Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, affectionately known as Ma Sisulu, has been described countless times as a caring and service-oriented individual who spent her life uplifting those around her in her multiple capacities as nurse, freedom fighter, mother, or wife. These qualities are said to have been cultivated from a young age when she had to take care of her siblings, stepping in for her mother who had fallen ill with the Spanish flu of 1918. As a teenager, Ma Sisulu’s religious inclinations further shaped her caring nature, ultimately converting to Roman Catholicism in light of her desire to become a nun. Although this desire to become a nun never came to fruition, Ma Sisulu still actively cared for others and this became apparent in her career choice as a nurse, and her involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle. Her profession as a midwife at Johannesburg General Hospital, and her home life presented her with opportunities to nurture those around her, which she did diligently.
Ma Sisulu's caring nature went beyond her home and workplace. Kindness guided much of her political activity as well and invaded the political spaces she went into. The kind of justice she fought for ensured that those she was fighting for were taken care of and their wellbeing placed above all else, earning her the title of “Mother of the Nation”. With no concern for her own safety, she would tirelessly work towards improving the health, education ,and general welfare of those around her. Guided by the enormous sense of responsibility and duty to her people, she preserved through personal persecution by the apartheid government to make sure that the coming generations would never accept oppression and injustice.
Despite being under many bans throughout her life, Ma Sisulu always sought to be an active member of the community whom many could rely on. She created a healing environment that promoted caring for one another, a quality that became crucial during the hardest years of apartheid when unity amongst comrades would not have been organic. Ma Sisulu worked as a nurse in a small clinic in Soweto and immediately assumed the role of mother to fellow-activist and physician Dr. Abu Baker Asvat. The pair worked for the improvement of the health of all their patients, regardless of political convictions. Dr Asvat was affiliated to the Azanian People's Organization, and was murdered in 1989 for his activism.
Ma Sisulu’s dedication to her nursing work and political activism kept her very busy. Her daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, noted the following:
“I never failed to be amazed by the way Albertina coped with a workload that would exhaust most people half her age. After a full day at the surgery, she would return home to find local activists waiting to see her. Most days of the week, she would face another three to four hours of meetings before going to bed. Her weekends were also mostly taken up with meetings and frequent interviews with local and overseas journalists, many of whom were interested in the mobilisation of women under apartheid.”
More than anything, this speaks to the remarkable discipline and focus with which Ma Sisulu approached every sphere of her life, and it certainly shows how strong and dignified a leader she was.
Ma Sisulu was a compassionate, kind, and loving mother to all who needed those qualities, but also a fearless leader and strong council to many of the prominent leaders in the fight against apartheid. While it may be difficult to reconcile her soft and kind side with the idea of a woman who was relentless and bold in her pursuit of justice for black oppressed South Africans under a ruthless government that stripped them of their dignity and human rights, it makes perfect sense because she sought inspiration in other South African women who would have gone to similar lengths to liberate and protect their people.
• Downing, Chaelene., and Marie Hastings-Tolsma. ''An integrative review of Albertina Sisulu and ubuntu: Relevance to caring and nursing''. Health SA Gesondheid 21, (11 June 2016): 214-227.
• Earl, G. Albertina Sisulu 1918-2011 nurse and South African anti-apartheid activist. Nursing Standard, (2011) Obituary. .
• Sisulu, Elinor. Walter And Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. : David Philip Publishers, 2003.
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