Nelson Mandela Foundation

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Ma Albertina Sisulu attending the launch of the exhibition

March 12, 2008 – Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Archbishop Desmond Tutu gathered at the Nelson Mandela Foundation today to open an exhibition documenting the lives of Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

The exhibition is entitled “Parenting a Nation: Walter and Albertina Sisulu”. It was developed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in partnership with the Sisulu family and the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa (WSPCCA). Through text, photographs and archival documents, the exhibition showcases the personal and political lives of Albertina and Walter Sisulu during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The event saw Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Achmat Dangor, Walter and Albertina Sisulu’s oldest son, Max Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and WSPCCA chief cardiac surgeon Dr Robin Kinsley pay tribute to the legacy of the couple.

Dangor described the Sisulus as a family “that speaks powerfully to our past”. He said that Nelson Mandela wanted the Foundation to acknowledge that he himself had always been part of a collective. “This exhibition acknowledges, honours and celebrates the part played by the Sisulus,” said Dangor.

The exhibition is portable, and Dangor added he hoped it would travel widely in South Africa and would be taken abroad. “A memory preserved must be a memory shared”, he said, adding that the exhibition spoke to the future as much as it did about the past. “The legacies of truly remarkable people in our midst should become instruments for challenging the many obstacles we face today. Is there any better message than that embodied in the lives of Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu?”

Kinsley spoke of an extended discussion he had with Walter Sisulu 10 years ago, when he was in hospital with cardiac failure. “I met one of the most remarkable individuals of my life … and one of the things I recall so vividly was him saying: ‘The building blocks are in place, Doc. But the future of this country depends on the youth. Look after the children.’” In 2003, Kinsey established a paediatric cardiac unit with the vision “to help the children of Africa [in countries] where there is no cardiac surgery”.  Kinsey approached the family to use Walter Sisulu’s name. They approved, and Nelson Mandela became the WSPCCA’s patron.

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu greets Mr Nelson Mandela while Ma Albertina Sisulu looks on

Albertina Sisulu and Mr Mandela entered the conference room after Kinsley’s speech. Mr Mandela greeted Archbishop Tutu and joked, “I’m a sinner”. Archbishop Tutu bent, made the sign of a cross and said jokingly, “I absolve you!” After greeting everyone Mr Mandela then sat and quipped, “I’m sure now I have a chance of knocking at the door of heaven!”

Addressing his mother as “Comrade Mama”, Max Sisulu then spoke, thanking Archbishop Tutu and Mr Mandela for paying tribute to his parents by opening the exhibition. He gave an intimate account of his experience as the child of the famous couple, who were parents not only to their biological children, but also to the whole community “Our parents gave freely of their time, and their material possessions.”

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu paid tribute to Mr Nelson Mandela and Ma Albertina Sisulu

“We had to share everything: we had to share our parents, we had to share our space, we shared what little food we had, and even our clothing. It took me a long time to forgive my father for giving away my favourite pair of pants!”

Max Sisulu continued: “As young children it was sometimes difficult to appreciate this extreme generosity, but as adults, with the wisdom of hindsight, we appreciate how all that giving enriched our own lives, and in an unexpected and very changeable way, enriched the lives of all those around us.”

“My mother”, he said, “sorry, our mother, Albertina Sisulu, will celebrate her 90th birthday in October this year. This will be a few months after Mr Mandela celebrates his 90th birthday. We therefore consider this exhibition as part of the tribute we pay to uMama in her 90th year.”

Dangor introduced Archbishop Tutu by way of anecdote, calling him “heaven’s chief trouble maker”.

Tutu spoke, praising Albertina and Walter Sisulu: “They gave themselves for the cause of liberation, utterly, selflessly, with no thought of reward.” He implored the audience to look to the humility of the Sisulus as a lesson: “It would be wonderful, dear friends, if we could recover that sense – that idealism which most of us had in the days of the struggle.”

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Ma Albertina Sisulu and her son Max Sisulu

By learning from the lives of the Sisulus, said Dangor: “We can become a caring and compassionate society where everyone counts, where human life is valued, where we can actually overcome crime and HIV, poverty and corruption, where we have leaders who emulate the Sisulus, by being people of integrity and upholding good moral standards … in this crazy but lovable rainbow nation.”

Following the event, the Bala Brothers treated visitors to a performance. To learn more about the exhibition, please visit the description of the exhibition in our Exhibition section.

Attendees spoke of their impressions of the exhibition

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Dr Frene Ginwala speaks to Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Dr Frene Ginwala, previous Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa: “I am delighted [about the exhibition] because what’s crucial is that the current generation and those not part of the struggle find out about [their lives]. So many South Africans don’t know about this. They think miracles happened, but they didn’t. People like Walter and Albertina are the miracles.”

Amina Cachalia, an activist during the struggle against apartheid: “For me, this exhibition is reliving old times. Walter and Albertina are very special people, they were supportive of me during the struggle and they were ordinary citizens. I miss him terribly. To me, he’s always just been plain Walter.”

Ziyeka Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu’s grandson: “I think it’s very important to remember where we come from and take lessons from statesmen like my grandfather to map out our future. South Africa is at a stage where we have to form a new South African identity, one that incorporates all of us as citizens. We should look for the root of that identity in the struggle of our parents and grandparents. If we use the stipulations in the Freedom Charter, then we would go very far. I remember my grandfather as a light-hearted man who loved spending time with his family, who could relate to people of all age groups.”

Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary General of Cosatu: “I would first like to congratulate the people who put this exhibition together. I would have loved to see more but we would need the whole of South Africa as an exhibition space in order to depict the works of these two extraordinary leaders. Walter and Albertina Sisulu are extraordinary human beings; South Africa is blessed to have had them. We need to celebrate their lives. This exhibition reminds every South African of who we are and where we come from. We need more leaders like them, who will show absolute dedication, selflessness, commitment and discipline.”

Nomvuyo Mdladlamba, sister-in-law of Zwelakhe Sisulu: “The photographs are awesome. They’re just an adorable and loved couple. The Sisulu family is an amazing family, an amazing unit. It’s wonderful being part of it.”

Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, executive producer of A South African Love Story: Walter and Albertina Sisulu: “For me, Walter and Albertina Sisulu were really the makers of the South African nation. They started at the most difficult time and they saw it through their lifetime. And they did it with such dignity. And it was the people that said, ‘you are our leaders.’ That history has to be shown and documented.”

Max Sisulu said: “My father spent a third of his life in prison, my mother was in the UDF and was a nurse. All of us were in jail at different times, and sometimes at the same time. [At one point], three generations of Sisulus were in jail at the same time.”

Sisulu says their family unit remains strong. “We see each other a lot, we’re a very close family. With a matriarch like my mother, when she wants something, she just gives instructions [and we answer], we have to.”


WSPCCA chief cardiac surgeon Dr Robin Kinsley

WSPCCA chief cardiac surgeon Dr Robin Kinsley

The Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre is based at Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is a 16-bed paediatric cardiac intensive care unit. According to the centre’s website, it carries out “corrective surgical and interventive procedures on babies and children … with the support of service providers in the form of substantial discounts and donations in kind.”

Dr Robin Kinsley says, of the children who benefit from surgery: “We knew that they would grow up to live the memory of Walter Sisulu, not only themselves but through their children and their grandchildren. In other words, it would go on forever.”

Kinsley invites interested individuals to take a tour of the hospital. Contact Madeleine Hicklin on: carma@gonet.co.za or +27 11 466 0269.