Letters between Albertina and Walter Sisulu during his incarceration on Robben Island:

A South African Love Story

This remarkable love story spanning more than 59 years stands as an inspiration to us all. At her marriage to Walter in 1944, Albertina was warned in a speech by Anton Lembede, an ANC Youth League activist. Knowing Walter well, he said that she should realize that Walter was already married to the country.

So began a marriage that went on to stand the test of pain, time and 26 years of separation. Complementing each other with wisdom, integrity and humble strength, Walter and Albertina’s relationship exemplified love, sacrifice and undeniable strength of character.

They had five children together: Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko. Despite the many years of separation, harassment and brutal oppression of their family, Walter and Albertina displayed compassion and commitment to each other, their family and the cause of liberation in their land.

Below are samples of correspondence between Walter and Albertina Sisulu during his incarceration on Robben Island. Walter wrote his first letter to Albertina a few days after his arrival there, he was not allowed another for 6 months. When, after a month he had not received a reply from Albertina, he became distressed. He knew that she was not a great letter writer, but had assumed that in the circumstances, she would respond promptly. He was especially anxious for news about his children, Max in particular.

The attitude of the ANC leadership was that young people who left the country with the intention of continuing their education, should not be diverted to military training. It was often the young exiles themselves who decided to drop their schooling once they had left the country. During the Rivonia Treason Trial, Walter and Albertina had been horrified to hear, through the ANC grapevine, that Max had opted to go for military training rather than further his education.

Walter had managed to smuggle messages to Ruth First, who was in London by then, asking her to find out why Max had not gone to school and to remind him that he could go into the military only after he had completed his education. By the time he was taken to Robben Island, they had not yet had a response from Ruth. He finally received Albertina's long-awaited reply in September.

Extracts 1964

Darling Walter,

You cannot imagine how pleased everybody was to hear from you. I received your letter yesterday afternoon, the 10th of August 1964; it was dated 12 July 1964.

One wonders how quick the letters can be if they take a month to reach one. In any case darling it is not important.

We thought that after the sentence, they (would) keep you people in Pretoria for about one or two months, and that would have enabled us to see you before leaving for the Island, but to add to the strain we had, when we took food to Pretoria the following day, we were told you had left for the island. In any case, darling, we are very happy to hear from you.

Nkuli is doing very well at school ”¦Her daily song is that next year when she is in Standard 1 she will write a letter to Daddy and tell him to come back home because we are longing for him. If Daddy refuses to come home she will go stay with him in prison. Lungi and Beryl are doing well ”¦ In their last tests they did badly, but they have picked up wonderfully in their June tests. They both wrote wonderful letters after the sentence, saying that they were happy it was not the death sentence. ”¦ A person who took it bitterly was Zwelakhe. They say he cried the whole day at school until Father sent him to bed. He has not written since. I have written two letters to him. The only reply I got was that he wants to come back home. In any case, don't worry about that, Darling, I will manage him when he comes home in December.”¦

I was pleased to learn that you are studying. I know you will make it. It is never too late to learn. I am going to tell your sons to study hard because it will be a disgrace if you pass examinations and they fail. I have spoken to many people about Max and I am prepared to be firm about his schooling. I think I will succeed in getting him back to school.”¦

Darling, I will be seeing you soon if all goes well. I am at present doing night duty so don't be surprised at seeing many mistakes. All are well at home.

Greetings from all your kids.

Your loving Tinie
It was obvious that Albertina had not yet received Walter's second letter, written in August. The authorities often tormented inmates and their families by tampering with or delaying mail. Certainly the censorship of individual love letters was an invasion of privacy. And the effects of Walter’s imprisonment, despite her showing a brave face, was a heavy burden together with her banning order which drastically curbed her movements.

I must say we were not very happy when we came back because we did not see you people properly. We only heard your voices and saw your shadows.

Extracts 1965

My dear, we were all hurt about your remarks, that you always think of our birthdays and wish us good luck, but we never think of you on your birthday and wish you Happy Birthday. Walter, we always think of you, but we never know what to do, whether you are allowed a postcard or not. Nkuli says, don't worry wena Tata ngenye imini ndizakuthengela iBirthday Cake enkulu namakhandela ayo (Daddy, one day I will buy you a big birthday cake with candles)

Letter, November 15 1965

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).

Extracts 1966

Darling, your last letter was not a nice one. It looked as though you were worried or not well. There were a lot of incomplete sentences. What was the matter? ”¦ Please, when you are not well report to the authorities and get medical attention. Never go on with that headache of yours because I know how it can treat you.

Letter, November 19 1966

On their wedding anniversary in July 1979, Walter's letter of appreciation to his wife


I think this is the date on which we got married 35 years ago. I was certain of this date until I slid my pen on the paper when I began to have some doubt whether it was the 15 or 17 July. All these years I was sure, but now?

Your welcome and most moving letter has had the desired effects ... It was not the volume that mattered, it was the quality, deep emotion and sincere expression of love which left an everlasting impression and kindled the fondest memories. I shall forever treasure it. I shall always imagine you in that excellent and fine spirit which it so vividly depicted ...

Concerning the progress you have made with regard to family matters and the manner in which you have handled them, I can only repeat what I have said in the past - absolute superb. I have never felt as comfortable as I am. I am really happy about all the children. It is true I would we wanted the highest possible education but I think they will certainly make up for it. I was happy when there was a re-union of the children four years ago and now with Lakhe and Lindi all seems to be very well.

Now darling, let me have the photos of the two girls at least, you know in fact that I want the photos of all of you, including ' bakhozi (in-laws). Your last photo was taken by Mthetwa or Cuthbert Mawana 12 years ago. Can you believe that? Have you any photo of Max there? Please send me a duplicate of it. I know you would not want to part with it.

What are your plans about Nkuli? ... Let her not miss the chance of a university while she is still interested. By the way, Tinie, she needs your attention and guidance on her love affairs. I know you think she has no boyfriends. She has told me that she has one.

We ought to know what kind of boy he is even if there is nothing serious at this stage; at least it is a way of educating them.

With love to you and the children and million kisses to my beloved Ntsiki.

Extracts 1968

September 1968, Albertina’s letter to Walter about the status of the Liberation Movement

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's words

We loved each other very much.
We were like two chickens
One always walking behind the other.
- Albertina Sisulu


(2003). Pretoria News, 7 May.|(2003). "Walter and Albertina", The Star (Inside), 7 May, p.15.|Jacobson, L. (2003). "Albertina Sisulu is a true ‘Mother of the Struggle’: An enduring love story between two really remarkable South Africans", Pretoria News Weekend, 10 May, p.5.|Kalideen, N. (2003), "Nation joins hands with Sisulu family", The Star, 7 May, p.1.|Mlangeni, B. (2003). "Family Man", Sunday Times, 11 May, p.19.|Sisulu, E. (2002). Walter & Albertina Sisulu - In our lifetime, Cape Town: David Philip.

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