By Abayomi Azikiwe /Editor, Pan-African News Wire
One of the stalwarts of the African National Congress, the ruling party that led the struggle for a nonracial, democratic South Africa, passed away on June 2 at the age of 92. Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, whose spouse was the late Walter Sisulu, was one of the remaining legendary figures from the 1940s who played a pivotal role in the national liberation movement against settler colonialism and apartheid.
Sisulu was at the forefront of the struggle for freedom for nearly 50 years. The party’s statement on her passing said, in part, “While the family has lost a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother, the ANC and the country have lost an irreplaceable leader, a role model and a constant reminder of dedication and selflessness. She embodied grace and humility.” The ANC also said, “She has long been a loved and respected leader in her own right.” (anc.org.za, June 3
Nontsikelelo Thethiwe was born into a Mfengu family on Oct. 21, 1918. She was the second child of a peasant farmer and migrant worker who were from the Eastern Cape, where she was born. She attended Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape and trained to be a nurse in Johannesburg.
In 1944 she joined the ANC. Later she worked within the ANC Women’s League, where she played a leading role. In 1954 Sisulu was a founding member — and later president — of the Federation of South African Women, an alliance of forces from the African, Indian, “Coloured” and progressive white communities.
During the 1950s the ANC led mass campaigns, which defied the racist apartheid system’s unjust laws. The majority African population was segregated and forced to work for slave wages in the mines and service sectors of the economy.
1956: 20,000 women defy apartheid in Pretoria
On Aug. 9, 1956, 20,000 women marched on the capital of Pretoria to demand an end to the pass laws and other racist restrictions on Africans and other oppressed groups. Sisulu was a leader of this historic march, the largest mass demonstration of the period. A famous slogan from that march, which became known worldwide, was: “You have struck a woman. You have struck a rock.” South Africa now commemorates Aug. 9 as Woman’s Day.
“I was there when the 20,000 women marched to Pretoria to protest to Strydom about passes,” explained Sisulu. She added, “I was among the women who closed the schools when Bantu education came in [and set up alternative classes].” (South African Star, May 9, 1984)
The apartheid government responded to the growing struggle in the 1950s by persecuting and imprisoning leaders of the liberation movement and banning them from political activity. By 1960, when police opened fire on unarmed protesters at Sharpeville, killing 69 people and wounding many others, the ANC was banned and forced to operate underground.
Nonetheless, by the following year, the organization formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), its military wing, which initiated a campaign of sabotage and armed struggle to overthrow the racist regime.
Sisulu was heavily involved in the ANC’s organizational work during this period. Maureen Isaacson explained that on June 19, 1963, she became “the first woman to be imprisoned under the notorious 90 Day Act which allowed the state to hold suspects for 90 days without being charged. She told Drum magazine that ‘the loneliness was unbearable’ and she was threatened that the state would take her children from her.” (Sunday Independent, June 7)
By 1964 Sisulu was banned by the government for five years and confined to the district around Johannesburg. That year, her spouse, Walter Sisulu, along with other ANC leaders including Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, was sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Rivonia Treason Trial and was jailed at Robben Island. He served 25 years.
Albertina Sisulu was banished for nearly two decades until 1989, on the eve of the 1990 unbanning of the ANC by the Nationalist Party government. She also spent time in prison. The longest term of eight months was after violating banning orders so that she could attend the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele. Her children also were frequently detained, held incommunicado, banned and exiled.
Of this, she remarked about her experience as an activist in South Africa, “Over the years I got used to prison, banning and detention. I did not mind going to jail myself and I had to learn to cope without Walter. But when my children went to jail, I felt that the oppressors were breaking me at the knees.” (anc.org.za, October 2010)
Between 1976 and 1983, the struggle inside South Africa consolidated around the formation of many organizations that followed the ANC’s ideology. In 1983, Sisulu helped to form the United Democratic Front and was co-president for a time. The UDF reopened a new alliance for mass struggle that resulted in the social explosions of the period between 1984 and 1994 when the ANC came to power.
Sisulu was elected to the South African parliament when it took power in 1994 and held that position for four years. This occurred in the aftermath of countrywide elections that created the first representative government since the European settlers began their occupation in the mid-17th century.
The South African government announced that because Sisulu “was a national leader,” “we [will] accord her a dignified funeral which is befitting for a leader of her stature.” President Jacob Zuma ordered all national flags flown at half-mast until June 11, the date of the liberation movement veteran’s funeral, which will be held at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. (gov.za, June 5)
Albertina Sisulu’s historic role in the South African liberation struggle will live forever.