardens) which was mad worse by the repressive political climate (drought). As a FEDSAW leader and ANC stalwart who was not imprisoned Albertina had to do her best to dodge the security police so that she could network with ANC comrades and other activists. One such person was John Nkadimeng. John was closely associated with Walter in the ANC before he joined the Communist Party and he too was a target of the security police. John and Albertina managed to contact each other during 1966 and together they set up an underground cell. They were joined by activist John Mavuso and the three of them maintained contact with the ANC leadership in Botswana. The cell’s main activity was to help ANC members to leave the country for education or military training and they managed with the help of others to set up a working committee to facilitate this.

Nkadimeng and Albertina went about setting up links with activists in other provinces which proved to be very difficult because of their banning orders and the ban on formal meetings. Nkadimeng would visit Albertina at her clinic pretending to be a relative. They would discuss political matters by pretending to be chatting about family matters. Other underground activists would also go to the clinic and pretend to be patients and they would exchange information as Albertina attended to them. Between 5pm when she finished work and 7pm when she had to report to the police station, Albertina managed to sneak off to meetings. One of her sons, Lungi, assisted her as courier and driver to other activists. He often picked up messages and parcels for his mother.

Albertina also managed to keep in contact with her FEDSAW comrades through very unconventional but ingenious methods; one of which involved conversations through a toilet wall! The toilet in Albertina’s house, like most in her area, shared a wall with her neighbor, Metty Hluphekile Kubheka. Kubheka moved in next door the mid-1960s. FEDSAW members would pretend to visit Kubheka but would converse with Albertina through the thin adjoining toilet wall while Kubheka kept a look out in the front garden for the security police.

Albertina always had to be extremely careful as police informants were all over neighborhood, the clinic and even posed as members in the movement. Towards the end of 1967 Albertina grew suspicious that John Mavuso was a police informant. He was their main contact with the ANC leadership in Lusaka and he had opened up a new factory and Albertina was unsure where he had managed to get the money. After an investigation carried out by John Nkadimeng it turned out that Albertina’s suspicions were correct. They decided not to confront Mavuso about this but they stopped all business with him.

Over and above the constant surveillance, the security forces tried to break the nerve of political leaders using psychological tactics. In July 1966 Albertina received a letter from the Liquidator informing her that he had evidence that she was a member of the Communist Party and that FEDSAW was under “communistic domination and control” because its leaders; Albertina, Eufemia Hlapane and Gertrude Shope, were confirmed communists. In a back and forth exchange of letters between Albertina, the Ministry of Justice and the Liquidator the allegations were dropped but the psychological strain of the ordeal affected Albertina. The security forces also stirred up gossip in the townships making people suspicious of their comrades, asking questions like “why are their children studying in boarding schools in Swaziland when ours are in township schools?”

In July 1969, exactly five years after her first banning order the state informed Albertina that her banning order had been renewed for another five years and that she was being placed under partial house arrest. The security police justified their decision by saying that Albertina had continued her involvement in FEDSAW and had continued to engage in illegal political activities. The security police report used in extending Albertina’s banning order contained many fabrications, some of which were completely fantastical. The police were correct that Albertina was still a member of FEDSAW. The usual allegations that Albertina was a member of the Communist Party were included in the report, along with allegations that she was planning to buy a property for returning freedom fighters (‘terrorists’). By far the most bizarre allegations were that she had communicated with her husband by putting a “secret message” into the frames of the new spectacles she had bought him and that a white man called Platz-Mills from London had given Albertina a secret writing apparatus that looked like a mirror so that she could communicate with leaders abroad. The security police were also very interested in the rift between Albertina and Winnie Mandela and alleged that Albertina was “competing with Winnie for the leadership of FEDSAW” – a ridiculous allegation as Winnie was not a member of FEDSAW or of any affiliated organisation. These allegations were merely used to convince the Ministry of Justice to impose further restrictions on Albertina.

Although the 1960s were tough, Albertina felt that significant work had been done in rebuilding the underground and community structures of FEDSAW and the ANC. In September 1968 she wrote to Walter, using the same metaphors as before, saying that:

“Though we have not got enough rain yet this year, our gardens are not as poor as all these other years. I think by next year we will have enough vegetables. So rest in peace in the Island. We are not going to starve long.”
Albertina celebrated her 50th birthday in 1968 and obtained her matric certificate in 1969 through an adult education course.

The renewed banning order made it almost impossible for Albertina to network with FEDSAW and the ANC members as she was under partial house arrest. During this time she kept Walter up to date with family matters, writing to him constantly about their children’s school achievements and their love lives (marriages). The Sisulu house was always busy as extended family, friends and neighbors often visited and political activists came by to exchange information and of course there were the obtrusive police raids. Albertina was a busy house wife; this amazed her children who appreciated the political stress she was under. In 1972 some of Albertina’s children clubbed together to buy her a washing machine for her 54th birthday. Sheila Sisulu (daughter-in-law, married to Lungi Sisulu) commented on this occasion: “I felt so guilty about Mama doing laundry all the time and I was not about to spend my days helping her with the washing. At first she distrusted the machine and felt it did not wash the clothes properly, but after the first few washes she was so impressed that she named the machine ‘MaSisulu’. When the washing machine was churning out load after load we would jokingly say ‘MaSisulu is busy today!’”

Throughout her life Albertina had always been mothering. From when she had to take care of her younger siblings to her experience of motherhood with her own children and her late sister’s children, then later taking care of her grandchildren whose parents were away in exile. In African cultures, extended family (i.e. nieces and nephews) are considered to be part of the immediate family and Albertina frequently looked after her sister Flora’s children. Albertina had to make more room for her family and built extra ‘backrooms’ in the backyard of her house to accommodate everyone. Albertina always kept Walter up to date with these changes so that he would recognise No. 7372 when he returned home.

The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was very popular amongst students of the 1970s and Lindiwe Sisulu (Albertina’s 4th child, her first daughter) was active in the Black People’s Convention (BPC) from 1971-1973. Albertina was concerned with Lindiwe’s involvement with BPC because she disapproved of the way that many of the youths had interpreted the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy with regards to white people. The ANC had always maintained a policy of non-racialism and while Steve Biko’s views on whites in South Africa were not extreme, some of the BCM youths were bent on totally eliminating white people from South Africa. Despite her concerns, Albertina was supportive of her daughter and did not patronise her during the political conversations they enjoyed. Lindiwe felt that Albertina and John Nkadimeng were too passive and lacked real activity in merely working to set up structures.

On 25 April 1974 Mozambique was liberated by FRELIMO. This victory boosted the morale of the South African freedom fighters. Albertina’s second five year banning order was due end that year, but it was renewed again for another five years. The partial house arrest requirement was removed, but she was prohibited to leave her own township of Orlando and she had to continue to report the Orlando Police Station weekly. Albertina had to apply for special permits to attend work-related lectures outside of Orlando from the Chief Magistrate of Johannesburg.

16 June 1976 was a pivotal day in South African history, the details of which are too significant to summarise here. SAHO has a feature on the student uprising and this should be read by all hoping to appreciate this event. Protests against the use of Afrikaans as an instruction medium in black schools were frequent but the government refused to listen; Albertina was one of thousands of parents who were concerned about the quality of education that her children were receiving given that most of the teachers in Soweto could barely speak Afrikaans let alone teach in it.

Nkuli Sisulu, Albertina’s daughter and youngest child, attended Morris Isaacson High. This school was centrally involved in the organisation of the student protests. Before the 16 June riots Albertina could sense that Nkuli was hiding something from her and so could her siblings who saw the excitement that she was repressing. Nkuli and her cousin Jongi left home as normal with their school books on 16 June 1976 not speaking of the protest plans to anyone. Albertina was at work when she heard about the student protests but was not really worried about it because she did not imagine that they would be in any real danger. However, during the course of the day Albertina became increasingly worried as reports about children being shot at and killed came in. On her way home that evening Albertina saw that the township had erupted into chaos, students were throwing stones at the police and cars and buildings had been set alight. Albertina had no idea where Nkuli and Jongi were, but they returned home later that day. The student riots continued through June and July and Albertina, like most parents, could not stop her children from taking part as the Sisulu children did not want to sit around at home while their friends and peers were out fighting on the streets. This period was very nerve wrecking for Albertina who never knew when her children would be home. Nkuli often came home badly bruised or burnt by teargas.

On top of this stress Albertina was very anxious about her daughter Lindiwe who had been taken into custody on 14 June. Initially Albertina was utterly distressed as she did not know where Lindiwe had been taken and she feared the police’s increased brutality towards detainees. Fortunately Albertina found Lindiwe the following day at John Vorster Square, the notorious detention centre where Steve Biko was murdered. Lindiwe remained in detention for almost a year and suffered terrible physical and mental torture at the hands of the police.

Many young people were either forced to leave the country or left voluntarily after the events of 1976. Lindiwe Sisulu left in June 1977 for Mozambique because she feared being detained again. Albertina facilitated the departure of many young people into exile post-1976 and there were many opportunities to mobilise not only the youth but also women. Albertina notes that women who had previously shunned her and her political activity because they were afraid to land up in jail now had had a change of heart. Primarily because of the involvement of their children in the student protests and the police brutality against them, they wanted to become active members of FEDSAW. Albertina noted “our organisation of women became very strong after 1976”.

In July 1979 Walter and Albertina celebrated 35 years of marriage; a marriage like no other with many children in exile (they had not seen Max, their firstborn, in 16 years) and with 15 years of not living in same house. Click here to read the letter that Walter wrote to Albertina on their 35th wedding anniversary. The sisulu’s also celebrated two other weddings, in December 1978 Albertina's son Zwelakhe married Zodwa Mdladlambaand in 1979, Lindiwe married Xolile Guma in Swaziland.  

Two weeks after their wedding anniversary the security police arrived to serve Albertina with another banning order, this time it was a two year ban. The report from the security police recognised that Albertina was a very good public speaker who could mobilise many people so the ban on attending “gatherings” remained.

"The mother of the nation", 1980s

Circa mid-1980s. UDF meeting in Johannesburg. © Paul WeinburgCirca mid-1980s. UDF meeting in Johannesburg. © Paul Weinburg.

Elinor Sisulu wrote the following about the beginning of the 1980s for Albertina:

The year 1980 began on a sad note for Albertina, with the death of her friend and mentor, Lilian Ngoyi. Lilian was the most significant woman leader in the struggle of her generation, and a shinning example to many.”

Albertina and Helen Joseph were both under banning orders that prevented them from attending Lilian’s funeral but applied for permits to attend. Helen was granted leave to attend but Albertina was forbidden to do so – a cruel and soul crushing experience for Albertina who wanted to say goodbye to her friend and co-worker in the struggle.

Politically the beginning of the 1980s was very much in favour of the liberation struggle as Zimbabwe gained its independence on 18 April 1980. This completely disarmed the apartheid regime’s plans to establish links with other African states in the region to support its policies of racial segregation and to prevent a “communist onslaught”. Sabotage acts against the state, most notably the bombing of police stations, increased greatly as the ANC relied on its armed wing – Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) - to retaliate against police brutality and the murders of political activists.

Student boycotts in the Western Cape had also taken on a more militant stance and boycotts spread across the country affecting many campuses. Nkuli Sisulu was studying her first year Fort Hare university in the Eastern Cape and was arrested by police under the orders of Bantustan leader Lennox Sebe. Nkuli was detained for three days and beaten severely. Albertina recalled that when Nkuli returned home she was “black and blue” from the injuries she had sustained in prison. Although Albertina was upset that Nkuli’s education had once again been disturbed (as in 1976) she agreed that it would not be a good idea for Nkuli to return to Fort Hare.

Albertina's son Zwelakhe was served with a three year banning order on 29 December 1980 which placed him under partial house arrest and confined his movements to the magisterial district of Johannesburg and it also effectively banned him from being a journalist as he was prohibited to be involved in any part of the production or dissemination of any publication. This was significant as Zwelakhe was the president of WASA – Writers Association of South Africa, later MWASA – Media Workers Association of South Africa. Up until his banning he had done profound political work by combining Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy with ANC strategies and ideology in his writings. Priscilla Jana, a BC activist and lawyer who had once defended Zwelakhe in court, remarked that Zwelakhe inherited his ability to combine differing ideologies and organisations from his mother. She notes that Albertina was”¦

“”¦the mother in Soweto. It didn’t matter whether you were Black Consciousness or PAC or anything, their home was an open home”¦ she had a tremendous ability to bring people together. When people had any problems, be they political or non-political, they could feel free to call at the Sisulu home.”

Albertina’s attitude to life also helped Zwelakhe’s wife Zodwa cope with her husband’s banning as the adjustment to a “government-prescribed lifestyle” was severe. One had to adjust to a completely different way of life, one that was constantly monitored and disturbed by security police. Zodwa Sisulu said that Albertina had set an “impressive example” for her to follow and that being in the Sisulu family had made her accustomed to living under banning orders. Zwelakhe and Zodwa still lived with Albertina at no.7372 (they had tried many times to secure other accommodation but to no avail) and because of the banning order on both mother and son they were legally not allowed to be in the same room or to communicate with each other – a virtually impossible task considering the small size of the Sisulu house!

Fortunately in July 1981, much to her surprise, Albertina’s banning order was not renewed. She had been banned for 18 years, the longest any person in South Africa had been banned. Her new ‘freedom’ meant that she could actively and openly set to work on rebuilding women’s organisations within FEDSAW, she was also inundated with requests to speak at meetings and rallies. But even though she was free to speak at meetings she could not be quoted in newspapers as she had once been a banned person.

Albertina worked closely with veteran activists like Greta Ncapayi, June Mlangeni and Sister Bernard Ncube. Much work was done to recruit young female activists who could organise the women in the ANC underground. A Soweto teacher O’Hara Diseko was one of these new recruits who Albertina sent to Botswana to discuss plans with the ANC Women’s Branch there. Albertina and O’Hara also formed a local cell called Thusang Basadi (‘Wake up women’) with other women in the area to support detainees and the families of political prisoners. Thusang Basadi would help with the educating of political prisoners and with the organisation of funerals, tracing missing members of ANC’s families. The cell staged protest marches outside of municipal offices, demanding that the dummy municipal structures and non-elected councils be dismantled.

At the end of 1979 a group of students involved in the student boycotts in the Western Cape were advised to seek the mentorship of Albertina on how to take up education issues from a national liberation perspective. Jessie Duarte was part of a delegation that met with Albertina, Greta Ncapayi and others in Orlando West. After their initial meeting in 1979 Jessie worked alongside Albertina for over 12 years. Jessie described Albertina as a “one-woman political education course” and learned much about FEDSAW and the ANC and its policies from her. Jessie along with Sicily Palmer, Feroza Adams, Benny Manama, Baby Tyawa and Susan Shabangu became known as ‘MaSisulu’s girls’. It was Albertina’s mission to develop what she called a “petticoat layer” of women leaders who would take over from the older women.

In 1981 Albertina was involved in a campaign against the government’s plan to hold elections for the South African Indian Council (SAIC), which was a puppet advisory body to the government that would allegedly advise the state on Indian affairs. The Transvaal anti-SAIC committee was formed in June 1981 and was met with an overwhelming response by the Indian community. In November 1981 a national anti-SAIC conference was held in Durban and Albertina was one of the main speakers alongside ANC legend Archie Gumede. The anti-SAIC campaign was all about non-racialism and about bringing to life the values of the Freedom Charter. Albertina was seen as a living testament to both of these ideals.

During 1981 Albertina also spoke at many meetings and, sadly, many funerals condemning the state’s policy of detentions without trials. January 1981 saw the first cross-border raid into Mozambique and the South African Defence Force killed 20 people in Matola, in February. Joe Gqabi (ANC representative in Zimbabwe) was assassinated outside his home in Harare, and in November, ANC activist Griffiths Mxenge was assassinated by the security police. On 5 February 1982 Neil Aggett, a trade unionist and medical doctor, was found hanging in his cell. He was the 54th prisoner to die in detention and the first white political prisoner to die in police custody. Albertina empathized with the Aggett family because of Zwelakhe who was still in detention and she became involved in the funeral arrangements for Neil’s burial.

On the 15th June 1982 Albertina was served with her fifth banning order, a two year set of restrictions that barred her from attending any meetings (and funerals) where she was able to ‘expound her ideological views’.

The 1980s was a decade of significant political reform; the 'tri-cameral parliament' system was introduced by the apartheid state in 1983. It created three separate parliaments; one for Whites, one for Coloureds and one for Indians. The African majority was excluded from this parliament system because it was argued that they had their own political representation in the respective homelands (Bantustans) – a completely defunct argument because of the fact that the homelands were largely rejected and despised by the majority of Black South Africans. 

The repressed majority was fighting for change and for a united front against apartheid and there was some optimism as people could see that the apartheid engine was slowing losing steam. The apartheid state was loosing support and suffering international sanctions and the ANC’s popularity was increasing abroad.

At the beginning of 1983 Reverend Alan Boesak proposed the idea of a formal united front of resistance against apartheid at the Transvaal anti-SAIC Committee congress, an idea that was welcomed. Many were keen to use the proposal in opposition to the tri-cameral parliament. A national steering committee was set up to take the proposal of a united front forward. Albertina was approached to support the idea because of her ANC experience and her leadership involvement in the revival of FEDSAW.

Albertina had been banned from attending the conference in January where Revd. Boesak proposed the idea but when approached she wholeheartedly supported it. The timing for such an initiative could not have been more perfect as Albertina’s banning order was cut short due to the introduction of the new Internal Security Act of 1982. Her banning order ended approximately a yearbefore it was due to. Albertina was eager to be involved with the preparations for the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) as mass mobilisation on a national scale – across organisations and race – was desperately needed to change the political situation in South Africa. However, she was arrested on 5 August 1983 (probably because the state saw her involvement with the UDF as a threat) after the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele in January. She was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for allegedly furthering the aims of the ANC – still banned at this time. The security forces ‘evidence’ was that Rose Mbele’s coffin was draped with an ANC flag and Albertina was asked to deliver a tribute to Rose’s life; facts which were distorted to incriminate Albertina for delivering a speech on behalf of the ANC. During this time the UDF section in the Transvaal held its Regional Executive Committee Elections and Albertina was elected president in absentia. In an article written about her election by the vice-president of the UDF for the Transvaal region, Dr. RAM Saloojee, Albertina was dubbed the ‘mother of the nation’.

Albertina’s trial date was set for the 17th October and she was denied bail. She remained in custody with Thami Mali (a teacher from Soweto accused of the same offences) in Diepkloof Prison. The international Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) publicised Albertina’s detention abroad with strong condemnation of the apartheid government. This caught the attention of the British Foreign Secretary who issued a statement of concern detailing the ‘strong feelings of repugnance’ that Britons felt towards the South African government. The fact that Albertina and Thami Mali were arrested a full eight months after Rose Mbele’s funeral implies that the state was not really interested in their actions at the funeral but rather in crushing the UDF in its early stages

Being in jail did not prevent Albertina from participating in the struggle as 250 000 copies of the UDF News boasted a full-length image of her on the front page. The UDF News was distributed throughout the townships in the Transvaal during the UDF’s recruitment drive for its national launch.

The launch of the UDF signalled a new chapter in the struggle for liberation as 12 000 to 15 000 people gathered in Mitchell’s Plain to show their support for South Africa’s largest democratic organisation. More than 400 organisations throughout the country were affiliated to the UDF including trade unions, women’s groups, sports groups and faith-based and civic organisations. Albertina was elected as one of the three presidents of the UDF along with Oscar Mpetha and Archie Gumede.

George Bizos defended Albertina and Thami in court saying that, yes, the ANC’s presence at the funeral was necessary because of Rose Mbele’s history with the organisation but the funeral was not a political rally for the ANC. On 24 February 1984 Albertina was sentenced to four years in prison, two of which were suspended for five years. Upon hearing the news of MaSisulu’s sentence, Priscilla Jana, lodged a successful appeal for bail and eventually (after running around to everyone she knew) collected the required R1000 bail fee. Priscilla managed to get Albertina out of jail at midnight that night, Albertina was fast asleep by then as she had not been expecting to be bailed out. She was taken home and settled down to a celebratory meal of curry and rice at 3am in the morning! Albertina’s sentence was met with an outcry by the UN Special Committee against Apartheid and by the leader of the women’s section of the ANC, Gertrude Shope, especially since it was the ‘Year of the Women in South Africa’.

In 1984 Albertina retired from the Council of Nurses to work with Dr Abu Asvat who worked from a mobile clinic (housed in a caravan) in Rockville Soweto. Dr Asvat was politically aligned with AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation) and was deeply committed to helping the poor. Despite their different political persuasions Albertina and Dr Asvat worked in perfect harmony as both were passionate about serving the poor and overthrowing the apartheid state. Dr Asvat was also understood the nature of Albertina’s UDF work and the risk that she could be jailed or banned at any time. He allowed her much leave to visit Walter in Cape Town.

1984 was a very busy year for the UDF and Albertina spoke at many rallies around the country. In July the UDF embarked on ‘roadshow-style mobilisation’ where its leaders travelled around the country encouraging people to boycott the tri-cameral elections during ‘Don’t Vote’ rallies. Despite the jail sentence hanging over her head and unconcerned about her older age, Albertina delivered angry speeches that criticised the government for its plans to conscript young coloured and Indian males into the apartheid army. She also continually campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu so that there could be genuine democratic negotiation. At the first anniversary of the UDF Albertina delivered one of her most famous speeches.

By the end of 1984 the UDF had over 600 affiliates and its boycott campaign was the most vigorous and sustained political campaign run by black South Africans. The ANC had also declared 1984 the ‘Year of the Woman’ and Albertina was part of a group of activists tasked with the challenge of reviving FEDSAW. It was decided, for fear of being banned, that FEDSAW should exist as a network of connected but independent provincial organisations and Albertina set Sister Bernard Ncube and Jessie Duarte the task of drawing veteran activists into the process of building up FEDSAW. As leader in charge, Albertina also maintained that it was vital that FEDSAW communicated and sought the consult of women in exile. In her public statements during this period Albertina continually emphasised the role of women in the struggle and combined this with the campaign against the tri-cameral parliament.

Riots, boycotts and indiscriminate police shooting rocked the townships in 1984, but the state could not squash the will of the people and the riots continued throughout the year. The state blamed the UDF for the violence and considered banning the party but concerns over international pressure and what could happen if the UDF went underground prevented this. Instead the state targeted the UDF leaders and in October and December 1984 nine UDF leaders were arrested. Shortly after this on the 19 February 1985 Albertina was arrested along with other UDF leaders and trade unionists, all of whom were transported down to Durban to join their UDF colleagues who had been detained the previous year. In total sixteen leaders were arrested and charged with treason and a trial date was set for 21 October, on Albertina’s 67th birthday.

All sixteen accused were denied bail with Albertina being the only woman accused she was effectively in solitary confinement. Priscilla Jana remembers one occasion where she went to visit Albertina and found the men relaxing enjoying each other’s company over a game of chess while Albertina was alone in her cell scrubbing the floor. In April the French ambassador requested to see Albertina in jail but his request was denied after an embarrassingly diplomatic exchange of letters between the security police, the Ministry of Justice and the French embassy.

Throughout the country the UDF organised mass protests against the detainment of their leaders, and Dr Allan Boesak along with other UDF leaders challenged the government to arrest them too as they were ‘guilty’ of participating in the same activities as the accused sixteen. Finally on the 3 May 1985 the Natal Supreme court granted the accused bail of R170 000. But the bail conditions meant that Albertina and her co-accused could not participate in any organisations mentioned in the indictment. This put a halt on Albertina’s FEDSAW, UDF and ANCWL work.

The Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial began with pre-trail proceedings some time before the trial date of 21st October. The state had put together a 587 page indictment that alleged that the UDF was a political front for the ANC and that it was leading a ‘revolutionary alliance’ to overthrow the state. The specific charges were high treason, violations of the Terrorism Act and furthering the aims of the ANC. Once the trial began properly it was clear that the state had insufficient and unconvincing evidence against the accused sixteen. The key state witness (a lecturer at the Rand Afrikaans University) eventually conceded that he had made ‘fundamental mistakes’ that could have misled the court and that he, contrary to what the Attorney-General had argued, had no expertise to assess revolutionary literature. On 9 December the state withdrew its charges against twelve of the sixteen; the remaining four were SAAWU members who remained on trial. The twelve were met by a crowd who had gathered outside the courtroom to congratulate them. Elinor Sisulu writes about the ‘wild scenes of celebration’ as the fourteen made their way to a local hotel to continue the celebrations.

After her release, Albertina made her first public appearance at a meeting on International Human Rights Day in central Johannesburg where she delivered a fiery speech saying that it was ‘the beginning of the end of the apartheid system’.

Violence in the townships continued with two State of Emergencies being called during 1985 and then again in 1986 which was extended until 1988. Police brutality was unprecedented and in Alexandra seventeen young people were killed in what the press called the ‘Six-day War’. A funeral was held for the victims and 60 000 people mourned their passing at Alexandra Stadium where Albertina delivered a speech that condemned the government as ‘frightened cockroaches’. She appealed to mothers of white soldiers for the government to stop killing black children. 1986 was also the year that the UDF focused on the role of women as a key part of its programme of action as a large majority of its members were women. In May the UDF National Working Committee Conference resolves that new women’s organisations be set up where none had existed and that existing women’s groups be strengthened so as to lay a strong foundation for its national structure.

Albertina Sisulu said the following in 1987, referring to rent boycott in Soweto and women’s role:

"Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression. The rent boycott that is happening in Soweto now is alive because of the women. It is the women who are on the street committees educating the people to stand up and protect each other."

These women’s groups were essential as they could bring some form of control over the ungovernable political attitude of the youth who were recklessly rallying behind the Liberation before Education slogan. With the townships being ungovernable because of violence there was an attitude of ‘anything goes’ and Albertina was deeply concerned about brutalisation of young activists and tsotsis who used political activism as a guise for their criminal activities. Suspected police informants were being necklaced – placing a tyre filled with petrol around a person’s neck and then setting it alight – and Albertina had very strong objections to this practice. She was concerned that Winnie Mandela saw this practice as a useful means to achieve liberation.

During 1986 tensions between AZAPO and the UDF came to a bloody head and hundreds of supporters on both sides were killed and the leaders houses bombed. The apartheid state was partly to blame for this as it had circulated fake UDF pamphlets in Soweto that incited anti-AZAPO sentiments. With this in mind Albertina and Dr Asvat’s working relationship and friendship was a remarkable one. Albertina always spoke highly of her employer, Dr Asvat who had continued to pay Albertina her salary whilst she was on trial/detained. During the time that they worked together they provided much needed help to people in some of the poorest communities. In McDonald’s Farm where people were living in abandoned cars they set up a surgery and installed 20 toilets that were shared by 150 people. Space for a crèche was made in the surgery and a feeding scheme was introduced that fed approximately 80 children with twice a week. In January 1987 the leadership of the UDF and AZAPO committed to pursing a peace process and agreed to halt further attacks.

In September 1987 Albertina’s four year sentence in the Rose Mbele case was dismissed on appeal because her co-accused Thami Mali had left the country.

In February 1988 the UDF and sixteen other organisations were effectively banned by the harsh restrictions put on them by the Emergency regulations. Albertina and other leaders were also restricted.

Parliament and Retirement, 1990-2008

October. From left; Walter Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albertina Sisulu celebrate Walters release from prison. © unknownOctober. From left; Walter Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albertina Sisulu celebrate Walters release from prison. © unknown

“But to us really, apart from what is happening, we think the country's future is bright. Because starting from so many hundreds of years back when the people were fighting, now at this level we feel that we are near the goal. That is why we are hopeful. Really, we have been always optimistic that the end of this country will end up being what the people want it to be. To be a non-racial democratic South Africa. I think we are getting to that. We are working hard for this constituent assembly that is going to draft the constitution of the country. So that is why we say, at least there are those processes that are going on. That is why we are hopeful. That really we are forging ahead”. - Albertina and Walter Sisulu a extract from an Interview in Blue Portraits by Reiner Leist (1991)

Walter Sisulu was released in 1989; Albertina finally had her husband back. In the same year she was part of the UDF delegation that met United States president, George Bush, to establish relations between the two countries.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Albertina worked on a committee that re-established the ANC Women’s League. At the time she was the organisation’s deputy President. On 9 August, Albertina and other women from exile set up the first ANC Women League branch in Durban. In April 1991 The ANCWL held its conference and Albertina Sisulu was nominated to stand for President in the election but she withdrew in favour of Getrude Shope.

In 1991 Albertina was elected to serve on the ANC’s national executive committee and Walter was elected ANC Deputy-President to avoid a potentially divisive contest between Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani. The pair attended the ANC conference in Lusaka where Albertina was elected the convener in South Africa. Her responsibility was to ensure that the structures of the ANC, especially the women’s section were being addressed. In August of the same year, Albertina and Walter visited Singapore, Australia and Mauritius. Later in the year they visited North America (7 major Canadian cities and New York, Washington, Atlanta and Boston).

Finally in April 1994, the Sisulu’s observed the transition of their country in its first democratic elections. Albertina and Walter both became members of parliament and 1994 was a time of celebration and family; Walter was reunited with Father Trevor Huddleston on the latter’s return to South Africa and on 17 July Walter and Albertina celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

In 1996 Walter traveled overseas for his last time, Albertina went with him. They were on a fundraising trip to the USA, Ireland and the UK on behalf of Education Africa.

In 1998 Albertina celebrated her 80th birthday, at this time she was still working as a Member of Parliament, as the president of the World Peace Council and as an ANC leader in her home constituency of Orlando West, Soweto. But at the end of 1999 Albertina and Walter left parliament for the last time and retired from politics completely.

In 2002, ‘Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime’, a biography by Sisulu’s daughter-in-law Elinor, was launched by the Nigerian poet Ben Okri, who also wrote a tribute for Walter’s 90th birthday. The following year, while on their way to bed, Walter collapsed and died in Albertina’s arms.

Albertina has been bestowed with various awards and honors for her courageous lifelong struggle for human rights and dignity; most recently in 2007 a South African motor-way in Gauteng was named after maSisulu. Over the coming months we will be working on the compilation of a list of all of these awards and honors. Albertina is still committed to The Albertina Sisulu Foundation, which focuses on the plight of small children and old people.

On 21 October 2008, Albertina and the nation celebrated her 90th Birthday.
This account of Albertina Sisulu has purposely avoided focusing only on significant dates and events in favour of a more holistic appreciation of the person of MaSisulu, as it is her character and personality that enabled her to change South African history as she did.

Elinor Sisulu writes the following about Albertina:

“I never failed to be amazed by the way Albertina coped with a workload that would exhaust most people half her age. After a full day at the surgery, she would return home to find local activists waiting to see her. Most days of the week, she would face another three to four hours of meetings before going to bed. Her weekends were also mostly taken up with meetings and frequent interviews with local and overseas journalists, many of whom were interested in the mobilisation of women under apartheid.”

Elinor Sisulu’s memory of one of her mother-in-laws sermons to her children, who were depressed because their husband was in jail, goes as follows:

“We should remember that so many people are suffering under apartheid, that women have lost husband and children and we cannot allow ourselves to be depressed and miserable because that is what the enemy wants.”


Classroom activity

This activity is based on Albertina Sisulu's profile and a cartoon


• Gastrow, S. Who’s Who is South African Politics, Number 4, pp 282-283
•  Sisulu, E (2003). Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In our lifetime. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip.
•  Albertina Sisulu's story.
•  The Albertina Sisulu Multipurpose Resource Centre/ASC, named after Albertina Sisulu, was founded by Albertina Sisulu.
•  Albertina Sisulu. Biography of distinguished woman.
•  Leist, R (1991). I am Albertina Sisulu. Interview from Blue Portraits, September.
•  (1988) Albertina Sisulu: Freedom Fighter. Sechaba, October.
  Image archives: Jurgen Schadeberg.
•  South photographs.
•  Bailey’s African History Archives.
•  The Sisulu private family collection.
•  Mayibuye Archives. Robben Island Museum (Heritage Department). email:

Last updated : 13-May-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Jun-2011