Nelson Mandela chats to Albertina Sisulu during the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter and the unveiling of the monument at Kliptown in Joburg in this June 2005 photo. Tributes have poured in for Sisulu, who died on Thursday at the age of 92. Picture: AP
The sorrow with which the death of Nontsikelelo “Mama” Albertina Sisulu was met last week has as much to do with the end of an era as it does with her absence in the world. As the last of her generation prepare their leave-taking, tributes to Sisulu may be read as obituaries of a way of being in the country she fought so hard to liberate.
With Nelson Mandela, she was among the last of those in the ANC who were young in the early 1940s when the Congress Youth League was in the making, and when her late husband Walter, with Oliver Tambo and Mandela, was fired by a conviction that he would change the shape of things to come. The return of Mandela to his Joburg home after a visit to his home village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape on the day she died, lent a sad synchronicity to the event.
A tribute from the Mandela family called on “those of us remaining behind to heed the greatest lesson from her life: namely dedication, sincerity, humility and deep love for people, especially the poor”.
Those were the qualities in vogue, along with robust debate, that propelled the Congress Youth League forward as Albertina joined them in their committee meetings, largely in the role of “a kind of hostess”, as Ellen Kuzwayo noted in her autobiography, Call Me Woman. This would have earned her the disparaging label of “tea girl”.
She was starry-eyed, still, in 1944 when she attended the male-dominated political meetings, largely in support of her man. She and Walter had met by chance when he had arrived at the Joburg Non White Hospital where she worked, to visit his sister Barbie and his cousin Evelyn Mase, who was to become Nelson Mandela’s first wife.
That was in 1941. The electricity of their relationship is legend. Walter found Albertina “appealing”, she found him “handsome”, they went to the bioscope, he took her home to meet his mother.
Her own childhood had been a happy one, according to the family oral history Elinor Sisulu has drawn on in her comprehensive biography, Walter and Albertina, In Our Lifetime. It has been invaluable in researching this tribute.
Both her parents were descendants of the Mfengu people, from the Eastern Cape, where she was born. The second child of a peasant farmer and migrant worker, Bonilizwe Thethiwe and an ailing mother, Monica Mnyile, she was the eldest of eight girls in her extended family and it fell upon her to take care of them when her mother died.
The endurance she learned then was to serve her well in the lean years she was to face when Walter’s involvement with the struggle took him away from the hearth.
Things got tougher when he went underground in 1963 after the Treason Trial. His 25-year incarceration on Robben Island was testing. Not only because she battled to put food on the table: after working as a nurse by day, she sewed lishweshwe dresses, knitted jerseys and baby clothes and bought eggs wholesale and sold them at a small profit. It was testing not only because she relied on support from friends of the family and the church, but because she had to learn to live without the proximity of Walter’s love.
But her early mission school years and the prestigious education she received on a bursary in Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape were not wasted.
It was obvious that the servitude that Kuzwayo thought she observed in Albertina at the Congress Youth League meeting was not to last – Kuzwayo, who was the only woman who succeeded in breaking into that all-male circle – may have thought better of her judgment.
Albertina was on 19 June 1963 to become the first woman to be imprisoned under the notorious 90 Day Act which allowed the state to hold suspects for 90 days without being charged. She told Drum magazine that “the loneliness was unbearable” and she was threatened that the state would take her children from her. Her first taste of prison life was also exposing.
Her political activity took off in the1950s, in the ANC Women’s League, in which she played leadership roles and which she helped to rehabilitate after the ANC’s unbanning in 1990 and the Federation of South African Women, of which she was at one time the president.
She was banned in August 1964 for five years, confined to the magisterial district of Joburg, which complicated visits to Robben Island, where Walter was sentenced for life in the Rivonia trial.
When she finally did get to Robben Island for a 30-minute visit in September 1964, it was unsatisfactory. Upon her return, she wrote to tell Walter that she had been admitted to Baragwanath Hospital with backache. This correspondence was to deepen as she strove over the years to keep Walter in the loop with his growing family and their activities, asking for his advice.
Albertina was banned for a continuous 18-year stretch, from 1963 until Walter’s release in 1989.
She spent time in and out of jail, the longest period being eight months after attending the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele.
There were surely times in her life that she recalled the remarks of Anton Lembede, first president of the Congress Youth League. At their wedding reception at the Bantu Men’s Social Club in 1944 Lembede had warned Albertina that she was “marrying a man who was married to the nation”.
Lembede may not have guessed that she herself was to become the mother of the nation, or at least one of them.
Her union with Walter was to produce one of the country’s most respected political families. Her children were constantly harassed and banned, imprisoned and exiled as they continued the work of their parents.
In June 2009, Max Sisulu, the Speaker of Parliament, spoke in an interview about “our close family”. His eldest son, Mlungisi, the first secretary of the South African embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, who died of cerebral malaria during a visit to London in January, was a freedom fighter, raised by Sisulu’s parents.
Max said, “At one stage there were three Sisulus in jail – Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, his uncle, and his grandfather, Walter. Nobody said there were too many Sisulus in jail. But when there were three Sisulus in Parliament – me, Lindiwe and my mother – somebody complained about that.”
Lindiwe is the defence minister and Beryl, brought up in their home, is South Africa’s ambassador to Norway.
During the course of her journey, it was inevitable that Albertina was to encounter women such as Helen Joseph, and others who made their mark as the nation’s mothers – and that some of these meetings brought conflict.
Among those she rubbed up against was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. It was no secret that Albertina was disturbed by Madikizela-Mandela’s injunction to the youth to liberate the country with matchboxes. It was no secret that she inhabited a clearly defined moral universe.
Her relationship with Madikizela-Mandela was to come under the spotlight at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Elinor Sisulu said she had been called to give evidence about an event she was unable to recall.
She had been working for Dr Abubaker Asvat in his rooms in Rockville, Soweto, at the time when Winnie Mandela’s football club was at the height of its powers.
Albertina was in his rooms when he was shot in January 1989. When she was called on to give evidence at the TRC, according to Elinor, she became confused about a piece of evidence meant to incriminate Winnie and of which she did not remember the details. She was upset that she had been called there and was upset, too, about Asvat’s murder. The only time she cried was at his funeral, says Elinor Sisulu.
Although the confusion about the evidence was later cleared up, the insinuation that she had “covered up” for a comrade because of the close relationship between the two families prevailed.
The flip side of the nurturing, maternal Albertina was a sometimes harsh and admonishing matriarch and leader.
Her daughter, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, told me in an interview in 2009 that her mother did not approve of her involvement with the Black Consciousness Movement. But there was no total ban. They talked about it, said Lindiwe.
Nomvula Mokonyane said in an interview that Albertina had laughed at her and Lindiwe when they were young activists.
Albertina said: “You two will build houses in your high heels.”
Lindiwe laughed when reminded of this. Lindiwe said in this interview that when she was 23, on June 14 1976, she was detained and forced to leave behind her children, two-year-old Ntsiki and six-month-old Ayanda. She was physically and mentally tortured, and kept in detention for 11 months. She said the police told her her mother had died.
By the time Walter was released from prison, Albertina had run her course. She had been elected by the Transvaal regional council of the United Democratic Front in 1983 as one of the three UDF co-presidents, following a dramatic arrest.
“MaSisulu, come back with freedom,” shouted her female comrades as she was taken away in a police car on the eve of the UDF meeting.
The state seemed unable to pin down its case against her, as there was no real evidence that she was propagating violence.
In 1984 Gertrude Shope, leader of the women’s section of the ANC, released a statement condemning the sentencing of Albertina to two years in jail. A member of Parliament for four years after 1994, she was also elected to the ANC national executive council.
The Albertina Sisulu Foundation, a multi-purpose centre in Orlando, continues her work. The Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre in Sunninghill Hospital was closest to her heart. She was keen for people to come out about their HIV status and Aids education was vital, she said. She had lost family members to the virus.
Walter died on May 5, 2003, a few days before his 91st birthday, in Albertina’s arms.
It is 92 years since Albertina Sisulu was born in the Transkei on October 21, 1918. She leaves a chasm behind her.
She is survived by her five children with Walter, including Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko. Also, by her niece and nephew, Beryl and Jongumzi. She leaves 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.