Mama Albertina Sisulu was a woman leader in her own right. She was a woman with a strong and independent voice. Born in 1918, some 85 kilometers from Umtata, Enogcobo , her home town is still a rural dorp.
Her early life was dominated by the responsibility she bore to go to school and take care of her seven younger sisters, as part of her family duties. She won a four year scholarship to go to high school and grabbed the opportunity which her family and village celebrated.
This period of helping to care for her younger siblings and her hunger for education gave her the inner strength she became famous for amongst activists, Ma Sisulu was indeed a poster child who lived the triple oppression suffered by women. In her case ,as her life and commitment to the ANC developed, the apartheid colonial and indeed patriarchal state sought to crush her indomitable spirit and failed.
After qualifying as a nurse, she became actively involved in the ANC Women’s League then led by Lillian Ngoyi. She narrated her experience as a nurse in the of District Johannesburg, an employee midwife in the service of the City of Johannesburg, attached to the Old Johannesburg general hospital. How, she walked on foot to patients carrying her instruments and medical supplies in a dish on her head. That same dish also carried pamphlets, explaining what FEDSAW was and recruiting women to join the Defiance Campaign and FEDSAW .
Ma Sisulu also came into direct contact with raw racism during her early days at Joburg General Hospital, where junior white nurses ordered, the better trained and older senior black nurses around.
It is legend that her love for Comrade Walter Sisulu was deep and based on their common goals of freedom for the people of South Africa.
Their home was a magnate for progressive activists from all walks of life and all race groups. Yes she did accompany him to the launch of the ANCYL in 1944, but not as a disinterested girlfriend supporting her boyfriend, she was already very much part of the movement to change the order of day.
In 1962 Mama Sisulu and her son Zwelahke were detained when police were looking for comrade Walter Sisulu. She was the first woman to be detained under the 90 days detention regime. She was released with a banning order that lasted for 18 years making her the person in our history who held the record for longest banned, restricted to the magisterial district of Johannesburg.
Ma Sisulu was detained several times in her life. Each detention made her stronger and more resolute to defeat the apartheid regime, she was a strong voice that could not be ignored. Her fighting spirit was unstoppable.
In the early 1980s, she received a message from Gertrude Shope in Lusuka, giving her the task to revive the Federation of South African Women. Ma Sisulu led the process with several other women. She started convening the group of young women activists which she has been meeting with since 1979. The instruction was to form congress-related women’s structures in every province.
The popularization of the Freedom Charter has already started and this was the political tool we based our engagements with women on.
Helen Joseph, Amy Thornton, Francis Baard, Amina Cachlalia, and Greta Ncapai formed the core team with Ma Sisulu and Sr. Bernard Ncube. Amanda Kwade, Leila Patel, Aneene Dawber ,O Hara Diseko, Nomvula Mokonyana, Esther Maleka, Benny Monama, Susan Nkomo, Susan Shabangu, Baby Twaya, Lynne Brown, Hilda Ndude, Jenny Shrieiner, Angie Motshekga, Zeni Tshongweni, Mildred Lesia, Nozipho Ndladla, myself and many others were foot soldiers to bring the voice of women alive and begin to form organizations with older women. An intergenerational, non-racial and feminist united voice of women emerged across the country, as vibrant affiliates of the UDF across the country
Ma Sisulu was co-President of the UDF and her solid leadership with the collective she led , brought about the dynamism of internal mass mobilisation which eventually together with the other pillars of our struggle forced the apartheid regime to unban the liberation movements and to negotiate.
Mama was fearless in her courage, resolute in her belief that unity conquers all.
Today we are not united and that fragmentation began after 1994. The patriarchal institutions stand firm and the emancipation of women is buried in technicalities.
The equality of women as partners in the goals of the NDR should not be negotiated, nor should women be apologetic about wanting to lead to bring about change. Cultural and traditional dogmas aside, women need to voice their rights to own land and lead in the transformation of our economy.
We need to use the skills of inclusive organization taught by Ma Sisulu to build a stronger Women’s movement . We need to build a strong and persuasive ANC Women’s League where there is tolerance for differences of opinion and where feminism will be at the core of what drives policy. We need to shun detractors who wish to retain tribalism and customs that hold us back . We must wear a doek because we want to, not because without one we are denied access to certain places. We need to endgender the budget to ensure inclusivity of the needs of women…
Organize do not agonize.
Be resolute and fight for the emancipation of women from all forms of oppression.
Mobilize against gender based violence.
By Jessie Duarte, Deputy Secretary General