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Ma Sisulu - a true heroine

From the Union Buildings

As South Africa celebrates the centenary of Albertina Sisulu, a great daughter of the African soil and leader of our liberation Struggle, it is befitting that we use Women’s Month 2018 to reflect on and honour the sacrifices that she made for the liberation of our country.

Ma Sisulu, also known as a ‘Mother of the Nation’ was a pioneer and political activist who gave true meaning to the term Mbokodo.

Albertina Sisulu represents strength and courage of South African women.In South Africa the term Mbokodo represents bravery, strength and leadership, among others. In the context of the role and status of women in South African society, Mbokodo is most strongly associated with the defiant bravery of the more than 20 000 women who on 9 August 1956 marched to the then oppressive Union Buildings to make their voices heard against the apartheid law of carrying a pass.

Their Struggle cry - ‘Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo' (You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock) - has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.

Ma Sisulu, who also marched to the Union Buildings in 1956, was a true Mbokodo who was known to be a matriarch in character but also a compassionate leader.

She was unwavering in her resilience, courage and advancement of democracy and equality.

We must hold tight to the teachings and memories of her unselfish concern for the wellbeing and future prosperity and stability of our country. Through Ma Sisulu, the nation had the privilege of witnessing hard work, discipline and leadership excellence.

In her various public roles, she always sought to bring hope and dignity to the people and communities she served. Whether as a parliamentarian, a member of the NEC of the ANC, or as a nurse who protected those under her care - at her core was the mission to change lives. 

Ma Sisulu was born to Monica and Bonilizwe Thethiwe on 21 October 1918 bringing great joy to her parents and grandmother.

Within her extended family she was the eldest of eight girls and it was her responsibility to take care of the younger girls.

Even from a young age she showed strong maternal instincts, and this continued throughout her life. Her leadership qualities and maternal instincts underlined the respect she earned during the Struggle.

In 1936 Ma Sisulu left her home of Xolobe for Mariazell College in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape to further her high school education.

In 1940 she was accepted as a trainee nurse at Johannesburg General Hospital. Six months into her training she witnessed racism for the first time against black patients who were admitted to the hospital after a horrific accident at Park Station, Johannesburg’s central bus and train terminus.

The accident victims were flooding into the hospital. The Non-European section of the hospital was swamped with patients and the senior black medical staff appealed to the hospital authorities to allow black patients to be treated in the “European” wards but the white authorities would not grant permission. Injured patients were forced to sleep on the floor.

This clinical inhumanity had a profound effect on Ma Sisulu.

Her introduction to politics was directly linked to her relationship with her husband Walter Sisulu whom she met in 1941.

Walter Sisulu was himself a leading light of the mass democratic movement, whose distinguished service in the cause for liberation not only included sharing a law practice with Nelson Mandela, but also sharing Robben Island with a comrade who would later become our first democratically elected President.

The Sisulus had five children, most of whom went on to play leading roles in various sectors of our society. Ma Sisulu was therefore, a gift to our nation who kept on giving.

Their house in Orlando, Soweto, was always busy with visitors constantly moving in and out, many of whom were prominent political leaders.

It was with Walter that Ma Sisulu attended the first conference of the ANC Youth League where she was the only woman present.

In 1948 she joined the ANC Women’s League and in the 1950s assumed a leadership role – both in the ANC and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). 

She became the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act.  The Act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without being charged.

From 1958 onwards, she was in and out of jail for her activism and in 1964, she was banned for five years which meant that she couldn’t attend gatherings or go near courts and educational centres. She was also sentenced to 10 years house arrest.

Walter was released in 1989 so Ma Sisulu finally had her husband back and eventually, both became Members of Parliament in 1994.

In 2003 Walter Sisulu collapsed and died in Ma Sisulu’s arms. Ma Sisulu herself was laid to rest in June of 2011.

As a woman, she fought when it was not fashionable to do so and did it with bravery. We will always remember her as a fearless woman who made unimaginable sacrifices for a better and more equitable South Africa. As we mark Women’s Month, we acknowledge that her bravery and humanity delivered a better South Africa, not just for women, but also for men.

Mama Sisulu’s centenary celebrations will run for the rest of the year. Let us use the time to recommit to the principles of nation building that she fought for to liberate all South Africans.

Malibongwe!

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