South Africa: Albertina Sisulu's Story of Persecution And Suffering, Love And Triumph

Walter and Albertina Sisulu as seen on the cover of In Our Lifetime, written by Elinor Sisulu.
9 June 2011

Albertina Sisulu, the South African liberation struggle icon who died at 92 last week, was the matriarch of a political family whose influence on South African life is widely felt.

Sisulu was co-president of the biggest internal anti-apartheid grouping of the 1980s, the United Democratic Front (UDF). Her husband, Walter, the man who brought Nelson Mandela into politics, served as secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) before going underground and hiding out at a farm at Rivonia, near Johannesburg, then being captured and sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders.

Her son, Max, is the current Speaker of South Africa's Parliament, and her daughter, Lindiwe, is Minister of Defence. Daughters-in-law Elinor and Sheila are, respectively, a Zimbabwean democracy campaigner and deputy executive director of the World Food Programme in Rome.

Soon after Walter Sisulu emerged from prison, the South African journalist Pippa Green told the family's extraordinary story in an extensively-researched article. Ahead of MaSisulu's official funeral, which takes place at Soweto's Orlando Stadium on Saturday, AllAfrica publishes excerpts from the article which highlight her role:

The story of the Sisulu family is [one] of imprisonment, persecution, exile and suffering. But it is also a story of love, and of personal and political triumph. There can be a few families in the history of South Africa that have been torn apart as relentlessly by the political struggle, and few that have survived it so intact. "I have always admired the unity of the family," Walter Sisulu told me. "It was a tower of strength to me."

The story is [also] so closely intertwined with South Africa's political history that it is almost possible to measure the political climate by the family's suffering, its fears, and its hopes. Between 1984 and 1986, for instance, tough years when the black townships exploded in anger and government repression was most harsh, no less than six Sisulus spent time in prison. "The government doesn't feel comfortable unless it has a Sisulu in jail," [son] Zwelakhe quipped at the time to his elder brother Mlungisi.

That jail-time would form such a central part of their married life was hardly something the young Albertina Thethiwe could have anticipated when she first met Walter Sisulu in 1942. A nursing sister recently arrived in Johannesburg from Tsomo in the Transkei, Albertina was not politically involved, but "found Walter in politics". Since then, she has risen to become a co-president of the United Democratic Front.

The couple married in 1944. Over the next 14 years they had five children - Max, Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko; and adopted three - Gerald and Beryl, the children of Walter's deceased sister, and Jongi [the son of Walter's cousin].

It was an unusual and close marriage. The young couple's outings were mainly to meetings of the ANC Youth League, and later to meetings at which the defiance campaign of the 1950s was planned. Albertina, who had not been interested in politics before her marriage, quickly became inspired by the struggle for equal rights.

In 1946, she joined the local branch of the ANC Women's League. Eight years later, she was on the national executive of the Federation of South African Women [Fedsaw]. She eagerly volunteered to join Lilian Ngoyi in her bid to defy post-office apartheid in 1952, but the ANC office said she could not take part. "They said if one of the members of the family was already defying, we couldn't all go, because there were children to be looked after," she explains. "So I missed that one."

She did not miss the march of 20,000 women to Pretoria, though, to protest against the government's new ruling that African women had to carry passes; nor did she miss a chance to defy the new pass laws in 1958. She was arrested as a result, and held for six weeks while awaiting trial. Her first spell in jail gave her a taste of what was to come - the regular separations from her children. Nonkululeko (Nkuli, as her mother calls her) was 10 months old. "She was on the breast, but they wouldn't let me take her with me," she recalls. "I had to suffer, you know; my breasts were so full."

At the trial, Albertina and the others were found not guilty of refusing to carry a pass and were discharged: "We were lucky - our lawyer was Nelson Mandela."

By this time, Walter, now secretary-general of the ANC, had been arrested five times - three times for political offences - and banned twice. He knew then that there would be worse times ahead. "To me, my husband was a prophet," says Albertina. "He told me all that was going to happen. In fact, he prepared me. He told me about Robben Island, long before I could even think of it, as early as when he was still in the Youth League. He would say, 'You know, the stand we are taking is going to take us to Robben Island.' I said, 'Listen, it's only Makana (the rebel Xhosa chief who was the first inmate) who went to Robben Island and I don't think other people will go there.' But he replied; 'Be prepared. We will go there one day.'"

Walter prepared his children, too. "We used to lecture to our children together," recalls Albertina. "Each time he would come back from a meeting, in the evening he used to gather all of us around the table and tell us everything that had happened. That is why our family is so intact - politically, too."

Albertina's marriage was unusual in another respect. Walter, a fierce believer in the equality of the races, held a more uncommon conviction in the equality of the sexes. Unlike many young African brides of her generation, Albertina was not relegated to the kitchen; nor did Walter expect her to become his political shadow. "As much as he didn't force me to join any organisation, he also allowed me to go wherever I liked.

And during the time he was banned and under house-arrest, he used to do all the house-work when I'd go out for our meetings.

"I must say, of all the men, he's the man who gave me freedom. I never had a problem with him as a woman, " she says now. "I got my freedom the day I got married, really."

In May 1982, five months before she was killed by a parcel bomb, [activist] Ruth First paid tribute to her old friend and comrade Walter Sisulu on his 70th birthday - by then, the 19th he had spent in jail.

"Albertina Sisulu is a fine leader in her own right," First told a gathering of ANC cadres in exile. "But her capacity to lead and her political strength is also the product of a good marriage - a good political marriage, but a good marriage, one that is based on genuine equality and shared commitment. And this is why, though Walter Sisulu is absent... [we] can find a living reference point in Albertina Sisulu, and in Walter's children."

The security police probably understood this, too. In 1963, after Walter had disappeared underground, they detained both Albertina and her son Max, then 17, who, with Thabo Mbeki, played a prominent role in the African Students' Association. The police fetched Albertina from the Soweto surgery where she worked as a nursing sister and took her home to change out of her uniform. Her younger children had just returned from boarding schools in Swaziland for the holidays. "When I came home I found the children's suitcases in the passage. As the police took me away, the children all stepped outside and saluted me. The police said, 'But they are so young!'"

Albertina spent 90 days in solitary confinement. Perhaps it was a blessing that she did not know that Max had been detained until shortly before she was due to be released.

However, her husband knew and spent three anguished months in his Rivonia hideout. "I knew that the aim was to ferret me out of hiding," Walter remembers. "They knew how I'd feel about their detention." Did he ever consider coming out of hiding then? "No, no," he insists. "My political activities were planned. Even when I married my wife, I told her it was useless buying new furniture - things like that. I was going to be in jail."

His political commitment gave shape to his activities, but it did little to lessen his concern for his family. The first thing he said to the police, when they arrested him at Rivonia on July 1, 1963, was: "Where's my son? Where's my wife?" ... .

The [1960] state of emergency effectively ended the Sisulus' family life; 30 years would elapse before they could all relax together again in the same house. After Walter was acquitted of treason [after a trial lasting from 1956 to 1960], he went underground to continue his ANC work. With Mandela, he organised the 1961 strike to protest against the founding of the South African Republic.

He went home when his mother died at the end of that year, but his visit was brief. A few minutes after his arrival, police burst into a room full of mourners and arrested the ANC leader. He was released in time for the funeral, but in the following spent more time in jail than out.

Arrested several times, he was charged only once - with leaving the country illegally, and organising an illegal strike. Sentenced to six years, and released on bail pending an appeal, he disappeared underground again. The next time his family saw him was in the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria with Nelson Mandela and seven of their comrades. The historic Rivonia trial had begun.

One might have assumed that the life sentences handed down to the Rivonia accused were the lowest point in Albertina and Walter's lives.

Actually, they now say they sighed with relief. "We had expected to be hanged," says Sisulu. "When I saw Albertina in the morning, I saw she still expected us to be sentenced to death. But later she picked up, and when sentence was pronounced, she stood up and tried to make me feel strong."

Relieved and prepared as they were, the family struggled to adjust themselves to those grim, early years of Robben Island. For Walter, an affectionate man who gets a great deal of pleasure out of contact with children, it would be another 19 years before he would touch a member of his family.

But by then, this was by no means the full extent of the family's problems.

Albertina was served with her first banning order shortly after her husband was sentenced, and spent most of the the next 24 years either banned, house-arrested, detained, or restricted. Max, the eldest son, had left the country in 1963 - "reluctantly," says Max; "it was the ANC's decision" - with his adopted brother, Gerald. Twenty-six years would elapse before they would see their parents again.

Left alone with six children to support on a nurse's salary, Albertina could not afford to fly to Cape Town to visit her husband. She was never refused visits, she says, but often the authorities made it impossible for her to see him. "Each time I got my permission from the prison authorities, I would hand the permit over to the Chief Magistrate of Johannesburg so they would give me the permission to leave the area.

That permit would be kept there until the last day. So it would be impossible for me to go, because the only way I could get there was by train."

Sometimes she managed to make the long train trip to Cape Town, only to have the 30-minute visit interrupted. "If I mentioned someone who was not on the list of family, my visit would be cancelled. Oh yes! Right there and then."

In the early 1960s, there weren't even glass cubicles on the Island.

"When we started with Robben Island, it was worse than you could ever think. Those men [the warders] were very cruel. We used to see the prisoners in the open air. They would put a rope up and, some distance away, a table. We would stand at the table and the prisoners would line up behind the rope. We would be shouting at each other. You can imagine so many voices shouting, you couldn't even hear what they were saying.

When the noise got too high, the policemen would just do this" - she bangs her fist on the table - "and we would all be quiet. Then we'd start again, start again, start again..."

Albertina quelled the immense anger that welled up in her at those times. "It's a thing of the moment. You are angry, but after that you tell yourself that the only way is to stop the anger and go on with the struggle."....

Nkuli's most despairing moments came in 1984 when her mother, who had been in detention for almost a year, was sentenced to four years' imprisonment, of which two were suspended, for furthering the aims of the ANC.

The case arose out of the funeral of a Fedsaw member, Rose Mbele.

Albertina had spoken at the funeral and had, said the magistrate, allowed herself to be introduced as the wife of Walter Sisulu, secretary-general of the ANC. She and her co-accused, Thami Mali, had also sung ANC songs and displayed the ANC flag. She was an elderly woman, said the magistrate, who had suffered long years of loneliness because of her husband's incarceration. Nevertheless, the ANC had escalated its activities and these offences were part of its strategy.

"The judgement blew my mind sideways," says Sheila [Sisulu, the wife of Lungi, the second eldest son.] Sheila, an elegant, restrained woman, had until then accepted the government's hostility towards her husband's family as part of married life. "Their case was so weak, and the lawyers were so confident. On the day of judgement we thought we were going to bring Mama home. Instead. we saw her going down the hole."

Albertina, who had spent almost a year in solitary confinement ("I came out speaking to the walls," she remarked later) was released on bail pending an appeal. A few months later she was arrested again, and in February 1985 she was charged in what became known as the Pietermaritzburg treason trial. In December that year, the charges were dropped and she was freed. She had spent almost two years in prison. A few months later she won her appeal in the Rose Mbele case.

In spite of the silence imposed on her, she had come to be recognised as a national leader and it was while she was sitting in a jail cell, in August 1983, that she was selected as a co-president of the UDF. When the state of emergency was declared in 1986, Albertina was among the first to be restricted and her restrictions were only finally lifted on the day before her husband was released - October 14, 1989. "I knew why the government hated me," she has told me. "It was because I was against apartheid. I was aware that I was the government's enemy. Nothing could have pleased me more."

It was with less equanimity, though, that she and Walter had faced the detention of their daughter, Lindiwe, some years earlier. It was only days before the June 16 uprising in 1976 and Nonkululeko, then at school in Soweto, had rushed back to tell her older sister of the placards her classmates had painted and of the demonstrations they were planning.

But when she arrived there was no sign of Lindiwe, nor of her five-month-old daughter Ayanda. Neighbours told her that the police had raided the house, taken Lindiwe, and left the baby with an elderly woman who lived nearby. The baby, like Nkuli 18 years before, was being breast-fed.

Three days later, the police returned to search the house, and Albertina pleaded with them to take Lindiwe her baby, whom Nkuli was now caring for. They refused. They also refused to take clothes or food for Lindiwe, or to tell the family where she was being held.

It was a time of particular anguish for the Sisulus. Albertina was banned and under house-arrest, and could not go and look for her daughter. Instead, Nkuli, Sheila, Zwelakhe and Jongi visited more jails in a year than they knew existed in the [then]Transvaal. They would arrive with clothes and food and ask if she was being held there. They never got an answer. Eventually, Sheila and Zwelakhe took to shouting her name outside prison cells in Pretoria and Johannesburg. On one occasion, Zwelakhe was arrested and charged for calling his sister's name outside the Pretoria Women's Prison.

Nkuli told her father on a visit that Lindiwe had been detained, but when he asked where she was being held the warders told them the discussion was not "family business". Walter wrote to Jimmy Kruger, then Minister of Justice, but doubts that the letter even reached him.

A year later, Lindiwe was released. "She was terribly affected," says Albertina. "She had been held in solitary confinement, and had been tortured. They used to pull her by her hair, knock her against a wall." Albertina is clearly hurt by the memory and pauses, then adds: "She had long hair, Lindi."

We met Lindiwe in Swaziland, where she now lives with her two daughters and her husband, an economist. She is a delicate-looking but tough-spoken woman. Like the rest of her family, she comes across as determined but gracious...

Lindiwe says the worst torture she suffered was psychological. Six months into her detention, two security policemen walked into her cell looking "very apologetic, very sincere", to tell her that her mother had died. "They would allow me to go to the funeral, but of course I must understand that I can't go unless I give some information.

"I believed them. There I was, crying, and asking them if they would tell me how the funeral went. And they said, of course they would, but they just wished I was not so stubborn, because they were sure it would be the last time I would be seeing my mother. They kept their word. They came back on the Monday to tell me the funeral had gone off okay, but the family was asking for me. My future was in my hands, they said."

For three months, Lindiwe believed her mother was dead. It is clear now, she says, why they would not accept food parcels, or tell her family where she was. "You can tell a mother's touch."

When she was moved to another jail, she began to doubt that her mother was dead. Even though her contact with other prisoners was cursory, she figured she would have gleaned from them that her mother had died.

"Those three months nearly destroyed me." .

Albertina remembers that when Lindiwe came out of detention, she would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, put on all the lights and say: "Mama get up. The police are surrounding the house. They have come to arrest me again." Lindiwe was admitted to hospital for two months.

Shortly afterwards, her family arranged for her to leave the country.

The last person she saw before going into exile was her father. She told him she was going to visit Max - she used his Xhosa name. Walter understood and smiled, but he knew it might be years before he saw his daughter again. .. ..

[Walter's] family learnt of his impending release together with the rest of the nation, on the evening news on SABC-TV on Tuesday, October 10 [1989]. Albertina was in Nelson Mandela's cottage at the Victor Verster prison at the time, as part of a UDF delegation that had gone to visit him. "We were having supper with him; then Nelson said we must go and watch the television news. I think Nelson knew, but he didn't break the news to us. It was such a surprise!"

Albertina left the meeting straight away, and, with Nkuli and Lungi and their families, tried to get on a flight to Johannesburg. "To us it looked like they had already been released." There were no planes, so they hired cars and drove through the night to Soweto.

But it was another five days before they saw Walter. After waiting nearly 27 years to have him home, this last stretch was almost unbearable. "Tshooo, man! You don't know! We thought we would find him at home, but we had to wait... Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, until Sunday. And I was wondering what was going to happen to me if they didn't lift my restrictions," says Albertina.

Walter returned home as the sun was rising on Sunday morning. Albertina and Nkuli, exhausted from interviews, streams of visitors and toyi-toying comrades, were asleep. Nkuli was awakened by a shout from one of the hundreds of supporters who had maintained a constant vigil outside their hoome: "It's Tata!" She rushed into her mother's room, who woke up, put on a dressing gown, and reached the living room in time to see her husband walk through the front door.

Walter says he was always confident that he would be reunited with his family. Mama had held the family together, through all her bannings and restrictions, and his children's support had always given him "a wonderful feeling." "The future was ours. When you're working for something, you have no doubt that whatever the obstacles, you are going to succeed."

Pippa Green is the author of Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel, a biography of the former South African Finance Minister. She is a former head of radio news at the SABC, was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1999, and was Ferris Visiting Professor of Journalism at Princeton University in 2006. She is currently a member of the board of the SABC and teaches at the University of Pretoria.

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