Walter & Albertina Sisulu: A Revolutionary Couple


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Love can inspire more than romance – it can inspire activism that lasts a lifetime. Walter and Albertina Sisulu met in a hospital in Johannesburg in 1941. Albertina, a name she chose from a list provided by nuns at her school, chose a professional path rather than early marriage, and was working as a nurse at the hospital at the time she met Walter. A young activist, Walter had joined the African National Congress in 1940 – and together with his wife and their four children spent a lifetime fighting for human rights and against apartheid in South Africa.

Walter’s 26 years in jail alongside lifelong friend Nelson Mandela didn’t keep their love from growing. Albertina worked hard to support their children’s upbringing, raising them alone during his time away, providing education and relative stability, while continuing to fight in her husbands stead for equality. Her commitment to mothering a nation through her efforts earned her the nickname ‘Ma Sisulu,’ and after joining the African National Congress Women’s league in 1955 her involvement became a lifetime’s work as an activist.


Adjusting to their “government-prescribed lifestyle” was difficult, and bannings, house arrests, and humility from government officials were commonplace in Albertina’s life without Walter. Albertina stood by her partner and even went to jail for him when Walter went underground to avoid his own arrest. She became the first woman imprisoned under the General Laws Amendment Act. They both served many stints in jail and when they were finally reunited after Walter’s longest sentence ended in 1989, they committed the rest of their lives to advocacy for human rights.

by Dorit Avganim

Leave a comment


  1. Kelly T.

     /  February 20, 2014

    What a wonderful and special story.


  2. Lana

     /  February 26, 2014

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. So often we hear about the incredible work done by men like Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, but rarely about the women who are quite frequently the driving force behind many of their decisions. As more and more strong women are coming into the forefront I think we will continue to hear more great stories like the Sisulu’s.


  3. I’ve learned that Black History is World History is South African History. And today, I learn about MA SISULU and hope that our collective impact as women in the world is a fraction of her legacy. I am reminded of the adage, behind every great man is a great woman. Perhaps the saying should be modified to “next to”, or “in partnership with” every great man is a great woman. But even if you leave the sentiment in tact as is, it lends itself to the resonance and resilience of which evolved and forward-thinking women bring to the realm of male dominated leadership. One cannot exist with the other. There are attributes of Ma Sisulu that I found correlative to successful women in American history, for example her dedication to the welfare of children reminds me of Marian Wright Edelmann as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama. Her level of dedication to humanitarianism in her country is inspiring beyond measure. I also remain encouraged by the sincere and genuine love she shared with her husband. Their love affair through their monumental and tumultuous struggles really accounts the saying: What God has put together, let no man tear asunder.


  4. Kirsten

     /  March 13, 2014

    So many incredible relationships came from this period of struggle. The focus on Walter and Alberta is appreciated, as Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s great love has been disqualified by the media due to her extremism. The focus on other extraordinary couples and their sacrifices and contributions helps to prolong the positive legacy of the ANC, despite uncertainties of its future after Mandela.



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