Born Nontsikelelo Thethiwe to a poor farming family in the Transkei, a former British protectorate in South Africa, Thethiwe changed her name to Albertina after enrolling in a Christian missionary school. After graduation, she moved to Johannesburg to study nursing. While training at the Non-European General Hospital, Sisulu met her husband Walter, a political activist with the African National Congress (ANC). They married in 1944. Fellow ANC member Nelson Mandela was best man at the ceremony.
At the Sisulu’s wedding reception an ANC supporter said: “Albertina, you have married a married man: Walter married politics before he met you.” Immediately the Sisulu home in Soweta was a hub for ANC activity.
On 9 August 1956, Sisulu lead a march of 20,000 women against the South African pass system. August 9 is celebrated as Women’s Day in South Africa. Throughout her life, Mrs. Sisulu was arrested numerous times. Of her time in jail, she said: “I did not mind going to jail myself, and I had to learn to cope without Walter. But when my children went to jail, I felt that the Boers were breaking me at the knees.” When her husband Walter was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, she was left to continue his political legacy.
Despite numerous stints in jail and being banned from South Africa for 10 years, Mrs. Sisulu continued her political activities. In 1983, she co-founded the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition. She met with U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter to discuss sanctions against the South African apartheid government.
After serving 26 years in prison, Walter Sisulu was released from Robben Island in 1989. Five years after her husband’s release from prison, Mrs. Sisulu was elected to Parliament. She retired after four years and remained active in social causes.
Mrs. Sisulu lived to see her children assume leadership positions in the once apartheid-driven South Africa. Her daughter Lindiwe Sisulu is the nation’s defense minister. Her son Max is speaker of the National Assembly, while her daughter Beryl Sisulu is South Africa’s ambassador to Norway.