Walter & Albertina Sisulu

4 April 2003

“If we as a liberation movement and a nation were to be given the choice of one life story to be told, that story would have to be Walter Sisulu’s. In his life and the work of his life are captured and demonstrated the best, the noblest, the most heroic, the most deeply humane that our movement and our country represent and seek to represent.”

So begins former president Nelson Mandela’s foreward to “In Our Lifetime” (David Philip), the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

The book, written by the subjects’ daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, is a fortunate conjunction of first-rate storyteller and fascinating subjects.

The story of the Sisulus combines the personal and the political; it reflects the 20th-century history of South Africa, but at the same time it is, as their biographer puts it, “a story of persecution, bitter struggle and painful separation . and also one of patience, hope, enduring love and ultimate triumph”.

Walter was a dapper, sophisticated estate agent and Albertina a naive and beautiful young nurse when they met in Johannesburg in the early 1940s. At their wedding in 1944, the chairman of the African National Congress Youth League warned the bride: “You are marrying a man who is already married to the nation.”

Their life together was marked by frequent arrests and detentions as Walter Sisulu led campaigns to defy apartheid laws. ANC secretary-general, he had been jailed more than once when he went underground in 1963. Albertina and their eldest son were detained by police frustrated in their attempts to find Walter.

He was arrested with other ANC leaders during a raid at Liliesleaf Farm later that year, and given a life sentence for treason, and Albertina was left with five children, plus her late sister’s two children, to rear on her own.

Active in ANC Women’s League affairs and, in the 1980s, co-president of the United Democratic Front, she was banned for nearly two decades, and often jailed, and two of her children went into exile. They returned only after liberation movements were unbanned in 1990, several months after Walter Sisulu was released from Robben Island.

Those are the bare bones of the story; but in this rich, well-written biography are also reflected the political debates and campaigns that characterised the liberation struggle – recounted by an author who had unprecedented access to letters, reports and other private and political documents.

Daughter-in-law, biographer

It took Elinor Sisulu nine years to write a biography of her parents-in-law. Her problem was not resistance from the subjects, or difficulty in digging up information. It was just the opposite: too much information.

“I was writing about my family, but I had to write about it in the context of the struggle.” So she over-researched, and over-wrote, “with detail I didn’t need”, she says – and her editor cut out much of it.

The biography was her idea, soon after she and her husband, Max Sisulu, left Zimbabwe to live in South Africa. Her academic background is English literature and history, and, she says, “biography marries literature and history”.

The Sisulus “had great confidence in me. That’s their success as parents, complete confidence . Walter used to say ‘I have complete confidence you’ll do a good job. I have no doubts.'”

There was pressure to be absolutely accurate because, as she says, “you’re going to live with them after that. And so obviously from that point of view you don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily.”

But upsetting people with good reason was a different issue. “The only area where I found a bit of resentment was historical disagreements. All struggle biographies face that”, she says.

“If people had a quarrel in the 1940s or ’50s and they patched that up, and you come along as an historian 50 years later and want to write about it, they don’t want you to. They’ve put it in the past. Quarrels especially between comrades – they are like family quarrels; you keep them behind closed doors.”

There was a great deal of soul-searching: “There is a trend towards self-censorship. I hesitated a lot.” But in the end, she wrote about the quarrels, simply reporting points of view – largely those of her subjects, but other views as well.

“It’s part of a historical process that you have to describe”, she says.

Now and again a name is missing, but the rest is there, from anger over Winnie Mandela’s “matches and tyres” speech to debates in prison between Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki in this compulsively readable biography.

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