Albertina Sisulu: A Leading Anti-Apartheid Activist
Widely referred to as the "Mother of the Nation," Albertina Sisulu was a prominent leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Albertina Sisulu, original name Nontsikelelo Albertina Thethiwe was born on October 21, 1918, in the Transkei (now in the Eastern Cape province). Her father died when she was 11. Her mother was constantly ill after surviving the Spanish flu before her birth. As the eldest daughter of five children, she had to assume the role of a caretaker.
Sisulu assumed the name Albertina during her enrollment in a Presbyterian mission school. In 1936, she received a scholarship to attend high school at Mariazell College in Matatiele, Eastern Cape Province. During her time there, she converted to Catholicism and contemplated becoming a nun. Nonetheless, Father Bernard Huss at Mariazell advised her against this path, explaining that nuns did not receive a salary and could not support her family in Xolobe. Instead, he urged her to pursue a career in nursing. In 1940, she left to undergo nursing training at Johannesburg's Non-European Hospital and started working as a midwife in 1946.
In 1948, Sisulu became a member of the ANC Women's League and contributed to the creation of the Freedom Charter, a proclamation of fundamental beliefs of the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1941, Albertina Sisulu met Walter Sisulu, an attorney and dedicated anti-apartheid advocate who worked with Nelson Mandela in the African National Congress (ANC). They tied the knot in 1944, with Mandela acting as the best man at the wedding. Together, the couple had five children and adopted four others.
In 1948, Sisulu became a member of the ANC Women's League and contributed to the creation of the Freedom Charter, a proclamation of fundamental beliefs of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1956, Sisulu was detained for three weeks after joining a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings of Pretoria, demanding an end to the government's Pass laws. She was once again arrested in 1963, and after being detained for three months, she spent more than half of her time in solitary confinement before being released. In June 1964, her husband was convicted of treason and sabotage and was incarcerated with Mandela on Robben Island until October 1989.
Albertina Sisulu was appointed as co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a political party, in 1984. She led a UDF delegation overseas in 1989, where she met with former United States president George H.W. Bush and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She was elected in 1994 and served for four years in the first democratic parliament of South Africa. During the first meeting of that parliament, Nelson Mandela was appointed as the President of the Republic of South Africa. Sisulu also served as the President of the World Peace Council in Basel, Switzerland, from 1993 to 1996, where she recruited nurses to work in Tanzania. She continued to work in her community through the Albertina Sisulu Foundation alongside Mandela. In 2003, she inaugurated the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa in Johannesburg.
Sisulu passed away at the age of 92 in her home in Linden, Johannesburg, on June 2, 2011. The late South African President, Jacob Zuma, declared that she would be honoured with a state funeral and that the national flag would be flown at half-mast until her burial. Two years later, in 2013, the R24 Route in Gauteng, Johannesburg, was renamed after her. In 2014, the newly constructed bridge over the Scheldt river in the City of Ghent, East Flanders, Belgium, was named "Albertina Sisulubrug" (Albertina Sisulu Bridge).