Walter Sisulu

Born: 18/05/1912 Died: 06/05/2003 @ 21h00


By Denis Creighton

Tributes to the veteran politician Walter Sisulu are pouring in from all quarters of South Africa as well as the rest of the world. He was a great man whose love for the country and people will be long remembered by those who knew him.

I had a brief but memorable association with him in the early 90’s before the first democratic elections in 1994. He willingly agreed to serve as an “external” trustee on the Etwatwa Community Trust which had been set up by the residents of Etwatwa and the “Perm” to facilitate development of Etwatwa, now part of the Ekurhuleni Metro.

He was a very friendly and approachable man with a deep sense of commitment to the poor and a desire to do his best to assist communities to help themselves. He struck me as a man who had a clear vision for the development of the country and was prepared to roll up his sleeves in the quest.

A man who preferred to stay in the background, he was nevertheless highly respected for his wisdom and insight. Other more prominent politicians looked to him for guidance and for assistance in resolving tricky problems.

It is fitting that the “Freedom Square” in Kliptown (where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1956) is being redeveloped and has been named the “Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication” in his honour. adds its tribute to a great man and offers condolences to his wife Albertinia, his family and friends. Hamba Kahle Tata Sisulu.

A Profile on Walter Sisulu
He came to Johannesburg from Engcobo, Transkei in 1929.

He was only able to attend school until St 4 (Grade Six) after which he studied on his own to improve his education.

Sisulu became a mineworker in Johannesburg, working a mile underground in arduous and dangerous conditions, sleeping in the grim barracks in one of the Reef compounds.

His next job was in East London as a “kitchen boy”.

He then returned to Johannesburg to work in a bakery for 18 shillings a week.

He picked up some information about trade unions and ended up leading his fellow workers on a strike for higher wages. The strike was defeated and he was fired.

Youth League

Sisulu joined the ANC in 1940 and was among the group of radicals who formed the Youth League in 1943/44.

The organisation’s leadership had, in the late 1920s, split over whether to co-operate with the Communist Party, and the ensuing victory of the conservatives within the ANC left the party small and disorganised through the 1930s.

In the 1940s the ANC revived under younger leaders who pressed for a more militant stance against colour bars in South Africa.

The ANC Youth League attracted Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela, who in turn displaced the party’s moderate leadership in 1949 at what many view as the party’s watershed conference.

Under Sisulu, Tambo and Mandela’s leadership the ANC began sponsoring non-violent protests, strikes, boycotts, and marches, in the process becoming a target of police harassment and arrest. By the end of World War II the ANC had begun strong agitation against the pass laws, and when the largely white electorate voted in the National Party in 1948, the ANC’s membership grew rapidly, rising to 100 000 in 1952.

Mama Africa

In 1944, he married Nontsikelelo Albertina, with whom he was to have five children. Mrs Sisulu was a much-loved and internationally respected activist in her own right. Her work earned her the title Mama Africa.

Sisulu was elected ANC secretary general in 1949, a post he held until 1954 when banning orders forced him to resign the position.

He served on the joint planning council for the Defiance Campaign, and led one of the first batches of passive resisters when the campaign began in 1952. Campaigners refused to carry the notorious “pass book” all native South Africans had to carry by law and hundreds were arrested.

Sisulu was one of the accused in the Treason Trial, which began in 1956.

In 1960, during a State of Emergency, he was detained without trial. He was arrested six times in 1962 and placed under 13-hour house arrest on October 26 and under 24-hour house arrest on April 3, 1963.

Pending an appeal against a six year sentence, he forfeited bail of R6 000 on April 19, 1963, and went underground. In July 1963, Sisulu was arrested and detained under the 90-day law.

Rivonia Trial

At the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he was the main defence witness and was subjected to a fierce attack from the prosecutor, Percy Yutar.

Sisulu told him: “I wish you were an African. Then you would know…”

He was charged with sabotage and other offences in the Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. He was released in October 1989 after 26 years in jail.

He was elected ANC deputy president at its national conference of July 1991 and remained in that position until after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.

In January 1992, Sisulu was awarded Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honour granted by the ANC, for his contribution to the struggle for liberation.

Sisulu remained active in the ANC following the end of his term as deputy president in December 1994. For several years he maintained an office in the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters and undertook a number of responsibilities on behalf of the organisation.