Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu Biography

Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu (21 October 1918 – 2 June 2011) was a black South African anti–apartheid activist, and the widow of fellow activist Walter Sisulu (1912–2003). She was affectionately known as Ma Sisulu throughout her lifetime by the South African public. In 2004 she was voted 57th in the SABC3's Great South Africans. She died on 2 June 2011 in her home in Linden, Johannesburg, South Africa, aged 92.

Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe in the Tsomo district of the Transkei on 21 October 1918, she was the second of five children of Bonilizwe and Monikazi Thethiwe. Sisulu's mother survived the Spanish Flu, but was constantly ill and very weak because of this. It fell upon Sisulu, as the eldest girl, to take on a motherly role for her younger siblings. She had to stay out of school for long periods of time, which resulted in her being two years older than the rest of her class in her last year of primary school. She adopted the name Albertina when she started her schooling at a Presbyterian mission school in Xolobe.

Sisulu started school in a local primary school in Xolobe that was run by Presbyterian missionaries and it is here that she had to choose a Christian name from a list presented to her by the missionaries. Within her extended family Sisulu was the eldest of eight girls and it was her responsibility to take care of the younger girls. Even from a young age Sisulu showed strong maternal instincts, and this continued throughout her life. Her leadership qualities and maternal instincts underlined the respect she earned during the struggle when she was referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. Sisulu excelled at school in cultural and sporting activities and she showed leadership skills at an early age when she was chosen as head girl in standard five. However, Sisulu was forced to leave school on several occasions to take care of her younger siblings (because of her mother’s bad health) and this resulted in Sisulu being two years older than the rest of her class in her last year of primary school. Although at the time this did not seem a major inconvenience, later when Sisulu entered a competition to win a four year high school scholarship this counted against her as she was disqualified from the prize even though she had come in first place. Angered by the unfair treatment (the competition rules had set no age limit on the prize) Sisulu’s teachers wrote to the local Xhosa language newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, making a strong case for Sisulu to be given the prize. The article caught the attention of the priests at the local Roman Catholic Mission who then communicated with Father Bernard Huss at Mariazell. Father Huss arranged for a four year high school scholarship for Sisulu at Mariazell College. The Mnyila family was very happy and celebrated Sisulu's achievement with the entire village, Sisulu recalls that the celebration saying "you would have thought it was a wedding".

In 1936 Sisulu left for Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape and although very nervous she was excited to find that a local girl from Xolobe was a prefect at Mariazell. The school's routine was rigid and strict, pupils were woken up at 4am to bath and clean their dormitories, they would then proceed to the chapel for morning prayers. Although Sisulu’s scholarship covered her board and lodging, she had to pay it back during the school holidays by ploughing the fields and working in the laundry room. Sisulu only went home during the December holidays but she found this a small price to pay for the opportunity to attend high school.

With high school ending in 1939 Sisulu had to decide what she would do after school. She decided that she would not marry but rather become a working professional so that she could support her family back in Xolobe. Whilst at Mariazell Sisulu had converted to Catholicism and, because she had resolved never to marry, she decided that she would become a nun, as she admired the dedication of the nuns who taught at the college. However, Father Huss advised Sisulu against this, as nuns did not earn a salary nor did they leave the mission post, so she would not have been able to support her family in the way she wanted to. Instead he advised her to consider nursing, as trainee nurses were paid to study. Attracted by the practical solution nursing offered Sisulu took his advice and applied to various nursing schools. She was accepted as a trainee nurse at a Johannesburg "Non-European" hospital called Johannesburg General. After spending Christmas with her family in Xolobe she left for Johannesburg in January 1940.