Dr Mary Tiseo-Doctor of Nursing

Read time: 11 mins

Deputy Vice Chancellor Hendricks, Dean Seekoe, Dr. Tom, Prof Hendricks, Dr. Makola, Ms. Bata, Mr. Ndlovu, members of the faculty, ladies and gentleman. I would like to start by expressing my deep gratitude for this recognition from the University of Fort Hare.  To be associated with the aspirations of this institution and the extraordinary men and women who have walked this campus is truly humbling. I also want to extend my congratulations to the Faculty of Health Sciences graduating class of May 2019.  Well done.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan - the automotive capital of the United States and the home of Motown.  The child of Italian immigrants.  I grew up in two worlds – the world my parents knew and the world that I now found myself in. I studied theater at university, not really knowing what it was I wanted to do with my life – aware that I did not have the passion needed for a career in the arts, but that the arts helped to shape me as a person and for that I was grateful.  After attending university, I moved to Boston and discovered the world of social activism – the women’s movement, the movements for racial, social and economic justice - and a community of people who have become my extended family.

It was 1987, after marriage and two children that I started the journey that has led me to this day.  When I joined the staff of the Fund for a Free South Africa, or FreeSA as it was known I had no idea where it would lead me.  FreeSA was a small foundation that had been started by a group of black South Africans living in exile in the United States and African Americans sympathetic to the cause of South Africa’s liberation. Everyone involved felt that a successful South Africa would lift the cause of racial justice everywhere.

FreeSA provided financial support to anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa and the Frontline States of Tanzania and Zambia. Funds raised through FreeSA were contributed by sympathetic individuals, churches of all denominations, and university campuses across the country. 

At FreeSA I was in charge of communications and outreach. It was my job to help Americans understand South Africa’s cause, why it was a just one, and how to contribute funds to support that effort. It became evident early on that telling South Africa’s “story” through the lives of its leaders was the very best way for people in the United States to understand why South Africa’s liberation cause was worthy of our support. 

Highlighting the work of Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Winnie Mandela, Joseph Dadu, Albie Sachs, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Moses Katanye, Ahmed Kathrada and so many others.  The leadership in South Africa was broad and deep.  How they came to the struggle, their sacrifices in the face of a brutal regime, how they maintained hope during the darkest days, and their unshakable belief that truth and justice would win out, inspired and illustrated just what was at stake.

In preparing for today, I went back and looked at what was happening in South Africa when I joined FreeSA.  It was more than a decade after the Soweto uprising, protests across the country had continued unabated. Tens of thousands of young people had left the country to join the liberation movement. In fact, one of the projects that FreeSA supported was the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania.  In 1987, resistance against unjust laws was scaling up and the United Democratic Front, which had been launched in 1983, was doing its best to coordinate the internal opposition.  The world-wide anti-apartheid movement was robust and effectively telling the South Africa story.

One of my first assignments in 1987 was to write about the 30 000 South Africans being detained without charge - many of them children under the age of 18.  That same year South Africa held a whites only general election under the cloud of a State of Emergency and the National Party was returned to power.

As bleak as the future looked in 1987, there was a sense that change was coming - no one knew when or under what conditions – nor how much more sacrifice would be required.   Over the next two years I became immersed in FreeSA, the anti-apartheid movement and the cause for justice In South Africa.  And I began to believe that South Africa would indeed be free.

I remember vividly when the inevitability of change became real for me. It was in October of 1989 – 30 years ago - when eight senior political prisoners from the ANC and PAC were unconditionally released from prison.  I wasn’t aware of the negotiations that had been going on for some time and so it came as quite a surprise. At that point, it was clear that Nelson Mandela would be coming out soon as well. 

Through that experience I learned that we never really know what comes next.  By a stroke of good fortune, I made my first trip to South Africa in February of 1990, landing in Johannesburg two days after Nelson Mandela’s release. Again, through a series of serendipitous events, I found myself at the house on Vilakazi Street as the media from around the world descended on Soweto to catch the first glimpses of Nelson Mandela after his 27 years of prison. People were out in the streets, jubilant, hopeful. As I stood in Mr. Mandela’s small four room house that he had not occupied since before going underground, trying not to get in the way, I set up the fax machine and answered calls.  One of which was from my own Senator Ted Kennedy, who was calling Mr. Mandela to congratulate him.

Traveling around the country during that visit I found a South Africa that had already begun to shed its past.  But transformation is much harder than anyone ever imagines it can possibly be.  I think everyone underestimated how difficult it would to dismantle a system that had been in place for centuries.  The end of legislated apartheid did not mean that its impact was suddenly going to disappear.

But at the same time we also understood that South Africa would get there. The optimism that was embodied by the leadership – those who had walked out of prison, struggled inside the country, or organized from exile - was essential during those early years.  State organized violence between 1991 and 1994 meant more lives were lost and the future looked uncertain.  But the men and women who had endured years of apartheid without being deterred, kept on. They understood transformation was a relay race that required them to keep up the pace until handing over the baton to future generations.

By observing Mr. Mandela and the other extraordinary founding fathers and mothers of South Africa I came to understand what it must have been like in my own country as those who fought for independence from Britain sought to create a nation in the midst of so many competing interest.  They most definitely did not get everything right.  Slavery was maintained and our constitution guaranteed the rights of slaveholders.  It would take a bloody civil war, a century later to finally resolve that injustice.  But in many ways we are still fighting this battle as the backlash from our first Black president continues to reverberate across my country.

So I have learned over and over again that there are no quick fixes for entrenched problems.  Like a garden that has been allowed to go to weed, once the ground has been cleared you must be absolutely vigilant in not allowing the weeds to return.  Like a Pandora’s Box that has release its evils, there is a constant and ongoing battle to contain and neutralize their effects. 

As I traveled back and forth in those early years, I began to appreciate what the founders of FreeSA had already known –the striking similarities between the struggles for justice in South Africa and the United States. 

This realization, that the United States and South Africa had so much in common, eventually led me to approach colleagues about starting a new organization that would keep alive the ties between the United States and South Africa that had been formed during the anti-apartheid years and deepen them as South Africa entered its next phase.

The organization would focus on transferring skills to South Africa that were needed to support health and education transformation. While at the same time building mutually beneficial partnerships between the United States and South Africa that would ultimately benefit both countries.  It was our feeling that perhaps together we could address some of the racial, social and economic inequalities that prevent so many of our people from reaching their full potential. It was with this intention that South Africa Partners was established in 1997. 

One of the programs that South Africa Partners had the privilege of working on was the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health or ASELPH.  Not only has this program been effective, it is an example of a vibrant public-private partnership that draws leadership and inspiration from both the United States and South Africa.  It was one of the last programs I worked on at South Africa Partners before my retirement more than a year ago. And it remains the one I am most proud of.

The idea for ASELPH emerged from a collaboration between South Africa Partners and the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.  In particular, Nobayeni Dladla, the then Health Attaché, was looking for ways to increase leadership and management capacity needed to meet the demands of the still growing AIDS epidemic.  Together we approached the Harvard School of Public Health to enlist their involvement and they gladly accepted the call.  Ms. Dladla engaged the National Department of Health in the conversation and the outline for the program was developed, including the engagement of the University of Pretoria and the University of Fort Hare as implementing partners.  It took us longer to raise the funds for the program than we had hoped (as it almost always does), but with perseverance, we managed to move ahead in 2010.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to Dr. Mvuyo Tom, your former Vice Chancellor, Prof Pinky Seekoe, your Dean at the School of Public Health, and Prof Stephen Hendricks for their role in developing and leading the implementation of the ASELPH program.  Without their efforts, we would not be here today.  I’d also like to give a shout-out to Tabisa Bata who was our staff person in the early years as ASELPH took shape.

As many of you know, the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Health seeks to improve crucial components of the health care system - increasing its capacity to deliver high-quality, cost-efficient services, and, also to strengthen training for future generations of health leaders. ASELPH focuses on service delivery improvements, human resource capacity development, and excellence in executive level training.

We were honored that the Sisulu family granted us the right to use Albertina Sisulu as the symbol for the program. We could not think of a better role model.  MaSisulu was a humanitarian, an activist, a nurse and someone who deeply understood the importance of preparing the next generation - that we must always be looking to the future.

Together, ASELPH has trained more than 250 health professionals in South Africa and their collective experiences demonstrate just how much the program has benefited them personally and the health systems as a whole. Since 2013 health care professionals have enrolled either here at Fort Hare or at the University of Pretoria.  ASELPH has also helped build executive level training capacity at both universities.

As Mr. Zungu, Deputy Director General for National Health Insurance in KwaZulu Natal has said of the program, “It is a critical milestone in public-sector health training in South Africa.  For us, as KZN, I believe it is one of the best things to have happened to the department.  The program provides training, support and mentorship for managers to allow them to confidently implement health sector reforms.”

We cannot predict the future, but we must envision the future we would like to live in.  And prepare ourselves to make it a reality.  As the philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Just as Mr. Mandela and his colleagues had no way to predict when, or even if, they would ever leave prison, they spent every day believing it would happen and preparing for the eventuality.  As a result, Mr. Mandela was able to walk out of prison and begin his journey to the Presidency without missing a beat.

All of us can do more to be prepared for the future.  We can strive to be ethical principled leaders wherever we find ourselves. We can support those around us and aspire to do good - whatever form that takes.  It is our collective future and we must be active participants in shaping it. 

Twenty-five years after Nelson Mandela was elected president, you leave Fort Hare better prepared because of the sacrifices others made long before some of you were born.  

Congratulations again on your brilliant achievements.  The future is brighter now that you will be implementing the knowledge that you have acquired here at Fort Hare.  Forging a path that guide others that come after you. Good luck on your journey.