Albertina Sisulu [Abridged]

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 06/11/2019
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Authors: Sindiwe Magona and Elinor Sisulu

Publ: David Philip Publishers (Pty) Ltd Pp129

ISBN: PB: 978-1-4856-2285-7

Reviewed by: John Sibi-Okumu.

It stands to reason that Africa, a continent with a reputedly young population, should be preoccupied with literature for young readers and, specifically, with books which present them with home-grown role models. This is aptly expressed in the foreword to Albertina Sisulu, an abridged publication, inspired by a much more detailed biography, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime.

When young people can locate themselves and their place in the history of the world, it strengthens their sense of self, as individuals and as Africans (…..) Girls especially need to know they can achieve goals and overcome challenges. For all young people, stories of people who went before them, people from backgrounds similar to theirs, are very important to their sense of identity.

Albertina Sisulu bears the imprint of a South African publisher, as can be expected when its subject is a South African woman who was hailed, after that country’s first universal elections in 1994, as the Mother of the Nation. In this simplified version the trajectory of her life is allowed to stand alone but, for a large part, in tandem with that of her husband, Walter Sisulu. He it was who was driven off at the end of the notorious Rivonia trial in the days of apartheid or ‘separate development,’ to spend 25 years of his life in detention on the equally notorious Robben Island. Nelson Mandela went with him on that occasion, as did several others who became less famous, worldwide.

Albertina Sisulu was born in 1918 which, in the perception of today’s children and young adult readers, was an extremely long time ago. However, she died in 2011, aged 92, a year which was very much of their times. How things have changed is, therefore, a central theme of Albertina Sisulu. Similarly, the inculcation of values is an unhidden agenda.

Very early on, Albertina Sisulu learned that life could bring its share of adversity and that resilience was a virtue. She learned that it was important to shun selfishness in favour of service to others. Those adults around her understood the importance of having a good education, for boys and girls. Albertina was a diligent student who also displayed leadership qualities from an early age. Religious belief and strict discipline played a role in her life, too. She developed a mind of her own, opting for a nursing career when first offered the option of an arranged marriage. When she met Walter Sisulu she became progressively politicised and in the face of an oppressive, racist regime she determined to remain steadfast in fighting its injustices. After she and Walter were married, Albertina became the breadwinner because she earned much more than her husband. After Walter went into detention she nominally became a single parent who, nevertheless, brought other children into her fold for tender, loving care and education. She was repeatedly jailed for acts of defiance, often for years at a time and when she was not in prison she was under continually renewed house arrest. She was an unswerving spokesperson for other women and their rights.

Of course, we were all taught as children that nobody is perfect.

But, as with the non-existence of Father Christmas and the discovery that bad language is very common, young people will not learn of her shortcomings from the pages of Albertina Sisulu. That should, quite appropriately, come later. In their youth, all children everywhere and African girls, in particular, would do well to try to be like Albertina Sisulu through the example of her strengths: compassionate, committed and courageous.

Adults with biological and honorary titles like Mum, Dad, Aunty and Uncle should make every effort to have their charges exposed to the life and times of Albertina Sisulu, by reading this book on her, written with commendable didactic intention by Sindiwe Magona, a venerated South African writer in collaboration with Albertina’s activist, daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu.

A bonus in its structure is the ten page Timeline which places Albertina Sisulu’s life in the context of the history of South Africa from the 1820s to 5 June, 2011. That was the exact date of her death, after which her country’s flags flew at half-mast until the day on which she was buried as a true heroine of The Struggle.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu


Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 17:21

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