Celebrating 27 years of uniting nurses

DENOSA and nurses to welcome home the return of remains of one of the Group of 20 SA Nurses who assisted post-independent Tanzania’s healthcare system at OR Tambo on Human Rights Day (21 March).

PRETORIA – The Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA) will be amongst nurses of all ages at OR Tambo International Airport and Chief Stuurman International Airport in Gqebera respectively on 21 and 22 March to welcome home the remains of one of the nursing stalwarts who were amongst the so-termed ‘Group of 20 Nurses’ who were recruited by the South African liberation movement to help revive nursing in the post-independent state of Tanzania at the behest of President Julius Nyerere in 1961 following the departure of many British nurses in that country.

Sister Kholeka Rosemond Tunyiswa, born on 29 November 1936, may not be known in South Africa as she left the country at the age of 25 for Tanzania where she practiced as a nurse together with 19 other nurses who were recruited from the country, together with her elder sister, Edith Tunyiswa. Sister Kholeka passed on in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 5 March 2023 at the age of 87.

She was cremated in a private family ceremony in Dar es Salaam on 6 March. While she got married and has started a family in Tanzania in 1967, her remains will be returned to South Africa and to her hometown, Gqebera, where she was recruited by struggle stalwart Govan Mbeki.

Her remains will arrive at the OR Tambo International Airport at 15h40 on 21 March, the day the country will be celebrating Human Rights Day. Her remains will then head home and arrive in her hometown, Gqebera, on Wednesday 22 March at 13h20. Members of DENOSA, made up of practicing nurses and retired nurses, will be part of the delegation that will be welcoming her home, including nurses of her generation (retired nurses) from her township, Motherwell. Her memorial service/funeral will be held on 22 April as part of the government’s build-up programme towards the Freedom Day in the country. The Department of Arts, Sports and Culture will spearhead the events in close collaboration with DENOSA.

The Details of the events:

21 March 2023 at 15h40: Her remains will arrive with a family member at OR Tambo International Airport and will be welcomed by delegation led by the Deputy Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nocawe Mafu, Nosipho Mshumpela (85) who was one of the Group of 20 Nurses who left the country with Kholeka, and a group of nurses led by DENOSA.

22 March 2023 at 13h20: Her remains will arrive with a family member at Chief Dawie Stuurman International Airport in Gqebera where she will be welcomed officially by nurses, young and old, and will be accorded a guard of honour by nurses as she will be arriving back home for the first time since she had left.

22 April 2023 at 09h00: Her Memorial Service will be held in Gqeberha as part of the government’s build-up programme to Freedom Day.


Soon after Tanzania obtained independence on 9 December 1961, many nurses from Britain returned en masse to the UK, probably on fears or uncertainty at the then prospect of being led by a black government. Their departure left a huge gap in new Tanzania, which propelled President Nyerere to ask for the assistance of the then ANC President who was based in Tanzania, Oliver Tambo, to bring to Tanzania the South African sisters to bring back to life the country’s healthcare system.

Upon this request, Tambo is said to have sent the message to South Africa. This was at the time when the South African black nurses were aggrieved by the Nursing Act which was enforcing that nurses were to be taught based on their racial lines, which was introducing segregation in the profession.

The recruitment of the required nurses had to be done as an underground operation since the ANC and other political parties had been banned. This project was handled by leaders in different provinces (there were only four provinces at the time). Govan Mbeki recruited in then Port Elizabeth (now Gqebera), Albertina Sisulu in Transvaal, and Johhny Makhathini recruited in Natal.

They left on a bus from Johannesburg to Bechuanaland (Botswana), which was driven by a white student from Wits University who was disguised as a priest who was driving nurses to the funeral of their colleague in Bechuanaland. They were allowed to pass by emigration officials. That is how their journey to Tanzania began, where they were planted in various facilities as head nurses, teaching fellow nurses in Tanzania up to the Professional Nurse levels. They also advised nurses in the country to form the Tanganyika Nursing Association.

DENOSA and its family of nurses are proud of the contribution that these black nurses have contributed to one of their fellow sister African countries at a time when their role and ability were constantly underplayed by the South African apartheid system. This group was dispatched to various district hospitals in Tanzania to provinces like Der es Salaam, Mbeya, Mwanza, Benguela and others.

While the leadership role of these nurses predates the existence of DENOSA, we are in no doubt that they their activism and consciousness would have propelled them to become some of the founding members of DENOSA had they remained in the country.

After the formation of DENOSA in 1996, the organisation established links with the nursing community at regional and international levels, including spearheading the formation and hosting of the Southern African Network of Nurses and Midwives (SANNAM), as well as assisting countries like Mozambique and the DRC to form their National Nursing Associations (NNAs).

Leave a Comment