Albertina Sisulu: Nurse and freedom fighter revered by South Africans as the mother of the nation

Albertina Sisulu was revered by South Africans as the true mother of the nation.

A survivor of the golden age of the African National Congress, she was warned when marrying Walter Sisulu in 1944 that he had "married politics long before he met you". But her life with the second most important figure in the ANC exemplified the underpinning role of women in the struggle against apartheid.

She was born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in a small village near Cofimvaba in the Transkei, the daughter of a migrant worker, Bonilizwe, who was absent on the gold mines for six months at a time. He died when she was 11, it is thought from the lung disease silicosis. Her mother, Monica, had been badly affected by the 1918 flu epidemic and Ntsiki cared for seven younger sisters in the extended family.

This was perhaps the most important lesson of her life. But it left her two years behind at school. The white missionaries at her Presbyterian junior school found her name difficult to pronounce – or were wary of its pagan resonance – and from a list she chose Albertina. She was a bright student and good at games but her age disqualified her from a scholarship to further her education.

Mariazell Catholic college in Matatiele stepped in with the offer of a scholarship. With only her tuition fees covered she paid back her board and lodging by ploughing the fields and working in the laundry room in the school holidays. She converted to Catholicism and was set on becoming a nun but the college principal, Fr Bernard Huss, convinced her that nursing was her true vocation. In 1940 she became a trainee at the "non-European" Johannesburg General hospital.

A fellow student, Barbie Sisulu, introduced Albertina to her brother Walter, who, unusually for an African, was an estate agent, though his main concern was the "struggle". They married in 1944, with Nelson Mandela best man. She was soon in the thick of political developments. That year she was the sole woman at the inaugural meeting of the radical offshoot of the ANC, the Youth League, with Sisulu, Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede in the vanguard.

In 1956 she was at the forefront of 20,000 women demonstrating outside the Prime Minister's office in Pretoria against the extension of the hated passbooks to women. Soon after Walter and 155 men and women were charged with treason. In the four years until his acquittal she supported him while working as a nurse and managing five young children, plus two more she adopted when her sister died.

When the ANC launched the armed struggle in 1961 after the shootings at Sharpeville, life became perilous. Albertina was the first woman held under the 90-days law, which allowed security police to hold her incommunicado while interrogating her to their heart's content. They wanted to know the whereabouts of her husband, who was on the run. Her daughter Nonkululeko was taken to hospital with pneumonia; you'll see her if you tell us what you know, they told her. Then her 17-year-old, Max, was arrested.

She was released after Walter, together with most of the leadership of the ANC, was captured in a raid on their Rivonia hide-out. Walter was jailed for life and she received a five-year banning order, which criminalised political activity and travel outside Soweto. It was renewed after five years, and she was also put under partial house arrest. She was allowed rare half-hour visits to Walter on Robben Island, a stomach-churning ferry ride from Cape Town. The censors ratcheted up the anguish by delaying the infrequent letters they were permitted to write. "Never known to lose her temper," a friend said of her, "though she had much reason to."

With the ANC proscribed, she recruited young women as underground organisers. Her home in Orlando West, Soweto was open house to "struggle" sympathisers, as well as a communication centre for members of the liberation army, Umkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation]. All the while she was nursing full-time at a Soweto clinic. Her children dispersed, Lindiwe to Waterford school in Swaziland then, after arrest and torture, into exile; she is now Minister of Defence. Max also fled the country; he is speaker of the Cape Town Parliament. The journalist Zwelakhe, founder of the newspaper New Nation, stayed but under intense state scrutiny.

Sisulu returned publicly to the political arena with the formation in 1983 of the United Democratic Front (UDF), whose mass appeal of churches, civic and student associations, trade unions, and sporting bodies was to hasten the demise of apartheid. It was, in effect, the ANC-in-waiting. She was held for several months for singing freedom songs at a friend's funeral.

Such was her renown that while in prison she was elected UDF co-president. She had become Ma Sisulu, the most respected women of her day. Her four-year prison sentence was denounced by the United Nations and persuaded even Margaret Thatcher's government to protest to the Prime Minister, PW Botha. She was released pending an appeal. Granted a passport at last, she represented the UDF cause to the first President Bush in the White House and to Thatcher in London.

Walter Sisulu was freed in 1989. After a separation of a quarter of a century the couple were as devoted as ever. In 1994, when I was working on a documentary on the Defence & Aid Fund, we took the Sisulus to Robben Island for the first time since his release. At the lime quarry, Albertina listened to her husband's description of how the leaders-in-waiting had toiled for 13 years in the blinding white light and the dank Cape winter. She looked at her 81-year-old man with heightened respect. "But you had a lot of time for talking too, didn't you?" she said. They sort of giggled.

There was one stumbling block to her serenity. For some years she had worked as a receptionist to an Indian doctor, Abu Bakar Asvat. One day he was murdered in his surgery by two men from the notorious "Mandela United football team" for refusing to treat a boy severely beaten by them. Albertina was shattered. Winnie Mandela was the "team's" protector. Later, giving evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission before Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Albertina, though openly distraught, refused to condemn the wife of an old friend.

Her final years were spent in anunpretentious house in the former white Johannesburg suburb of Linden. After a state funeral in the Orlando Stadium, Soweto she was buriedalongside Walter, who died in 2003. A friend said of her, "she treated everybody alike. If she didn't like you, you would never have known. But her main concern was the welfare of our women and children."

Nontsikelelo Albertina Thetiwe, freedom fighter and nurse: born Cofimvaba, Transkei 21 October 1918; married 1944 Walter Sisulu (three sons, two daughters); died Johannesburg 2 June 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Technician - URGENT - Graduate, Windows, MS Office

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: My client, a researcher of investment idea...

MQ Unix / Linux Systems Engineer - URGENT - Unix, Linux, MQ

£63000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A market leading provider of technology dr...

Service Desk Analyst - ITIL, Windows, Active Directory

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading brokerage is looking for a...

Trade Desk Specialist - FIX, Linux, UNIX, Windows,SQL, Graduate

£55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading global exchange is look...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game