‘Ma-Sisulu and the struggle for a true humanity!’


Programme Director, Prof. Hellen Myezwa, Head of Therapeutic Science;

Professor Ruksan Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Wits University,

Professor Jeff Balser, Dean of Medical Centre, Vanderbilt University,

Professor Martin Veller, Dean Faculty of Health Sciences, Wits University,

Mr Max Sisulu;

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen:


Thank you very much for this invitation to speak about one of our foremost leaders whose life is full of countless lessons for all of us, especially at the time when moral and ethical leadership is critical to take our country forward. It really gives me great pleasure to pay tribute to one of our outstanding heroines of our struggle during this Women’s month and share some of my thoughts.

It is already eight years since this icon of our struggle left us to join the galaxy of leaders of our people. Yet, the feats of her extraordinary contributions in different fields of human endeavour are still etched in the collective memory of our nation and should thus continue to inspire all of us, as we strive for a true humanity for which she dedicated her entire life.

Therefore, I would like to speak about our heroine, Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu affectionately known as Ma-Sisulu, and her role in the struggle to access education, to support of her siblings and for our freedom.

Ma-Sisulu who was the second-born in a large family never had a normal family life. When she was fifteen years old, her mother passed on. She had to leave school to nurse her six-month year old sister because her grandparents were too old to do this. Thus, she had to miss two years of her schooling. When she went back to school she was two years older than her peers but she came second in the aptitude test.

However, she was denied a bursary because of her age which was given to the learner who came third. Fortunately, after reading her story in the local paper, a Roman Catholic priest approached her grandparents and asked them to pay for her schooling which Ma-Sisulu would repay once she was through with her studies. True to the character that defined her throughout her life, within a year after starting work as a nurse, Ma-Sisulu managed to pay back the money.

Although she wanted to train as a teacher she could not because it would have meant more years than if she did nursing. She also considered becoming a Roman Catholic nun, but was discouraged by the fact that the church explained that she could not have anything to do with her family once she became a nun. She abandoned the idea because she had an obligation to look after her siblings.

Ma-Sisulu first exposure to racial discrimination came when she was training as a nurse at the Johannesburg General Hospital, where there were separate sections for white and black trainees. At this time, she met Walter Sisulu who was an active member of the ANC. At this time, Walter Sisulu was actively involved in the formation of the ANC Youth League and invited Ma-Sisulu in the meetings, where she was the only woman.

When Walter Sisulu married Ma-Sisulu in 1944 the two became, as eminently expressed in one of Shakespear’s sonnets: “In them, numbers were killed – thus the two formed a wholesome one”, in family and political matters. This translated into a life-long political activism, where Ma-Sisulu, in her own right became a national leader. She then joined the ANC Women’s League.

 Although she wanted to participate in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, she was stopped because the ANC had a policy that only one parent could take part as they had young children at that time. Again, together with other women such as Ida Mdwana, Lillian Ngoyi and others, they formed the Federation of South African Women in 1954. In 1956 she was one of the leaders during the march of 20 000 women to Pretoria in protest against passes. Her first arrest was in 1958 when Fedsaw continued their protest against passes.    

In 1963 Ma-Sisulu was detained and kept in solitary confinement for three months. In 1964 she was banned for five years and restricted not to meet with more than five people at the time. She was continuously arrested and banned for the next two decades. In 1981 she was jailed for four years. She was gain detained in 1985 and charged in the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial of the UDF. 


Ladies and Gentlemen:

 As a nurse and a political leader, Ma Sisulu was not only helping to heal wounds of the body, but she was nursing social and political injuries inflicted by the merciless apartheid forces on many innocent people in this country. Thus, she bandaged the physical and psychological wounds with her motherly care and empathy as well as with her political fortitude and in these ways, helped to ensure that our struggle was strong, resilient and formidable.

Although they were few nurses and fewer doctors, Ma-Sisulu and her peers walked the streets of the townships, doing house visits; engaging local schools; taught communities about ways and means of preventing diseases and simple hygiene methods. Many people who came across these health professionals, even though poor, were encouraged to lead healthy lifestyles within their limited resources. They were taught how to prevent the spreading of communicable illnesses such as TB, colds, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases.

For decades, Ma-Sisulu was a dedicated nurse and midwife. And Throughout her life, she lived by the highest ethics of nursing. This translated to her relations with other people in politics. She treated people with civility and dignity and was very caring to each and every person she encountered.

Ma-Sisulu walked the streets of Soweto, helping many women give birth. However, she did not regard her work as a midwife, merely as that of carrying a bag of home-birth equipment and medicines. Important as this was!  Crucially, she brought to many homes much more than that. Over and above her nursing expertise, Ma-Sisulu brought care, comfort and love. She gave, without fail, concrete and practical expression to her life-long vocation of the quest for a true humanity.

Importantly, some of those whose first screams of life in the 1950s were happily welcomed by their parents, with Ma-Sisulu and her peers in dutiful attention, were to rise against the tyranny of apartheid two decades later, especially during the 1976 uprisings.

This time, their screams were different. These were screams of pain from police bullets; screams of terror from torture; screams of anger and defiance against oppression. Not only did this conscientious nurse immerse herself in providing care but also in the on-going struggles of her people, each step of the way, refusing to witness unfolding processes from the sidelines.

Indeed, for decades, even under the harsh repression of apartheid, nursing colleges produced some great, committed and competent nurses. This is something that needs revisiting.

Those who trained in those colleges assert that this was because there was constant theory and practice throughout their training. What were taught in the lecture rooms were instantaneously followed-up in the hospital wards such that lessons where not lost on student nurses. And that is why for some period, South Africa was able to produce highly competent nurses many of whom were to be recruited by a number of developed countries such as Britain, Australia and others.  

As we are aware, government has adopted the National Health Insurance (NHI) as a health financing system designed to pool funds so as to provide access to quality and affordable health services to all South Africans. I am not here to discuss the NHI because I think we may end up with more heat than light.

The questions to ponder however, is knowing how to the best of the current curative and the preventative health systems.  We need clarity on this matter at policy level.

A four-year research by Laetitia Rispel and Judith Bruce known as, Research on the State of Nursing, revealed evidence that the profession is in serious peril and needs major attention. Among others, the authors say:


“The challenges faced by nurses and nursing profession include weaknesses in the policy capacity of the main institutions responsible for the leadership and governance of nursing in South Africa, and a nursing practice environment that is fraught with resource, management and quality of care problems. The practice environment is also influenced directly by agency work and moonlighting, which in turn contribute to poor staying power, low energy levels, abuse of leave, sub-optimal nursing care, split loyalties and accountability, and erosion of professionalism. Revitalising nursing requires concerted efforts by government and key stakeholders to improve and modernize resources for a positive work environment.”       

Many experienced nurses complain about the state of public hospitals and clinics which makes them to agree to moon-lighting and contract to private nursing agencies, whose main objectives is profit. The private nursing agencies, which recruit for moon-lighting, do so mainly for private hospitals, where the agencies get lucrative business.

This situation leads to what the two authors refer to as ‘poor staying power, low energy levels, abuse of leave, sub-optimal nursing care’ affecting public hospitals. Because nurses get better payments from moon-lighting, we see the ‘split loyalties and accountability and erosion of professionalism’ on their part. All these negative things affect public hospitals which cater for the majority of the people, who also happen to be poor and destitute.

At the same time, together we must reintroduce bed-side training and skilling of nurses so that we produce the same calibre of nurses that defined Ma-Sisulu and her peers.

The two authors that I have mentioned further lament the poor quality of curriculum and relevance, nurse educator quality, educational resources as well as governance of nursing education. This is the matter that must be looked at very seriously by all stake-holders: government, educational institutions such as this University of Witwatersrand School of Public Health, academics, nursing authority structures and unions in the health sector.  

The question that we may want to pose to many of our health workers today is, whether they work and care for patients in the same way that Ma-Sisulu and her peers did! If the answer is in the negative, we have to ask ourselves why, particularly when those who are exposed to poor and shoddy treatment are mainly our own mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children.

 Sadly, it’s always with a heavy heart when we read or watch the news on TV about the ill-treatment of patients by health servants because this is not the kind of freedom Ma- Sisulu fought for. As we know, there are many disturbing stories that our health workers care less about health centres, especially in black areas.

Yet, when the same health workers go to private hospitals, they work so hard you will feel pity for them. This, as we know, is not an anecdote, but a reality facing our people. I therefore would like to appeal that we must be exemplary and show through our work that we are all walking in the footsteps of Ma-Sisulu.

Therefore, part of our responsibility today is to ensure that as nurses, as health-workers, we must emulate the life and dedication of Ma-Sisulu. We have a duty to bring back the type of dedication and commitment to patients that was the norm and standard in the past ― this time at a higher level.

During that time, nurses and health workers were so dedicated and thus earned the respect of communities such that during stay-at-home campaigns, they were exempted and regarded as the providers of an essential service.

Today, more than ever before, we need that kind of dedication and the spirit to put patients first, as the government motto says, Batho Pele (People first), particularly because of the burden of diseases that face our communities. We need to make hospitals and clinics, especially those serving our poor people in the rural areas and townships, to be models of excellence and dedication.

I hope that young people who plan to serve the country as nurses and health-workers will draw inspiration from how Ma-Sisulu performed her duties to our people, with love, dedication and compassion. Young nurses and activists alike must understand that Ma-Sisulu struggled for long periods, sacrificing many things so that they can take over the baton and move forward to the service not just of the country but of humanity as a whole.

Young women and men need to understand that they are all mothers and fathers of the nation, and that each person you interact with is a nation that you need to parent. It is very important to take responsibility for the presence you bring to your jobs as nurses and to your communities.

In a society that had its own norms of how a woman leader should behave, Ma-Sisulu did not try to bend and fold in order to fit in. Instead, she led with courage and principled defiance yet accompanied by compassion, motherly instincts and love.

Indeed, as a woman ‘running with wolves’ in a patriarchal society that mostly saw women as aids to the struggle other than leaders, she was yet again the only woman charged in what was known as the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial in 1984. She fought for a place in politics as a woman, a place where her presence was not to be decorative but felt, acknowledged and respected.

Ma-Sisulu was a mother to all of us and to all those who were struggling for the liberation of this country, irrespective of their political affiliations. Those who were fortunate to know and work with Ma-Sisulu, were blessed and without doubt, through her, to paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘managed in some mysterious ways to absorb through their skins the wisdom contained in all the books, without opening them’.   

This wisdom that Ma-Sisulu imparted to many who came across her, is what the people of South Africa need today and should clearly strive to possess. These are the attributes of honesty, integrity, ethics and morality. These characteristics are critical in both public and private sectors. If we were to work and live by these ethos, together we will take South Africa to higher levels of growth and development.

At the same time, we must emulate her dedication, steadfastness and principled determination to defeat injustice, oppression and exploitation of our fellow human beings. In this way, we will be living the legacy of Albertina Sisulu whose life was a continuous struggle for a true humanity.

As we celebrate women of our country this month, let us take a decision to do so throughout the year and in whatever we do. In that way, we will be honouring Ma-Sisulu who will always remain with us as a nurse, an activist, a mother and a servant leader. Let us serve our people with love, dedication and passion because we are all the children of Ma-Sisulu and have a duty to emulate her great life-long examples.

Therefore, each one of us must behave the way we would have made her proud. In that way, we would be celebrating and honouring Ma-Sisulu who was a patriot and a protector, a symbol of courage and resistance. Fortunately, through her rich and fearless life of selflessness to our country and our people, we know what it means to struggle for a true humanity.

The entire Sisulu family gave their all to the cause of freedom and this was aptly honoured by Don Materra in his poem:




The man

The wife

The family…


Restless seagulls sweep over Island ― Pollsmoor

echoing the shouts of our bonded nation

singing the songs of waiting



The man

The family

The pain of sacrifice

We salute you yet again

Patriarch of liberation.


We greet you Albertina

Matriarch of Martyrs

your tears nourish our dreams

your courage irons our wills

We salute the Family

the sons and daughters

when commitment lights the tree of Freedom

and justice and human love.


Thank you.