”I am Albertina Sisulu”, Interview from Blue Portraits

I am Albertina Sisulu. Metetiwe. Born in the Transkei, in the district of Tsomo on twenty-first October 1918. Educated in a lower primary school in my district. Went up to a secondary school that took me up to high school in the same district of Tsomo in a college called Maria Zell, which was a Roman Catholic church college. The years that I spent as a young girl were not comfortable years, because when I was fifteen years my parents died, both of them. And we are a family of five, and I am the second to the eldest. So because of the conditions in our country we were not highly educated as we would have loved to. Actually my brother never went to school, the one I come after. He had to be looking after the livestock and be helping so as to get some food from the neighbours and things like that. But I managed because of the Roman Catholic Church, that gave me education.

I wanted to be a teacher. But conditions wouldn't allow me to be a teacher. So I had to take up nursing, where when you are training you are being paid. So my hope was that at least if I am being paid, I will be able to help my brothers and sister. I did that in fact. I helped him through up to Fort Hare University. He is now teaching at Stellenbosch University.

Went up to Johannesburg in 1941 to a hospital that was called those days the Non-European Hospital, General Hospital in Johannesburg. Those days it was the biggest, but today it's being owned by the Whites and instead we've got Baragwanath for the black people. I got my state-registered General Nurse in 1944, April. Got my Midwifery in 1954, came back to Johannesburg and was employed by the City Health of Johannesburg as a midwife. In those days we were doing our work on district. We used to visit our patients in the townships with difficulties, because we used to do that on foot. You know what it means to be a midwife? You have got to carry a big suitcase full of bottles and for your lotions that you are going to use, and bowls and receivers, and we used to carry those suitcases on our heads. And if you are lucky enough to have transport in that area, you take either a bus or a taxi to reach your patient. I did that from 1941 Up to 1980. Nineteen-eighty I was appointed a senior nurse running a small hospital in Orlando East. I would say I was appointed a matron of that little cottage.

Well in 1983 I was given a pension. Immediately after I was given the pension a certain doctor who was working with me in that little cottage which we used to call a hospital asked me to join him, because he was already doing his own private work. And that doctor died in 1987. He was assassinated. From there I joined the ANC Women's League. As you know, ANC has been banned for the last thirty years, and in 1989 it was unbanned. And I went to a conference in Lusaka where ANC was operating, and I was appointed the convenor inside the country. That means a person who is going to see to it that the structures of the ANC, especially the women's section, is being addressed. From there inside the country I started working with other women, and we were joined by other women after the unbanning of the ANC, from exile to help us doing the work. We first of all launched our ANC Women's League in Durban in 1990, August the ninth, which is a historic day for women. I am the Deputy President.

In 1941 I met Mr Sisulu and I was the First Lady, the only first lady who was present in their first meeting when they were forming ANC Youth League, that in 1949 had a program of action. After I got married in 1944 to Mr Sisulu I joined the Women's League. And in 1953 the government decided to give our children what they call Bantu Education. We as women wouldn't take this. We organised other women against the Bantu Education and we closed the schools. We thought of forming an organisation that will put all the women together, so that at least our fight will be easy if we speak with one voice. Now we formed an organisation which was called Federation of South African Women in 1954. In 1955 we joined, as Federation of South African Women, the launching of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown. In 1956 we organised twenty thousand women to go to the Union Building and protest against Bantu Education to our children. Having closed the school, we decided to have volunteers that are going to teach the children. We gave out some rooms in our houses to be classrooms. This first room was one of the classrooms of Grade One. But that failed because the government wouldn't register our schools. That now meant that the two years are wasted because the children would not be examined at the end of every year. Now we gave that up. Bantu Education was introduced to the children.

In 1957 the government decided to extend the pass laws to the women. We said, nothing doing. We are not going to carry passes. We organised women to protest and go to jail. Mark you, I'm a nurse now. And the law of the nursing profession is that if you are sentenced by a court of law you are struck off the roll. But that didn't really worry me much, although I was already then a breadwinner in the house, because my husband was just for ANC then. He was the General Secretary of the organisation. And most of the time he is all over. He is overseas, he is with the regions. Well, I led the second batch against the extension of passes. We went to jail. We had two thousand women in one jail here at Number Four. We stayed there for three weeks awaiting trial. It was almost a month when our case ended, and Nelson Mandela was our lawyer. We were all discharged. We were found not guilty. So I was saved from being struck off the roll.

All these years I never had, you know, a comfortable life. Because from 1958 when I was in jail, that was the beginning of my life in and out of jail. Fifty-eight I was in jail, sixty-three I was in jail with my first son who was seventeen years the. We were arrested because of the Suppression of Communism Act, which meant ninety days without trial. So we went to jail with this boy, and when we completed the ninety days we were released, and after that he was harassed by the police. So I feet that he must leave the country. So he skipped the country in sixty-three.

Sixty-four, after the sentence of the man for life imprisonment, I was banned for five years. That banning order meant that I mustn't attend gatherings. I mustn't go near the educational centres, I mustn't go near the courts. But after five years I was given another ten years' house arrest. That was the worst. Now am alone and the man is in jail. The children are looking up to me for education, for everything. So because I had five of my own children, three boys and two girls, and I had three adopted children of my late sister-in-law, Walter's sister, who died and left two children. But because I was afraid of these boys without a ether, I decided to take my children to a boarding school. I used o rob Jim to pay John. That means I borrow money from him or school fees. And because I am unable to pay I will go and borrow money from Jim to pay John. So that will carry this month until churches came to my rescue. So not completely, Because they were only concerned with the school fees. I had to do the clothing. I had to do the transport. They used to come home only once a year, because I could not manage these short holidays.

In 1976 during the unrest, I am still on ten years' house arrest. One of my girls was arrested. For the whole year we didn't know there the child was, because of the unrest. And when she was released at the end of the year, the police were following her. So I felt she must also leave the country. She left the country. You don't believe me when I say all this time I didn't even know where my first born was after leaving the country. So I had now two in exile.

In 1981 there was a death of one of the women who belonged to the Federation of South African Women. I had to go to the funeral. The funeral was next door here at the Anglican Church. I was asked to give her life story. I was arrested for furthering the aims of the ANC, because in that funeral there was a green, black and yellow flag. So they said, You were introduced by the ANC as the People's General Secretary. So that meant I allowed myself to be used to organise for the banned ANC.

I went to jail. I was in solitary confinement for seven months whilst I was awaiting trial. Eventually I was sentenced to four years' imprisonment - two years suspended for five years. Whilst I was still suspended on bail, because I appealed the case, I was arrested for treason trial for planning to overthrow the state by force of arms. We spent almost a year in solitary confinement. They wouldn't give us bail and fortunately after that year the judge found us not guilty, and we were discharged. That was now 1986. The first State of Emergency, I was the first to be restricted. To be in this house and have no visitors. The State of Emergency of eighty-six carried on until a day before Walter entered that gate. The police came on a morning, on a Saturday, coming to release me from the State of Emergency. And that was now eighty-nine, and Walter came in on a Sunday the following day. I am saying nothing about, you know, being arrested just for two days for questioning. That was the food in this house. The police would knock at the unholy hours, one o'clock. Sometimes we don't even know why they are here. They will just tell you, well it is a general check up, just to harass you. You know, w hen they knock, they knock from the door and all the windows. When you open the door, the house is surrounded by police, demanding you to open. That's harassment. That third child, when he finished his Standard ten in 1986 he was arrested, because he was found transporting the cadres who were going on action. And they were caught red-handed with the arms and everything and they were sentenced to five years. He only came back at the end of 1990. None of the children in this house hasn't tasted jail.

South Africa is an Apartheid country, where people are separated according to their colour. The Whites are one side, the Blacks are one side. And the conditions for the Black are horrible. The only section that is catered for by the white government is the white section of the community. That thing is giving now the black people hardships. Education is worst, when you are a student you are supposed to have some funding from the government that will enable you to be educated. But that does not happen with the black children.

In 1976 there was uprising, which was one of the complaints from the children who were oppressed. All these years the medium of instruction in schools has been English. All of the sudden in the middle of the year, June, it had to be changed to Afrikaans. The children wanted to know, how are we going to cope? And in fact we have been taking Afrikaans just as a language, not to be used as a medium of instruction. The children were killed left and right, like flies. Along the main road here, when the children were marching, there were men, you know, men with two guns shooting the children. The government is sowing hatred amongst the oppressed people of this country. Today there is violence in this country. It hasn't started now. It has started, you know, for a long time, because that is the strategy of the government of this country, to divide the people so as to hold them. That is why even our organisations have been terrorised, because the government is afraid of the unity of black people. Because that is w by they are still ruling this country. It's because of Apartheid and the division between the black people.

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.


References:
• Leist, R (1991). I am Albertina Sisulu. Interview from Blue Portraits, September. anc.org.za

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