Learning from the legacy of Albertina Sisulu

Albertina Sisulu 1
Graca Machel sharing a moment with Ma Albertina Sisulu at Madiba's 90th birthday at the Saxon in 2008. (Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation/Alet van Huyssteen)

History has plenty of examples of courageous women who helped turn the tide in the fight for freedom in South Africa. The list of struggle veterans may be long, but few names echo in the tunnels of time like that of Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, anti-apartheid activist and life partner of the late ANC stalwart, Walter Sisulu.

Nontsikelelo was born on 21 October 1918 in Transkei, the second of five children of Bonilizwe and Monikazi Thethiwe. She started school in a local primary school in Xolobe, where she was given the name Albertina. She was a nurse and a political activist who dedicated her life to her country and its people until she died on 2 June 2011.

Struggle icons such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Helen Joseph, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn and Sisulu played a significant role in uplifting the status of women in the country. But despite their countless contributions, South Africa still sees appalling levels of unfair, violent and unequal treatment of women.

Much still has to be done to challenge the perceptions and expectations that constantly put women at a disadvantage, and to correct the stereotypes that harm their progress in the workplace, communities and many other circles in society.

Here are some of the biggest lessons we can learn from Albertina Sisulu’s remarkable life ...

The power of togetherness

Ma Sisulu (as she was affectionately known) achieved many noteworthy accomplishments – from excelling at school in cultural and sporting activities to being among thousands of women marching to the Union Buildings in a protest that birthed the public holiday known as Women’s Day.

On 9 August 1956, Sisulu helped organise a march that became one of the most iconic anti-pass law protests of all time. She had a genuine passion for working with others and understood that when people band together as a collective they produce much more effective results, because they get to share ideas and fully explore solutions to problems.

Courage and resilience

Because of her unyielding participation in political activities, Sisulu was jailed by the apartheid government on several occasions, interfering with her responsibilities as a mother to look after her family in the absence of her politically active husband.

But what could have been a deterrent for someone else was just another obstacle in her pursuit of justice and liberation for the nation. She continued to fight relentlessly and never wavered in her efforts to work towards a free country.

Her courage and commitment to a goal can inspire the youth of today in confronting social issues such as unemployment, poverty and crime.

Finding purpose

Long after she retired from her duties in South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, Ma Sisulu continued with her work as a public servant, devoting her life to the country and helping its people. She also founded the Albertina Sisulu Centre in Soweto to help improve the lives of children with special educational needs.

Centenary celebration

This year marks the centenaries of two distinguished champions of democracy, Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. Both spent the majority of their lives labouring tirelessly to change the political landscape of this country to become the democracy we enjoy today.

The centenary celebrations will run for the entire 2018, commemorating Sisulu as a phenomenal icon of fortitude. She will be remembered as a selfless leader who devoted her life and resources to advancing peace and justice in South Africa.