*** Headline Photo: Kholeka Tunyiswa circa the early 1960s ***

By Clarence Kwinana

A nursing sister, Kholeka Rosemond Tunyiswa, who may not be all that known in South Africa, passed on in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 5 March 2023.  She was born in Port Elizabeth – now renamed Gqeberha – on 29 November 1932.

In order to understand who she was, it is appropriate to reflect on the role that she and her colleagues played in the post-independence nursing crisis in Tanzania.  While they were never going to solve all the problems of Tanzania, they nonetheless, played an important role in getting the nursing system functional. 

When Tanganyika (subsequently referred to as Tanzania) obtained independence on 9 December 1961, it immediately faced a problem of British nurses who began to resign, preferring to return to Britain rather than work under a black government.

In early 1962, President Julius Nyerere approached O. R Tambo, Acting President of the ANC who was in exile in Dar es Salaam, to help recruit nurses from South Africa to reduce the negative effects of that gap.

O. R Tambo relayed the message to the leadership back home. Besides, black nurses were also disgruntled by a new Nurses Act, which provided for separate training of nurses according to their racial group. 

The leadership inside South Africa put a system in place to source the nurses.  Ambassador Sindiso Mfenyana, author of WALKING WITH GIANTS, says a dedicated team was appointed to manage the process. The overall coordinator was Ahmed Kathrada to whom Provincial coordinators would report.  Albertina Sisulu who was a qualified nurse herself, was tasked to recruit in the Transvaal.  Johnny Makhathini was tasked to recruit in Natal, and Govan Mbeki was to recruit in the Eastern Cape.  As the ANC had been banned, the recruiting process became a high level underground operation. 

*** Here aunty Kholeka Tunyiswa was being honoured by Dr Manto Tshabalala, who was then South Africa’s Minister of Health between 1999 and 2008 ***

A group of 20 nurses were identified.  Kholeka Tunyiswa  was part of the group.  Other members included her sister, Edith Tunyiswa.

The Group of 20 Nurses were as follows:

1. Kholeka Tunyiswa

2. Edith Tunyiswa

3. Edith Ncwana

4.  Edna Miya

5. Celia Khuzwayo

6. Georginah Masusu

7. Mavis Motha 

8. Mary-Jane Socenywa

 9. Nomava Ndamase

10. Fine Lukhe 

11. Sina Jali

12. Edna Mgabaza

13. Mary Mwandla

14. Natalie Msimang

15. Hilda Fonqo

16. Victoria Magodla 

17. Nosipho Mshumpela 

18. Neo Ratladi

19. Nicolene Legodi

20. Mini Sekgatle.

*** The nurses arriving in Tanganyika in early 1962 ***

The nurses travelled from Johannesburg to Bechuanaland – now known as Botswana – in a bus driven by a white student from Wits University, disguised as a priest.  

At the border, the ‘priest’ told immigration officials that he was taking the nurses to Bechuanaland to attend a funeral of one of their colleagues.  They crossed successfully. He dropped them at Fish Keitseng’s house in Lobatse.  Keitseng was involved with the ANC underground.

After waiting for a month, they were picked up by a chartered flight sent by the Tanzanian government.

At this stage, President Nyerere had appointed Ally Sykes as Liaison Officer for Liberation Movements.  His grandfather, Sykes Mbuwane, was a warrior from Zululand who had arrived in Tanzania about 1886 to work with the German military in what was then known as German East Africa. He ended up settling in Pangani, north east of  Tanzania.  He married a woman from the Nyaturu ethnic group who gave him a son whom he named Kleist Sykes.  Kleist Sykes settled in Dar es Salaam where he married, and had a son whom he named Ally Sykes.  That is the grandson who ended up working with Liberation Movements such as the ANC, PAC, FRELIMO, Swapo, ZAPU, ZANU etc.

*** The portrait of the author: Clarence Kwinana ***

Upon arrival in Tanzania, the nurses were received by President Nyerere, Ally Sykes and ANC’s acting President-General, Oliver Tambo. Then, the ‘Godfather of Dar’s Exiles’ – as Sykes was known – placed them in hospitals in Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and so on.  Edith Tunyiswa was placed at a regional government hospital at Mbeya, where she treated patients, trained and supervised local nurses. This was done by all the nurses of SA to upgrade their Tanzanian colleagues to the level of registered nurses.  They also encouraged them to forn the Tanganyika Nursing Association similar to the South African Nursing Association. 

Edith Tunyiswa also used her stay in Mbeya to help many ANC activists who were in transit to Dar es Salaam.  She used her meagre salary to provide exiles with accommodation, food and money for transport to their final destination.  She was to look after the health of various generations in the movement, through the decades. 

Author of “A Dream Fulfilled: Memoirs of an African Diplomat”, Ambassador Thandi Lujabe-Rankoe, describes the Tunyiswa sisters as very loving, caring and sharing.  She was among the people who benefitted from Edith Tunyiswa’s hospitality in Mbeya, upon her arrival in Mbeya, Tanzania, in the early 1960s. 

According to her daughter, Joyce Shaabani,  Kholeka Tunyiswa worked in Tanga and Iringa in earlier days. 

She later worked at Mwananyamala, Magomeni and Mnazimoja – all hospitals in Dar es Salaam – until she retired in 1991

This episode of SA nurses arriving in Tanzania, was arguably and uniquely the first of its kind, where a Liberation Movement would assist in some way, to solve problems of an independent country.

This episode, together with other forms of cooperation between the two parties, cemented relations between the ANC and the governing party Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM, forever. 

As the nurses were maturing in age, they also had to attend to their personal lives. 

On 15 November 1967, Kholeka Tunyiswa got married to Mr Ramadhani Shaabani, a Tanzanian citizen who was in the diplomatic service. 

Her elder sister, Edith Tunyiswa, married a member of the Luthuli Detachment, Aaron Pemba (MK: Ben Bella or Uncle B. B).  He had been a trade unionist of note in Port Elizabeth in the 1950’s. 

Nomava Ndamase married Vusi Afrika Shangase in 1963.  They left for studies in the USSR.  Thus, the original Nursing Sister, Nomava Ndamase, became Dr Nomava Shangase. She was a camp doctor of the June 16 Detachment at Novo Catengue, Benguela Province, Southern Angola in 1977.  There was also Dr Peter Mfelang in the camp. 

Dr Nomava, as she was popularly known, moved with us to Quibaxe in 1978.  She rescued me from my first bout of Malaria.  Sadly, she lost her life in a car accident in Angola in 1981. 

Other nurses settled in Zambia and various parts of Europe.  Victoria Magodla and Nosipho Mshumpela settled in Kenya.  Edith Ncwana became Mrs Madenge in Tanzania. 

“Aunt Kholeka” – as the golden nightingale was affectionately known – was my neighbour at Magomeni in Dar es Salaam during the years 1991/92.  One day, as I left Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam or RTD Studios, after a Radio Freedom broadcast, I experienced high fever.  I knew from previous experience that I had a serious bout of Malaria.  I rushed home to park the car.  As I was too weak to drive myself to any hospital, I walked to Aunt Kholeka’s place.  As she was retired, she kept a medical kit at her place.  She administered a chloroquine injection and gave me medication to take home.  I was up and running in a day or two.  

My taste buds as a younger man were very sharp.  That often got me to visit Aunt Kholeka’s family to sample Tanzanian dishes such as Chapati, Maandazi, Vitimbua and Pilau.  These were often accompanied by fruits such as mangoes, oranges, pawpaw and cashew nuts. 

Those days,  we talked a lot with Aunt Kholeka about the group of 20 nurses.  She lamented the fact that political exiles were going back home without the film documentary on the nurses they were once promised, ever materializing.  Edith Tunyiswa, Mary-Jane Socenywa and Natalie Msimang are among the few who are known to have returned to South Africa at the dawn of democracy. 

The story of the 20 Nightingales needs to be comprehensively documented in the movement’s archives.  Their contribution must never be forgotten. 

It is now time to find ways to memorialise these heroines.  It may also be time for South Africa and Tanzania to find ways of strengthening cooperation on the health sector and particularly in the nursing profession. 

Ramadhani Shaabani, Aunt Kholeka’s husband, passed on in June 2021.

Kholeka Rosemond Tunyiswa was cremated in a private family ceremony in Dar es Salaam on 6 March 2023.

May her soul rest in peace. 


Clarence M. Kwinana (Nom de plume, Patrick Makhaya) is a Gauteng-based Town Planner. He is a former political exile who spent many years working for the ANC’s Radio Freedom in Angola, Madagascar, Zambia and Tanzania. He interacted with different people over time, recording the history of the struggle. People he interacted with included some members of the Group of 20 nurses such as Dr Nomava Shangase,  Kholeka Tunyiswa and Edith Tunyiswa.