Walter Sisulu (1913 - 2003)
pieinsky at igc.org
Tue May 6 06:01:59 MDT 2003
Anti-apartheid campaigner Walter Sisulu dies, aged 90
06 May 2003
Walter Sisulu, a charismatic, quiet leader who brought Nelson Mandela into
the African National Congress and helped lead the fight against apartheid
for five decades, has died, aged 90.
He had been suffering from a long illness, according to the ANC
"His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone," Mr Mandela said in a
Throughout the fight against the racist white regime, Mr Sisulu and Mr
Mandela stood together. They went on trial together, went to jail together
and worked together to transform the organisation from a banned liberation
movement to the nation's governing party.
"Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments," Mr Mandela said. "We
walked side by side through the valley of death, nursing each other's
bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savored
the taste of freedom."
While Mr Mandela became the public face of resistance - and eventually the
nation's first black president - Mr Sisulu, perhaps his closest confidant,
remained the clear-thinking strategist in the background.
"(Sisulu) stands head and shoulders above all of us in South Africa,"
Mandela told a group of South African children recently. "You will ask what
is reason for his elevated status among us. Very simple, it is humility. It
is simplicity. Because he pushed all of us forward and remained quietly in
Mr Sisulu's entire family threw itself into the anti-apartheid struggle and
suffered deeply for it. He was imprisoned for more than 25 years. His wife
Albertina's movements and speech were restricted for 17 years from 1964, and
she spent 10 years under house arrest. Four of their five children have
spent time in exile or in prison.
"This government doesn't feel comfortable unless it has a Sisulu in jail,"
his son Zwelakhe once joked.
In a sign of the huge change in South Africa, Zwelakhe became head of the
state broadcasting corporation and Sisulu's daughter Lindiwe became the
country's intelligence minister.
More than any other black leader, Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu's life mirrored
the history of his beloved ANC. They were born the same year, 1912, and the
young Sisulu developed a deep-rooted militancy because of his mixed-race
ancestry and hatred of his family's deference to whites.
The son of a poor family in the Xhosa homeland of Transkei, Mr Sisulu left
home at 15 to seek work in Johannesburg. He worked as a baker's assistant,
domestic servant, dairy worker, factory laborer and gold miner - and often
found himself leading labourers in disputes with bosses.
He eventually set up his own real estate business.
He joined the ANC in 1940 and became a big brother figure to young men from
rural areas seeking to get a start in the big city. He gave advice and help
to Mr Mandela and Oliver Tambo, both of whom would become ANC presidents. Mr
Tambo died in 1993.
Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu formed the ANC Youth League in 1944, hoping to
press the older leadership to adopt more aggressive tactics. With the
league's backing, Mr Sisulu was elected ANC secretary general in 1949 and he
helped organize the 1952 "defiance campaign," a program of civil
disobedience against apartheid laws.
Initially a staunch black nationalist, he softened his views when other
races helped the ANC with the defiance campaign. Following a tour of the
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1953, he officially advocated the ANC
philosophy of non-racialism.
Mr Sisulu was charged in December 1956 with treason, along with Mr Mandela
and 154 other South Africans of all races who had supported the Freedom
Charter calling for a non-racial democracy and a socialist-based economy.
All were acquitted after a five-year trial considered a failed effort to
paralyze the ANC leadership.
In July 1963, he was arrested with others at the ANC's secret headquarters
in Rivonia, outside Johannesburg. Police found documents in which Mr Mandela
and Mr Sisulu discussed sabotage strategies and guerrilla action.
They were convicted in 1964 of plotting anti-government sabotage in a highly
publicized trial that showed the world the extent of South Africa's racial
The death penalty was expected, but under international pressure, the judge
gave the defendants life sentences, and the men were sent to the notorious
Robben Island prison, off Cape Town.
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