Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu (21 October 1918 – 2 June 2011) was a black, female, South African anti-apartheid activist, and the widow of fellow activist Walter Sisulu (1912–2003). She was affectionately known as Ma Sisulu throughout her lifetime by the South African public. In 2004 she was voted 57th in the SABC3’s Great South Africans. She passed away on 2 June 2011, in her home in Linden, Johannesburg, South Africa, aged 92.
She was the second of five children born to Bonilizwe, and Monica Thethiwe in the Tsomo district of Transkei on October 21 1918. Albertina’s mother survived the Spanish Flu, but was constantly ill and very weak because of this. It fell upon Albertina, as the eldest girl, to take on a motherly role for her younger siblings. She had to stay 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. She adopted the name Albertina when she started her schooling at a Presbyterian mission school in Xolobe run by missionaries.
Her leadership qualities and maternal instincts underlined the respect she earned during the struggle when she was referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. Albertina excelled at school in cultural and sporting activities and she showed leadership skills at an early age when she was chosen as head girl in standard five. However, Albertina was forced to leave school on several occasions to take care of her younger siblings (because of her mother’s bad health). Although at the time this did not seem a major inconvenience, later when Albertina entered a competition to win a four year high school scholarship this 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) Albertina’s teachers wrote to the local Xhosa language newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, making a strong case for Albertina to be given the prize. Fortunately for Albertin,a 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 Albertina at Mariazell College.
With high school ending in 1939 Albertina had decided that she would not marry but rather become a working professional so that she could support her family back in Xolobe. Whilst at Mariazell, Albertina had converted to Catholicism and considered becoming a nun as she admired the dedication of the nuns who taught at the college. However, Father Huss advised Albertina against this as nuns did not earn a salary nor did they leave the mission post, so she would not have been able to support her family in the way she wanted to. Instead he advised her to consider nursing, as trainee nurses were paid to study. Attracted by the practical solution nursing offered Albertina took his advice and applied to various nursing schools. She was accepted as a trainee nurse at a Johannesburg “Non-European” hospital called Johannesburg General. After spending Christmas with her family in Xolobe she left for Johannesburg in January 1940.
Sisulu started work in Johannesburg as a midwife in 1946, often walking to visit patients in townships. “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,” she said.
Albertina first met Walter Sisulu, a young political activist, in 1941 while working at Johannesburg General Hospital. 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. Albertina said of her marriage: “I was told that I was marrying a politician and there was no courtship or anything like that.” Yet at his funeral their granddaughter read a tribute to him on her behalf: “Walter, what do I do without you? It was for you who I woke up in the morning, it was for you who I lived … You were taken away by the evils of the past the first time, but I knew you would come back to me. Now the cold hand of death has taken you and left a void in my heart.”
Walter Sisulu spent 25 years in custody on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela whom he introduced to the ANC, now South Africa’s governing party. While her husband was on Robben Island, Albertina Sisulu raised the couple’s five children alone. She spent months in jail herself and had her movements restricted.
Sisulu scraped and 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.
Albertina did not display an interest in politics at first, only attending political meetings with Walter in a supporting capacity, but she eventually got involved in politics 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. Albertina Sisulu was the only woman present at the birth of the ANC Youth League. Albertina became a member of the executive of the Federation of South African Women in 1954. On August 9, 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. “We said, ‘nothing doing’. We are not going to carry passes.” She spent three weeks in jail before being acquitted on pass charges, with Nelson Mandela as her lawyer. Sisulu opposed Bantu education, running schools from home.
Albertina 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. Albertina was placed in solitary confinement for almost two months. She was subsequently in and out of jail for her political activities, but she continued to resist against apartheid, despite being banned for most of the 1960s. She was also a key member of the United Democratic Front in the 1980s.
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.
For more than 50 years, Albertina committed herself to The Albertina Sisulu Foundation, which works to improve the lives of small children and old people. She was honoured 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.
The Albertina Sisulu Multipurpose Resource Centre/ASC, named after Albertina Sisulu, was also founded by Albertina. It was founded under the auspices of the Albertina Sisulu Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that was established by the Sisulu Family. Weeks later, she and Mandela opened the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa in Johannesburg, named for her late husband. She became a trustee for the centre and helped fundraise for it.
Albertina and her family were residents of Orlando West, Soweto, South Africa, when it was established. Mrs. Sisulu has witnessed firsthand the development of the community where the Sisulu family lived, sorely lacking in social services and despite enormous obstacles, has committed herself to alleviating the hardships of the community. The Albertina Sisulu Multipurpose Resource Centre/ASC provides the following services:
• A school for children with special needs –severe/moderate intellectual challenge – resource school • An Early Childhood Development Centre for learners from the age of three years • A section for the out of school youth with disabilities established with an intention to provide them with skills which would render them employable and active participants in the country‘s economy • A nutrition programme for the needy earners • A multi-purpose community hall • An outreach program
In 1997, she was called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to help South Africans confront and forgive their brutal history. Albertina Sisulu testified before the commission about the Mandela United Football Club, a gang linked to Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, accused of terrorizing Soweto in the 1980s. She was accused of trying to protect Madikizela-Mandela during the hearings, but her testimony was stark. She said she believed the Mandela United Football Club burned down her house because she pulled some of her young relatives out of the gang. She also testified about hearing the shot that killed her colleague, a Soweto doctor whose murder has been linked to the group. Albertina Sisulu, a nurse at the doctor’s clinic, said they had a “mother and son” relationship.
Sisulu said the following in 1987, referring to Soweto, the urban area southwest of Johannesburg constructed for the settlement of black people.
“Women are the people who are going to relieve us from all this oppression and depression. The rent boycott that is happening in Soweto now is alive because of the women. It is the women who are on the street committees educating the people to stand up and protect each other.”
Albertina passed away in her home in Linden, Johannesburg at age 92 on 2 June 2011 at around 20h00 in the evening while watching television with her grandchildren. According to news reports, she suddenly fell ill, coughing blood, and paramedics who rushed to the scene were unable to revive her. At the time of her death, Albertina was survived by five children, Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko, her adopted niece and nephew, Gerald and Beryl, and 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her family expressed their sorrow at her death, but said that it comforted them to know that she and her beloved husband of 59 years were no doubt together again.
President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma paid tribute to MaSisulu in the wake of her passing. “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 SA,”