A centenary of Albertina Nontsikilelo Sisulu: Her legacy lives on

92 years of a struggle icon

Organisations and ANC structures across the country during Women’s Month continue to celebrate the legacy of Albertina Nontsikilelo Sisulu, in the year of her Centenary.

In her lifespan of over nine decades, Ma Sisulu was an accomplished and compassionate nurse and midwife, a caring and strict mother to all her children. She was also an activist who fought relentlessly for freedom, as a member of the ANC Youth and Women’s League and amongst the founders of the Federation of South African women (FEDSAW). She participated in the Defiance campaign of the 1950s; and helped to start schools in opposition to the introduction of Bantu Education. Albertina Notsikilelo also worked with comrades like Joe Gqabi and others to rebuild the ANC underground in the 70’s and 80s and as UDF co-President, led the Mass Democratic Movement throughout the 1980s.

Indeed, on 9 August 1956, the day of the historic women’s march to the Union Buildings, “(Mam) Albertina was at the Phefeni train station at 2am …. buying and distributing tickets to women attending the march.”(1) In another incident that characterized her life, as part of the ANC Women’s League in Orlando, she organized and demonstrated along with nurses from Baragwanath Hospital against passes.

She did most of the above whilst being a single parent, with her husband Walter in hiding or languishing in apartheid jails, and like cde Winnie Madikizela Mandela, facing the full might of the regime. She was arrested after the march on the Union buildings for three weeks, and was the first woman arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963, which allowed for 90 days of detention without trial. Ma Sisulu spent almost two months in solitary confinement, before her release. She suffered two more bouts of detention in solitary confinement for her activism, in 1981 and 1985. She has the unfortunate distinction of being the person with the longest banning orders, a total of 18 years.

Ma Sisulu was also a global leader, serving as the President of the World Council for Peace from 1983 to 2002.

Albertina Sisulu believed in building the next generation of leaders. The Sisulu home in Soweto was refuge and meeting place for activists from the 76s and 1980s generations, across the political spectrum. She mentored the upcoming generations of women leaders, and it is recalled how comrades like “Jessie Duarte, Sicily Palmer, Feroza Adams, Benny Manama, Baby Tyawa and Susan Shabangu became known as ‘MaSisulu’s girls’. It was Albertina’s mission to develop what she called a “petticoat layer” of women leaders who would take over from the older women.” (2)

After 1994, she became one of the members of the first democratically elected Parliament, which gave us our new Constitution. Her discipline and work ethic was exemplary: always on time, never missing a meeting or session of Parliament unless absolutely necessary, diligently reading all her papers and preparing for study group and committee sessions, listening to debates in the house, in addition to doing her constituency work as a public representative.

It is therefore not surprising that on the occasion of her passing in 2011, she was celebrated across the country, across Africa and the world. President Zuma at her funeral echoed these sentiments when he called Ma Sisulu “one of the most steadfast, dignified and disciplined pillars of our struggle.”

Lessons for her life

As we therefore continue to celebrate Ma Sisulu’s life, many lessons from her life are being remembered.

Albertina Sisulu’s commitment to serve and her embodiment of ubuntu (3) is being celebrated by the nursing profession, as we struggle to make the Constitutional right of health for all a reality in the public health system.

Ma Sisulu’s dedication to education guides us, as we work together to improve the quality of education, to make sure that all children can read and write, that girls do not lose out on schooling by having access to free sanitary towels and that schools are safe spaces for learners and teachers.

Mam Albertina’s unwavering dedication to unity of the women’s movement, was exemplified by her work in the ANC Women’s League, in FEDSAW, in FEDTRAW and the Women’s National Coalition in the early 1990s. We must therefore not be divided by matters of tactics as we continue to build on her legacy. We must be focused on advancing the course of gender equality, the destruction of patriarchy and from August 2018, dealing a decisive blow to the scourge of gender-based violence.

Last, but not least, Ma Albertina Nontsikelelo remained true to her people, and the founding values of the movement that she served for all her life. She was principled and humble, fierce and courageous, caring, kind and disciplined, a leader and activist, who understood that sacrifice, high personal discipline and ethics are essential personal attributes, as a servant of the people.


  1. SA History Online, Albertina Sisulu Timeline: 1918-2011” https://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/albertina-sisulu-timeline-1918-2011
  2. SA History Online, Albertina Sisulu. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/albertina-nontsikelelo-sisulu
  3. Downing, C., & Hastings-Tolsma, M. (2016). An integrative review of Albertina Sisulu and ubuntu: Relevance to caring and nursing. health sa gesondheid21(1), 214-227.
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