On 9 May, 1994, with the advent of democracy in South Africa, Albertina Sisulu stood up in Parliament to nominate Nelson Mandela for election as the first black President of the newly born country.
It was a historic moment that ushered a new era for the country. It’s most likely that many South African journalists, particularly the younger generation, became aware of Albertina Sisulu during that historic moment in the South African parliament.
But long before that 1994 breakthrough, Sisulu played a leading role in the struggle for liberation of her country and was one of the leaders of the historic Women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956 alongside Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa, among others who took part in that march
Although some people may be quick to associate her political struggle with her husband Walter Sisulu, the veteran African National Congress politician who died in 2003, mama Sisulu, as she was affectionately known, was a leader in her own right.
She spent almost half a century fighting for the liberation of South Africans, in the face of detentions, banning orders and harassment.
Like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose contribution to South Africa’s fight for liberation is being celebrated today, Sisulu stepped into her role as a mother and became the suffering spouse of the imprisoned Walter Sisulu. Like Madikizela-Mandela, the struggle heroine never wavered in her convictions.
Her persecution kept the name of her husband alive as he served a life imprisonment sentence at Robben Island. Like the persecution of Madikizela-Mandela, the persecution of mama Sisulu helped to keep the struggle alive and served as a reminder of the cause of those who were sent to Robben Island.
As government celebrates the centenary of this iconic woman, it is only right that South Africans are reminded of the sacrifices that Sisulu and others made for the country to be the democracy it is today. The centenary celebrations will run for the entire year and will be marked by a series of commemorative events. This is also the year that South Africa celebrates the centenary of the life of former President Mandela.
Both Albertina Sisulu and Madiba dedicated their lives to ensuring a better and more united South Africa. The 100 year anniversary of the lives of these two remarkable people is an opportunity to recommit as a country to their principles by building the nation they envisioned when they fought for liberation.
A qualified nurse and mid-wife, Sisulu was born on 21 October 1912 in the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her childhood and attended school.
In her various public roles, she always sought to bring hope and dignity to the people and communities she served. Whether as a member of the NEC of the ANC, or as a nurse who protected those under her care, or in civic leadership roles, or as a staunch supporter of the value of education in changing lives.
Away from public life, she was the matriarch of her family, and took up the mantel of caring for her siblings. This caring attitude extended to children everywhere, and resulted in her setting up a day care centre to serve the community.
Sisulu, who was orphaned at the age of 15, took seriously the responsibility of looking after her siblings even though she was the second eldest.
Her resilience, showed up in her teens as she didn’t allow the death of her parents to break her.
“Part of her political life was also about taking seriously her responsibilities. She did everything with the necessary professionalism, commitment and vigour,” says granddaughter Ntsiki Sisulu.
“As a woman, she fought when it was not fashionable to do so and did it with bravery and a sense of conviction that all are equal regardless of what the law states. She was an upholder of human rights at all costs, regardless of one’s colour or gender,” she says.
Vuyelwa Sisulu, also her granddaughter, says even though her grandmother faced hardships early on in life, these struggles never harden her as she genuinely cared for people.
Vuyelwa grew up in Orlando, Soweto, under the care of Mama Sisulu and has nothing but fond memories of her grandma.
“She was very strict but at the same time extremely loving, nurturing but also stern. When you were naughty, you would get reprimanded. She was a hugger, a kisser, a feeder, that’s how she showed us love,” she says.
Both women talked about the sense of community in their grandmother’s home. They woke up to a breakfast of soft porridge that would be followed by eggs, boerewors and tomato gravy as well as buttered bread.
Ntsiki says her grandmother led by example even in the home and would wake up early mornings to do laundry and clean the house. The grandchildren also had their own chores.
Despite the scrutiny and surveillance she faced at the hands of the apartheid government, Sisulu often had an influx of people coming in and out of her house.
As of 1958, she was in and out of jail for her activism. In 1964, she was banned for five years which meant that she couldn’t attend gatherings, go near courts and educational centres. She was also sentenced to 10 years under house arrest.
Ntsiki recalls how her grandmother had watch her own son’s wedding from a distance, standing in her own gate. She was banned from participating in the simple pleasures of life.
Ma Sisulu met her husband Walter in 1941.
She was the only woman present when the African National Congress formed the ANC Youth League in 1944.
She was part of the women who organised other women against Bantu education and these groups of women became known for their stance in closing schools and found volunteers who taught the children at their homes. Their plan to have children taught at home failed because the government would not register the schools.
In addition, Sisulu played a significant role in the formation of the Federation of the South African Women in 1954 and was part of the drawing up of the Freedom Charter in 1955.
On 9 August 1956, she joined about 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings to protest against legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black women in urban areas. She was amongst the organisers of the march.
Albertina and Walter had five children together as well as two adopted children. She became the sole breadwinner of the family when her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning acts of sabotage in June 1964.
Government says she will forever be remembered as a fearless leader in the struggle and a mother to the nation.
“She worked tirelessly towards creating a better and more equitable South Africa. Throughout her life she worked to ensure that all people in South Africa should enjoy the benefits of freedom and democracy.”