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Tribute: Life, love and times of the Sisulus

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 talking in English, making Ngcali uncomfortable – it was not the done thing to talk in English in discussions of that nature.

He tried to urge Walter to talk Xhosa, but Campbell said, “Leave him, let him go on.” Campbell then asked Walter in English: “Have you ever been married?” When Walter said no, Campbell replied, “If you have never got married, how can you know anything about it? You have to learn from us.” Walter capitulated. “It was a powerful argument. I had no response.”

Although their wedding banns had already been read in Johannesburg, they had to change their plans and make arrangements to be married by the magistrate in Cofimvaba. Campbell Mnyila was attending a sitting of the Bunga at the time, so he was not able to attend the civil ceremony at the court. He wrote a long letter to the magistrate instead, introducing Albertina and confirming that he had given his consent for the young couple to marry.

The ceremony took place on July 15, 1944. Ngcali, who was the headman at Cofimvaba, told Walter that it was the accepted practice to salute the magistrate. To Ngcali’s embarrassment, Walter refused, saying he would greet the magistrate, but he was not prepared to salute him. The magistrate noticed the exchange between Walter and Ngcali, but did not take offence. Instead, he remarked that it was a pity that Albertina was being taken away from the Transkei where her nursing skills were badly needed.

After the legal ceremony, a wedding reception was held at Albertina’s home at Tsomo. The newlyweds then returned to Johannesburg, where they had another reception at the Bantu Men’s Social Club on July 17. It was a glittering social occasion with a popular jazz band, the Merry Blackbirds, providing the musical entertainment. Mandela was best man and Evelyn one of the bridesmaids.

Dr Xuma and Anton Lembede were among those who made speeches, as was Solomon Kowalsky, Walter’s lawyer. Walter had invited his old friend, Herbert Mdingi, to speak but to his disappointment, Mdingi was not prepared to forgive their earlier quarrel, and refused to attend the reception. Walter bitterly regretted their rift and wished he had not been so harsh in his judgment of Mdingi. However, he was not short of distinguished people to speak at his wedding. In his speech, Lembede warned Albertina that she was marrying a man who was already married to the nation.

As soon as they were married, Walter and Albertina keenly anticipated having their first child. So eager were they to become parents that when there was no sign of a pregnancy after three months of marriage, they consulted a doctor.

Unsurprisingly, he advised them to go home and be patient. Before the year was out, there was a baby in the family, but from an entirely unexpected quarter. While Walter and Albertina had been absorbed in courting and wedding arrangements, his sister Barbie had also fallen in love, with a young man called Thomas (Tilly) Lockman. Walter knew Lockman, who had also worked for the Union Bank, but did not approve of the relationship. He felt that Lockman was a superficial character, who was not the right person for Barbie. However, he realised that his interference would not end the relationship and took the view that his sister was an adult who had to make up her own mind.

Baribie’s son, Gerald, was born in December 1944.

When Gerald was eight months’ old, Albertina insisted that Barbie leave the baby with them and go back and complete her training. By then, Walter and Albertina had their own baby. Their first son, Max Vuyisile, was born on August 23, 1945. It was the era of home deliveries and Max was born at No 7372 with a midwife, Rachel Nkosi, in attendance. Rachel Nkosi did more than assist with the delivery, she also advised Albertina to apply for a transfer from Johannesburg General to Orlando Clinic, which was short of nurses. Albertina was grateful as it meant she would be able to return home to breastfeed her baby during the day.

It was a wrench leaving her baby behind at home after a few months, but she counted herself fortunate that Alice was only too happy to take care of another baby. Anxious not to overburden her mother-in-law, Albertina would get up before dawn, light the coal stove, heat the water for washing, prepare the breakfast and do the laundry. By the time she left for work at seven, the babies’ napkins would all be washed and hanging on the line.

Walter and Albertina were deliriously happy in their marriage and loved their babies to distraction. Albertina got on well with her mother-in-law, who respected the rights of her makoti (daughter-in-law). She encouraged Albertina to go back to work and devoted herself to looking after her grandchildren. The only difference they had was over the religion of the children. Walter and Albertina had married in the Catholic Church. Walter had said that he would not convert to Catholicism, but that he would allow the children to be Catholic. However, when her grandchildren started arriving, Alice refused to allow them to be raised as Catholics. Albertina gave in to her and even started attending Anglican Church services herself.

In November 1948, Albertina and Walter had their second son, Mlungisi. Barbie had by then completed her training and was working at the clinic in Noordgesig, the working-class coloured area adjacent to Orlando East. She had married Tilly Lockman, and in March 1949 gave birth to her second child, a daughter they named Beryl. When Barbie’s maternity leave was over, Gerald and Beryl were taken daily to their grandmother in Orlando.

Walter and Albertina had other additions to their household too. After her grandmother Nosenti died in 1944, Albertina could not stop thinking of her sister Flora (Nomyaleko), who was still living at Uncle Campbell’s home.

“According to tradition, Uncle Campbell was her official guardian but after my grandmother died, I had a dream in which my mother came to me and said: ‘Nomyaleko is ill. Why did you leave her? You know you have to look after her.’ I immediately woke Walter and told him about the dream. He said, ‘Tomorrow we will send money for her to come here.’ We sent the train fare and asked Uncle Campbell to send Flora. He refused. This went on for some time until we virtually ‘stole’ Flora away. Eventually it was accepted that Flora would not go back to Xolobe.” By that time, Albertina’s brother Stanford had begun working in the clerical department of a Cape Town company. Her other brother, Elliot, had completed high school and Walter had helped him to secure financial assistance to study theology at Fort Hare. After his graduation, he returned to Orlando East, where he married Miriam Matsha in 1948.