My gogo, mother of a nation

2011-06-04 18:25

Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu, born October 21 1918 in the Tsomo district of the Transkei, is my maternal grandmother. She is known to many South Africans as Mama Sisulu or Mama. My granddad used to call her Tini (short for Albertina). My granny is a well-known figure in South Africa, having been the wife of an ANC stalwart.

But she is a substantial historical ­figure in her own right, of course, being a founding member of the ANC Women’s League.

She was instrumental in organising the famous Women’s March in 1956 to the Union Buildings in ­Pretoria, where more than 20 000 women protested against the ­repressive pass laws.

She was the first woman to be ­arrested under the apartheid government’s 90-day detention law that allowed for imprisonment without trial.

A lot has been written about her and I therefore find it a rather intimidating task to write about her here.

Having mulled it over for a while, I figured the best thing to do would be to share some of my most ­memorable moments with her.

I lived with my granny from the time I was born until I was about three years old. My mother was ­imprisoned in the student 1976 uprising and I was left in the care of my granny and my youngest aunt, Nkuli.

My grandparents were married in 1944, the same year that the ANC Youth League was formed. My granddad was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12 1964 ­after the Rivonia Trial.

When I was born my granddad had already been in prison for 12 years.

My first memory of my granddad was when we went to visit him at Pollsmoor Prison. I think I was about five years old.

I had also been to Robben Island as a baby, but have no memory of it. My granny was very excited at the prospect of the upcoming visit and even had her teeth polished.

We took the midnight flight to Cape Town. This was my first time on a plane. It was so exciting! My granny let me sit in the aisle seat so I could watch in awe as the hostess handed out (free!) tea and small chocolates.

My granny gave me hers. I was in heaven. Visits to Cape Town were very expensive and in order to visit my granddad, we had to ­apply for permission, which wasn’t always granted.

Therefore, visits to my granddad were very precious and anticipated even more than Christmas.

I remember when we arrived at the prison, a hugely intimidating grey building. We were not allowed contact visits at that point and my granny and I had to speak to my granddad through a thick glass pane. I don’t quite remember if there was a phone or a hole in the middle of the glass.

My granny chatted away happily and all I could do was sit quietly next to her and bite my lip, willing myself not to cry.

I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but I felt a deep sense of sadness. My granny was very quiet on the drive back to the guesthouse where we stayed. She never cried, though, which I did for most of the journey.

The happiest I have ever seen my granny was when my granddad was finally released from prison.

She looked like a newlywed, beaming and smiling from ear to ear. I can’t imagine what she was feeling, but she looked completely radiant.

Her life was turned upside down immediately and she had to deal with constant visitors to the house, media attention and endless ­functions.

She rarely complained about having to share her husband – she was so proud of him and ­elated to have him back.

In January 2008, the family was devastated by the loss of the eldest of the grandchildren, Mlungisi ­Sisulu Jr (Lungi). As we were preparing for the funeral, I was sifting through old photos to make a video collage of Lungi’s life.

I came across a photo of my granny and granddad with Lungi in the kitchen of their Orlando West house.

In the photo, Lungi is ­sharing a joke with my granddad and they are both laughing hard, heads thrown back.

My granny is in the background with a pot in one hand and a dishing-up spoon in the other. She is smiling and is looking on, contentedly.

A simple red-brick house in the middle of the township, the same house the family had lived in before my granddad had been imprisoned.

A home full of love and laughter. That was when my granny was her happiest – just being a wife, mother and grandmother.

My granny was born and raised in a village in the then Transkei. When she married my granddad, her village upbringing came to good use as their home became a meeting point for ANC activists at the time. She always made sure there were refreshments available.

My grandparents had five children of their own and adopted four more. The last time I counted, my granny had 21 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Growing up, I used to ask my mom what it felt like being part of such a big family (I was an only child for nine years) and if she ever suffered from “middle child syndrome”.

She would always answer that the one thing her mom had made very clear was that there was to be no favouritism.

My grandmother made no ­distinction between her biological children and the others. And now, being one of almost two-dozen grandchildren, I still feel very ­special whenever I see her.

In 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, my granny was elected to Parliament. She was given the honour of nominating Nelson Mandela for president in the National Assembly.

What made her most proud, however, was that she was elected to Parliament along with two of her children – my mom, Lindiwe, and my uncle Max.

She was absolutely delighted to tell people that the family who had the most members in Parliament was the Sisulus and that she was the only mother who had two children in Parliament.

My granny was one of the first visitors I had in hospital after my daughter Aamani was born. Aamani was a day old when she got to meet her great-granny.

At that stage, I was totally exhausted and overwhelmed after my first night as a mom. Aamani was refusing to latch on and I was stressed.

When my granny arrived with my mom, aunt Zodwa and cousin Vuvu in tow, Aamani was in the nursery and I was napping.

Of course, my granny quickly dispatched a nurse to bring the baby into the room.

Aamani arrived, still fast asleep. Having been passed around and undressed to be checked for 10 fingers and 10 toes, she woke up. And wailed! Loudly!

My granny, a nurse by training and experienced mother, grandmother and great-grandmother instructed me to feed her.

My protestations that she had been fed an hour before were met with such a disapproving look that I gave in and attempted to do the impossible: feed my newborn, which I didn’t manage to do.

After a few minutes of stressed attempts, I gave up and called for the nurse to bring a bottle of ­formula. My granny tut-tutted and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me!

While I have many very happy memories of my granny I also have some incredibly painful ones.

The worst was when my granddad passed away. I had been settling down to watch Law & Order on TV when I got a call from Vuvu that my granddad had stopped breathing.

I immediately rushed over to the house (I lived about 10 minutes away). I was the first family ­member to arrive after the ­paramedics.

As I walked down the passage ­towards my grandparents’ ­bedroom, terrified at the sight of the paramedics visible through the doorway, I came across my granny on the floor of the spare bedroom.

She was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, repeatedly wailing in Xhosa: “What am I without him?” At that point, I knew my granddad had left us.

My attempts to coax her off the floor and onto the bed were futile. I was struck by the enormity of the situation. She had just lost the love of her life whom she had only gotten back after almost three ­decades in jail.

There was nothi

ng I could say or do to make things better. Eventually, I managed to get a pillow in ­between her head and the floor and then crouched next to her and ­cradled her.

I was very relieved when Ma Tambo arrived after what must have been 30 minutes, although it felt like an eternity.

Ma Tambo was infinitely more qualified to deal with the situation, having ­herself lost her husband a few years before.

She managed to get my granny onto the bed.

More family members arrived at the house well into the night. My granny cried for several more hours and was eventually sedated.

On the day of the funeral, almost two weeks later, my granny hardly shed a tear. Everyone remarked how brave she was. Little did they know that she just had no more tears left.

I feel very blessed to have had my granny as a role model, and to have had her in my life for so long. I can only hope that when I’ve grown up (I am only 32), my own grandchildren will look back at my small contribution and be even a tiny bit as proud of me as I am of my own granny, my gogo, Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu.

» Ayanda Xoliswa Sisulu is the granddaughter of Albertina and Walter Sisulu. This is an edited extract from uMama edited by ­Marion Keim, published by Umuzi

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