Sheila Violet Makate Sisulu 1948–

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Sheila Violet Makate Sisulu 1948

South African ambassador

Ruled by Apartheid

Sought a New Career


Sheila Sisulu is the first black person to represent South Africa as the countrys ambassador to the United States. She is also the first woman to hold this post and was appointed by President Nelson Mandela in 1999, just before he handed over the reins of power to his successor, President Thabo Mbeki. Sisulu planned to continue fostering bilateral relations between the United States and her homeland.

Sisulu has devoted her attention to the educational and social problems facing post-apartheid South Africa. She was a teacher who became a staunch advocate for underprivileged and uneducated black students. With the dawn of black majority rule in South Africa during the mid-1990s, Sisulu was able to secure appointments overseas. This enabled her to locate international sources of financial support that will help to foster greater educational opportunities for a new generation of black South Africans.

Ruled by Apartheid

For Sisulu, the long journey to a South African ambassadorship began on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in the Southwestern Native Township known as Soweto. Her parents, a former salesman and factory seamstress, operated a store in Soweto. By the time Sisulu was five years old, South Africas apartheid system was firmly entrenched. Blacks and whites lived in separate communities, sought medical treatment in segregated hospitals, and worked in occupations deemed appropriate by the government. In 1955 the Minister of Native Affairs, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, implemented a segregated educational system throughout South Africa.

Sisulu faced many obstacles as a result of South Africas segregated educational system. For instance, schools for black students were confronted with a chronic shortage of textbooks and other materials. Some classrooms had 60 or more students, which made personal attention from a teacher rare. Homework was often done by candlelight, since Soweto had no electricity.

Soon after Sisulu began school her older brother, who was an anti-apartheid activist, warned their parents that tanks, soldiers and police would be raiding the township

At a Glance

Born c. 1948 near Johannesburg, South Africa; married to Mlungisi Sisulu; three children. Education: University of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, BA, 1974; University of the Witwatersrand, bachelors degree in education, 1990.

Career: South African Committee for Higher Education, 1978-88; National Coordinator for Educational Opportunities, South African Council of Churches (SACC); Educational Coordinator for the African Bursary Fund, SACC, 1988-91; director of the Joint Enrichment Fund, 1991-94; Special Advisor to the Minister of Education, 1994-; Consul-General at the South African Consulate-General, New York, 1997-99; South African ambassador to The United States of America, 1999-.

Awards: Allan Pfier Fellowship Fund, 1989; Nedbank Femina Woman of the 90s, 1993; South African Women for Women Education Award, June, 1998.

Addresses: Office The Embassy of South Africa, 3051 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC, 20008.

school on the following day. Alarmed, Sisulus parents kept her home from school. This proved to be a serious miscalculation, since the police announced that any students who were absent from school on the day of the raid would not be allowed to return. Six long months would pass before Sisulu was allowed back in school.

Despite these challenges, Sisulu was a good student. When she was 12 years old, her life took an unexpected turn. After it was discovered that Sisulu had been molested by a teacher, her parents sent her to a boarding school, St. Michaels School for Girls, in neighboring Swaziland. Freed from the inequities of South Africas segregated educational system, Sisulu received a sound education based on the British system. The teachers at St. Michaels were also much better trained than those at her former school.

When school recessed for the summer, Sisulu returned home to South Africa and was reintroduced to the humiliations of apartheid. Having spent time outside of the country, the separate train coaches, drinking fountains, and other public facilities in South Africa were deeply shocking to Sisulu. On her 16th birthday, she received her government-issued passbook. Black South Africans were required to carry this passbook at all times. That pass was almost my branding, Sisulu told Ebony, .. .to have it was to identify me as a second-class citizen in the country of my birth.

Sought a New Career

Soon after receiving her passbook, Sisulu vowed to pursue a career that would give her an opportunity to help bring an end to the apartheid system. She enrolled at the Lesotho campus of the University of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, and graduated with a bachelors degree in English and philosophy in 1974. Sisulu returned to South Africa and took a job as a teacher in the public school system. However, after three months on the job, she earned the equivalent of $275. Sisulu decided that she must pursue a different career. She worked briefly as a secretary and a personal assistant for a bakery. Sisulu then accepted a position at a life assurance company, becoming a personal assistant to a public relations officer. This job proved to be unsatisfying as well.

By the mid-1970s, Sisulu was in her mid-twenties. She was highly educated and socially conscious, but lacked a fulfilling career. During this period in her life, she fell in love and got married. Her husband, Mlungisi, was the son of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, both of whom were central figures in the struggle for equal rights. As an ardent civil rights supporter herself, Sisulu had great admiration for her new in-laws. Walter Sisulu was well-known among black South Africans, and had been a friend of Nelson Mandela since the 1940s. Together, they had founded the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC) and supported the goals of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC s military wing. Mandela and Sisulu were both accused of sabotage in 1963, and spent more than 20 years in the notorious Robben Island prison. Because of her own civil rights activities, Albertina Sisulu was placed under house arrest. Since she was not allowed to leave to attend her sons wedding, the ceremony was held in a tent across the road from her home. She was able to view the ceremony from her driveway.

In 1974, Sisulu took a job as a teacher for the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) a non-governmental agency catering both to people with special needs and black students who were seeking an escape from South Africas inferior black schools. In 1976, the South African government issued an edict declaring that all classes must be taught in Afrikaans, which is the language spoken by most white South Africans. This edict led to riots throughout Soweto and other black townships. To combat this edict, Sisulu taught a class designed to help black students pass the A-level examinations, which was required for high school graduation and entrance to college. All of the students who took Sisulus class passed the examinations. Sisulu also realized that there were many students in rural areas that did not have access to regular schooling or intellectual stimulation. To assist these students, Sisulu established a childrens magazine and headed the student services division of a local distance-learning college.

In 1988, Sisulu accepted a position with the South African Council of Churches (SACC). The SACC appealed to Sisulu because it was an organization that openly opposed apartheid, and was unintimidated by threats of government harassment. Also, it backed the student demonstrators who protested South Africas unequal educational system. During Sisulus years with the SACC, the organization became increasingly emboldened and learned to use the media to expose the horrors of apartheid to the outside world. Due, in part, to the efforts of the SACC, international disapproval of all apartheid policies soared. The South African government retaliated by deporting all clergy who supported the anti-apartheid movement, banning all public statements from anyone supporting the SACC, and launching a military crackdown against the demonstrators.

The SACC openly acknowledged that they could not defeat the governments military forces. However, they embarked on a strategy that was guaranteed to sway world opinion in their favor. The SACC ensured that every funeral of a demonstrator killed by the government became a media event. Scheduled graveside demonstrations were consistently reported by the media. This strategy worked magnificently and, by the end of the 1980s, the apartheid regime was showing signs of weakening.

Sisulu left the SACC in 1991, and accepted a position with the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP). From its establishment in 1986, the JEP had been an organization looking ahead to the days when the anti-apartheid struggle was won. Rather than the political concerns of the present, its main concern was the future of young black South Africans who had rejected government education in favor of protest. The JEP understood that these young people needed guidance if they were to be rescued from an uncertain future. Not only did they require an academic educationthey also desperately needed mentors who could be positive role models, and who could help with decision making techniques and conflict resolution. They needed renewed faith in values based on family traditions, rather than on the violence and fatalism to which many of them had succumbed. Above all, they needed a safe place where they could be prepared for the fast-approaching days of black majority rule.

Sisulu was selected to lead this daunting task. Armed with a new bachelor of education degree from the highly-regarded University of the Witwatersrand, and new ideas garnered from a four-week inspection tour of American schools, she was pleased to accept this challenge. Sisulu also commissioned a research project on the disadvantaged youth of South Africa. In cooperation with the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, an independent research and training organization, this project was published in 1993, under the title Youth, Education and Work. As Sisulu had suspected, the report indicated that extensive reform was necessary, so that all South African students might benefit from the same educational advantages.

By the mid-1990s, the long-awaited end to apartheid had come to pass. Along with all other adult South Africans, Sisulu had the privilege of voting for the government of her choice. As she told Ebony, this experience made her feel like a bride. The election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa opened new opportunities to Sisulu.

Sisulu became South Africas Consul-General in Washington, D.C. in 1997, and was charged with the task of helping to secure foreign investment in the South African economy. In 1999, Sisulu was appointed as South Africas ambassador to the United States. As ambassador, she represented the face of a new South Africa that is freeing itself of apartheid, a place where people of all races may one day succeed according to their abilities.



Truscott, Kate, Youth, Education and Work, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 1993.


Boston Globe, October 7, 1990, p. 84.

Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1999, Perspective, p. 3.

Ebony, October, 1999, p. 190;

Guardian, (London) October 10, 1995, p. 6.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from;;; and

Ilian Wolf