“As difficult as it is to talk about the past, as agonising as it is to rake up painful memories of imprisonment, torture and separation from family and friends, I will give my testimony today. I do so in the belief that it is necessary to keep alive the memories of the past, in order to ensure that its horrors will never ever be part of the present and the future.” So began Albertina Sisulu’s testimony in March 2001.
Awakening political consciousness
Albertina Sisulu was a matriarch of fortitude! Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe, a rural girl with 3 siblings left in her care at the age of 11. She not only raised them, but breathed her last breath only after the last amongst them had breathed their last. She grew up in a seemingly racially sheltered upbringing in the Transkei, which could not have prepared her for the harsh reality of political oppression she faced in Johannesburg as a trainee nurse. However, she was fully aware of the unfairness of her uncles taking over her mothers and her siblings inheritance. She experienced the gender imbalance very early in her life.
Her awakening to political consciousness was as a result of the discrimination she and other black nurses encountered. She became a willing student, one who had the lived experience of injustice and discrimination when Walter Sisulu introduced her to African National Congress (ANC) politics soon after they met in 1941.
At Walter Sisulu’s invitation, she attended political meetings, including the inaugural meeting of the ANC Youth League in April 1944, at which she was the only woman present. However, attending a meeting and being the only women did not in itself make her a women of fortitude. It was her own consciousness and discomfort with injustice that made her see politics as a mechanism to end discrimination and injustice in the wider society.
Through her political activism she spread her wings to cross the raging seas of injustice and inequality; of racism and sexism. Despite being the longest banned activist, with 3 generations of Sisulu’s in prison at the same time, she continued as a midwife and nurse steeped in professionalism. Through the dusty streets of Soweto, she helped women to give birth, teaching them how to care for their babies, never missing the opportunity to raise awareness of the political context in which their children were born into. A context that saw black children as fit only for inferior Bantu education, segregated living and always to become mere labourers.
It is the women who will free us from this oppression
In her quest for a non-racial, non-violent and a non-sexist South Africa, she spared neither life nor limb for the human rights of men and women, of blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites alike. Steadfast in courage for a just and equitable South Africa, she never tired in the struggle for women’s liberation; forming, organizing and leading a united collective of women, which she believed and I quote, that, “it is the women who will free us from this oppression.”
All the while risking losing her nursing license she continued to face the oppressor head on. She recalled that “Through the dark years of the Sixties, when the government appeared to have successfully crushed the liberation movement, I was one of a handful of political activists not in jail or exile, who managed somehow to continue with clandestine ANC work. Under difficult and dangerous circumstances we maintained the link between the internal and external movements and provided some form of continuity in black resistance between the 1960s and 1970s“.
Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves during her centenary year and beyond is what are we willing to risk in order to strengthen our freedom and democracy.
In 1983 Albertina Sisulu was arrested and held in solitary confinement on charges of furthering the aims of the ANC while attending the funeral of her friend and fellow-activist, Rose Mbele. In August 1983, while in jail, she was elected co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a powerful umbrella body of anti-apartheid and civic organisations.
Today we move through the country freely, but what of the safety of women. Today we gather as we please with no fear of being arrested, but how we abuse this freedom through vandalism and violence. Today we attend funerals and speak without a thought of being detained for furthering our political aims, yet at times we see no good in our freedom and democracy, seldom providing solutions to create the South Africa we want.
As an advocate for the rights of women Albertina Sisulu was elected deputy president of the ANC Women’s League in 1991. She was also elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee. Having experienced delays in her schooling to do household chores as some rural girls still do today; never forgetting her widowed mother being deprived of both land and livestock which were taken by her uncles; she advocated to defend the gains of the ANC and to advance women empowerment and gender equality towards a non-violent non-sexist South Africa, a struggle which is still upon us as we celebrate her centenary.
As women and men today though we stumble and falter, let us recommit our actions beyond this Centenary year, lead and serve with integrity and dignity, educating the youth to awaken to their greatness, protecting and nurturing children and become women of courage to stand as one but lead for the multitude as MaSisulu did.
As we celebrate her legacy let us actively protect, defend and strengthening our hard-won democracy and freedom. So that, when we take our last breath, we may do so with a clear conscious that South African’s remain free because like her, we were here for the greater good of humanity.
Long may the spirit of Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu live and guide our ways.
Thole! Inzilenzikazi yeziziba zaseXolobe.
By Ntsiki Sisulu-Singapi, Granddaughter