By Sara

We salute one of our best known heroines of South Africa, Albertina Nontsikelelo (Blessings) Sisulu, on her 70th birthday in October. Albertina continues to be an inspiration to the younger generation of today in South Africa, 40 years after her first involvement in the freedom struggle.

The long and difficult struggle in South Africa has produced many leaders who have displayed great courage and determination in the face of cruel persecution. Among them, MaSisulu has a special place of honour. She has long been a loved and respected leader in her own right.

She has been in the forefront of the struggle for almost half a century and suffered cruel and vengeful persecution by the racist regime - a series of gaolings, as well as the anguish of a mother as her children were frequently detained and held incommunicado. But she has refused to be intimidated and never wavered in her commitment to the struggle for freedom and non-racialism.

Albertina became a living symbol not only of the spirit of the great freedom movement but of the crucial role which women play in it. She is honoured, by her people as the 'Mother of the Nation'; and was elected, even while in gaol, as one of the Co-Presidents of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the largest democratic organisation in the country, with more than 600 organisations affiliated to it. MaSisulu is also national President of the multi-racial Federation of South African Women.

Born 70 years ago, in Cofimvaba in the Transkei,on October 21, 1918, eldest of an orphaned family of five children, she grew up with her maternal family, and remembers with amusement that her first ambition was to be a nun:

"But then I learnt that Id have to give up contact with my brothers and sisters, with whom I wanted to set up a home, since we'd grown up in other people's houses."

After obtaining her junior Certificate in 1939, Albertina was accepted for nursing at the Johannesburg General Hospital. "I had no political ideas. I was devout until I met Walter," brother of a fellow nurse. Walter Sisulu had already been deeply involved in the ANC Youth League, with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, and is now serving a life sentence as a result of the Rivonia Trial of 1963.

Career and Commitment

Albertina qualified as a nurse and midwife in 1944. In the same year, she married Walter Sisulu and also became involved in the Youth League. Five years later ' she agreed to his election as the first full-time Secretary-General of the ANC, accepting the responsibility of supporting the family on her earnings as a nurse.

The Sisulus have been able to live together for hardly nine years, as he was constantly in prison or on trial or underground or away on political work He was sentenced with Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment in June 1964, and was first on Robben Island and then was moved to Pollsmoor maximum security prison. He has had no parole or remission.

The 1950s were a decade of political upheaval. Albertina joined the ANC Women's League in the 1940s, becoming its treasurer in 1959. She became a member of the executive of the Federation of South African Women when it was formed in 1954. She was a leader of the campaign to boycott 'Bantu Education,' imposed on African children in 1954; alternative classes were held at her home until they were prohibited by law. She was one of the leaders of the national demonstration of 20 000 women in Pretoria in August 1956, in protest against the extension of pass laws to African women, and also one of the leaders of the women's demonstrations against the pass laws in Johannesburg in 1958, after which she was gaoled, separated from her ten-month-old daughter, Nonkululeko (Freedom). She recalls:

"I had to be in gaol for three full weeks without the baby and I was so sick - my breasts were swollen because I was breast feeding. I didn't mind that because it was part of the struggle."

Detentions, Bannings, House Arrests

MaSisulu was detained and held in solitary confinement for seven weeks in 1963, when Walter went underground. As soon as she was released, she led demonstrations against repression and the trials of the leaders of the freedom movement.

Soon after her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, Albertina was served with a harsh five-year banning order prohibiting her from attending any gatherings of more than two persons, confining her to her location and preventing her from any political activities. She had to struggle hard to support the family, working as a nurse and knitting clothes. In 1969, she was again served with a five-year banning order, this time confining her to her home at nights and on weekends. In 19fl, a third five-year banning order confined her to her home even on public holidays. In 1979, she received a two-year banning order, without house arrest and with permission to go to church.

There was a brief respite when the banning orders were not renewed in 1981. Albertina was invited to speak at meetings all over the country, though, as a person once banned, she could not be quoted in newspapers. MaSisulu occupied a place of honour at a conference of political, trade union and community organisations in Durban in October 1981, which affirmed the Freedom Charter of 1955 as the framework for the continuing struggle.

The regime banned her again from June 1982 to July 1983. She was arrested in August 1983 and held without bail for more than six months on the charge of singing ANC songs at the funeral of a woman leader of the movement. Sentenced to four years' imprisonment, she was released on bail pending appeal.

Soon after her release she led the powerful mass mobilisation by the UDF against the new racist constitution and other apartheid measures. Detained with other leaders of the UDF in December 1984, on a charge of high treason, she again spent several months in gaol before the case collapsed.

The earlier four-year gaol sentence was dismissed on appeal in September 1987, but in February this year she was again prohibited, under the state of emergency, from all political activity.

A Remarkable Family

Meanwhile, her husband has been in prison for a quarter of a century. Her eldest son, Vuyisile Max, was detained, together with his mother, in a police attempt to trace the place from which Walter Sisulu had made the first Radio Freedom Broadcast on June 26th 1963 - "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", - a powerful message to the nation.

Harassed by the police after release, Max escaped from the country. Another son, M1ungisi, was detained in 1984 during the campaign against the new racist constitution, along with a nephew and a niece whom she had raised after the death of their parents. A daughter, Lindiwe, was detained for 11 months during the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and is now in exile.

Her youngest son, Zwelakhe, editor of New Nation, has been restricted and gaoled several times and has been in detention without trial since December 1986.

Yet Albertina seeks no pity. She told the press in one of the brief intervals between banning orders:

" ... Although politics has given me a rough life, there is absolutely nothing 1 regret about what I have done and what has happened tome and my family throughout all these years. Instead, 1 have been strengthened and feel more of a woman than I would otherwise have felt if my life was different "

Albertina has agreed to be nominated to the post of Rector of the University of Edinburgh, not for the honour to herself but to enable the electors to show their concern for freedom in South Africa and their solidarity with those struggling under very difficult conditions.

Her candidature was, backed by the United Nations former Assistant General Secretary, and Head of the UN Centre Against Apartheid, Mr. E S Reddy and the former leader of the Liberal Party and Chairman of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement, David Steele.

Sisulu Family Honoured

In July, The Indicator, a Lenasia-based newspaper in Transvaal, awarded the Sisulu family the honour of being the Newsmaker of the Year Award. The certificate was presented to Zwelakhe's wife, Zodwa Sisulu. Sheila Sisulu, another daugher-in-law, delivered a speech of acceptance on behalf of MaSisulu who could not be there because of her banning order.


  • Sechaba, October 1988