Albertina Sisulu was a prominent leader in the African National Congress and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. She provided much needed leadership during the years when most of the ANC's high command was either in prison or in exile.
Date of Birth: 21 October 1918, Camama, Transkei, South Africa
Date of Death: 2 June 2011, Linden, Johannesburg, South Africa.
An Early Life
Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born in the village of Camama, Transkei, South Africa, on 21 October 1918 to Bonilizwe and Monica Thethiwe. Her father Bonilizwe arranged for the family to live in nearby Xolobe while he was working on the mines; he died when she was 11. She was given the European name of Albertina when she started at the local mission school. At home she was known by the pet name Ntsiki. As the eldest daughter Albertina was often required to look after her siblings. This resulted in her being held back for a couple of years at primary school [see Bantu education], and initially cost her a scholarship for high school. After intervention by a local Catholic Mission, she was eventually given a four year scholarship to Mariazell College in the Eastern Cape (she had to work during the holidays to support herself since the scholarship only covered term time). Albertina converted to Catholicism whilst at college, and decided that rather than get married she would help support her family by getting a job. She was advised to pursue nursing (rather than her first choice of being a nun). In 1939 she was accepted as a trainee nurse at Johannesburg General, a 'non-European' hospital, and began work there in January 1940.
Life as a trainee nurse was difficult -- Albertina was required to buy her own uniform out of a small wage, and spent most of her time in the nurses hostel. She experienced the ingrained racism of the White-minority led country through the treatment of senior Black nurses by more junior White nurses. She was also refused permission to return to Xolobe when her mother died in 1941.
Meeting Walter Sisulu
Two of Albertina's friends at the hospital were Barbie Sisulu and Evelyn Mase (Nelson Mandela's first wife-to-be). It was through them that she became acquainted with Walter Sisulu (Barbie's brother) and began a future career in politics. Walter took her to the inaugural conference of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League (formed by Walter, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo), at which Albertina was the only female delegate. (It was only after1943 that the ANC formally accepted women as members.)
In 1944 Albertina Thethiwe qualified as a nurse and, on the 15th of July, married Walter Sisulu in Cofimvaba, Transkei -- her uncle had refused them permission to get married in Johannesburg. They held a second ceremony on their return to Johannesburg at the Bantu Men's Social Club, with Nelson Mandela as best man and his wife Evelyn as bridesmaid. The newly-weds moved in to 7372, Orlando Soweto, a house which belonged to Walter Sisulu's family. The following year she gave birth to their first son, Max Vuysile.
Starting a Life in Politics
In 1945 Walter gave up his attempts to develop an estate agency (he had previously been a trade union official, but was fired for organizing a strike) to devote his time to the ANC. It was left to Albertina to support the family on her earnings as a nurse. In 1948 the ANC Women's League was formed and Albertina Sisulu joined immediately. The following year she worked hard to support Walter's election as the first, full-time ANC secretary-general.
The Defiance Campaign in 1952 was a defining moment for the anti-Apartheid struggle, with the ANC working in collaboration with the South African Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party. Walter Sisulu was one of 20 people arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and sentenced to nine months hard labor, suspended for two years, for his part in the campaign. The ANC Women's League also evolved during the defiance campaign, and on 17 April 1954 several women leaders founded the non-racial Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). FEDSAW was to fight for liberation, as well as on issues of gender inequality within South Africa.
In 1954 Albertina Sisulu obtained her midwife qualification and began working for Johannesburg's City Health department. Unlike their white counterparts, Black midwifes had to travel on public transport and carry all their equipment in a suitcase.
Boycotting Bantu Education
Albertina, through the ANC Women's League and FEDSAW, was involved in the boycott of Bantu Education. The Sisulus withdrew their children from the local government run school in 1955, and Albertina opening her home as an 'alternative school'. The Apartheid government soon cracked down on such practice and, rather than return their children to the Bantu education system, the Sisulus sent them to a private school in Swaziland run by Seventh Day Adventists.
On 9 August 1956 Albertina was involved in the women's anti-pass protest, helping the 20,000 prospective demonstrators avoid police stops. During the march the women sang a freedom song: Wathint' abafazi, Strijdom! In 1958 Albertina was jailed for taking part in a protest against the Sophiatown removals. She was one of around 2000 protestors who spent three weeks in detention. Albertina was represented in court by Nelson Mandela. (They were all eventually acquitted.)