Albertina Sisulu has Joined the Ancestors

JOHANNESBURG — Albertina Sisulu, considered by many to be the mother of South Africa’s liberation struggle, a woman who was hounded and jailed by the apartheid government but who lived to see her children assume leadership roles in a democratic nation, died here on Thursday. She was 92. The African National Congress confirmed her death.

Mrs. Sisulu’s passing extinguishes another light of a generation that fought one of the great moral battles of the 20th century. Since her death, virtually every one of this nation’s leaders have come to her home to offer condolences. Only Nelson Mandela has been conspicuously absent. He is increasingly frail, and members of the Sisulu family visited him instead.

A humble but forceful woman, Mrs. Sisulu was the widow of Walter Sisulu, one of Mr. Mandela’s earliest political mentors, who died in 2003. She kept her dignity through decades of government harassment. Mr. Sisulu was imprisoned for 26 years, and she herself was repeatedly jailed, held incommunicado and “banned,” a restriction limiting where she could go and how many people she could see.

“But try as they might, they could not break her spirit, they could not make her bitter, they could not defeat her love,” Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said in one of the many tributes offered after her death.

Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born into a poor farming family in the Transkei, a former British protectorate that is now part of Eastern Cape Province. When she enrolled in a school run by missionaries, she was given a list of Christian names to chose from and selected Albertina.

Her father died when she was 11, and poverty might have kept her from finishing her education had she not won a scholarship to a Roman Catholic secondary school. After graduation, she accepted the advice of an admired priest and moved to Johannesburg to study nursing, a career that offered a small salary as she apprenticed.

In 1941, she was training at the Non-European General Hospital when she met Mr. Sisulu, a political activist with the African National Congress. Their courtship would be her political awakening. They married three years later. Nelson Mandela was best man at the ceremony.

In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela describes Albertina as a “wise and wonderful presence.” At the Sisulus’ wedding reception, he wrote, an A.N.C. stalwart warned the bride, “Albertina, you have married a married man: Walter married politics before he met you.”

She, in turn, was marrying the liberation movement. The Sisulus’ home in the Orlando area of Soweto became a central meeting place for the robust discussions that shaped the direction of the A.N.C. She combined her work as a visiting nurse with the distribution of political pamphlets.

On Aug. 9, 1956, Mrs. Sisulu was a leader of a historic march by 20,000 women against the nation’s pass laws, which restricted the movements of blacks. One slogan from the protest was, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” Aug. 9 is now celebrated in South Africa as Women’s Day.

Walter Sisulu would go on to head the A.N.C., and later, along with Mr. Mandela and others, create an armed wing of the organization. The Sisulus’ relationship has been celebrated in South Africa as a great love story, but during the first 20 years of their marriage, he was so often in jail or on the run that the couple barely spent 9 years together.

Once, in 1963, when the police failed to locate her husband, they seized Mrs. Sisulu instead, arresting her while she was treating patients. She was placed in solitary confinement under a notorious law that allowed detention for 90 days without charges.

“There was nothing to read, nothing to do, nothing to occupy my mind—nothing except to think of what was happening to my children at home,” she recalled in a 2002 biography written by her daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu.

The couple had five children and raised three more who belonged to Mr. Sisulu’s deceased sister. Unknown to Mrs. Sisulu, after she was jailed, her 17-year-old son Max was arrested and held under the same law.

In 1964, Mr. Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment, serving most of his time, like Mr. Mandela, on Robben Island. Mrs. Sisulu was banned for 10 years. Her children either went into exile or entered boarding school.

As the decades passed, MaSisulu, as she was affectionately called, was frequently arrested, locked up for infractions as slight as attending the funeral of a friend. Her children faced similar harassment.

“I did not mind going to jail myself, and I had to learn to cope without Walter,” Mrs. Sisulu once said. “But when my children went to jail, I felt that the Boers were breaking me at the knees.”

Nevertheless, her political activities continued. In 1983, she became one of the founders of the United Democratic Front, a powerful antiapartheid coalition that brought together religious, labor and student groups.

In July 1989, she led a delegation on an overseas mission, arguing for sanctions against the apartheid government. She met with President George H. W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter. She dined with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The days of racist oppression were drawing to a close. That October, Mr. Sisulu was set free; Mr. Mandela would be released four months later.

In 1994, with multiracial democracy finally having replaced white domination, Mrs. Sisulu was elected to Parliament. She served for four years, retiring from politics though remaining active in social causes.

The Sisulu family, for so long badgered and humiliated, is now a political dynasty. Her daughter Lindiwe Sisulu is the nation’s defense minister. Her son Max is speaker of the National Assembly. Another daughter, Beryl Sisulu, is South Africa’s ambassador to Norway. She is also survived by her son Zwelakhe Sisulu and daughter Nkuli Sisulu.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s