Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela – Celebrating 100 Years of Life even in Death

Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela would be marking their centenary birthday this year. Notwithstanding that they had passed on to glory, the world is celebrating them this year because they live on even in death. Regarded as “Mother and Father of the Nation” respectively, they left indelible marks in the anti-apartheid struggle that would forever remain enshrined in the anals of history.

Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in the Tsomo district of the Transkei on 21 October 1918, Sisulu adopted the name Albertina when she started her schooling at a Presbyterian mission school in Xolobe. She graduated from Mariazell College in 1939, and chose a career in nursing. She started work in Johannesburg as a midwife in 1946.

Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtata, then part of South Africa’s Cape Province. He was given the forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning “troublemaker”, but in later years he became known by his clan name, Madiba. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg where he arrived in April 1941. There he became involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics, joining the ANC in 1943 and co-founding its Youth League in 1944. It was while at the Witwatersrand University that Mandela became increasingly politicised and joined the ANC where he was greatly influenced by Walter Sisulu, spending time with other activists at Sisulu’s Orlando house.

Albertina first met her future husband – Walter Sisulu, a lawyer, in 1941 while working at Johannesburg General Hospital. At that time he was a young political activist. They married in 1944 at a ceremony in which Nelson Mandela was the best man. They were married for 59 years, until he died in his wife’s arms in May 2003 at the age of 90. The couple had five children and adopted four others. Albertina did not display an interest in politics at first, only attending political meetings with her husband in a supporting capacity, but she eventually got involved in politics when she joined the African National Congress (ANC) Women′s League in 1955 and took part in the launch of the Freedom Charter the same year. She was the only woman present at the birth of the ANC Youth League. She became a member of the executive of the Federation of South African Women in 1954 and was also a co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s.

In 1956, Albertina joined in a march of 20,000 women to the Union Buildings of Pretoria in protest against the apartheid government’s requirement that women carry passbooks as part of the pass laws. The day is celebrated in South Africa as National Women’s Day. She spent three weeks in jail before being acquitted on pass charges, with Nelson Mandela as her lawyer. She was subsequently in and out of jail for her political activities (becoming the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963. The Act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them. Albertina was placed in solitary confinement for almost two months), but she continued to resist against apartheid, despite being banned for most of the 1960s.

After the National Party’s white-only government established apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged whites, Mandela and the ANC committed themselves to its overthrow. Mandela was appointed President of the ANC’s Transvaal branch, rising to prominence for his involvement in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the 1956 Treason Trial. Influenced by Marxism, he secretly joined the banned South African Communist Party (SACP). Although initially committed to non-violent protest, he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe in association with the SACP in 1961 and led a sabotage campaign against the government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1962, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state following the Rivonia Trial.

Along with Mandela, Albertina’s husband – Walter Sisulu was found guilty of high treason and sabotage, but was spared the death sentence. He instead spent 25 years in custody on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years. While her husband was on Robben Island, Mrs. Sisulu raised the couple′s five children alone. Albertina opposed Bantu education, running schools from home. As the children grew, she scraped and saved for them to attend good schools in Swaziland outside the inferior Bantu Education System.

In 1986, she received the honorary citizenship of Reggio nell′Emilia (Italy), the first world’s town that assigned this important award to Albertina. In 1989, she managed to obtain a passport and led a UDF delegation overseas, meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States president George HW Bush. In London, she addressed a major anti-apartheid rally to protest against the visit of National Party leader FW de Klerk. She was honoured for her commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle and her social work when the World Peace Council, based in Basel, Switzerland, elected her president from 1993 to 1996.

After Mandela’s release in February 1990, he led a multiracial ANC delegation into preliminary negotiations in May with a government delegation of 11 Afrikaner men. Mandela impressed them with his discussions of Afrikaner history and the negotiations led to the Groot Schuur Minute, in which the government lifted the state of emergency. He spent much time trying to unify and build the ANC, appearing at a Johannesburg conference in December attended by 1600 delegates, many of whom found him more moderate than expected. At the ANC’s July 1991 national conference in Durban, Mandela admitted that the party had faults and announced his aim to build a “strong and well-oiled task force” for securing majority rule. At the conference, he was elected ANC President, replacing the ailing Tambo, and a 50-strong multiracial, mixed gendered national executive was elected. The ANC took a sweeping victory in the April 1994 general election.

The newly elected National Assembly’s first act was to formally elect Mandela as South Africa’s first black chief executive. Albertina Sisulu, who was also victorious at the polls in 1994 as elected member of the first democratic Parliament, was given the honour of nominating Nelson Mandela as President of the Republic of South Africa. That year she received an award from then-president Mandela. She served in the Parliament until retiring four years later.

Albertina Sisulu and her family were residents of Orlando West, Soweto, South Africa and she had witnessed first-hand the deprivation of social services in the community. Despite enormous obstacles, she committed over 50 years of her life to alleviating the hardships of the community through the Albertina Sisulu Foundation – a non-profit organisation, which works to improve the lives of small children and old people. The Albertina Sisulu Multipurpose Resource Centre/ASC, named after her, was also founded by Mrs. Sisulu under the auspices of the Foundation. Weeks later, she and Nelson Mandela opened the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa in Johannesburg, named after her late husband. She became a trustee for the centre and helped in its fundraising. The Albertina Sisulu Multipurpose Resource Centre/ASC provides the following services for the community: a resource school for moderate intellectual challenge, an Early Childhood Development Centre for learners from the age of three years, a section for the out of school youth with disabilities established with an intention to provide them with skills which would render them employable and active participants in the country‘s economy, a nutrition programme for the needy earners, a multi-purpose community hall and an outreach program.

Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. Having seen other post-colonial African economies damaged by the departure of white elites, Mandela worked to reassure South Africa’s white population that they were protected and represented in “the Rainbow Nation”. Although his Government of National Unity would be dominated by the ANC, he attempted to create a broad coalition by appointing de Klerk as Deputy President and appointing other National Party officials as ministers for Agriculture, Energy, Environment, and Minerals and Energy, as well as naming Buthelezi as Minister for Home Affairs. Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond Tutu as its chair. As for the country’s foreign policy, Mandela expressed the view that “South Africa’s future foreign relations should be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations”. Following the South African example, Mandela encouraged other nations to resolve conflicts through diplomacy and reconciliation. In September 1998, Mandela was appointed Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Although the 1996 constitution allowed the president to serve two consecutive five-year terms, Mandela had never planned to stand for a second term in office. He gave his farewell speech to Parliament on 29 March 1999 when it adjourned prior to the 1999 general elections, after which he retired. Although opinion polls in South Africa showed wavering support for both the ANC and the government, Mandela himself remained highly popular, with 80% of South Africans polled in 1999 expressing satisfaction with his performance as president. Despite his opulent surroundings, Mandela lived simply, donating a third of his R 552,000 annual income to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which he had founded in 1995.

Mrs. Albertina Sisulu died suddenly in her home in Linden, Johannesburg at age 92 on 2 June 2011 in the evening while watching television with her grandchildren. She was given a state burial. Several of the Sisulu children have themselves become leaders in the democratic South Africa. Max Sisulu is the speaker in the National Assembly; Mlungisi Sisulu is President of the Walter Sisulu Pediatric Cardiac Foundation and Chairman of Arup Africa. Adopted daughter Beryl Sisulu is South Africa′s ambassador in Norway; Lindiwe Sisulu was from 2009 to 2012 the minister of defence; Zwelakhe Sisulu (who died on 4 October 2012) was a prominent businessman; and daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, married to Max, is a well-known author and human rights activist.

Nelson Mandela died in the evening on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95 at his home in Houghton, surrounded by his family after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection. Then President Zuma publicly announced his death on television, proclaiming ten days of national mourning and a state funeral was held on 15 December in Qunu. Approximately 90 representatives of foreign states travelled to South Africa to attend the memorial events.

Truth is that we cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the indelible footprints left behind by these two global icons. But as we celebrate their legacies, we mustn’t forget the responsibilities expected of us as individuals, family units, societies and governments.