Woman of Fortitude
Interview with Ms Beryl Rose Sisulu
By Dorcas Utkovic
Ms Beryl Sisulu is the South African High Commissioner in Australia. She enjoys reading and learning about different cultures and the environment. Her current playlist includes David Foster and friends, gospel and African music.
Her ultimate dinner table has her parents (Walter & Albertina Sisulu), Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston and David Foster.
The 9th of August marks the national Women’s day in South Africa. Your late mother mama Albertina Sisulu was one of the key women who were instrumental to this day.
What is it like to be the daughter of such a woman? Do you feel pressured to walk in the steps?
Yes, the 9th of August is very significant in South African history. In fact, more recently, August has become Women’s month and is celebrated with various activities all over the country. This year marks the centenary of my mother, Albertina Sisulu, and this year’s Women’s month has been dedicated to her, with the theme Woman of Fortitude.
Being the daughter of this phenomenal woman does come with pressure at times, however in raising us, my mother taught us to be humble. Because she was a woman of fortitude, and was able to endure many hardships, we admired her immensely. Our situation is somewhat different, albeit still with many challenges, for example domestic violence. Nonetheless we try to walk in her footsteps.
On the day of the march (9th August 1956) you would have been about 8 years old. What do you recall about this day and/or leading up to or post activities at home or otherwise?
I was about 7 years old at the time of the 1956 march. I do not recall much before the actual march as my home was always a hive of activity. Hence it was normal for us to see people coming and going. I do recall hearing snippets of talk after the march as it was a significant event – even for a 7 year-old.
When she became active within the political landscape, Mama Albertina was kept in solitary confinement as well as in and out of prison. As a girl child, how has this experience shaped you growing up and even now?
My mother was not only in and out of prison. She was also banned and under house arrest for about 17 years. At some point my father, mother, eldest brother, and nephew (eldest brother’s son), were all in prison at the same time. Neighbours and friends would drop in to bring us food.
The banning orders lasted for 5-year periods. We knew that a week or two before the banning order expired, that the authorities would slap my mother with another banning order.
House arrest meant that she could not leave home before 6:00am and had to be indoors by 6.00pm. On weekends, she was required to be home by 6pm and could not leave before 6am on a Monday. This made my mother very resilient. She was a brave and courageous woman. During all this suffering, she held her head up high. She was well respected by the community and always very dignified.
It was during these hard times when one learnt that you had to be not only courageous but also respectful. We knew that we had to work hard.
This upbringing is what I believe shaped me. It instilled in me the belief that hard work will always be recognised and will always put you on a good footing. Humility and respect was the order of the day for us. As a result it has become part and parcel of me.
What is your message to the women of the world, particularly those who actively challenge what they can no longer accept in the society or within their personal lives?
My message to those women is to be steadfast. Let us unite and fight this scourge of domestic violence together. Let the voices of the women of the 1956 march live on through us.
I must be transparent in saying this is a generalised observation that people who are involved in activism or politically inclined work tend to possess a qualification in Law - as you do. May I then ask, how did you decide on this career and what was it like to navigate a system whose ‘law’ openly oppressed others’ basic human rights?
I don’t necessarily agree with you when you say “people who are involved in activism or politically inclined” tend to possess a qualification in Law. I am trained as a lawyer but my mother was not - she was a nurse. My one sister, the current Minister of International Relations, is not a lawyer - and my younger sister was a teacher. Winnie Mandela was a social worker. I believe activists and politicians come from all walks of life. However I do believe coming from a background in law can be advantageous.
As for me - I always loved the law. In fact, I had hoped to become a Judge. I went to University when I was already married with 3 children. I did this at the insistence of my father, who was always writing to me from Robben Island prison, urging me to go back to school.
I finally plucked up the courage to tackle Afrikaans. This, and the added financial burden, was what had been preventing me from going to university I did not have a second language from my high school, as my mother had sent us away to high school outside of South Africa. In my first year at university, I registered for a non-degree purpose and studied Afrikaans for the whole year. For fear of being bored, I added English and history. At the end of the year, I passed - even in Afrikaans. I was then able to register for my law degree the following year and received credit for the 3 courses I had been doing the previous year. Studying at a previously whites-only university was not easy at the time. One often experienced racism and discrimination. However there were some very good lecturers.
It was also during this time that pressure was mounting from within the country and around the world for apartheid to be dismantled. My father was released from prison on 15 October 1989, having served 26 years in prison. This was 4 months before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
Both my parents attended my graduation in March 1990. This was one of the most memorable days of my life.
This year Mama Albertina would be turning 100. How are you celebrating her centenary?
This year marks the centenary of both Nelson Mandela and my mother. The South African government has been celebrating them under different themes. The Mandela theme is “Be the legacy”. The theme for my mother is “A woman of fortitude”
This year’s Women’s Month is dedicated to Albertina Sisulu - “ A woman of fortitude”.
There are several activities honouring my mother taking place in South Africa. A rare orchid found in the Walter Sisulu Botannical gardens in Johannesburg has been named after her.
One of South Africa’s most famous rose growers has produced an Albertina Sisulu memorial rose.
There are several other events taking place throughout South Africa and the family has been receiving several awards in her honour.
In Canberra at my residence, South Africa house, I will host a Woman’s Day luncheon that will be attended by about 30 women. The honoured guest, who will deliver the keynote address on Albertina Sisulu, is Dr Meredith Burgmann, a well-known Australian politician and activist in her own right - and a long-time supporter of South Africa.
Today we see the struggles that women face in South Africa, Australia and ultimately globally. And most of these stem from violence against women where some have unfortunately lost their lives or severely hurt (physically and otherwise). How relevant do you think the slogan of 1956 ‘wa thinta abafazi, wa nthita imbokodo’ is or how has it evolved to accommodate the challenges of our current society?
The struggle against domestic violence should definitely be looked at collectively. You are correct when you say the scourge of domestic violence is global. In honour of Woman’s Day in South Africa, South African women are marching against domestic violence and are delivering a 24 item petition to the President (24 items stand for the 24 years of democracy.)
Women are asking for visible intervention against violence against women and children. I believe that when women unite, as they did in 1956, then the words “you have struck a woman - you have struck a rock”, can become meaningful. I also think women should speak out against violence in whatever form. “One death from domestic violence is one death too many.” No woman deserves to die at the hands of a husband, partner or lover.
You’ve travelled around the world and no doubt met incredible people - give us your top 3 absolute favourites.
Incredible people that come to mind are Queen Sonja, the Queen of Norway. She is not from royalty; however she is such a wonderful person. She is a real peoples person and very knowledgeable. The second person is the Empress of Japan. I was impressed with her knowledge of South Africa and the fact that in 2010 she wrote a poem about the famous South African “vuvuzela” (almost like a horn made of plastic and is usually blown during soccer matches). The third person is Princess Takamado, daughter-in-law of the Emperor of Japan. I admire the effort she puts into charitable work in the less privileged parts of the world. In addition to her many charitable projects, she hosts an annual event called “turning wine into water”. This is a fund-raising event where donations of wine are made by different Embassies based in Japan. The wine is sold and the proceeds fund the building of water wells in very poor countries where there is a dire need for clean water.
As South African Ambassador, what are some of the challenges & highlights and what are you most proud of within your role?
Big challenges for us are budget cuts which limits our activities. Australia is a huge country and one is constantly traveling between the different states. All have different things to offer. Highlights for me are hosting successful events, such as our National Day reception, strengthening our bilateral relations and encouraging business between the two countries. An added highlight is the opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery of Australia.
It is also wonderful to meet people from all over the world. I am very proud to have been given this wonderful opportunity to represent my country in Australia, with non-resident accreditation to the islands of Papua New Guinea, Nauru and the Solomon Islands.