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'I Have No Doubts We Will Be Free' : Anti-Apartheid Matriarch Undaunted by Crackdown

July 13, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

SOWETO, South Africa — Her husband is in prison, 22 years into a life sentence for plotting the overthrow of South Africa's white-led government. Her eldest son has been in exile for more than 20 years. A daughter was nearly driven mad while she was detained by the authorities. An adopted son was recently convicted of treason and sent to prison. Another son was detained two weeks ago under the state of emergency.

But Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter Sisulu, one of the imprisoned leaders of the outlawed African National Congress, and the co-president of the United Democratic Front coalition of anti-apartheid groups, is far from despair.

"This is what we live for, to struggle for freedom," she said in an interview here. "I am very hopeful, increasingly so. I have no doubts that we will be free."

Keeps Bags Packed

Yet Sisulu, 67, keeps two bags packed, one at her home here and the other at the nearby clinic where she works as a nurse, in anticipation that she may be detained herself by the South African authorities.

"They are just waiting for something, I suspect, because they know where I am and what I am doing," she said. "Everyone in the struggle knows he or she can 'go inside,' as we say, at any time. . . . Those midnight knocks are still coming, by the hundreds."

Sisulu, matriarch of a family that for nearly five decades has been in the leadership of the black struggle against apartheid, does not seem at all intimidated by the possibility of renewed detention.

"The state of emergency, with its bans on meetings, its detentions of our leaders and many local activists, and the restrictions placed on the press, has quite clearly hampered our political activities," she said. "And we are going through a process of reorganization to cope with these additional problems. But the state of emergency has not ended our struggle. Far from it. . . .

People's Anger Growing

"As harsh as we believe this government has been in the past two years, it has united the people more than ever before. The people's patience is exhausted, and their anger is growing. The state of emergency means the government is not able to govern the country without these additional police powers--it has even said so itself--and that means that the people's anger has rendered the country ungovernable. . . . Now that anger runs much deeper than before, and it is too great to subside."

Sisulu's judgment is a considered one, reflecting that of the mainstream black leadership here as it tries to cope with the emergency rule imposed June 12. Her confidence in ultimate success, with the establishment of "a nonracial, democratic" government based on majority rule, is similarly shared within the black community.

(Many of Sisulu's other comments on the current situation could be construed by the government as subversive, and thus may not be quoted under emergency regulations restricting press reports from South Africa.)

When Albertina Sisulu speaks, it is with the authority of someone who has been at the center of the anti-apartheid movement since the 1940s. She has gone through long periods of detention, house arrest and "banning," which barred her from meeting more than one person at a time, and a political trial in which she and 15 others were eventually acquitted of treason charges.

Called Mother of Nation

With Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson R.Mandela, she is often called by other blacks "the mother of the nation."

"You have to set an example," she said, although she disclaims any leadership position for herself. "Our leaders are in prison and in exile. Fortunately, our men prepared us for what might happen and provided guidelines for us to carry on before they went to prison."

Walter Sisulu was secretary general of the African National Congress and a leader of its military wing, Spear of the Nation, when he was arrested in April, 1963. The following June, he was convicted with Mandela and other congress leaders of planning acts of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life in prison.

Over the previous decade, because of his political activities, he had been in and out of jail, detention and house arrest. With Mandela and Oliver Tambo, who is now the president of the African National Congress, Sisulu had revitalized the organization in the 1940s and developed a "program of action" that led to nationwide protests.

Family, Political Roles

"We last saw Walter at home in 1961," his wife recalled, "and the years after that were not easy. I had to be the backbone of the family and play a political role where I could. The children and I have always been committed to carrying on Walter's work for the liberation of our people."

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