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No more tea-makers

- Wits University

This year marks the centenary of Albertina Sisulu, an iconic activist, humanitarian, and a nurse.

Wits alumna and former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela delivered the Albertina Sisulu Memorial Lecture hosted by the School of Therapeutic Sciences at Wits in August.

Madonsela spoke on the topic, Living the Legacy of Ma Sisulu: Leadership, Courage and Caring in South Africa’s Health System

The late Albertina Sisulu was a woman of integrity and courage who epitomized the highest ideals of nursing. Walter Sisulu, an anti-apartheid activist and African National Congress (ANC) stalwart, was her husband.

Albertina Sisulu left a legacy in many spheres. She joined the ANC Women's League in the late 1940s and became active in the Federation of South African Women, which lobbied for national liberation and – more specifically – gender equality. Sisulu was the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 and to face detention for 90 days without being formally charged.

Recounting these facts, Madonsela said, “Ma’ Sisulu’s story is an untold story” and she invoked an African adage: “Let the lions tell their story”.

Women’s stories untold

The year 2018 marks the centenary of Nelson Mandela as it does for Albertina Sisulu. Mandela was the best man at the wedding of Albertina and Walter in 1943. But Albertina was so much more than “Walter’s wife”.

“Walter worked fulltime for the ANC 1947 and Albertina was the bread-winner,” says Madonsela. Albertina was “an accidental revolutionary” who had a ‘Democracy University’ at her house, and she always stepped up to lead, raising awareness about the struggle at funerals and the like.

Madonsela recalled an interview with activist and social worker, Helen Joseph, who had been invited to an ANC [men’s] meeting – to serve the tea. “Women started the ANC Women’s League because women couldn’t join the ANC,” points out Madonsela, who decided that her autobiography would be entitled, No More Tea-Makers.

Women like Helen Joseph and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were Albertina’s contemporaries but, when the men came back [from prison], these women stepped back instead of leading alongside, says Madonsela. “By not including a narrative of women’s leadership, we diminish its impact.”

The state of our health and the health of our state

Returning to healthcare, Madonsela noted that the rate of HIV has increased and oncology had collapsed in KZN. On the topic of sanitary products for girls, Madonsela said girls should have sanitary products for free, “But the government shouldn’t provide them – citizens should. Why must government provide pads rather than life-saving oncology services?” she said, citing an example of an initiative by a Mpumalanga resident, Richard, to supply sanitary products for girls. His was an example of leveraging the “power and privilege” we have. 

Madonsela touched on the topic of mental health and on how poverty influences healthcare – or the lack thereof. One-third of people in South Africa are “extremely poor” and there are child-headed households despite a constitution that protects the right to healthcare. Madonsela conceded that the social grant system is important, but asked how we transition these grantees to self-sufficiency so that they stop relying on grants. 

“Health is not just the state of not needing a doctor,” said Madonsela. “Happy people don’t kill people. Hurt people hurt people,” she said, in reference to South Africa’s unacceptably high levels of femicide. “But the police are not going to address violence against women,” she said, and urged women to listen to their [own] voices. 

The courage to care

Social injustice is the greatest impediment to fighting corruption, according to Madonsela, and practical solutions – as favoured by Albertina – would affect systemic change. Madonsela proposed solutions including: 

  • Good governance
  • Social justice
  • First, do no harm – as per the Hippocratic Oath
  • Step-up against corruption
  • Have the courage to care

“If you want a particular outcome, the next move is always yours,” said Madonsela.

South Africa has the world’s greatest constitution, but it is just a roadmap, said Madonsela. She urged those “who have the gift of power and privilege” to step up because “if you change nothing, nothing changes.”

“We’re a wounded nation. Sisulu tried to heal this nation. But it’s your time – and mine – to complete the healing. There is a Mandela and a Mama Sisulu in all of us”.

About Albertina Sisulu

To the people of South Africa and to the health care fraternity Albertina Sisulu was a nurse. In telling Albertina’s story, her daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu gives an intimate account of the profound effect on her conscience of the appalling conditions of so-called health care for Black patients.

Six months into Albertina’s training, she witnessed overt racism and discrimination against black patients who were admitted to the hospital after a horrific accident at Johannesburg’s Park Station. The hospital’s disaster plan was activated as the accident victims flooded into the hospital; all staff members were called up, including those who were on leave. The “non-European” section of the hospital was swamped with patients, forcing senior Black medical staff to appeal to the hospital authorities to allow Black patients to be treated in the so called European wards. Those in authority would not allow it and seriously injured patients were forced to sleep on the floor. This incident had a profound effect on Albertina and left an indelible imprint on her moral conscience. She could not believe that medical practitioners would violate their duty and deny the best possible care to patients on the basis of their skin colour. 

It was precisely these experiences that sharpened her advocacy role for human rights and that consolidated her covenant to care for patients and for those who are most vulnerable. Her calling was towards those communities who for various reasons did not or could access hospital-based care. Over a period of fifty years, Albertina committed herself to the plight of the elderly and to young children; later on, her patronage of The Albertina Sisulu Foundation and the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa enabled her to live her legacy of care. 

About Professor Thuli Madonsela

Internationally acclaimed for her efficiency and professionalism as South Africa’s Public Protector between 2009 and 2016, Thuli Madonsela is known as an advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women, and a scholar on gender management and gender mainstreaming. As founder of the THUMA Foundation, she continues her legacy of principled leadership, people and community empowerment, constitutional democracy, social justice and good governance. She was named South Africa’s most Influential Woman (2012) and by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.