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.

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