WEDDING PARTY: Walter and Albertina’s wedding party at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg. Among the guests were Nelson Mandela (far left), Evelyn Mase (flanking the groom) and Anton Lembede (flanking the bride). In the back row, between the bride and groom, is Walter’s sister, Rosabella.
Albertina Thethiwe was the only woman present at the inaugural meeting of the Congress Youth League. It was not the first such meeting she had attended.
Since they had started courting, she accompanied Walter regularly to his meetings. She did so in a supportive capacity and did not consider becoming a member herself, as the Youth League was very much a young men’s organisation.
Surviving Youth League activists find it difficult to explain why this was so. They certainly had no objections to the involvement of women and Albertina was never made to feel unwelcome at their meetings.
Ellen Kuzwayo, the only woman who did become active in the Youth League, later wrote in her autobiography: “I wish I could say why there seemed to be no outstanding women in the ranks of the ANC movement at that time. If they were present, for some reason or other I missed them.” She remembered Albertina “as the smiling and pleasant wife of Walter Sisulu, a kind hostess who served the committee members of the congress with tea after long and intense meetings” (Kuzwayo, 139, 245).
In later years, Walter would remind Albertina of her presence at the historic Easter Sunday meeting in 1944. “Admit it, my dear,” he would tease, “you only had eyes for your boyfriend.” By that time the happy couple had already decided on their date for their wedding. The story of their proposal is an endearing one.
One day while they were strolling in the streets of Johannesburg, Albertina dressed to the nines, complete with hat, gloves and handbag, Walter took her hand, looked into her eyes and asked the all-important question. He recalls with amusement her unexpected response: “I was so taken with her from the moment we met that in a short space of time the question of marriage came up. She replied that before we consider marriage there was something she had to tell me about herself. She went on to say ‘I have children’.
“We were holding hands when she said this. I was so shocked and flabbergasted, I dropped her hand. ‘How many?’ I asked. ‘Three,’ she replied. My mind was racing ahead - getting married to a woman with children was regarded as a social stigma.” Walter timidly asked how old the children were. She hesitated and he was in complete confusion. She then smilingly explained that she had assumed responsibility for her younger siblings when her father had died, and that she vowed to make a home for them.
Walter was impressed by her sense of responsibility and said he would gladly share that responsibility with her when they were married. He wasted no time in living up to his promise, and promptly arranged for Albertina’s brother Elliot (Velaphi) to come to Orlando East to complete his high school education. Elliot got on well with Walter’s mother, who was very fond of the studious young man who wanted to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church.
When Albertina had an operation to remove her appendix in 1942, Walter arranged for her to recuperate at the home of Samuel and Caleb Mase in Orlando East. After she recovered, they went to the Transkei together. Albertina had indicated to her family that she would be bringing a visitor home. Walter was well received and a sheep was slaughtered to welcome him.
Albertina’s family suspected the reason for his visit, but there was no talk of marriage on that occasion. Walter met Albertina’s aged grandmother, Nosenti, and her uncle and guardian Campbell Mnyila, without whose permission she would not be able to get married. Fortunately, Campbell, who had studied at Fort Hare had worked for a firm of attorneys in East London, was favourably disposed towards the ANC and was therefore very pleased to meet Walter.
Gcotyelwa, the young cousin whom Albertina had looked after as a young girl, and Campbell’s daughter, Phumla, were in a flurry of excitement about the visitor. Before the visit, Albertina had warned them not to say anything about this “white man” as he could speak Xhosa very well. Gcotyelwa recalls that someone had circulated a newspaper cutting that featured a picture of Walter Sisulu, the director of Sitha Investments. The young girls promptly nicknamed him “Director”.
After the Xolobe visit, Walter proceeded to Qutubeni, where it was arranged that his uncle, Mbuti Kwambi, would make a formal proposal to Albertina’s family. Kwambi, who knew Albertina’s uncle fairly well, duly went to Tsomo to make the proposal, which was accepted. This was followed by another visit by Walter, accompanied by Kwambi, Caleb Mase and Selwyn Ngcali, another of Walter’s uncles. Lobola was discussed and agreed upon, and Walter and Albertina returned to Johannesburg.
While Walter and Albertina were making marriage arrangements, a whirlwind courtship had been taking place between Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase. The couple had met at the Sisulu home and married in January 1944. AP Mda, Walter’s Youth League colleague, had also fallen in love, with Albertina’s nursing friend, Rose Mtshulu. Rose maintained that it was Walter who encouraged the romance and their subsequent marriage.
Soon after these events, Walter and Albertina made a second trip to the Transkei to finalise their own wedding arrangements. Walter was accompanied to Tsomo by his uncle Ngcali. This time, discussions did not proceed as smoothly as before. An argument arose over where the marriage was to take place. Walter wanted to get married in Johannesburg and Albertina’s uncle, Campbell Mnyila, insisted that the wedding take place in the Transkei. In the heat of the argument, Walter found himself