Ma Sisulu - a true hero­ine

Vuk'uzenzele - - 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.

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.

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