A revolutionary love
Elinor Sisulu’s biography, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (David Philip), must have been a difficult book to write — especially as she is their daughter-in-law. It covers two people over so long a period — in the case of Walter Sisulu, the entire period of the existence of the African National Congress.
How does one author acquire sufficient familiarity with all of these periods to do justice to the Sisulu couple in every phase? What also worried me was whether the political pre-eminence of Walter Sisulu would make a joint biography of the couple unequal, with Albertina treated as a footnote to her “major partner”.How Elinor Sisulu resolves these questions is not through analysis, for the book is a chronological narrative divided by very broad themes.
In that respect, her role as daughter-in-law is an advantage to her as biographer, although she goes well beyond that and uses a variety of sources for her material. And the way the story is told raises issues that are fresh to political biography and autobiography in South Africa. It addresses issues that many political activists have been reluctant to discuss — questions that are supposedly outside the realm of the political and public domain.The book provides an account of all the major phases of both Walter and Albertina’s political involvement and some of this material breaks “silences”. For example, it is traditional in much historiography to treat the ANC as dead within the country in the post-Rivonia period, only reviving in the late 1970s. This book shows that people like Albertina as well as her children were in various ways preparing the ground, patiently but secretly building an underground organisation, which was part of the reason why ANC symbols reappeared in the 1980s. That could not happen earlier because underground conditions made it impossible. Unfortunately invisibility has too often been treated as absence. Now Elinor Sisulu makes some of that experience visible.But what distinguishes this work from other political biographies and autobiographies in South Africa is that, without theorising, it shows how one couple grappled with the relationship between the “personal” and the “political”. Many revolutionaries grew up reading of “revolutionary love” and “love for the people”. The book quotes Anton Lembede, first president of the ANC Youth League, saying at their wedding that Walter (as was said of Nelson Mandela at his wedding) was already “married to the struggle”. Much of the book shows this was not the only “marriage” in Sisulu’s life.Many revolutionaries did not have the opportunity to pursue intimacy or romantic love or build families or were forced to leave loved ones behind to join Umkhonto weSizwe, often without the opportunity to say farewell. There are stories of great pain and loss and guilt and resentment that many people carry with them to this day. But what this biography shows is that despite terrible conditions of separation, constant harassment of Ma Sisulu and other members of the family, and Walter’s 26 years of incarceration, they nevertheless continued their relationship and love for one another and their children. Many others, who had limited opportunities like these, were not able to find a satisfactory way of dealing with both the requirements of the revolution and love and intimacy with their partners and children.From this book one gets the impression that Walter was fully involved in Albertina’s life and the main problems that arose. One feels he knew the stress she was under, the financial strain that was continuous; the ever-growing range of children of an ever-extending extended family. He seems to sense that her health is suffering. This is a good example of someone struggling in extraordinary or extreme circumstances to maintain the channels of communication that all too often fail under ordinary circumstances.Both Walter and Albertina are concerned with their children and grandchildren. There was clearly an anxiety to know the precise problems and choices each child was facing and to make an input. There was a political input, too, but each child found his or her own way to the ANC.In telling the story, Elinor Sisulu shows how Albertina’s role evolved as a woman, mother and political and women’s leader. Indeed, this is how many women on this continent have struggled to balance their roles. Ma Sisulu’s contribution provides an interesting and critical case study for examining the specificity of African feminisms and their contexts. Another fascinating issue is the constant evidence that Walter Sisulu is a major intellectual figure. Yet if one looks at sociology textbooks, in most cases he would not qualify. Until he went to Robben Island he had not passed standard five, something that prosecutor Percy Yutar referred to contemptuously in the Rivonia trial. Yet he belongs to a category of people in South Africa whose intellectual qualities have been insufficiently recognised because they do not fall within the formal definitions that are associated with an intelligentsia. In the 1940s Nelson Mandela, then a type of country bumpkin, met Walter Sisulu, already an estate agent, who had a secretary and spoke fluent English. To Mandela’s surprise, he was told Walter had no university degree, but had learnt from the “university of life”. Both Albertina and Walter Sisulu have drawn from that university. This is a book that should teach us humility, show us that there are people like Mama and Tata Sisulu who through patient work with a wide range of people, through numerous types of interactions, politically and personally, acquired great wisdom.Elinor Sisulu must be congratulated for relating this important story, enabling readers to experience the lives of Walter and Albertina and more particularly the integrity with which they acted on their choices.Raymond Suttner is the author of Inside Apartheid’s Prison (University of Natal Press) and has recently edited Ray Alexander Simons’s autobiography, to be published by STE later this year.