Hidden Gem: Sikelelwa Alex Msitshana

Sikelelwa Alex Msitshana

Alex was born in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth to Amos Mthuthuzeli, Yali, a Reverend of the AME Church and Vuyelwa Joyce Yali, a qualified teacher. Early on in her life her parents would unfortunately divorce and her mother moved them to Johannesburg where she later took on her mother’s surname Msitshana. She would later on in her life be re-united with her father’s family and be welcomed back into the amaKhuma clan with love and affection.

It is Human Rights Month when the interview takes place so Alex feels that, that is perhaps a befitting place to start with the reflection of her life story.

Though she was not yet born when the most gruesome Human Rights violations in South Africa happened on 21st March 1960, the events of that day have influenced her perception and how she responded to challenges of growing up in Apartheid South Africa.

South Africa’s Human Rights Day, 21 March – declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the UN – is for many South Africans, a very painful day. For many, the day will always remain Sharpeville Day, a commemoration of the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the police mowed down 69 unarmed people and injured many others who refused to carry the hated dompas identity document that was meant only for indigenous Africans.

“The lessons of that day and many other Human Rights violations that happened in our country, helped to shape and influence my understanding of the struggle for liberation in my country. The day was a defining moment in our country’s liberation struggle, hence its inclusion in South Africa’s post-apartheid holiday calendar.”

Today, the South African constitution protects individual rights, like the right to move freely without having to carry a pass book. South Africa has a Bill of Rights and citizens are entitled to basic human dignity and more in the country’s current democracy. The experiences, however, of those before her and what she also experienced growing up under apartheid still stand out glaringly in her memory.

For Alex the greatest impact that she felt of the violations of Human Rights of the African majority in her country of birth was the June 16 student uprisings which occurred right on her doors step for in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre following the declaration of a state of emergency on 30 March 1960, thousands of black people were arrested throughout the country and this led to the banning of the organised formations of the people such as the ANC and the PAC. These bannings forced the people’s movements to go underground and eventually into exile. In December 1961 the ANC’s Umkhonto WeSizwe was formed and began with offensives against the apartheid regime.

This is the kind of harsh environment under which Alex and many of her generation grew up and when June 16 erupted she came face to face with the harsh realities of her childhood. She lives three houses away from present day Hector Piertersen Museum and was 8 going on 9 when June 16 erupted. They were getting ready for mid-term exams at Mzamo Lower Primary School when the gun shots started. She did not know what was happening and was scared as any 8 year old would be, at the ensuing chaos. She lived with her mother and grandmother at the time and because they were at work, they could not come to fetch her from school amidst the chaos as the teachers had instructed that given what was going on outside, no one was to leave the school premises unless fetched by their parents. Later as the situation got more tense, the teacher, out of despair, decided to release them nonetheless and together with a friend, they tried to find their way home with helicopters flying overhead.

“I have never been so scared and to this day, I still cannot recall how I made it home on that day”

They could no longer go to school for the latter part of that year and the following year her mother took them away to Rustenburg. Two years later, she came back to finish her higher primary schooling at Kwa-Ntsikana Higher Primary School before moving to Lamula Jubilee Senior Secondary School in Meadowlands for high school. She ended up writing matric in 1986 because there was more student unrest in 1985. In all the turmoil of the time, she had neglected to apply to university and so enrolled for a typing course to fill the time, a skill which later became a very useful tool for her career. She later went to University in 1988 at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) which became the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), after the amalgamation of universities.

Being a witness to the politics of her teenage years, it was only natural that she gravitated towards student politics and got involved in the Progressive Youth Congress which came into being due to the banning of SANSCO which later became SASCO after the unbanning of political organisations. She became active in of the student movement activities and held various positions such as the UDW Gender Forum, was Vice Chairperson of her residence, member of the South African Tertiary Institutions Sports Council, member of the SACP UDW branch, served in various committees of the SRC including the orientation team, was Tutor for Matric students as well as holding the position of Secretary for the Public Administration Students’ Society (PASS).  She was also a member of AUDWAX Campus radio where Kenny Maistry was the Station Manager at the time.

She also took leadership of the UDW dance club and was the dance instructor for the club due to her ballroom dancing experience gained at the Phefeni Youth Club where she gained her dancing stripes under the tutelage of her strict ballroom dance teacher, Mr. Styles Shangase.

“His strict grooming made us strong and responsible adults. The boys were taught to be responsible enough to their partners to the point of making sure they walked us back home after dance practice which always led to conflict between dance partner and boyfriend!” She laughs!

Alex contracted HIV in 1995 and had the misfortune of having the news delivered to her in a cold, judgemental and discriminatory manner by a Gynaecologist who offered her neither pre nor post testing counselling. She had to contend with the reality of her situation all by herself and try to make sense of it on her own without any professional support, care and guidance on how to handle the news of her disease. Nonetheless, she was intent on not letting this disease define who she was and boldly moved on to build a boisterous and successful career for herself.

“I got the strength to forge ahead from my wonderful mother who has been an immense pillar of strength and support throughout my life.”

She led a normal and healthy life with her condition until ten years later, when her GP informed her that her CD4 count was now 198 and that it was time to start with ante-retroviral treatment. But given the debate that was raging on at the time regarding the effects of ARVs, she thought it prudent to wait and analyse the situation as it unfolded.

“That decision proved to be a double edged sword because on the one hand, ARV’s do save lives but on the other hand, they do also present with serious side effects which can be detrimental to a person’s health as it became evident in my situation.”

She started to get really sick in 2005 with her CD4 count going as low as 4.

By that time she was so ill that she was rushed to the Brent Hurst clinic where she would meet and be treated by a remarkable man, Doctor Ebrahim, a specialist Physician in communicable diseases, and thanks to his dedication, she saw rapid improvement in her condition. Also because of the dedication she saw in her doctor to save her life, she was also determined not to fail and she followed the regimen to the letter.

“I have never seen such a dedicated man. He kept constant checks on me and even the nurses knew there would be hell to pay if he looked at my chart and found something out of place.”

She was placed on ARV treatment right away, became better and was discharged from Brent Hurst hospital.

The side effects of the ARV treatment took its toll on her, initially –  having to take a range of tablets at various intervals during the day which started in the morning from 8, 10, 12, 2, 6, 8 and 10 in the evening – and she spent the next two years in and out of hospital.

“I went through a lot; weight loss, swollen legs, diarrhoea, wasting syndrome, all the vomiting – my poor mother, who is a cardiac patient and wears a pace maker, had to clean up after me. At one point TB was diagnosed but I struggled to swallow the tablets so I resorted to crushing them but after 6 months, I was not responding to treatment. I was taken to Sizwe TB hospital where a Doctor took one look at me and declared that I did not have TB.”

She was then correctly diagnosed as having Macro-bacterium Avian Complex (MAC) whose symptoms are reminiscent of TB.  She was then put on the correct treatment regimen and her health started to improve rapidly.

By 2007 Alex’s health was improving and she began to walk to church on crutches and attempted to resume her working career.

But at this stage, she found out that as one of the side effects from her ARV medication, she was starting to experience loss of hearing.

She had to alter the CV she was sending out for jobs, to indicate that she was Deaf. To her amazement, she did not get a single reply and she was discouraged.

“This was a new phenomenon for me, not to get even an acknowledgement of receipt of my CV! I had always been able to move from one job to the next with ease and I could not understand what was happening now, what was different, I had the qualifications for the jobs I applied for and ten years’ working experience, so what was the problem?”

Her biggest concern was the fact that her work had always involved interactions with people; conference calls, meetings, negotiations for funding, conducting interviews, generally interacting with people. The biggest worry in her mind was how she was going to help support her family. She could not understand how with her work experience and given the new government’s progressive policies for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the work place, she could not get a job.

“I started to feel very disheartened. My mother is a pensioner and being the oldest daughter, I was the sole breadwinner.”

She had to rely heavily on the good faith and generosity of friends and family. Her friends rallied around her, donating some money, bringing her food and taking turns to drive her to and from check-ups throughout her period of incapacitation. Some even paid for her to go on a holiday in Cape Town, just to help her to feel alive and worthwhile again. Tears fill her eyes and roll down her cheeks as she remembers the support from her friends.

“That is just the nature of the wonderful and loving friends that I have.”

Her younger sister Sarah, a diabetic from the age of 14, also had to grow up immensely during that time and provide for the family.

“I was so proud of her, so young but she stepped up to the plate and behaved in such a mature manner, taking responsibility for the family, I love so much my Nunu.”

She was always close to her friends and after they found out that she wanted to enrol for a Sign Language course in order to enable her to communicate and to understand and integrate into Deaf culture, she received a text message from one of them from their university days asking permission to raise some money for her enrolment in part one of the Sign Language course.

She eventually came in to contact with the National Institute of the Deaf (NID) and applied for a job with them. It was an eye opening moment. They understood her needs as a person with hearing loss and had set the interview room up in such a way that there was a screen in front of her and an interpreter for her shaky Sign Language.

“I felt so at home!”

The NID has a unique interviewing model which takes place over two days, the first day being an induction process that allows interviewees to decide whether the NID is an institution that they would want to work with and the second day being the actual interview. A while after the interview the NID e-mailed to tell her that the position had been frozen due to lack of funding but asked her whether she could help them fund raise given her fund raising experience. She readily agreed as she saw this as an opportunity to give something back and to give meaning to her life. She was given an initial six month contract in 2011. Two years later, she has been awarded a two year contract with increased responsibilities which also include finding work placements for Deaf students who have completed their training at the NID College. She happily reports that to date the NID has been able to place several of their students with reputable companies and government departments.

“I wish more companies and more government departments could come on board and give opportunities to these talented young people. They have overcome so much to obtain credible, SETA accredited qualifications and they just need that extra support. ”

Alex was indeed part of the majority of people who fought for the liberation of her country and now in the new South Africa she is taking on another form of struggle, that of people with disabilities. She is as passionate about the Human Rights of people with disabilities as she was about the emancipation of South Africa. Her activism has taught her many skills on how to fight and fight and fight until justice is achieved and she plans to forge forward utilising those skills to fight for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the mainstream of South Africa Society.

“So as we reflect and commemorate the anniversary of March 21st 1960, this year, our Human Rights day, let us remember that the rights of people with disabilities are as paramount as any in our country. Our Government has put in place progressive policies to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in mainstream society but what is lacking is the implementation on the ground of these wonderful policies. That is where people like myself and many others working in this sector, are ploughing in to ensure the realisation of these rights for PWD’s – we need more hands and brains and primarily a change in mind-set on how we view disability as a society in order to tackle these issues effectively. “

Alex is doing well, she has overcome many of the challenges in her life’s journey. Recently she has just been to Germany as a board member of CBM South Africa, a role that she was offered when she gave a speech at a seminar of organisations working in the hearing impaired environment. CBM works to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities in the most poor countries of the world. Her experience both with the NID and CBM has inspired her to push forward and do more to ensure inclusive development for people with disabilities, according them the opportunity to a good quality of life lived with dignity.

“I am feeling really blessed and am grateful to God for the opportunities He has presented me with in my life. I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve both the NID and CBM and wish to impart the message to any down trodden spirit out there that they should never give up. They should always believe that they can overcome whatever challenges that come across their path. Those are just challenges to make them stronger human beings. They can achieve their wildest dreams, all they need to do is to believe in themselves and trust in God.”

ALEX AT A GLANCE

  • Personal Assistant at the Transition Executive Council (TEC)
  • Personnel Assistant/Human Resources Manager at United Fram Footwear Manufacturers
  • Head hunted by recruitment and advertising agency – SIMEKA
  • Head hunted by Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to set up HR department
  • Assistant/Acting Director International Liaison and Fund Raising for the IEC
  • Office Manager (Africa Region) for the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
  • Senior Development Officer at Legal Resources Centre (LRC)
  • Business Owner and Partner at Bambanani Communications Strategy & Event Management
  • Office Manager at the National Heritage Council (NHC)
  • Corporate Services Manager at the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF)
  • Programme Manager: Client Support and Work Placements at the National Institute for the Deaf (NID)
  • Board Member of the Christofel Blinden Mission South Africa (CBM SA)
  • Published Author: A Woman of Indomitable Character
  • Awarded a scholarship in 2013 to study for her Masters in Psychology: Organisational Psychology and Developmental Leadership

5 Responses to "Hidden Gem: Sikelelwa Alex Msitshana"

  1. Nomvuyo Mda  March 9, 2015 at 11:36 am

    I have read Alex’s story with tears running down my face. I have known Alex from Durban Westville University. She was a remarkable woman, a friend and a comrade. She was this tiny energetic person full of life that lit up a room every time she walked in. I have always known she would be of phenomenal help to the country because of her contribution to student politics and recreational interaction though dance and campus radio.
    I am really proud of her for overcoming all adversity. This is pure proof that you cannot put a good woman down.
    Shine on Black diamond. You have always been destined for big things. You are a real gem.

    Reply
    • Adelaide Steedley  March 15, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      Hi Nomvuyo, thank you so much for the touching feedback. We will pass on your message to Alex.

      Reply
  2. Alex  March 16, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Oh Nomvuyo, you beauty you…

    thank you so much my sister, my friend, my Comrade

    your feedback has touched my heart so deeply. Ndiyabulela sisi!

    Reply
  3. palesa morudu  May 7, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Alex, so extremely proud of you! Wishing you all the very best. What an inspiration! You were always a diamond.
    Lots of love
    Palesa

    Reply
  4. Michael Botolo  April 12, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    You are an incredible woman and inspiration to upcoming generation. You succeeded against all odds and please sustain the good work that you’re doing. From your old time friend.

    Reply

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