Sisulu was born in Ngcobo, in the Eastern Cape, in the Union of South Africa. His mother, Alice Mase Sisulu was a Xhosa domestic worker. His father, Albert Victor Dickinson, who was white, worked in the Railway Department of the Cape Colony from 1903 to 1909 and was transferred to the office of the Chief Magistrate in Umtata in 1910. His mother was related to Evelyn Mase, Nelson Mandela’s first wife. Dickinson did not play a part in his son’s upbringing, and the boy and his sister, Rosabella, were raised by his mother’s family, who were descended from the Thembu clan.
For many years Sisulu worked menial jobs, the only kind available to blacks without a university education. He delivered milk by horse-drawn cart, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week for the monthly salary of one pound.
Early on, he realized the importance of speaking English fluently if he was to survive in the European-dominated cities. He remained close to his Xhosa roots, however, traveling back to Qutubeni for his tribal initiation ceremony and later writing articles about Xhosa history for a black journal.
Walter Sisulu settled in Johannesburg permanently. By the mid-1930s, Sisulu brought his mother and sister to live with him, and together they bought a small red brick home in a district called Orlando West. It later became part of Soweto, the acronym given to the southwest townships of Johannesburg, where blacks had been allowed to settle. Sisulu worked in a factory and a bakery, and in South Africa’s famous gold mines, before taking night-school courses to become a real-estate agent. His office helped blacks buy and sell property in Johannesburg, though such freedoms later ended.
He joined the ANC in 1941. In 1943, together with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, he joined the ANC Youth League, founded by Anton Lembede. He was elected treasurer-general of the League. He later distanced himself from Lembede after Lembede, who died in 1947, had ridiculed his parentage (Sisulu was the son of a white foreman).
Sisulu was a political networker and had a prominent planning role in the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”). He was made Secretary-General of the ANC in 1949, displacing the more passive older leadership, and held that post until 1954. He also joined the South African Communist Party.
As a planner of the defiance campaign from 1952, he was arrested that year and given a suspended sentence. In 1953, he travelled to Europe, the USSR, Palestine, and China as an ANC representative. He was jailed seven times in the next ten years, including five months in 1960, and was held under house arrest in 1962. At the Treason Trial (1956-1961), he was eventually sentenced to six years, but was released on bail pending his appeal. He went underground in 1963, resulting in his wife, Albertina, being the first woman arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 (or being held for 90-days in detention without trial). He was caught at Rivonia on 11th July 1963, along with Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and 14 others. At the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial (1963-1964), he was sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. With other senior ANC figures, he served most of his sentence on Robben Island.
In October 1989, he was released after 26 years in prison, and in July 1991 was elected ANC deputy president at the ANC’s first national conference after its unbanning the year before. He remained in that position until after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Comrade Walter Sisulu was a true son of the soil and a servant of the people. He declined a position in the government but continued to play an important role as an advisor to Mandela. He was not inclined towards self-enrichment, fame or fortune. Unlike other ANC leaders who moved into new homes once apartheid no longer restricted their residency, Sisulu and Albertina stayed in the same Orlando West home where he had lived in the 1930s. He died on May 5, 2003, at the age of 90. Thousands mourned him, and a state funeral was held at which Mandela eulogized him. “From the moment when we first met, he has been my friend, my brother, my keeper, my comrade,” South Africa’s first black president said of the man who had introduced him into the ANC. “The spear of the nation has fallen. Let us pick up the spear to build a country after the example that Walter Sisulu has set for us.”
On the continent, this kind of leadership is unheard of and is unique. What you get is the brand that demands compensation and recognition for liberating the people. We have a leadership that wants to be left alone as they, their families and their Zionist and western handlers plunder the peoples resources. They have become a curse that has visited the people in most African countries. The people of Africa deserve leaders with character, compassion and selflessness as personified by Cde Walter Sisulu. He is the standard bearer and all African “leaders” must use him as their role model.
In 1992, Walter Sisulu was awarded Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honour granted by the ANC, for his contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa. The government of India awarded him Padma Vibhushan in 1998. Walter Sisulu was given a “special official funeral” on 17 May 2003. In 2004 he was voted 33rd in the SABC 3’s Great South Africans. The Walter Sisulu National Botanic Garden, Walter Sisulu University and Walter Sisulu Local Municipality are named after him.
May his memory be cast in concrete. Viva Cde Walter Sisulu!
Dr Mustafa Mheta is a Researcher and Head of the Africa Desk at the Media Review Network located in Johannesburg, South Africa.