This year marks the centenary of the birth of both Nelson Mandela and Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, referred to affectionately as Ma Sisulu. Albertina Sisulu’s life was intricately linked to that of Mandela’s. Not only were they born in the same year, but they shared family connections, and the lives of their partners mirrored each other over the course of their fight for a democratic South Africa.

The Sisulu's wedding with Nelson Mandela to the far left, and Anton Lembede to the right of the bride
The Sisulu’s wedding with Nelson Mandela to the far left, and Anton Lembede to the right of the bride

Walter Sisulu, Albertina’s husband, was the cousin of Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Mase, and it was Albertina and Walter who introduced the two. When the Sisulus married in 1944, Mandela was the best man, and when Walter was sentenced to life in prison for planning acts of sabotage against the apartheid government, Mandela was walking beside him as they made their way to Robben Island. Mandela and Walter Sisulu would spend nearly two decades together on Robben Island, while the lives of their wives followed similar paths in the ‘free’ world.

Like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina’s life was not her own. Constantly harassed by the security police, Albertina was left to raise her large family alone. Rejecting Bantu education, Albertina chose to turn her home in Orlando West into a classroom for her children and others, until a law was passed prohibiting it, at which point she scraped and saved in order to send her children to school in Swaziland. In addition to working as a nurse, Albertina sewed dresses and knitted jerseys so that she could make the extra money needed to educate her children outside of the country. At the same she was committed to the struggle, initially through her relationship with her husband, but eventually of her own accord.

Albertina Sisulu, march to the Union Buildings, August 1956
Albertina Sisulu, march to the Union Buildings, August 1956

In 1944, Albertina was the only woman present at the formation of the ANC Youth League, and when the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was formed in 1954, Albertina was appointed as a member of the executive, joining the ANC Women′s League a year later. On the 9th August 1956, Albertina joined Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn in the now famous march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which saw an estimated 20 000 women protest against the apartheid government’s requirement that women carry passbooks. Albertina would spend three weeks in prison before being acquitted on pass charges. Nelson Mandela acted as her lawyer.

On the 4th March 1963, Walter Sisulu was sentenced to six years in prison for furthering the aims of the banned ANC. Sisulu skipped bail to go underground. Soon afterwards the security police arrested Albertina and her young son, Zwelakhe. She became the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963, which gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them. Albertina was placed in solitary confinement for almost two months, until finally being released on the 6th August.

Walter Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albertina Sisulu celebrate Walters release from prison
Walter Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albertina Sisulu celebrate Walters release from prison

Despite having her movements severely restricted by a series of banning orders, Albertina continued her political activities over the course of the next two decades, becoming co-president of the United Democratic Front in the 1980s. In 1994, Albertina was elected to the first democratic Parliament. At the first meeting of Parliament, she had the honour of nominating Nelson Mandela as President of the Republic of South Africa.

Albertina Sisulu passed away on the 2nd June 2011 at the age of 92. In honour of Albertina, and the many women who fought alongside her, ‘The Marchers’ aims to memorialise the events of 9th August 1956 by collating accounts of the women who took part in the historic march into a documentary to be aired on television.

The Marchers came from all walks of society, from all over the country. The common thread that bound them was their unshakeable belief, in the face of an oppressive and ruthless regime, that they could actually change this country”  Elinor Sisulu

Members of the public who are connected to The Marchers of 1956 are requested to send their contact details with a short explanation of their testimony and involvement in the march to

Images courtesy of and

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply