Today: Albertina “Mama” Sisulu, the mother of South Africa’s liberation movement.
Albertina, who with her husband Walter, Nelson Mandela and other activists stunned the world by peacefully overthrowing brutal apartheid South African rule, died June 2nd, 2011 at the age of 92. Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe on October 21, 1918 in a poor black township, she was the 2nd of five children and as the eldest daughter, helped raise her siblings when her mother’s health failed and she died when Nontsikelelo was just 11 years old. Renamed Albertina by the Christian school she attended, she was a top student but graduated two years late because of caring for her siblings.
Graduating late disqualified Albertina from competing for a four year high school scholarship and it appeared her education was over but her teachers wrote a letter of objection, making her case in a local newspaper. That letter was seen by Roman Catholic priests who arranged for her to meet Father Bernard Huss, who was so impressed by her, he obtained a four year high school scholarship for her at Mariazell College, where she again became a top student.
After her 1939 graduation, Albertina went into nursing because as a student, she would earn a small salary to help support her family. In 1940 she became a nurse trainee at Johannesburg General, a “Non-European” (non-white) hospital and in 1946, she became a midwife, walking vast distances between poor black townships to offer them medical care. She carried her medications, instruments and clothing in suitcases on top of her head.
In her personal life, in 1941, Albertina met Walter Sisulu, a young lawyer and political activist. The couple fell in love, got married in 1944, with Nelson Mandela as best man, and they would remain married for 59 years until Walter passed away in Albertina’s arms at the age of 90, in May, 2003. They had five children and adopted three children from Walter’s deceased sister. But they were frequently apart for Walter was often thrown in jail. Ultimately, he was convicted of treason and in 1964, began a 25 year prison sentence on Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela.
Albertina raised their children in Walter’s absence, but sometimes she too was jailed and needed others to care for her family. She got in trouble by participating in the African National Congress, the dominant political party in South Africa today, and founded by Nelson Mandela, Walter and others and long viewed as treasonous by the white government.
Then on August 9th, 1956 Albertina was one of the leaders of an historic event in which 20,000 women marched in Pretoria to protest the apartheid government’s pass laws, which restricted the rights and movements of black and other minority people. For that infraction, she and other leaders spent three weeks in jail. Today, South Africa celebrates August 9th as “Women’s Day.”
As the years passed, Albertina continued her political activities and became affectionately known among blacks as “MaSisulu” or “Mama.” And her arrests continued. “I did not mind going to jail myself, and I had to learn to cope without Walter,” Albertina said. “But when my children went to jail, I felt that the Boers (whites) were breaking me at the knees.”* Despite her pain, in 1983 she helped start the United Democratic Front, uniting religious, student and labor organizations, a strong antiapartheid coalition appealing to the consciences of all of South Africa and the world.
In 1989, Albertina led a delegation that asked for sanctions against the South African apartheid government. They met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and with U.S. President George H.W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter and met with Jacqueline Kennedy, among other influential people. The pressure from this activism was enormous as economic sanctions from much of the world began bringing South African racial oppression to an end. Walter was released from prison in October, 1989 and Nelson Mandela was freed four months later.
In 1994, the first free elections including non-whites were held and Nelson Mandela was elected President. Albertina was elected to Parliament and served for four years, before retiring, although she remained an activist for the rest of her life. And Albertina lived to see what few South Africans thought possible for a black family. Her son Max is Speaker of the Parliament, daughter Lindiwe is Defense Minister and daughter Beryl is South Africa’s Ambassador to Norway.
Success Tip of the Week:
Never doubt the power of a few deeply motivated people. As Albertina and Walter Sisulu showed us, a powerful movement can change the world as we have known it.
*Quote is from “Albertina Sisulu, Who Helped Lead Apartheid Fight, Dies at 92,” an excellent New York Times obit: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/06/world/africa/06sisulu.html. To learn more about her, please see “Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime” (2003), a book by their daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu or just Google her name.
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