A mother of a struggle

2011-06-07 00:00

AS we mourn the sad death of one of the mothers of the new South Africa, Mama Nontsikelelo­ Albertina Sisulu, it would be wise for us to rediscover the value of othermotherhood as we continue building a successful, united, caring and prosperous nation­ out of the ashes of apartheid. Mama Sisulu's obituary casts her as the mother to more than just her biological children. Can we parent beyond the confines of our nuclear families in her honour?

There is a tradition of feminist writing that does not dismiss motherhood as a mere relative to fatherhood or as a demeaning reduction of women to bearers and carers. It defines it as the very site of struggle for power, a platform for expression of freedom and the ingenuity of women and their role in shaping a type of nation that engenders equality, justice and industry.

Listening to tributes for Mama Sisulu in the past few days from men and women, the young and old, her comrades in the struggle and colleagues in nation building, her friends and former foes, one cannot help but realise that she was the excellent epitome of the othermotherhood (the willingness to mother beyond one's immediate family) that we want to cherish. Motherhood as nurturing a nation rather than merely bringing up children on behalf of men, as building a just society rather than merely seeking to make a living­.

This is a true example of othermotherhood in being and othermotherwork in action that the famous­ black American feminist, Tony Morrison, spent decades trying to theorise. In dozens of novels­, poems and polemics, Morrison­ sought to explain motherhood as a site of a progressive struggle, one that is constructive and ingenious. In this kind of motherhood, black women are defined as having a capacity, when self-conscious, to weave together nicely the self, family and community in all their social interaction.

Motherhood among the formerly oppressed black people, as Morrison­ explains and Mama Sisulu demonstrated through her own life examples, acquires its power from the fact that mothers are highly valued in traditional cultures, a recognition that mothers are responsible for the preservation of families, communities and the broader society of the formerly oppressed, the fact that it was their ability to empower (help the young understand inhibitions and learn ways of overcoming obstacles) which helped to produce change agents that helped to sustain society in difficult times. To Morrison, it is othermothering that made black motherhood so crucial for building the moral fibre of a society that leaders like Martin­ Luther King Jnr could speak sense to and lead to freedom.

We have heard how Mama Sisulu stepped in and exercised a kind of leadership that wove together wisdom and skills of motherhood to help preserve an anti-apartheid society whose leaders languished in jail. She did not just make herself­ available to provide leadership­ to the movement enabling her to become one of the presidents of the United Democratic Front, but she mothered many in the younger generation, not always because their parents were in jail, but because they needed nurturing in order to become worthy national leaders of the future.

It was an amazing mix of traditional notions of motherhood and modern mentorship that Mama Sisulu, like Princess Magogo, epitomised so well.

Her leadership was not one-dimensional­. It was not cold and technocratic, nor merely intellectual or populist. It was a dynamic mix of a totality of impulses that a young person needs to acquire from a leader in order to become a complete adult, an active and responsible citizen of a free society.

If there is one thing that our young and sometimes fragile democracy needs, it is this other- motherhood­, the traditional custom of growing a community rather than merely one's own family. This communal spirit, if revived in honour of Mama Sisulu, would help mitigate the dire consequences of excessive individualism that grew with modernity and liberalism in South Africa.

The inability to correct lovingly and nurture lost young people in communities, political organi- sations­, in the government and business, is at the heart of the erosion of our moral fibre that engenders disrespect, greed, vulgarity and corruption. This is a major threat to the noble ideals for which the struggle was fought.

In honour of a woman who everyone­, from former president Thabo Mbeki to a distant acquaintance, Helen Zille, to a close protégée in the ANC chair, Baleka Mbethe, has called a true mother, we need to nurture the spirit of collective responsibility .

We all, prominent leaders and citizens, ought to embrace this spirit of leadership based on love that conquers all and that does not just seek its own.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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