Albertina Sisulu lived what she believed

08 June 2011 - 16:28 By CHRIS BARRON
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If there is a true "mother of the nation" then nobody deserves this title more than Albertina Sisulu, who has died aged 92.

No one more symbolised and indeed personified the heroic struggle of South African women against apartheid than she did, and few women were called on to make greater sacrifices.

Throughout the long nightmare that enveloped her during the struggle years, she behaved with unflinching dignity, integrity, grace, courage and compassion.

She said once that her most abiding memory was of a primary school teacher telling her: "Your behaviour is the best teacher. It is more powerful than anything you say."

She said she found these words inspirational, and this provides perhaps the best clue of what this truly remarkable human being was all about.

She was best known, of course, as the wife of Walter Sisulu, but was a fearless, and peerless, leader and activist in her own right. She never trumpeted her achievements, though, and was happily content to live in his shadow after his release from jail in 1989.

In the mid-1960s - after the ANC leadership had either been arrested or gone into exile and its underground movement had been smashed by the security branch, after she'd seen her husband sent away to Robben Island for life - she began picking up the pieces.

In 1966, in an environment as formidably hostile and dangerous as could be imagined, she started a small underground cell, the first move in an attempt to recreate some semblance of an ANC underground that to all intents and purposes had ceased to exist.

She recruited cadres and she helped those who wanted or needed to escape the country to do so, so that they could join the ANC in exile, often to further their education, more often for military training. She became one of the key links between the internal and external movement. In the words of Nelson Mandela, she "kept the embers of resistance alive".

Throughout all this she was mother to a number of young children, not all of them her own, and she held down a full-time day job as a nurse in a township clinic.

She was harassed around the clock by the security police and served with one banning order after another. She was banned for a total of 18 years, more than any other person during the struggle, and under partial house arrest for some of that time.

She was also jailed and held in solitary confinement for up to seven months at a time.

She was born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe on October 21 1918, in the village of Camama near Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape.

Her father was a migrant worker on the mines, away from home for six months of the year.

At her local primary school, run by Presbyterian missionaries, she was given a list of Christian names to choose from, and she chose Albertina.

Her father died, she believed from lung complications picked up as a miner, when she was 11.

A bright, hard-working and conscientious student, she won a scholarship to attend Mariazell College, a Roman Catholic mission school in the town of Matatiele. She wanted to be a nun, but her spiritual adviser told her she wouldn't be paid and would have to sever links with her family. She took his advice to rather be a nurse.

In 1940 she started as a trainee nurse at the Johannesburg General Hospital.

Two other trainee nurses she befriended were Barbie Sisulu and Evelyn Mase. The one was Walter's sister, the other soon became Mandela's first wife.

While visiting his sister, Walter Sisulu, a street-smart young estate agent passionately involved with the ANC, was introduced to Albertina, fell in love and began courting her.

She went with him to political meetings and became one of the most politically knowledgeable women around. She was the only woman at the inaugural meeting of the ANC Youth League in 1944.

The couple wed in July 1944.

In 1956 Walter was arrested with 155 others and charged with treason.

For the next seven years their life became increasingly strained, along with the political situation.

In 1963 Walter went underground, leaving her to cope as best she could with their children and the children of his sister, who had died during an operation.

She was arrested on June 19 - the first woman to be detained under the newly passed 90-day detention without trial law.

The police wanted to know where her husband was. They threatened that she would be held for as long as it took to make her talk, and her children would be taken over by the state.

Late one night she was told that her young child Nkuli had been taken to intensive care at Baragwanath Hospital with pneumonia. She could visit her, but only if she told them where Walter was.

When she still refused, she was told she would die in her cell and never see her children or Walter again.

Meanwhile she was told that her son Max, 17, had also been arrested.

Walter was arrested during a police raid at the ANC hide-out at Liliesleaf farm while she was inside. Three weeks later her interrogators showed her the headlines. A week later she was released.

She went straight to ANC activist and lawyer Bram Fischer to discuss Walter's defence and played an important role in putting together the top-notch team which defended him and the other Rivonia trialists.

In August 1964, shortly after Walter was sent to Robben Island for life, she was served with a five-year banning order. Visiting him became more of an ordeal than ever.

Getting seasick in the small boat crossing to the island in rough seas was the least of it. The security police harassed her around the clock. Everywhere she went, they were there, leering at her - on the train down to Cape Town, in the boat.

Back home in Soweto rumours were planted that she was having an affair with a local grocer. Such was her stature and impeccable reputation in the community that no one paid any attention.

Adding to her agony, the censors delayed her and Walter's letters to each other, which led to confusion, depression and mutual recriminations when letters seemingly went unanswered.

In July 1969 her banning order was renewed for another five years and in addition she was placed under partial house arrest.

When her restrictions were lifted, she threw herself openly into the job of rebuilding the moribund Federation of South African Women with veteran activists such as Sister Bernard Ncube. She recruited young female activists to organise women in the ANC underground. She liaised with Umkhonto weSizwe cadres, providing them with safe houses and co-ordinating their communication and supply systems.

She worked with women from other racial communities, such as Jessie Duarte, who described her as "a one-woman political education course".

She mentored a number of women activists, who called themselves "MaSisulu's Girls".

Perfectly alive to the likely consequences, she spoke out against detention without trial, praised the heroes of the struggle and condemned the Bantustan policy, on every public platform she could find. She spoke at the funeral of Griffiths Mxenge after he was assassinated in 1981, condemning the apartheid regime in no uncertain terms.

While all this was happening, she was often quietly in a frenzy of concern about her children, who were in and out of detention.

In August 1983 she was arrested at her clinic, supposedly for having sung freedom songs at the funeral of a friend. In reality, it was an acknowledgement of her important role in organising the United Democratic Front.

While she was in solitary confinement in Diepkloof prison she was elected president of the Transvaal regional executive of the UDF, a huge vote of confidence as well as a warning to the state that her role would continue regardless. She was also elected one of three co-presidents of the UDF.

Her arrest sparked an international chorus of disapproval, and even a letter, almost unprecedented, to prime minister PW Botha from the British government.

After seven months in solitary she was sentenced to four years, with two suspended. The United Nations "strongly denounced" her imprisonment.

In 1984 she began working as a nurse at the surgery of Dr Abu Baker Asvat in Soweto.

She was in the surgery in January 1989 when two men stormed into the surgery and assassinated the doctor, who was also a well-known and highly respected Black Consciousness activist. She was shattered, and for the first time wept openly, breaking a strongly held code not to show her emotions in public.

His murder was linked to the goings on in the Mandela Football Club run by Winnie Mandela. Albertina was called on to give testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, which some hoped would incriminate Winnie.

When it didn't, Albertina was widely accused of covering up for Winnie, a claim not borne out by the facts.

After 1994 she became an MP, and retired in 1999.

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