Guests had gathered at De Grendel Wine Estate on Wednesday to witness the inaugural award being presented at a high tea event. Sitting in comfortable armchairs, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah, both appearing in good health, beamed as they greeted guests. It happened to be Leah’s birthday as well and many guests wished her happy birthday.
The recipient of the Award, Ethel Leisa, smiled from her wheelchair, next to Leah as she watched guests mill around. Leisa was immaculately dressed in a crisp white skirt suit, and a hat covered her white hair.
Artscape Theatre Acting CEO Marlene le Roux opened the event and said: “Thank you for being here to celebrate an extraordinary person’s life. We are honoured to have her here.” Addressing Leah Tutu, Le Roux said: “Mother Leah, thank you for sharing your birthday on this day.”
Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu said that the aim of the award was to recognise the difference ordinary South Africans made to others in everyday life. Tutu said the Leah Tutu Unsung Heroes Award was “intended to recognise individuals who, in their ordinary lives, are doing extraordinary work, providing voluntary service and improving our community at large”.
The award was a way to recognise people who embodied “selfless giving and servant leadership”. Tutu, who noted how “it is the ordinary person who builds a nation,” said “it is through recognising unsung heroes in our midst, we hold fast to their legacy of courage, peace making, self-sacrifice and servant leadership, we learn from them and we encourage future generations to emulate them”.
History “tends to be dominated by charismatic politicians and mighty military generals, but it is made by regular women and men with the heart and courage to rise above their own individual interests to serve the interests of the group”. A DVD played some interviews with Leisa, her family members and members of her community about the work she had done throughout the years.
Leisa, who was born on February 22, 1914, in Ga-Marishane, Limpopo, trained as a nurse in Modderbee in Gauteng, and worked as a nurse in Pietersburg, now Polokwane, at the Zebediela Estate. During her career, she witnessed “gender discrimination and racial discrimination that blacks were subjected to”.
Leisa joined the ANC in 1942 to participate in the anti-apartheid struggle, and she worked alongside people like Jossie Palmer, Father Pilane Moroa and Archibishop Tutu. Reverend Tutu said the award “celebrates a long lifetime of giving” and honours the work people who are invisible to the public eye do.
Leisa helped to establish the African Self Help Crèches in the 1960s, and also ran an organisation called Palesa in which “rural and urban women where taught to make a living by sewing garments and reselling them”.
Through her work, many people were able to upskill themselves and lead sustainable lives that enabled them to support their families. These people “are the people who held us together despite apartheid’s best efforts to crush our collective spirit”, Tutu said.
“We only survived because we had hope,” added Le Roux. Leah awarded Leisa the award, a beautiful silver pendant with the tree symbolising the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation.
“You have been an inspiration Mother Leisa,” Leah Tutu told Leisa. Speaking about the award named in her honour, Leah Tutu said she felt as if she had “given birth” to something significant that would ensure the legacies of those who selflessly served their communities would continue.
She said she envisioned the award being given annually. Leisa, on how she felt about receiving the award, was at first, lost for words, then, in a whisper and with tears in her eyes, and a finger pointed upwards, said: “It’s a gift from God.”