Albertina Sisulu and the organisations she was connected to

Federation of South African Women

The Defiance Campaign of 1952 would catapult the ANC Women’s League into a new era of action and multi-party interaction. From this era a new breed of female leadership emerged, comprised of those who realised the need to engage and work with women outside of the ANCWL would be the only way to defeat the Apartheid system, they worked hard to form valuable alliances with women from the trade unions and other political organisations even if the had held different. Out of this alliance building came Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). FEDSAW was launched on 17 April 1954 in Johannesburg. It was the brainchild of Ray Simons who drew in others such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Amina Cachalia who formed the steering committee for the organisation. During the early stages of the federation lifespan, Nontsikelelo Albertina was not in a position of leadership but she was actively committed to promoting the ideals of FEDSAW.

FEDSAW was created to be 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 women of colour. The Women’s Charter was adopted at the inaugural conference, it is still used as a reference document for gender issues within South Africa today. In 1954, Nontsikelelo Albertina achieved her midwife qualification and was employed by the City Health of Johannesburg. Nontsikelelo Albertina, used her job as a means of spreading the word of the newly formed FEDSAW. When she visited patients she would take FEDSAW pamphlets with her and would encourage the women to join the federation urging them to join in the fight in any way they could. She wanted the women of the townships to become more politically aware and active.

In 1955, FEDSAW became actively involved in the nationwide boycott of the Bantu Education. Nontsikelelo Albertina was absolutely against Bantu Education and she threw herself into both FEDSAW and ANC preparations for the boycott. The ANC Women’s League and FEDSAW aided the boycott greatly by opening alternative ‘schools’ for children and teenages, these ‘schools’ were supported by the ANC and were run in part by teachers who had resigned from their jobs in protest against Bantu Education. Albertina’s home became the site of one of these alternative schools. She had withdrawn her children from their government schools, not wanting them to learn under the Bantu Education system.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. Parents then had to send their children back to government schools. Several Christian schools decided to continue as privately run schools rather than being placed under the control of the Bantu Education Department.

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.

African National Congress' Youth League

Albertina’s first interaction with the ANC Youth League was when she attended the inaugural conference with Walter Sisulu. Her attendance of the event was significant as she was the only woman present who was not there in a supportive domestic role.However, she did not engage and any debate as she maintained that her presence there was one of support for Walter Sisulu and his political agenda. While Albertian would remain connected to the Youth League, especial before Walter was imprisoned, it was not her main connection to political activism and there were other ANC bodies with whom she was more intimately connected

African National Congress

While Nontsikelelo Albertina may have been introduced to politics and the African National Congress (ANC) through Walter Sisulu, she would come to be a strong leader within the organisation within her own right. While she was significantly evolved within the organisations Women's league, she also played an integral role in running of the main body of the organisation. Her role within the Congress became more influential and prominent with the arrest and imprisonment of her husband and other promentaint ANC leaders as a result of the Rivonia Trial. Albertina’s continued involvement with the ANC (which became a banned organisation) contributed to the several banning orders that were placed upon her throughout her lifetime. Her involvement with the ANC did not end with the release of her husband and several other top ANC leaders in 1989 or with the organisation’s unbanning in 1990. In 1991, Nontsikelelo Albertina was elected to serve on the ANC’s national executive committee. She and Walter attended the ANC conference in Lusaka at which she was elected the convener in South Africa. Her responsibility was to ensure that all the structures within the ANC were being addressed and given equal attention. In April 1994, Nontsikelelo Albertina observed the transition of her country in its first democratic elections and the victory of the ANC,through the parties victory she became members of the nations first democratic parliament. In 1998, while still working as a Member of Parliament, Nontsikelelo Albertina celebrated her 80th birthday. During this time she served as the president of the World Peace Council and as an ANC leader in her home constituency of Orlando West, Soweto. At the end of 1999, Nontsikelelo Albertina, along with her husband Walter, made the decision to leave parliament and retired from politics completely.

ANC Women’s League

In 1948, Nontsikelelo Albertina joined the newly formed ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) and, in the 1950s, she began to assume a leadership role. This coincided with the Defiance Campaign of 1952, which catapulted the ANC Women’s League into a new era of action. 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

On the 5 August 1983, Nontsikelelo Albertina was arrested and detained after the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele in January.When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Nontsikelelo Albertina worked on a committee that regroup and re-established the ANC Women’s League. She did this through her role as the organisation’s deputy President. On 9 August, Nontsikelelo Albertina and other women, who unlike her had been living in exile, set up the first ANC Women League branch in Durban. In April 1991, The ANCWL held its first national conference and Albertina Sisulu was nominated to stand for President in the election but she withdrew in favour of Gertrude Shope.

Within the broader structure of the ANC, women became more respected because of their persistent protesting and their attitudes towards defying the government. However, the struggle for gender equality took a back seat to the struggle against the apartheid system.

Black Consciousness Movement

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu's connection with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was not direct, but through the political actions of her daughter, Lindiwe Sisulu (who was her fourth child and first daughter). BCM was a popular radical anti-Apartheid movement among the Black student population in the 1970’s. Nontsikelelo Albertina was concerned with Lindiwe’s involvement with BCM and the Black People’s Convention (BPC) because she disapproved of the way the youths involved had interpreted the Black Consciousness philosophy with regards to white people.

Nontsikelelo Albertina and 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 wanted to totally remove white people from South Africa. However, despite her concerns, Nontsikelelo Albertina was supportive of her daughter and did not patronise her during the political conversations they enjoyed. Lindiwe felt that Nontsikelelo Albertina was too passive and lacked real activity in merely working to set up structures.

United Democratic Front

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu is credited as being one of the the United Democratic Front (UDF) founding members. Nontsikelelo Albertina and the UDF would remain intermittently connected throughout the organisations lifetime. Albertina’s work with the UDF was a contributing factor to continued police surveillance of her in the 80’s and early 90’s The timing for such an initiative could not have been more perfect as Nontsikelelo Albertina’s banning order was cut short due to the introduction of the new Internal Security Act of 1982, which meant that her banning order ended approximately a year before it was due to. Nontsikelelo Albertina was eager to be involved with the preparations for the launch of the UDF. As she felt that a mass mobilisation on a national scale, across organisations and race, was desperately needed to produce effective and lasting change to the political situation in South Africa. However, on 5 August 1983 she was arrested and detained after the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele in January. The most likely reason for this was because the state saw her involvement with the setting up and running of the UDF as a threat. She was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 for furthering the aims of the ANC – still a banned organisation at the time.

The ‘evidence’ was used by the Security Police was that Rose Mbele’s coffin was draped with an ANC flag and Nontsikelelo Albertina was asked to deliver a tribute to Rose’s life; the security police distorted the facts stating she delivered a speech on behalf of the ANC and not about the life of Rose Mbele. She was held without bail for more than six months. During the time Nontsikelelo Albertina was still incarcerated, 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. The British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) publicised Nontsikelelo Albertina’s detention abroad as widely as possible and strongly condemned the actions 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 Apartheid government. The fact that Albertina was arrested a full eight months after Rose Mbele’s funeral implied that the state was not really interested in her actions at the funeral but rather in crushing the UDF in its early stages of mobilisation.

Being in jail did not prevent Nontsikelelo 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. Nontsikelelo Albertina had, for so long, been a beacon of hope to those fighting the Apartheid system that the UDF knew that using her image would reassure the people of South Africa.

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 on the 20th of August 1983, 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. Nontsikelelo Albertina was able to attend and she was elected as one of the three presidents of the UDF along with Oscar Mpetha and Archie Gumede.

The British Anti-Apartheid Movement

The British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was a foreign based organisation that sort to support anti-Apartheid groups on a global level. The group's involvement with Nontsikelelo Albertina came about when they publicised her detention abroad. They sought to do this as widely as possible and strongly condemned the actions 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 Apartheid government.

Last updated : 21-Nov-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 21-Nov-2018

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