Activist maintained family of 8 while battling apartheid, poverty

March 29, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SOWETO, South Africa -- Albertina Sisulu beams with satisfaction when she talks about her successes in life against odds that might easily have crushed a weaker person.

With her husband in prison for a quarter-century for political activities, Mrs. Sisulu was left to battle the apartheid regime and raise eight children on her own in an impoverished black township.

At times, she went to jail, like her husband, for opposing the government. For a decade, she was under house arrest. Some of her children were detained over the years, including her eldest daughter, Lindiwe, who was tortured. Some fled the country, like her son Max, who is now chief economist for the African National Congress. Her son Zwelakhe, a prominent newspaper editor, was detained and restricted repeatedly -- sometimes simultaneously with his mother.

"It's a strange thing, you know," Mrs. Sisulu reflected as she sat in the Soweto house where she has lived since her marriage in 1944, "the more you are under these hardships, the more you become strong. I've been in and out of jail. Harassed. But not a single day did I ever think that I would retreat. . . .

"When you are oppressed, it's just like when you brew something. You put on the cork. But the force that will come from that brew will shoot the cork up."

Mrs. Sisulu, 70, rose to become one of the most respected leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa during the decades in which her husband was in prison with Nelson Mandela and other leading activists were in exile.

In 1983, she was elected president of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of hundreds of churches, unions, professional groups and civic organizations formed to oppose discriminatory policies of the government.

She was in jail when the election was held, charged with furthering the aims of a banned organization -- the African National Congress. She had spoken at a neighbor's funeral where two ANC flags were flown and where she was introduced as the wife of Walter Sisulu, "the people's secretary."

When he went to prison in 1963, Mr. Sisulu was secretary-general of the ANC, which was banned in 1960. After the organization was legalized by President Frederik W. de Klerk last year and its top leaders, including Mr. Sisulu, were released, Mrs. Sisulu shifted her focus to helping rebuild the ANC into a strong political force inside South Africa.

Earlier this month, she and other UDF leaders announced that the coalition would disband and its members would work to strengthen the ANC.

"We felt it had served its purpose," said Mrs. Sisulu, an energetic grandmother who routinely held down two nursing jobs to support her family. "What we wanted was to keep the people intact until the ANC was unbanned. What would be the point now of having two parallel organizations? . . . It is the ANC now that we want to push on with, that is dealing with the government."

Mrs. Sisulu said the UDF laid the groundwork for the talks and reform going on in the country now. "We are proud to say we pulled the struggle up."

In the 1980s, all the executive committee members of the UDF were charged with treason in response to their campaign of township protests. They were jailed for two years during their treason trial and finally were acquitted in 1986.

"There was no case against us. It was another way of pulling us from the stream. To cool the ANC. I think we must have been problematic for them," she said with a big smile, followed by a hearty laugh. "We made the country ungovernable," a term that became a township battle cry during the turbulent '80s.

Anti-apartheid activists believe that their mass protests, combined with international sanctions, forced the government to the negotiating table.

But Mrs. Sisulu said painful experience had taught her not to count their victory before it was complete: "We still feel that despite the promises, we must work hard. We must press the government. Because we don't trust them. Our feeling is that they are doing this to bluff the world."

Mr. de Klerk has initiated a series of reforms, which have led some countries to begin lifting economic sanctions. He has repealed or formally proposed to repeal all the major statutes that upheld the apartheid system, and he has promised to negotiate a fair new constitution giving everyone an equal vote.

His government has released dozens of political prisoners, including Mrs. Sisulu's youngest son, Jongi, and allowed the return of hundreds of exiles, including Max Sisulu, who is now working at a liberal university in Cape Town.

Last year, Mrs. Sisulu was surrounded by her entire family for the first time in almost 30 years. Daughter Lindiwe visits frequently from nearby Swaziland, where she is working on her doctorate and is married to an economics professor at the University of Swaziland.

"I have four B.A.s, three M.A.s and one Ph.D.," Mrs. Sisulu beamed. "Not bad for a woman on her own."

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