Final chapter of Mama Sisulu’s love story written
THE FINAL chapter of one of South Africa’s greatest love stories was written last night when Albertina Sisulu, lifelong partner of ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu, died at her Linden, Joburg, home. She was 92.
One of her daughters, Beryl, a former ambassador to Norway, confirmed her death. It is unclear what she died of. It is understood Netcare 911 paramedics were called to the house just after 8pm.
Netcare spokesman Jeff Wicks would not comment.
Sisulu, wife of Struggle leader Walter, played a pivotal role during the apartheid.
She was the first woman to be held under the 90-day detention order.
In South Africa, her name is always included in a list of remarkable women: Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn, Dorothy Nyembe, Charlotte Maxeke, Ruth First, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Epainette Mbeki and Amina Cachalia. Many, like Albertina Sisulu, marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 in protest at pass laws and oppression.
Although Albertina and Walter Sisulu had only about 15 years of normal married life, it is often said how close they remained.
The love that united them in the 1940s stayed strong through years in which Walter was imprisoned eight times, banned, placed under house arrest, tried twice for treason, and then sent to jail in 1964 for life. They were loving in letters. One sent by Albertina to Walter while he was on Robben Island, begins “Darling Walter... longing for you”. Her husband, a former ANC president, died in 2003. He was 90.
In her affectionate, meticulous study, Walter & Albertina Sisulu - In our Lifetime (David Philip Publishers, 2002), their daughter-inlaw, Elinor, notes how Walter wrote his first letter to Albertina a few days after his arrival on the island, although this exhausted his quota of letters allowed for the first half of the year. Albertina would eventually receive the letters and reply, signing them “Your loving Tinie”.
Albertina never obfuscated about her feelings for Walter. “We loved each other very much,” she once said. “We were like two chickens, one always walking behind the other.”
Once Walter Sisulu had settled at last into retirement, Albertina said they enjoyed live music and watching soccer, especially if “my grandchildren are in the teams”.
Elinor Sisulu tells of how, on their wedding anniversary in July 1979, Walter expressed his appreciation of Albertina as a wonderful mother. He signed it off with his customary “a million kisses to my beloved Ntsiki”.
She and Walter had five children – Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko. They also adopted Walter’s niece and nephew, Gerald and Beryl.
Albertina leaves 26 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her Albertina Sisulu Foundation is more than 50 years old, and she was honoured for her commitment to the Struggle and social work when the World Peace Council in Basel, Switzerland, elected her president.
FOR MUCH of Albertina Sisulu’s life, she was governed by what she could do for others. From an impoverished background – in which, at age 11, her dying father implored her to care for her siblings – through the unforgiving years of apartheid, and even after democracy, she was at the centre of other lives.
Perhaps being one of the greatest heroes of the liberation struggle was not a path Sisulu chose for herself, but she was such a force for good, that it surely brought its own contentment.
Africa has a legacy of significant women leaders. In her unique role as an activist who held family as close as she did the liberation of the country, Sisulu could keep company with the most courageous of her political antecedents: the 17th century military strategist Nzinga of Angola; the 18th century humanist Dona Beatrice of Congo; the powerful 19th century queen mother Muganzirwazza of Buganda.
In South A f r i c a , Sisulu’s name is always included in a list of remarkable women: Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn, Dorothy Nyembe, Charlotte Maxeke, Ruth First, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Epainette Mbeki and Amina Cachalia. Many, like Sisulu, marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 to protest pass laws and oppression.
For many who knew her well during her earlier years, the reputation of the tall, commanding woman in her crisp black nurse’s cloak, with a voluminous medical bag, went ahead of her like a light when she walked through the streets. Black people had little under the monumental apartheid gloom of the 1960s.
At that time, Sisulu was not only the wife of the-then imprisoned ANC leader Walter Sisulu, but an admired activist and mother of seven, five her own, two adopted. So the nuances of the epithet – mother of the nation – could not have been better applied than to Sisulu, the symbolism extending to her vocation as a midwife. She offered an charge of hope.
Hers was no average family. Her son Zwelakhe Sisulu, a leading businessman and former journalist and editor, recalls what it was like to feel as if everyone had a claim on his mother.
Zwelakhe openly expresses his lingering pain at being without his parents at boarding school in Swaziland and living a peculiarly complex life for a child, but he believes he understood his mother.
“Thinking about my earliest memory of her... the most striking thing about her to me when I was a small boy was that she was very tall, very distinguished. Everyone would know who she is. She had presence. If she walked into a room, you would know she is there.
My mother was always a giver. Both of my parents were givers, and they would take nothing from anybody.
“When we were living in Soweto, ours was one of the few houses that had a telephone, and electricity. We had to have the phone because my mother was one of the few qualified midwives in Soweto, and our home was basically like a community centre. My mother would get a call and then she would have to walk, sometimes 5km, 10km, to where the woman was in labour, to the distress destination.
“Things improved later when there were municipal clinics provided, but my mother was always in control of the situation. It was almost like she could never hand things over to other people to do. And if people rely on you to that extent, and you’re then at a point where you can’t say no if people come and ask for help, it can be overwhelming.”
Zwelakhe says their inadequate house in Soweto was filled with her presence, particularly in the years after his father was imprisoned.
Of the children in the house during that time, five – Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko – were Albertina and Walter Sisulu’s biological children. The couple had also adopted
unexpected Walter’s niece and nephew, Gerald and Beryl, and, at other times, Samuel – a former Robben Islander – and another child, Jongumzi, were also part of the household.
Later, during a women’s demonstrations against the pass laws in Joburg in 1958, Sisulu was jailed.
Remembering that time, her daughter Lindiwe Sisulu, the current minister of defence, smiles, but there is an edge of sorrow in her memory about what happened when her parents were both behind bars, her father imprisoned and her mother, the first woman to be held under the 90-day detention order.
The seven children were suddenly alone, left to run the house and nurture themselves as their parents had been banned, so no other adults were allowed to occupy the house with them.
The eldest children – Mlungisi and Beryl, both 13 at the time – allocated duties and tried to take charge. But it was demanding and emotional.
“Life became unbearable. Stark, naked, ugly,” says Lindiwe.
“One had to cook, one had to do laundry, others had other things. We were all miserable, really out of our depth, but we didn’t want to break her in prison. She had to be my father’s greatest pillar. So we coped.
“My mother had always protected us from all of the ugliness that surrounded us as best she could,” says Lindiwe.
“Perhaps she created an environment in which we could thrive so that we did not have to deal with the present.
“She loved to make me look pretty. I think it was a bit of a diversion, to get away from the hard truths. She made our clothes, she really lived for her family, and she always tried to make up for both of them – not only financially, because she was always really the breadwinner.”
Lindiwe says her mother always wanted to see her children grow up in an “urban context because she saw that as a conduit to education”.
But she was proper, “very demanding of standards, things being done in a particular way without cutting corners. She was very Victorian in that way, very orderly and a very strict disciplinarian.”
Sisulu, who had joined the ANC Women’s League in the 1940s, became its treasurer in 1959, having been a member of the executive of the Federation of South African Women since it was formed in 1954. In the same year, she headed a strident campaign to boycott Bantu education.
Throughout the 1960s, she experienced periods of imprisonment and detention, many weeks away from her children and her closest community, but she remained true to the struggle – an answer always ready for those with questions about how to sustain their own commitment in the face of unspeakable might.
By 1983, Sisulu was surprisingly powerful within the top tier of men in the liberation movement.
She led a delegation of the United Democratic Front – which was established in that year – to the US, with activists like Sister Bernard Ncube, Azhar Cachalia and Jessie Duarte.
They were received by US President, George Bush.
Sisulu deeply understood the difficulties her children experienced, particularly Lindiwe and Zwelakhe, and she would express her admiration for their ability to support and comfort her. In a letter to her husband in the mid-1960s, she wrote about “your brave Lindi” who had (comforted) her mother during the most wearying times.
In the letter, she wrote of how Lindiwe had wisely said: “Mama, be brave. As long as they are not sentenced to death we will see them again.”
But Zwelakhe’s pain was manifest.
“They say he cried the whole day at school until Father sent him to bed,” wrote Albertina to her husband on one occasion.
“He has not written since. I have written two letters to him. The only reply I got was that he wants to come back home. In any case, don’t worry about that, Darling, I will manage him when he comes home in December.”
Nobody could have been prepared for the peculiar complexities of Albertina’s married life.
She and Walter had committed themselves and, therefore, their family to an unbending belief in the liberation struggle, so when she effectively became a single parent in 1949, her purpose was clear.
Walter was detained for his activities a few times before he went underground in 1963 and was finally arrested in the raid at Liliesleaf Farm.
During this time, their second-eldest, Mlungisi, was detained with his mother, and Sisulu was later banned for 17 years from 1964 to 1981 and again from 1982 to 1983, confined to her home at nights and on weekends, unable to receive visitors.
Most harrowing, was that Sisulu had to endure the inevitability of her children being imprisoned or going into exile.
After a desperate period in detention, the eldest, Max, fled in the early 1960s, essentially to study in exile where he remained a critical part of the ANC’s external mission for many years. Mlungisi was detained in 1984 during elections for the segregated chambers of Parliament.
The youngest, Zwelakhe, was detained once for nearly nine months, remaining true to his love of journalism even though he was prohibited from working in his field. Later, he was to be a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.
The torture inflicted on Lindiwe – the eldest of the two daughters – really seemed to hurt her mother. Detained after the Soweto uprisings in 1976, Lindiwe admits the 11 months she spent at the mercy of the security police were damaging. Ultimately, she, too, was to leave the country to work in the ANC’s external mission, leaving her own baby behind with Sisulu.
Lindiwe said Nonkululeko and her mother had been as close to confidantes as would have been possible during Nonkuleleko’s childhood – and even after that. Their years together had been a special time of drawing near in a way that Sisulu had perhaps not always been always to do with her children.