By Sarah Duff
In his statement after the death of Albertina Sisulu earlier this month, Jacob Zuma noted:
A matriarch and a nurse by profession, 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.
He wasn’t the only one to refer to her as Mama Sisulu, and I was struck by the frequency with which commentators and obituaries described her as a ‘mother of the nation’. As a midwife, nurse, mother of five of her own and two adopted children, and confidante and carer to many others, Albertina Sisulu was indeed a mother, and probably a wonderful one too.
I am concerned, though, that by thinking of her only as a mother that we’re ignoring her other achievements too: that in focussing on her marriage to Walter Sisulu we lose sight of the fact that she played as important a role in the struggle against apartheid. When Anton Lembede, the president of the ANC Youth League, said at her and Walter’s wedding that she was marrying a man who was already married to the nation, he could as well have said the same to Walter. I am not for a moment suggesting that being a mother is of less value or significance than other roles – far from it – but I think that we should try to remember all aspects of Albertina’s remarkable life.
Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born in the Transkei in 1918. Like Nelson Mandela and many other African children who attended mission schools, she was asked to choose an English first name to be used by her teachers. Nontsikelelo settled on Albertina. Her education was similar to many other African girls during the early twentieth century. Mission schools provided good quality teaching both to girls and boys, and with an understanding that this education would need to work around family commitments. Albertina completed high school only in 1939 because she was frequently required to return home to assist her mother.
Like many other educated, lower middle-class African girls, she decided to train as a nurse – one of the few professions open to African women – and moved to Johannesburg, where she worked at the city’s General Non-European Hospital. She qualified in 1944, the same year that she married Walter.
Despite her marriage and the birth of her first child, Max, in 1945, Albertina continued to work as nurse. In fact, when Walter decided to dedicate himself full-time to the ANC, and he was elected its president in 1949, Albertina agreed to become the breadwinner for the family. Employed at the Orlando Clinic, she became an active member of the ANC Women’s League in 1948. By 1959 she was its treasurer. In 1954 she was a founding member of the Federation of South African Women. She was at the reading of the Freedom Charter on 26 June 1955. On 9 August 1956 Albertina was one of the leaders of a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings.
It’s difficult to summarise how extraordinarily disrupted and chaotic Albertina’s life was during the 1950s and 1960s. Walter was arrested, detained, and banned on several occasions. Their house was raided repeatedly by the police. And in 1964, Walter was sentenced to life in gaol on Robben Island at the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial. Albertina was placed under a banning order for five years, and then house arrest for another decade. Even with the restrictions that this placed on her activism and with the absence of her husband – and, increasingly, her children who were sent to boarding school – this didn’t cause her to stop her involvement in the struggle.
Arrested and detained on numerous occasions for her work for the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, Albertina’s energy and political nous were absolutely essential to the success of the struggle. She acted as a link between activists in South Africa and those in exile abroad; she continued to campaign for non-racialism and against apartheid in South Africa, speaking at conferences, supporting local causes, smuggling ANC members out of the country, organising resistance to apartheid laws, and supporting activists around the country. In 1983, she was elected President of the United Democratic Front, the most important anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s. Even during her 70s and suffering from diabetes, she was imprisoned – frequently in solitary confinement – for her involvement in the UDF.
After the release of Walter from prison in 1989 and the subsequent unbanning of the ANC, Albertina was elected Deputy President of the relaunched ANC Women’s League in 1990. She represented the ANC as an MP in Parliament between 1994 and 1999.
Albertina was a mother, but she was many other things too. She was a successful and hardworking nurse, midwife, and activist. She was an excellent negotiator and a skilled politician. She was as important to the ANC as was her husband.