One of the foremost mothers of the nation, Albertina Sisulu was a giant of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa, and a deeply loved national treasure.
NONTSIKELELO Albertina Sisulu or MaSisulu, anti-apartheid stalwart, midwife and beloved member of the ANC, has died in Johannesburg at the age of 92.
Albertina SisuluStruggle stalwart Albertina SisuluMaSisulu died peacefully at her home in Linden on Thursday, 2 June.
The wife of Walter, whom she married in 1944 at the age of 26, she was respected and loved by the nation. Her 59-year marriage endured despite enormous pressures. Photographs of the two of them walking hand-in-hand are testament to their love.
She was born in Camama in the Eastern Cape in 1918, and at 23 she came to live in Johannesburg, working as a midwife. She met Walter in Johannesburg, where he was an estate agent. He later became the secretary-general of the ANC. With his sharp mind and humble leadership, he was a source of inspiration to many. Through her husband’s involvement in politics, she joined the Women’s League in 1949.
Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, says of her: “Albertina, Walter’s wife, was a wise and wonderful presence, and a strong supporter of Walter’s political work.”
Sisulu qualified as a midwife in 1954, and worked in the townships for the city’s health department. In 1980, she was appointed matron to run a small hospital in Orlando East, in Soweto. Three years later, at 65, she retired.
“Albertina took to nursing like a duck to water. Her upbringing, which had inculcated high standards of cleanliness, discipline and a strong work ethic, stood her in good stead. Her compassionate and empathetic nature made it easy for her to relate to patients,” recounts Elinor Sisulu in Walter & Albertina Sisulu – In Our Lifetime.
Her life was dictated to by the apartheid monster. In their first 45 years of marriage, the Sisulus spent barely nine years together as a married couple; Walter was in and out of prison, or on the run, or in court, or travelling the country or overseas, until he was eventually jailed for life on Robben Island in 1964, together with Mandela, his lifelong friend.
Albertina Sisulu at the naming ceremony of Walter Sisulu Botanical GardensAlbertina Sisulu at the renaming ceremony of Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in 2004“In the dark days after the Rivonia Trial, she was one of the key links between the internal and external movement, and kept the embers of resistance alive,” recounts Mandela in the foreword to In Our Lifetime.
From 1958, she too was in and out of jail, spending time in solitary confinement, at times taking one of her children with her. She protested against the carrying of passes, when in 1957 the apartheid government extended the pass laws to women.
She brought up nine children in Johannesburg, mostly on her own: her five children who were born here, and four adoptive children, two of whom were her sister’s children.
In 1964, when Walter went to Robben Island, she was issued with her first five-year banning order. A 10-year house arrest followed. During this time she saw two of her children arrested, and she encouraged both to leave the country.
She said in a 1991 interview: “None of the children in this house hasn't tasted jail.”
In 1981, at 63, she was arrested and tried for furthering the aims of the ANC; she was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Although the case was eventually dismissed, Sisulu ended up spending 17 months in solitary confinement. In 1986, she was the first person to be restricted under the newly declared state of emergency.
Free at last
But one of her happiest moments must surely have been one Saturday morning in October 1989, when she opened the door to Walter, who had been released from prison after 25 years.
She said of this period: “All these years I never had, you know, a comfortable life.”
Despite the hardships, she maintained her love of the city, and her spirit of ubuntu. She said in an interview in 2002: “Those negative experiences didn’t chase me away from Johannesburg. Even the people who tortured us would always be welcome in our house. Johannesburg is a comfortable place.”
Walter and Albertina Sisulu sit outside the mayor's parlour in BraamfonteinWalter and Albertina Sisulu sit outside the mayor's parlour in BraamfonteinThe Sisulus moved out of their Soweto home in 1999 and went to live in the northern suburbs, in Linden. They moved against their will, and principally because of Walter’s health. He died in May 2003, at their home, at the age of 90. They spent 14 happy years together after his release.
In 1994, when South Africa voted in the country’s first democratic elections, she said: “The excitement was unbelievable – going to jail, being forced to leave my children – it was all worth it to live to see this day.”
She has been honoured for her role in getting to that day: in 1999, Wits University conferred an honorary doctorate on her for her dedication to the cause of democracy and justice.
In 2003, to mark her 85th birthday and to recognise her contribution to the struggle, the City opened a centre for children with special needs in Soweto, named after her.
In 2007, she received another honorary doctorate, this time from the University of Johannesburg.
Mandela says of her in In Our Lifetime: “Albertina Sisulu is one of those women who suffered immensely and who struggled heroically without ever flinching.”
President Jacob Zuma has paid special tribute to the Sisulu family on her death: “Mama Sisulu was one of the foremost mothers of the nation and the last of the colossuses of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa.
“Mama Sisulu has over the decades been a pillar of strength not only for the Sisulu family but also the entire liberation movement as she reared, counselled, nursed and educated most of the leaders and founders of the democratic South Africa.
“While we mourn her loss, we must thank her most profoundly for the selfless service to all South Africans and humanity at large, for her generosity of spirit and for teaching the nation humility, respect for human dignity and compassion for the weak, the poor and the downtrodden,” said Zuma.
Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane has expressed "deep shock and disbelief" at the death of MaSisulu.
“I would like to send sincere condolences to my family, the Sisulu family. It is a sad day for all of us that she is no more. However, I am grateful that I was brought up by this icon.
“She was a strong believer in the leadership of women. She believed in the collective. She showed the way in terms of how people need to behave in the struggle,” said Mokonyane.
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