A conscinece of South Africa, Albertina Sisulu


Albertina Sisulu
Date: 
Mon, 1918-10-21

*Albertina Sisulu was born on this date in 1918. She was a Black South African activist and nurse.

Born Nontsikelelo Albertina Thethiwe to Bonilizwe and Monica Thethiwe, she was born in the Tsomo district of the Transkei. She was the second of five children and thou her mother survived the Spanish Flu, was constantly ill and very weak. It fell upon her, as the eldest girl, to take on a motherly role for her younger siblings. She stayed out of school for long periods of time, which resulted in her being two years older than the rest of her class in her last year of primary school. Even from a young age she showed strong maternal instincts.

These leadership instincts underlined the respect she earned during the struggle when she was referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. When she entered a competition to win a four-year high school scholarship her age counted against her as she was disqualified from the prize even though she had come in first place. Angered by the unfair treatment (the competition rules had set no age limit on the prize) her teachers wrote to the local Xhosa language newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, making a strong case for Thethiwe to be given the prize. The article caught the attention of the priests at the local Roman Catholic Mission who then communicated with Father Bernard Huss at Mariazell. Father Huss arranged for a four-year high school scholarship for her at Mariazell College.

In 1936 She left for Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.  Although her scholarship covered her board and lodging, she had to pay it back during the school holidays by ploughing the fields and working in the laundry room.   After graduating in 1939, she decided that she would become a working professional so that she could support her family. At Mariazell she had converted to Catholicism and she decided that she would become a nun. However, Father Huss advised Albertina against this as nuns did not earn a salary and she would not have been able to support her family. Instead he advised her to consider nursing, as trainee nurses were paid to study. Attracted by the practical solution she was accepted as a trainee nurse at a Johannesburg “Non-European” hospital called Johannesburg General.

Thethiwe first met Walter Sisulu in 1941 while working at the Hospital, who at that time was a young political activist. They married in 1944 at a ceremony in which Nelson Mandela was the best man. The couple had five children, Max Vuyisile, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko and adopted four others. They were married for 59 years, until he died in his wife's arms in May 2003 at the age of 90. Her husband spent 25 years in custody on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, whom he had brought into the ANC, now South Africa's governing party.

While he was incarcerated, Sisulu raised the couple's five children alone. She spent months in jail herself and had her movements restricted. She saved for her children to attend good schools in Swaziland outside the inferior Bantu Education System. Several of the Sisulu children have themselves become leaders in the democratic South Africa. Max Sisulu is the speaker in the National Assembly; Beryl Sisulu is South Africa's ambassador in Norway; Lindiwe Sisulu is the minister of defence; Zwelakhe Sisulu is a prominent businessman; and daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, married to Max, is a well-known author and human rights activist. In 2000, the family publicly disclosed that their adopted son, Gerald Lockman, had died of HIV/Aids.

Sisulu was not interested in politics at first, only attending political meetings with Walter, but she eventually got involved when she joined the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League in 1955, and took part in the launch of the Freedom Charter the same year.  Sisulu was the only woman present at the birth of the ANC Youth League. She became a member of the executive of the Federation of South African Women in 1954. In 1956, Albertina joined Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn in a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings of Pretoria in protest against the apartheid government's requirement that women carry passbooks as part of the pass laws. Sisulu was arrested after her husband skipped bail to go underground, becoming the first woman to be arrested under the then General Laws Amendment Act of 1963.

The act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them. Sisulu was placed in solitary confinement for almost two months. In 1989 she managed to obtain a passport and led a UDF delegation overseas, meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States president George HW Bush. In London, she addressed a major anti-apartheid rally to protest against the visit of National Party leader FW de Klerk. In 1994, she was elected to the first democratic Parliament, which she served until retiring four years later. That year she received an award from then-president Mandela.

Also for more than 50 years, she committed herself to The Albertina Sisulu Foundation, which works to improve the lives of small children and old people. She was honored for her commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle and her social work when the World Peace Council, based in Basel, Switzerland, elected her president from 1993 to 1996. She recruited nurses to go to Tanzania, to replace British nurses who left after Tanzanian independence. The South African nurses had to be "smuggled" out of SA into Botswana and from there they flew to Tanzania. She became national co-president of the liberal United Democratic Front at its inception in 1983.

In 1997, she was called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to help South Africans confront and forgive their brutal history of Aparthied. Later she joined the ANC Women's League and was elected deputy president, and in 1994 she became a Member of Parliament before retiring in 1998. Sisulu died suddenly in her home in Linden, Johannesburg at age 92 on June 2, 2011 at around 8:00 in the evening while watching television with her grandchildren.

Reference:
The Associated Press
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Person / name: 

Sisulu, Albertina