News & Events

Graca Machel Lecture on Albertina Sisulu's Centenary

9 October, 2018

The Albertina Sisulu Centenary 2018 Memorial Lecture was delivered by social and political activist, Graça Machel on Tuesday, 9 October. The lecture was hosted by the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health (ASELPH) at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Health Sciences on the Prinshof South Campus.

Below is the full transcript of her remarks:

• The Sisulu Family,
• The families of the icons of our struggle,
• Honourable Deputy Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla,
• Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli,
• Chairperson of the Council of the University of Cape Town, Dr Sipho Pityana,
• The Chairperson of the Council of the University of Pretoria, Futhi Mtoba,
• Vice Chancellor of Fort Hare University, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu,
• Vice Chancellor of the University of Pretoria, my dear daughter Cheryl de la Rey,
• The many university executives from across the country,
• Deputy Chairperson and CEO of the Motsepe Foundation, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe,
• Representatives of ABSA,
• Chairperson of the National Heritage Council, Advocate Mancotywa,
• Members of the Retired Nurses Organisation,
• Health Leaders from national, provincial and local government health departments,
• Health entities and academic institutions and the many health activists from the 1980s and today,
• The leadership of the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health and the Albertina Sisulu Fellows,
• All the committed health and development professionals and organizations here with us today,
• Ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening!

It is a privilege and honour for me to stand before you today to present the Centenary Lecture commemorating the life of Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu, a unifying force of this nation, a giant of the liberation struggle and an inspiration to all humanity. As we commemorate 100 years of her life, we reflect on how this incredible human being, gifted to us from a village deep in the Transkei, blossomed into one of South Africa’s finest daughters. I will start by calling Mama herself to speak to us and I quote: “We are each required, to walk our own road and then stop, assess what we have learned and share it with others. It is only in this way that the new generation can learn from those who have walked before them. We can do no more than tell our story. It is then up to them to make of it what they will.” And hers is a remarkable story. That of:

• Political Prisoner.
• Struggle Stalwart.
• Nurse.
• Partner.
• Matriarch.
• Daughter.

These are just a few titles that Ma Sisulu, the rock of her family and this nation, wears with distinction.

I choose to speak about Mama today as “the rock”. As a younger member of her generation, I consider myself immensely fortunate to have studied and learned from her. Her life taught me what it takes to be a servant of the people and a true cadre of a liberation movement. In 1992, at my invitation, she came to Mozambique to help me brainstorm around the place and role of civil society in a multi-party system. She was then a co-chair of UDF. I will always remember her keen intellect and her rich contributions to our planning sessions.

Beyond a source of wisdom, to me, she was and she is, a mother figure. Both Mama and Walter opened their arms and warmly welcomed me into their family. Walter was a close mentor to Madiba, as we all know, and I therefore found myself enveloped by their love. They became tender parental figures to me here in South Africa. You will be happy to know that while Archbishop Tutu was shouting and saying Madiba and I should get married. Mama would simply whisper “when are you getting married”. She was really the biggest encouragement for me to convince myself, that yes, I have to get married to Madiba!

But on a broader note, what do we make of Albertina Sisulu’s legacy, at this time when legacies are being contested? Why do we feel so strongly that new generations need to know about this extraordinary human being?

We do so because the noble values Ma Sisulu embodied and the courageous way in which she led her life can serve and must serve as a beacon to us as we navigate the complexities of our personal and public spaces.

There have been several lectures honoring Albertina Sisulu in the past few months, but this lecture is particularly special because it has been organized by the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health in partnership with the Sisulu family.

As we have heard from previous speakers today, the ASELPH project was founded in 2012 and launched by Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi in May 2013. It is a groundbreaking international collaboration between South Africa’s National Department of Health, the University of Pretoria, the University of Fort Hare, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health in the United States, and South Africa Partners.

Consistent with Albertina’s Sisulu’s legacy, ASELPH promotes health care leaders who are ready to act and who demonstrate their concern for those who are most in need of an effective, responsive, and ethical health care system. Thank you to all the ASELPH partners for envisioning this Centenary Lecture in Ma Sisulu’s honor and working so hard to make it a reality.

From my discussions with the Sisulu family, I know that ASELPH project has a special place in their hearts. Members of the family, especially grandchildren Duma and Tumi, have been actively involved in the project since its inception and I commend them on their involvement with this important initiative.

I am told that ASELPH Fellows come from among a diverse, competitive national pool of applicants recommended by their Provincial Departments of Health. ASELPH provides them with high quality strategic leadership training with the goal of improving crucial components of the health care system —to increase capacity to deliver high-quality health care services, and, to strengthen and elevate executive level performance of the future generations of health leaders. Since its inception, more than 300 health care managers have enrolled in an ASELPH program at the University of Fort Hare or the University of Pretoria.

The family sees ASELPH as a premier legacy project and feels affirmed by the fact that there are 300 health managers out there who can proudly say, “We are Albertina Sisulu Fellows”. What a profound and meaningful way to perpetuate the legacy of our mother!

But what is the real value and meaning of celebrating legacies? The contributions to humanity of our icons provide outstanding examples of how we can confront extraordinary challenges. We take inspiration from the values they embody and learn from them how to practically overcome the difficulties of our time.

Celebrating is not only talking of the past, its more important to apply lessons from the past to the challenges of our own specific time. How do we transform the strengths and the examples that we take from them to make them as we have the 300 leaders to multiply into Albertinas. Hundreds of Albertina’s; thousands of Albertina’s because we should also remember one thing: Albertina was born in a normal, rural family like anyone so you are not born to grow and simply say that you are going to be a hero. It depends on the choices that you are going to make in life, it depends on how you are going to position yourself as a social being which means I am rural girl and there are many rural girls sitting in this room. Anyone of us has something which you can give, and that can transform you into a servant of the people. So celebrating is actually looking inside ourselves and saying how much I can transform of myself and even of my condition or of both to serve. It is then that others will call you a leader.

Albertina Sisulu was by nature a nurturer. At a young age she was charged with the duty of taking care of ailing parents and three younger siblings. True to her empathetic instincts and experience as a caretaker in her formative years, she chose the noble profession of nursing as a career. And in 1940, she left the familiar surroundings of her small town living in the Transkei and was immediately confronted with the harsh political realities that came with the big city of Johannesburg. How many other young women today come to Johannesburg in the same circumstances?!

Before delving into her political activism, I would like to take a moment here to place a spotlight on her nursing career and the creative ways in which she accelerated social change through her daily work.

Ma Sisulu was courageous and resilient. And she used work as a nurse to keep her feet on the ground in a literal sense. When she worked at Shanty Clinic in Soweto, she would walk to work and back. On the way people would talk to her and in this way she would be kept updated on what was going on in the community. When she was banned from attending meetings and confined to the magisterial district of Soweto, she was not allowed to be in a room of more than two people except in her professional capacity and she was not allowed to communicate with other banned people, which included virtually all her political comrades. Her work as a nurse was therefore a lifeline to her because without it she would have been cut off from the community. It also enabled her to conduct underground ANC activities. Activists, such as the trade unionist John Nkadimeng, would masquerade as patients who would visit the clinic to consult with Ma Sisulu. Important political information would be exchanged during those consultations.

She was confronted with the realities of racial discrimination on a daily basis. In her words: “Even after I worked my way up to be a senior nurse, a junior white nurse would be called to take charge of the ward in which I worked. This was deeply offensive to someone who took great pride in her professional ability.” When her mother passed away in 1941, the white matron refused to allow her time off to go to the funeral, an act of cruelty that she could never forget and would often refer to in later life.

Ever a fighter, she found ways to fight against the Apartheid system and was a bridgebuilder in this effort. Ma Sisulu worked as a Council nurse until her retirement in 1984. She was then invited by Dr Abu Asvat to work in his surgery in Rockville. In him she found a kindred spirit.

Like Albertina, Abu Asvat had a deep hatred of injustice and oppression and was dedicated to taking medical services to the poor. People were surprised at Dr Asvat, who was at the time the Health Secretary of AZAPO and Ma Sisulu, the co-president of the UDF working together. They forged a strong relationship and served the community tirelessly, even opening up a feeding scheme and crèche for the local children. She saw beyond partisan politics. This is one lesson of her life that we need to take close note of: she knew the value of working across ideological lines to benefit the greater cause of service, and achieve equality and freedom for her people.

We would be well advised to take heed of Ma Sisulu and Asvat’s example here. Nowadays in our political discourse it is rare to find people who will bridge party divides – those in the political domain largely focus on their differences rather than how they can work together for the betterment of their communities. Whenever the wellbeing and welfare of a community is at stake and when there is a good cause to be fought for, we should not be divided by political affiliation.Differing colors of political parties should not prevent people from uniting and working together for the common good.

Albertina loved Dr Asvat like a son and worked for him until he was brutally assassinated in his surgery, right in front of her very eyes in January 1989. She was heartbroken and distraught by this tragic loss and the occasion of his funeral was one of the only times in her life that this woman of fortitude wept openly in public.

I am glad that the nursing fraternity is so well represented here this evening, including the retired nurses, many of whom have stories to tell about Ma Sisulu. Their profession is a noble one; a compassionate calling of service that provides comfort to the vulnerable and sick. We must remember that all of us when we are sick, we are in deep need, we are emotionally vulnerable. It is exactly this time more than ever that you don’t just need a professional touch, but you need the humane touch that nurses give to us.

As I have mentioned, her nursing career is a journey that has not been adequately memorialized and I hope that this will be analyzed further as part of the celebration of her rich legacy. As I mentioned, Ma Sisulu’s political consciousness was ignited by the discrimination she and other black nurses encountered in her training hospital, but her political leanings were further sharpened a year later when she met and fell in love with Walter Sisulu, a young political activist central to the leadership of the African National Congress.

Ma Sisulu was a trail-blazer and an equal to her partner, Walter. Legend has it that Walter and Ma Sisulu enjoyed an unusual dating dynamic consisting mainly of attending political meetings, including the inaugural meeting of the ANC Youth League in April 1944, at which she was the only woman present. This was only the beginning of political firsts for her, and their courtship eventually evolved into a marriage in July 1944.

Her choice in husband would change the trajectory of her life. We can take lesson from her decision – she chose wisely, as in her marriage to Walter, she had found a man who was committed to the equality of women and put into practice his beliefs by sharing responsibility even for housework and childcare. Given his devotion to political freedom, his undertaking was one that did not bring home a regular salary. Without arrogance or insecurity, Ma Sisulu became the breadwinner of the family. With pride, she supported him and their five children with her earnings as a nurse and midwife. Remember we are talking about the 1940s so this couple is an example of what we should look at when we ask ourselves what it means to choose a partner. How do you combine your emotional connection whilst partnering in all aspects of your life. As young people this is something that we should learn from.

They were a “power couple” before it was fashionable to be so. Their reversal in traditional roles gave full expression to the versatility of Ma Sisulu’s womanhood and serves as a model of what it means to fully value and respect the dignity of a woman as an equal partner in a marriage.

She was “the rock” of her marriage and her family. Aligned with Walter’s political beliefs and sharing his spirit of defiance against the Apartheid regime, she stood shoulder to shoulder with him in their activism. They supported each other emotionally, financially and politically. Why this is so important? It’s because sometimes we find that people who are shoulder to shoulder professionally, are not equal at home. These are learnings of the rock that I want to bring to our reflection today and I will mention this in more detail when I talk more importantly about family. You know it is important for us to talk about the big issues which in public life people can do easily, but the real character of people is seen in those small, daily relationships which are the ones which humanize relationships and make them meaningful.

In the 1950s, Ma Sisulu emerged as a leader in the struggle in her own right when she took on influential roles within the ANC Women’s League and the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), which led the campaigns against Bantu Education in 1954 and the pass law uprisings of the 1950s. She was one of the main organizers of the historic August 1956 protest march where 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings against the infamous pass laws.

In 1963, due to her leadership and unrelenting activism, Albertina became the first woman to be detained under the notorious Ninety-day detention law. How many of us know this, I want to repeat! For decades, she was intimately involved in clandestine ANC operations, she provided safe harbor to operatives, and she was a vocal and visible symbol of resistance.

For her moral fortitude and unrelenting insistence on equality—both racial and gender-- she was continually harassed by police and endured detention, imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture and banning orders.

She was banned for a total of 18 years, longer than any other activist in the history of the movement. But we don’t know this, we don’t tell these stories and we need to tell them again and again. You know why? I’m going to mention this again, it was that very quiet leadership that she provided that made her not look for the spotlight.

Due to her fortitude, her strength of character and integrity, as well as her ability to work with others, in August 1983, while she was imprisoned, she was elected co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a powerful multitude of civic organizations. His has been mentioned the Deputy Minister of Health spoke very eloquently on how difficult it was to bring all the organizations together under one roof and it took the Leadership of Mama to be one of the unifying forces. Given her unique and varied experiences, her open mindedness and inclusive leadership style, she brought legitimacy and credibility to the UDF as a diverse umbrella organization.

I was pleased to see highlighted in the Sisulu family archives that in 1989, she led a high level delegation of UDF leaders on a tour of Europe and the United States. The delegation met the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Bush of the US as well as the Swedish Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlson. The visit marked a shift in policy by the major Western powers because it was the first time that an anti-apartheid organization had been received at the White House and 10 Downing Street. This delegation took the struggle from South Africa to the heart of the governments of the US and the UK---the strongest opponents of the Anti-Apartheid movement. We had our comrades who were in exile, who did a lot of work with the OAU, who did a lot of work with the UN, but of course because of who they were, they have never been received at the heart of these two governments. Ma Sisulu and her delegation where the first to be at the heart of those who opposed the struggle for our liberation.

American anti-apartheid campaigner Mary Tiseo recalled that Albertina made a powerful impression on the people she interacted with during her trip: “She was the epitome of decency and respectability. In her quiet, understated way she completely debunked the image put out by the Apartheid government’s propaganda. This was very important because it was the first time so much publicity was given to someone from the democratic movement within South Africa.”

Ma Sisulu was a leader and an influencer of note. She is an exemplar that female leadership and perspectives are crucial at the highest levels in our public, private and citizen sectors. Their presence contributes to a leadership culture that is sensitive and humane. We would be well served to take lesson on the importance of having faces and voices of African women amplified and multiplied in our boardrooms and in our decision-making chambers. But bringing always the feminine perspective in those boardrooms.

Ma Sisulu brought a uniquely feminist and feminine touch to her activism. In a 1992 interview, she explains what fueled her rage against the evils of the Apartheid regime:

“No black mother who witnessed the madness of people shooting children in the 1976 Soweto school uprisings has been unaffected by this. It has radicalized black women in a manner that perhaps no other event has ever done. It has drawn women into the struggle at every level - in order to demand that this kind of slaughter of our children end. As mothers, we were compelled to demand: Kill us if you must, but in God’s name leave our children alone!”

Her contribution to the struggle and leadership style are exceptional, yet she represents the millions of women who were present and central to the movement that history has failed to individualize and whose singular stories remain untold. I think that is it part of this celebration which has to encourage many of us to deep into the stories of many, many women in this country that have made a huge contribution. They are still alive actually and we haven’t written about the, so the generation will learn. Why is it that if we have two heroes a male and a female hero who are celebrating 100 years but the whole year is about Mandela and only in October we seem to have woken up and say let’s celebrate Ma Sisulu. Not being able to celebrate our own, our women, is an indictment against us.

Ma Sisulu is often depicted as “a symbol of courage, fortitude and calm endurance”. Journalist Allister Sparks described her consistency of leadership as: “She was absolutely dependable. For many people she provided a rock of stability when the liberation movement was foundering in stormy weather.” It has been well recorded that “She was admired for her quiet unassuming manner, her integrity and the fact that she never sought media attention or public accolade.” Even after freedom was won, she continued dutifully serving this country, first in Parliament and thereafter within the Albertina Sisulu Foundation assisting children with special needs in Soweto.

Ma Sisulu was indeed a rock--- a pillar of defiance, of fortitude, and of simultaneous fidelity to her nation and her family. It is with good reason that we affectionately call her, “Ma” Sisulu. It really makes sense, its Ma Sisulu. For in addition to being a leader and a mighty symbol of strength to her community and her nation, she was a loving caregiver and fearless guardian to her immediate family as well.

In the midst of her nursing career and political activism, Ma Sisulu, was a busy mother. She managed to bear and raise 5 children of her own, in addition to young family members she took in as well. All had the values of equality, freedom and justice instilled in them from a young age. She molded them to understand the importance of their own activism against Apartheid.

Amid incredibly challenging circumstances, in a nurturing spirit of love and defiance, she groomed her children with a sense of purpose. They were all the target of the security police and each of them having to suffer the brutalities of detention, arrest, torture and heartbreak of exile. Many do not know that Max Sisulu was the first and youngest prisoner at the age of 17 to be arrested. 17 is an adolescent. Not even a young man, but that is the kind of mother that we remember. Tata was in prison but she was the one that was holding the family together and making the family united. She recounted in a 2001 testimony, “I could cope with the constant police raids, with my banning orders and with prison. I could cope with my husband being in prison—but when the regime went for my children, the pain was unbearable”.

Ma Sisulu was an anchor for her family. She built a solid, cohesive family in which her daughtersin- law were embraced as her own. A family based on values of dignity, love and mutual support. A family designed for service to public good. All her children are dedicated public servants, with impeccable credentials. They honor their parents by example and are model citizens. There is a vein of public service which runs through this family which is unique. And as the guiding matriarch, Ma Sisulu is the rock of this commendable lineage.

When Walter was in prison, Ma Sisulu was like a single, working mother. No different from the millions of single mothers across this country today tasked with both raising children and putting food on the table. South Africa is still a fatherless nation. I want to talk about this very importantly because sometime we are taken to think that the biggest contribution that you can give is in public life, but a society which is to be cohesive, a society which builds young people and children in principles of purpose. In principle of service to the community of solidarity, it begins at home and it is the family which will build this. I want us to look at Mama as perhaps amongst all the other contributions that she made that the ability of raising the children alone whilst building a united family. I think that the lessons are important for today because of what I’m going to say now. South Africa is still a fatherless nation with recent statistics revealing 57 percent of South African fathers to children aged 15 years or younger being absent from their lives.

This translates into millions of mothers and grandparents assuming the parenting role for their children and grandchildren, and signaling the continued deterioration of the fabric of the family unit. We are told that over 60% of South African homes are fatherless so South Africa is plagued by an ongoing wave of fatherlessness. Only 33% of South African children live with both of their parent. For those in single parent households, 39% of those live with their mothers while only 4% live with their fathers. Why this is important? Trends of this magnitude are bound to rip and claw at the fabric of a nation that is already suffering from some of the highest single mother rates in the world. Does the aggression fermenting in fatherless home have any correlation to the 2.1 million crimes committed in South Africa in 2017? It’s a question we need to ask! What we know is that fatherlessness serves as the start to a snowball effect that results in generation of young adults who are social misfits. Research has found that boys growing up in absent fatherless households are more likely to display hyper masculine behavior including different forms of aggression, getting involved in different crime. We should wonder why the levels of violence and aggression in our schools. How many of those children are coming from families whose parents or mother are also coming from a fatherless family. Whereas girls coming from absent fatherless homes are likely to grow up with low self esteem leading to increasing possibilities of high-risk sexual behavior, teenage pregnancy or unhealthy relationships with the opposite sex. I’m bringing this to say it is not an issue of the past only to have families without a father. Actually, in our day and age it has become worse and that’s why the example of Mama is relevant to take it to all of us-- yes you might be in a challenging situation but you can still be a rock to your family.

My message to young, single mothers is to take inspiration from Ma Sisulu’s parenting style. It is possible and it can be done! And to young women—she is proof that there is no contradiction between fulfilling traditional responsibilities as caregivers and nurturers, and modern roles of career-woman and breadwinner. That’s another issue, our young people struggle between being a professional and being a family person. As I mentioned, mama shows us that she was a mother and never failed her duties as a mother. She was a professional and as we know she was an epitome of professionalism. She was an activist, a political activist, and the example shows that you do not need to negotiate between the two you just need to balance the two. Because nature tells you that its in the rock of your family that you are going to be grounded and rooted. Yes, it is true that you have to be a professional, a professional of competence and excellence. Don’t negotiate, don’t feel like its either or, its both and you do it with excellence. That’s the example that Mama is.

Her life is testament to the fact that if we want to undo the limitations of race, class and gender that still mark our violent history and landscape today, it must become the norm that girls and boys be equally valued and nurtured as a full human beings, receive the best education possible, and are equipped to achieve their greatest personal and professional aspirations.

Ma Sisulu and Walter also demonstrated how important love, humility and mutual respect is in a relationship and the power that equity brings to a union. They proved how both beneficial it is for a woman to be valued as an equal in a romantic partnership. Hers is a model of how a woman can both make a contribution both outside of the home, and equally provide a solid foundation for the home. She is an example of how one does not have to sacrifice career for family or vice versa— and that it is possible to balance to the levels she feels comfortable, on her own terms, both at home and in the workplace.

Ma Sisulu reinvented herself as her circumstances required, and stretched herself beyond traditional perceived limitations of gender, class and race, to chart a course from village girl to national and international icon.


So here our rock, she remained steadfast in her purpose and her truths:

• loyal to her values,

• loyal to her family,

• loyal to the nobility of her profession,

• loyal to her country,

• loyal to freedoms for humanity.


Yes! This is the rock of our nation and may we all take inspiration and be so unmoved.


I thank you.

 - Graca Machel