In Memory Of MaSisulu, The Rock Of South Africa

Jun 11, 2011

Albertina Sisulu is being buried in Soweto, South Africa today. She was 92 when she died, and liked to recall that when she and a few other women organized a protest in 1956 of the passbooks that were bedrock of South Africa's apartheid laws, they chanted, "When you tamper with women, you strike a rock."

Albertina Sisulu was born in rural Transkei. Her father cracked rocks in South Africa's dangerous, pitiless mines, and died when she was 11. Her mother was sick and mournful. Albertina had to look after her mother and three siblings.

She went to a Catholic mission school and wanted to become a nun. But she needed to support her family, so she became a nurse.

She married Walter Sisulu, who was Nelson Mandela's friend and partner in the struggle against apartheid. A guest at their wedding warned her, "Walter is already married to the struggle."

They ended up spending just nine of their first 20 years of marriage together. Walter Sisulu was imprisoned eight times for resisting apartheid. He was ultimately sentenced to Robben Island with Mandela, where they stalwartly survived interrogation, isolation, and rock-cracking labor for 26 years.

Albertina Sisulu had her own brave struggle back in Soweto, where she strived to give good lives to their five children. Their family expanded to eight when she and Walter adopted his sister's three youngsters.

She had not considered herself a political person when she married Walter Sisulu. But MaSisulu, as she came to be called, was galvanized by apartheid's tightening cruelty and repression.

She was banned, hounded, and jailed for weeks at a time for her own anti-apartheid activities. Yet she kept the Sisulu home in Soweto a crossroads and shelter for both her family and friends fighting against apartheid. She made certain that the garden in which they gathered—which was harder to bug with microphones than their house--was neat; that every visitor was fed; and that they could find strength and laughter in each other's company.

"She was a mother to us all," Edna Molewa of the ANC Women's League said this week. "Many of us found comfort in her arms. She was a real leader."

An entire generation of South Africans has grown up since apartheid began to fall in 1990. One Sisulu daughter is now South Africa's Defense Minister; another is ambassador to Norway. One Sisulu son is Speaker of the National Assembly.

They may not raise as many statues, or name as many schools, for Albertina Sisulu as for Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Steven Biko—or, in time, her own children. But MaSisulu was a rock, on which a new nation is rising.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit