'Quiet engine' of struggle against apartheid

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at eircom.net
Mon May 19 10:45:20 MDT 2003

'Quiet engine' of struggle against apartheid

  Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu: It is impossible for anyone who has not shared
the experience to fathom the psychological suffering of those born into the
no-man's-land of "coloured" status in apartheid South Africa.

But, whatever the hardship his mixed parentage brought to the life of Walter
Sisulu, who has died aged 90, South Africa can give thanks to the white
foreman of black road workers who went to the Encobo area of the Transkei
early in the last century and fathered one of the undoubted heroes of the
liberation struggle.

Sisulu was - with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo - part of the triumvirate
whose steady commitment to non-racialism contributed more than any other
individuals to the realisation of South Africa's democracy.

The closest of friends, their contributions were each subtly different,
supplementing each other in a way which was perhaps crucial to the outcome
of the struggle: Mandela, the dignified leader who led by example; Tambo,
who took on the burden of the exile years, and the small and slightly
dishevelled figure of Sisulu.

He will no doubt always be remembered as "Nelson's aide". It is the position
he held formally - as deputy president of the African National Congress -
until his belated retirement from office on December 17th, 1994, just eight
months after the election of the new democratic government, under the
presidency of Nelson Mandela. The extent to which he was more than a mere
aide is a matter for surmise, but there is evidence that his influence was
huge. On a mid-1990s visit to Robben Island - their shared home for more
than a quarter of a century - Mandela recalled how, in late 1984, he took
the crucial decision to open negotiations with the National Party
government, asking for permission to see the senior ANC officials
incarcerated with him.

"I calculated that if I convinced Walter Sisulu, he would help convince the
rest," Mandela explained, in tribute to the standing of the aide who had
once been his mentor.

It was in 1941 that Sisulu, then the regional leader of the ANC in
Johannesburg, and living in Soweto, took in the young lodger. Soon
afterwards, Sisulu persuaded Mandela to join the ANC. But, crucial though
the two men were to each other and the liberation movement, Sisulu's
personal story of political struggle started before that.

Born two years before the outbreak of the first World War he was - despite
his mixed parentage - raised in the tribal tradition by an uncle, a minor
chief, undergoing Xhosa initiation rites. Educated at a local Anglican
missionary school, he was forced to find work at the age of 15, initially at
a Johannesburg dairy, to support the family after his uncle's death.

He worked at a series of jobs, including a stint in a gold mine, as well as
a period in domestic service, bringing his mother and sister with him to
Johannesburg in the early 1930s.

In 1940, he was fired from a bakery where he was working for organising a
national strike. In the same year, now a fiery young militant nursing strong
antipathy towards whites, he joined the ANC. In 1944, he, Mandela and Tambo
formed the ANC Youth League. Sisulu swiftly rose through the ranks of the
ANC to the position of secretary general in 1949.

It was in the 1940s that he was first jailed, after getting involved in an
altercation with a white ticket collector who had confiscated a black
child's season ticket. It was also in this period that he met his wife,
Albertina; it was one of the most durable and celebrated marriages of the
struggle, the couple marking their 50th wedding anniversary at a party
presided over by Mandela in July 1994.

Though he was a key figure in the leadership of the "defiance campaign" from
1952, Sisulu's experience working with anti-apartheid leaders of other
races - notably Indian activists - and a subsequent five-month tour of
eastern bloc countries, Israel and Britain appear to have softened his
fervent black nationalism. Supporting the launch of the multiracial Congress
alliance in 1954, he was soon seen as an opponent by the "Africanist" group
in the ANC.

During the early years of confrontation with the white Nationalist
government, Sisulu was repeatedly banned, jailed and placed under house
arrest before going underground in 1963 to join the armed struggle. Captured
four months later, in the July 11th raid on the ANC's secret HQ at
Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with
Mandela and others in the famous Rivonia trial.

Sisulu was released from Robben Island in late 1989 with other senior
members of the ANC, in a trial run for Mandela's release the following year.
Already in his late 70s and suffering from a heart problem, he nevertheless
found himself catapulted back to the forefront of the anti-apartheid
struggle, as "internal" leader of the ANC.

With Mandela's release, his leadership years appeared to be over. But he was
pressed into service again in July 1991, when he was drafted as deputy
president to forestall a Mandela succession battle which was threatening to
break out among the next generation of ANC leaders.

Excused service in the government of national unity, after the ANC's
election victory in April 1994, he was finally allowed to stand down in
favour of the man who was to go on to become the successor to Mandela as
president, Thabo Mbeki. He retired to the same small Soweto house where his
mother had taken in washing more than 60 years before.

Shortly after his release from Robben Island, Sisulu told an American
interviewer that he did not know whether he would live to see the end of
apartheid. He did, of course, live to see the realisation of that dream to
which he had contributed so much. And time may show it was not his only
contribution South Africa's future.

Sisulu had an intense interest in Ireland and particularly in the struggle
for independence. Interviewed by The Irish Times in 1990 he expressed
special admiration for Eamon de Valera. His support for the idea of a Truth
and Reconciliation Commission stemmed to a very large extent from his
knowledge of Irish affairs. Without such a commission he felt that South
Africa could descend into the morass of bitterness that has characterised
politics in Northern Ireland for so many decades.

He is survived by Albertina and eight children. The white foreman may not
have realised it when he entered into his liaison with a black peasant girl
in 1911, but he could well have founded something of a political dynasty.

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu: born May 18th, 1912; died May 6th, 2003

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