A saga of struggles

Print edition : June 06, 2003

Walter Sisulu gives a 'black power salute' at a meeting in Johannesburg on December 8, 1989. - RAYMOND PRESTON/AP

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, 1912-2003.

THE death of Walter Sisulu, the steely revolutionary leader who was affectionately called Tata (grandfather) by all who knew him in his later years, brings to an end yet another heroic life of uncompromising resistance to colonialism, racism and apartheid in South Africa. He died at his home in Johannesburg, on April 5. He leaves his wife Albertina, his comrade and companion in his personal and political life for almost 60 years (they were married in July 1944), three sons, two daughters and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

In his reaction to Sisulu's death, former South African President Nelson Mandela said that he felt as if a part of him had died. In his speech at a function organised by the African National Congress (ANC) to celebrate Walter Sisulu's 90th birthday in 2002, Mandela had this to say about his closest living comrade and friend, a giant and cornerstone of the movement: "Walter Sisulu has lived through and witnessed the major events of the last century that shaped South Africa. What is more important is that he was a major participant in decisively shaping and making that history."

WALTER MAX ULYATE SISULU was born in the village of Qutubeni in the Ngcobo area of the Transkei, Cape Province, on May 12, 1912, the same year in which the ANC was founded. His mother, Alice Sisulu, was a black domestic worker and his father, Albert Victor Dickinson, was a white government employee working in the area. According to a recent biographical study of Sisulu and his wife (Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime, David Philip, Cape Town, 2002) by Elinor Sisulu, their daughter-in-law and a scholar in her own right, the relationship between Alice and Victor, not common but also not unusual in their milieu, was acknowledged on both sides; and the couple had another child, a daughter called Rosalind, four years later. Their mother and an uncle brought up both the children.

Like so many other young men of his background, Walter left school and his village for Johannesburg at the age of 15 and worked at various jobs, including in the goldmines. He was entirely self-educated and educated in the university of life. Active in the trade union movement of the black workers, he joined the ANC in 1940 and occupied leading positions in the organisation until he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. He was elected as the first full time secretary general of the ANC in 1949 and held that position until 1954; consequent upon his being `banned', he had to resign that year. He took a leading role in the Defiance Campaign - a movement of civil disobedience against the pass laws, Group Areas Act, Suppression of Communism Act and several other similar anti-democratic laws - launched on June 26, 1952 by the ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Natal Indian Congress. One of his close colleagues in this campaign was Nana Sita, the well-known leader of the Transvaal Indian Congress.

As secretary general of the ANC, Walter Sisulu visited China, the Soviet Union and Europe in 1953. On his return, he was arrested and later `banned' under the Suppression of Communism Act, an ordeal he had undergone earlier. The `banning' of persons was a uniquely vicious and constricting provision of the apartheid regime; a `banned' person became for all practical purposes an `unperson' who was forbidden, and with whom was forbidden, all contacts and who often could not even hold a job. During the state of emergency in 1960, soon after the banning of the ANC in April 1960, he was detained without trial - the first of the several times he was so detained.

He was among the 156 persons brought to trial on treason charges in December 1956, following the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People on June 26, 1955. All the accused in what came to be known as Treason Trial were discharged.

`House-arrested' in 1962, he was convicted in March 1963 of furthering the aims of the banned ANC and organising the May 1961 `Stay To Home' strike, and sentenced to six years imprisonment. Released on bail, but kept under 24-hour house arrest (another unique method of oppression devised by the apartheid regime), pending the disposal of his appeal against the sentence, he forfeited the bail of 6,000 rands and disappeared from his home on April 20,1963. While underground, he made a defiant broadcast on ANC's Radio Freedom on the occasion of Freedom Day on June 26, 1963, vowing that the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing, would continue its attacks.

He was arrested, with several of his colleagues, on July 11, 1963 from the farmhouse in Rivonia, the headquarters of the Umkhonto we Sizwe and Radio Freedom. Brought to trial on sabotage charges in July 1963, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with seven other defendants - Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mahlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsolaedi - in the famous Rivonia Trial in June 1964.

The regime thought that with these arrests, all resistance would melt away. But the resistance continued, from within the country, outside the country and even in prisons. It was this militant resistance, as much as the international sanctions, that persuaded the regime to seek a negotiated settlement. The release, in instalments, of some leading political prisoners was part of this process. Dennis Goldberg was released in 1988, after undertaking to leave the country; and Govan Mbeki was released in November 1987, on the grounds of ill health, only to be confined to house arrest in Port Elizabeth soon thereafter. Walter Sisulu, with four other colleagues, was released in October 1989, when the transition process was well on its way, though the apartheid regime still hoped to set the agenda and manipulate the transition process with a view to ensuring its survival. The culmination of this process was the release of Nelson Mandela on February 10, 1990. Hence the process of transition to democracy, despite several serious problems created by the regime and its stooges, became irreversible.

Walter Sisulu was elected deputy president of the ANC in Durban in July 1991, at its first national conference within the country in 30 years. He did not contest South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994 and ceased to hold any formal position even in the ANC after the Bloemfontein national conference of the party in December 1994. For much of the first term of the democratic government, he attended the ANC office regularly, occupying a room next to Nelson Mandela's in Shell House, the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg. He was also a regular presence at the formal opening of Parliament every year on the first Friday of February, occupying a seat in the visitor's gallery, infinitely courteous and affectionate to the numerous persons who greeted him.

Among the several honours he received were the Isitwalandwe Separankoe, the ANC's highest award, on January 8, 1992, the 80th anniversary of the founding of the ANC, and the Padma Vibhushan from the Government of India.

With former South African President Nelson Mandela, at his 90th birthday celebrations in Johannesburg.-YOAV LEMMER/AFP

THREE leaders of the South African revolution, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, along with Govan Mbeki, slightly older than the rest, constituted a unique leadership, with each of them being really the first among equals. One can understand Mandela's sense of loss, for he is now the only one left of this generation of the ANC leadership.

For all his avuncular appearance and manner during his later years, Walter Sisulu was truly steely and uncompromising in his revolutionary will, in his ability to argue a point and refrain from making polite compromises on questions of principle. Two of such instances will suffice to prove this point. Once, during his interrogation in the Rivonia Trial by the prosecuting counsel, the hectoring and highly educated Percy Yutar, he was able to hold his own, never allowing himself to be provoked or trapped into implicating others. Joel Joffe was the `instructing attorney' representing Nelson Mandela and was part of the defence team. The following exchange between the two is taken from Joffe's book The Rivonia Story (Mayibuye Books, Cape Town, 1995).

Yutar: What for? (Yutar wants Walter Sisulu to explain what he meant when he said that Dennis Goldberg had travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg to escape the possibility of arrest by the Cape Town police.)

Sisulu: 90 days (solitary confinement).

Yutar: What for? The police do not arrest people indiscriminately unless...

Sisulu: They arrest many people indiscriminately. For no offence, people have been arrested.

Yutar: Would you like to make a political speech?

Sisulu: I am not making a political speech. I am answering your question.

Yutar: How do you know they arrest people innocently?

Sisulu: I know. They arrested my wife; they arrested my son. That was indiscriminate.

Yutar: Without any evidence whatsoever?<18> Sisulu: What evidence? Yutar: I don't know. I am asking.

Sisulu: I have been persecuted by the police. If there is a man who is persecuted by the police, it is myself. In 1962, I was arrested six times. I know the position in this country.

Yutar: You do?

Sisulu: I wish you were in the position of an African. I wish you were an African and knew my position.

Secondly, as any one who has spent long years, or even a short period, in political detention would know, the unique internal world of the prison, the forced proximity which becomes oppressive even if the other persons happen to be the closest of friends and comrades, the routine, the harsh discipline, the boredom, the arrangements for food, sleeping and toilet, for rest and recreation, the jealous guarding of one's `space' even in an environment where one really does not have any space of one's own, the arbitrary bestowing and withdrawal of small favours in all these respects by the authorities and a thousand other things, are deliberately structured to break the prisoners, to create tensions and alienate even the closest of comrades from each other.

Robben Island was no exception, as numerous political prisoners, even the most heroic of them, have testified in their accounts. However, every such account also acknowledges the uniquely unflappable staunchness of Walter Sisulu and his enormous reserves of inner strength. A major crisis arose when Nelson Mandela initiated, on his own, an approach to the regime on what would nowadays be called `talks about talks'. The initiative split the `Higher Organ', that is the leadership of the ANC in the prison. Govan Mbeki's views on this matter are well known. Sisulu, despite his close personal and family links to Mandela, was also among those who initially opposed that initiative and made no compromise on his position until he was convinced of the correctness of the initiative.

It is perhaps best to end this obituary with another short passage from Nelson Mandela's address on the occasion of Walter Sisulu's 90th birthday. "He was a unifier, not a divider. Where others of us would speak a hasty word or act in anger, he was the patient one, seeking to heal and bring together."

Go well, beloved comrade and Tata, go well in peace.

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