A national order named for MaSisulu?

Walter and Albertina Sisulu with Desmond Tutu
Walter and Albertina Sisulu with Desmond Tutu

When I recently suggested that we need a national order named after Mama Albertina Sisulu at Wits University, the response was rather lukewarm. In fact, given the laughter that followed was much louder than the applause, I got the sense that the audience at the seventh Albertina Sisulu Memorial Lecture assumed I was joking. The reality is I was as serious as a heart attack.

Why an Albertina Sisulu national order? Why not?

In the context of Women’s Month and the Albertina Sisulu centenary, introducing a MaSisulu-themed award to the national orders would contribute a gender-inclusive dimension to the significance of these orders in celebration of excellence in national service.

Except for the Order of the Baobab, Ikhamanga and that of Mapungubwe, all national orders are named after men. This unwittingly reinforces a masculine emphasis on excellence in national service and exemplary leadership.

The confinement of names of orders to male heroes unintentionally elevates and presents as role models men leaders and men’s sacrifices.

When national orders are presented, the introductory video for each offers one of the most powerful messages about what it takes to be valued as a hero of our democracy and who we should see as a hero.

We listen with admiration and awe to the narrative about the African soldiers of the SS Mendi, who displayed bravery as they went down with their warship. These were men.

We are mesmerised as we hear the narrative about the courageous and selfless leadership of Inkosi Albert Luthuli when the Order of Luthuli is presented. He too was a man. When the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo is introduced, to recognise foreigners who contributed to the dawn of democracy, we hear about the visionary leadership of Oliver Tambo. We again have an opportunity to admire and be inspired by the exemplary leadership of a man.

Our struggle narrative unintentionally gives the impression that it was only men who led us to the gift of the pedestal of hope that former president Thabo Mbeki aptly attributed to Nelson Mandela’s generation. However, we must accept the generation that put us on a pedestal of hope comprised both women and men of vision, virtue and valour, and that women’s contributions transcend August 9.

But you may be asking why Albertina Sisulu? She certainly was not the only or even the first to make a difference. If we consider firsts, we might consider the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke. The first South African black woman to get a degree, Maxeke led the first woman’s anti-pass march in 1913. At a time when the colonial laws reduced the legal status of African women to perpetual minority, with no right to own anything or enter into contracts, Maxeke stepped up not only to challenge injustice, particularly in the justice system, but also to offer solutions. Her proposals on mainstreaming gender, class and child justice in the judicial system were so visionary that they not only continue to inform efforts to mainstream social justice in the judicial system, they remain far ahead of what has been achieved to date.

If you want to look beyond ANC-aligned women’s leadership against racism, sexism and other social injustices, you might consider the efforts of Olive Schreiner. Her leadership includes challenging Cecil John Rhodes’ racism, questioning the rationality of racial and gender discrimination and persuading Jan Smuts to allow women to practise as lawyers, against the wishes of their male counterparts.

Mama Sisulu’s era itself is rich with women leaders who equally confronted injustice and continued to show up to play their chosen role despite the odds. Notable leaders include Ray Alexander, Frene Ginwala, Priscilla Jana, Helen Suzman and Victoria Mxenge.

Then there is Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose courage, steadfastness and resilience not only kept the Mandela name and hope for freedom alive but specifically contributed to underground work that kept the struggle spirit alive and liberation movement growing, despite the banning of liberation movements following the Sharpeville march and massacre.

Who can forget the epic leadership of the women who, in 1956, led 20 000 women on a protest march to the Union Buildings, the bastion of apartheid power. It is to the vision, valour and values of Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn that we owe August 9 as National Women’s Day and August as Women’s Month. It undoubtedly took peerless, effective leadership to organise a disciplined march in that era. That they did it without today’s connectivity mechanisms, such as social media and email, makes their commitment and persuasive, organisational and general leadership skills even more remarkable.

Their courage is equally worth celebrating considering that male leaders are said to have tried to discourage them on account of the planned march being risky in terms of the possibility of arrests and physical harm, including death.

Not mentioned adequately in our public narrative is the visionary manner in which these women transcended racial divisions, thus providing a glimpse into the South Africa of our dreams, where the humanity of each person and friendship between people is not defined or restricted by their colour.

If all are deserving, why MaSisulu? I believe MaSisulu’s legacy provides a multifaceted opportunity for recognising national service excellence. Her legacy presents a unique opportunity to recognise not only the contribution of women’s leadership to the pedestal of hope that Mandela’s generation placed on us, but also that of those who showed up and stepped up for justice and freedom inside apartheid South Africa long after Luthuli had died, Mandela’s cohorts had been imprisoned and Oliver Tambo had been exiled. MaSisulu is a fitting symbol of the internal struggle after the Rivonia Trial. She stepped up to continue where Walter Sisulu and colleagues had left off regarding the building of the underground structures of the liberation movement, while playing her part to expand access to health for the most disadvantaged communities.

When the need arose, she openly spoke out against apartheid injustices in all their expressions. For that the system fought back against her and her family in the dirtiest and mightiest possible way. That she was a woman; a sole breadwinner; and the mother of her own children, those of her sister-in-law and her own younger siblings elicited no compassion.

Detentions without trial, banning orders and intimidation only made her grow in fortitude and strategy. This led to her openly taking up the co-leadership of the United Democratic Front in the 1990s, which opened the way to reintroducing the liberation movement messaging and branding and preparing ground for homecoming.

At Wits I referred to MaSisulu as the accidental revolutionary and resolute dealer in hope. Women participants at the Thuma Foundation August 9 celebrations focusing on Mama Sisulu’s centenary and evaluating progress achieved in advancing women’s rights and leadership under the theme InHerShoes agreed. There you have it, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Can we expect an Order of the Companions of MaSisulu before the end of her centenary?

- Madonsela is professor and chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the Thuma Foundation


Do you agree with Madonsela’s selection of MaSisulu? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword SISULU and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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