Photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko

“There was hardly anything to eat and I had to close the doors and windows to keep out the aroma of delicious food coming from the houses of our neighbours. We were so lonely. The people who we would normally spend the day with were not there. It was the worst Christmas we had ever had.”

Explaining the terrible festive season of 1964, Mme (mother) Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu sums up the feelings that a large number of South Africans go through, not only at Christmas time but throughout the year.

The quote of this titan of our struggle is particularly personal as it is poignant at this period of our country’s history. As we celebrate Mama Sisulu’s birth, for she would have been a 100 years old this year, we recall the struggles that she led more so as a mother and as a woman.

Throughout her life, Mama Sisulu led on the bread and butter issues. A pioneer in her own right, she is said to have been the only woman present when she attended a conference of the ANC Youth League. She soon joined the ANC Women’s League and would take a leading role in the Federation of South African Women. Mme Albertina was there, as an organiser and leader, of the anti-pass march of women on 9 August 1956.

According to South African History Online, she often turned her home in a classroom for alternative education while at the same time serving here community as a nurse. As a result of her passionate activism, Mme Sisulu would serve in solitary confinement on at least three occasions. Together with her son Zwelakhe, she was the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act. This piece of legislation allowed for detention for ninety days without being charged. This occasion was here first stint in solitary confinement.

As we celebrate this year’s human rights day, it would serve us well to recall the examples of people like Mme Sisulu. Like the people who died at Sharpeville, Mme Sisulu’s life is one exemplary of what is is to suffer under oppression and to be denied human rights. Yet this denial of these rights did not paralyse her into accepting her lot but rather encouraged her to take up the call to fight for liberation.

This fight for liberation was to be pursued where she found hereself: in the home, in the hospital, in the community and ensuring that more women became aware of their rights. Sometimes we think that to become a heroine or hero we need to do great and big things, not realising that we are able to perform miracles and change lives right where we are. 

We can correct injustice where we find ourselves. We can address inequalities where we work. We can build a better society right there in our own community.

In fact, the example of Mme Sisulu should entice each one of us to become a hero in our surrounds; where we find ourselves. For all it takes, as Harriet Tubman put it, “every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Harriet Tubman served her community and her people by doing something simple, dangerous yes, but something that would change her life forever. As a American slave, she escaped but she didn’t enjoy her freedom alone, she went on to ensure that nearly a hundred others were freed. Later she would even go on to advocate for the vote for women. Miracles start small but they require for someone to do something.

Many would believe that our country could do with a few miracles. Too many in our country find themselves entrapped in poverty, unemployment and inequality. Last year, StatsSA suggested that nearly half of South Africans lived in poverty. While these live in poverty, they have to witness daily the excesses of the rich who can afford to drink wine from Europe, eat chocolates from Belgium and show pictures of a holiday to Thailand. A large number of our young people remain trapped in unemployment.

Therefore, we may question the freedom we enjoy to today. We may question whether our people enjoy the freedom that they possess through the granting of their basic and fundamental human rights. We may question whether they are free to explore their capabilities or whether they are too shackled to change their lives. Are our people enjoying the fruits of freedom? Is this the freedom that we fought for?

What we do know is that we are better off today than when we were under apartheid. While today we may not be free from poverty, inequality and unemployment, our lives have changed so that we may appeal to rights. As Black people, we certainly are in a better position than we were under apartheid. Today we are citizens, yesterday we were not.

Yet we must not be satisfied with the situation and, indeed, learning from the examples of Mme Sisulu and Harriet Tubman, we must go further and see the realisation of our rights. We must ensure that our political freedom brings about our economic freedom. We must address the deep issues that continue to hinder the progress of our people to reap the benefits fully of their human rights.  

In the pursuit of radical economic transformation we must therefore lay emphasis on bringing about the economic rights of our people. In this respect, the debate on the right to property and land in particular must be welcomed. 

Already our students have shown the importance of the right to education but we must match with these our attention to the right to health and an adequate standard of living. Here the roll-out of instruments such as the National Health Insurance becomes key to achieving this economic right to healthcare.

Lest we forget, the right to housing and the right to science and culture are also enshrined in these economic, social and cultural rights. We must give more recognition, for example, to Khoi, Nama and San communities and explore the broader use of their languages, as espoused by our Constitution. 

As we recall the role and example of Mme Albertina Sisulu this human rights day, let us for a moment think of fellow South Africans who continue to suffer the injustices that she did that lonely and hungry festive season of 1964. Our country has displayed its ability to transcend barriers before and unite to achieving a better life. 

As South Africans, let us use the opportunity to achieve a better life for all and not just a few; so that all may enjoy their human rights.


Meokgo Matuba is the Secretary General of the ANC Women League 

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