Abayomi Azikiwe (L) and Jesse Hooper after a South African Hero's Day Rally was held at New Bethel Baptist Church on December 16, 1984. The event featured two speakers from the African National Congress. (Photo: Pan-African News Wire)., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
African National Congress Official Albertina Sisulu Is Honored for Her Contributions in South Africa
Sisulu was a founding member of the Women’s and Youth Leagues during the 1940s
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
One on the stalwarts of the African National Congress, the ruling party that led the struggle for a non-racial, democratic South Africa, has passed at the age of 92. Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, the widow of the late Walter Sisulu, was one of the remaining legendary figures from the 1940s who played a pivotal role in the transformation of the national liberation movement against settler-colonialism and apartheid.
In recent years Sisulu served as a member parliament in the South African government that took power in 1994 in the aftermath of the countrywide elections that created the first representative government since the occupation by European settlers beginning in the mid-17th century. Nontsikelelo was born into the Mfengu people from the Eastern Cape, the second child of a peasant farmer and migrant worker on October 21, 1918.
She would attend school at the Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. In 1944 she would join the African National Congress which was heavily male-dominated at the time. Later she would work within the ANC Women’s League and eventually become the president of the Federation of South African Women, an alliance of forces from the African, Indian, Colored and progressive white communities during the 1950s.
During the 1950s the ANC would lead mass campaigns aimed at defying unjust laws derived from the racist apartheid system. The majority African population was segregated and forced to work for slave wages in the mines and service sectors of the economy.
In 1956 women in South Africa would organize the largest mass demonstration of the period when 20,000 women marched on the capital of Pretoria demanding an end to the pass laws and other racist restrictions on Africans and other oppressed groups inside the country. These activities in the 1950s led to the persecution and imprisonment of liberation movement leaders and their banning from political activity.
By 1960 when the police would open fire on unarmed protesters at Sharpeville killing 69 people and wounding many others, the African National Congress was banned and forced to operate underground. Nonetheless by the following year, the organization would form a military wing Um Khonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) that would initiate a campaign of sabotage and eventually armed struggle to overthrow the racist regime.
Sisulu was heavily involved in the organizational work of the ANC during this period. According to Maureen Isaacson, “Albertina was on June 19, 1963 to become 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. Her first taste of prison life was also exposing.”
By 1964 she would be banned by the government for five years and confined to the district around Johannesburg. The year before her husband Walter, along with other ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, were sentenced in the notorious Rivonia Treason Trial.
She would stay under banishment from August 1964 to 1989 on the eve of the unbanning of the African National Congress by the Nationalist Party government in 1990. Between 1976 and 1983 the struggle inside South Africa consolidated around the formation of a number of organizations that followed the ideology of the ANC.
In 1983 Sisulu was involved in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) which re-opened a new alliance for mass struggle that resulted in the social explosions of the period between 1984 and the coming to power of the ANC in 1994.
Sisulu would also spend time in prison, the longest term being eight months after violating her banning orders to attend the funeral of ANC Women’s League veteran Rose Mbele. In 1994 after the ANC took power she took a seat in parliament for four years.
In her own words relating to the experience of being an activist in South Africa that “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 website article, October 2010)
She also said that “I was there when the 20,000 women marched to Pretoria to protest to Strydom about passes; I was among the women who closed the schools when Bantu education came in (setting up alternative classes); and who dragged the men out of the beer halls.” (The South African Star, May 9, 1984)
The ANC leader noted that “It doesn’t mean we must organize a fighting struggle, but we must come together and demand our rights. If we all knew what was really important, we would just need to shout once.” (The Star, May 9, 1984)
South Africa Holds Official Funeral
In a statement from the ruling ANC it says of the passing of Albertina Sisulu that “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.” (ANC Statement, June 3)
The South African government said in a statement also that “It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Mrs. Albertina Sisulu, an activist, a human rights campaigner, a nurse, a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and an individual whom many have called one of the mothers of the great nation of South Africa.” (South African Government Statement, June 3)
On June 3 South African President Jacob Zuma decided to grant the liberation movement veteran an Official Funeral Category 1 which is reserved for distinguished persons. Zuma also ordered all state flags flown at half-mast and several days of mourning between June 4 and the day of the funeral.
Albertina Sisulu, who was preceded in death by her husband Walter in 2003, is survived by her five children, 23 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.