We are the soldiers of Sisulu by Thabo Mbeki 2003

[From 'Letter from the President', ANC Today, Vol.3, No.19, 16--22 May 2003]

This week we will say our last farewells to a giant of our struggle, Xhamela, Walter Sisulu. He will leave to his final resting place from the Orlando Stadium, in Soweto, where he lived for many decades, among the masses of black working people who supply labour to the businesses of the greater Johannesburg area.

With the departure of Walter Sisulu, we have lost one of the major architects of the ANC, as we know it today. He played a central role among the group of leaders and activists who have occupied the front ranks of our movement for 60 years.

Together, they established the ANC Youth League. They changed the forms of struggle used by the ANC from petitioning the powers that be, by mobilising the people to engage in mass action for their liberation. They broadened the movement for national liberation, by ensuring that it includes all sections of our population, African, White, Coloured and Indian, giving birth to the Congress Movement.

They established a strategic alliance between the ANC, the SACP and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and later, COSATU, led by the ANC as the political leader of the national democratic movement.

They mobilised our people to produce an enduring vision for a liberated South Africa, as contained in the Freedom Charter.

When the circumstances changed, they worked to ensure that the ANC continued to live and to lead, by rebuilding it as an underground movement and establishing an external mission led by one among them, the late Oliver Tambo, supported by others who belonged to the same generation, including Moses Kotane, J.B. Marks and Yusuf Dadoo.

Refusing to submit to tyranny, they decided to include armed struggle among our forms of struggle, leading to the formation of the people's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe. They led the process that established one of the biggest internationalist solidarity movements in history, the world anti-apartheid movement, involving millions of people throughout the world as supporters of our struggle and friends of our people.

At the same time, Walter Sisulu and his comrades also taught our movement that it also had a responsibility to act in solidarity with others elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world, who, like us, were involved in struggle for freedom, peace and social progress. This entrenched the internationalist character of our movement, which was expressed at the very formation of the ANC, when it secured the patronage of the traditional leaders of our people, throughout Southern Africa, and later inspiring the establishment of sister ANCs in a number of countries of our region.

When the time came, Walter Sisulu and his peers, especially Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, led our movement to prepare for the negotiated resolution of the conflict in our country and to take us through the process of negotiations successfully. They led us through the first democratic elections in our country and the first years of the establishment of our democratic system of government.

Under their leadership, South Africa transformed itself from the status of an international pariah, to an important contributor to the struggle for Africa's renaissance, and an integral part of the world forces working to build a world order of democracy, peace, equality among the nations, and prosperity for all.

By any standard, these contributions constitute a critical part both of our rich history and the kind of South Africa we are able to build today. We are therefore very right to salute Walter Sisulu in the manner that we have done in the period since May 5, when he passed away.

We are correct to feel a great sense of loss at the departure of so great a leader of our movement and people as Walter Sisulu. We have lost a valuable guide, with a great wealth of experience, on whom we could call for advice as we grappled with the serious challenges of transformation that we face everyday.

When Walter Sisulu took up fulltime work in the ANC as its Secretary General, our organisation did not have sufficient resources both to pay its chief executive officer and to implement the decisions taken by its National Conferences and National Executive Committee. Knowing very well that more often than not, he would not be paid, Walter Sisulu did not hesitate to carry out the instruction of National Conference to work fulltime for the organisation.

This reflected the ready willingness of Walter Sisulu and others of his comrades to make the necessary sacrifices to secure the liberation of our people, as they had shown during the Defiance Campaign of 1952. This echoed the similar willingness of the masses of the people to engage in action to liberate themselves, being ready to pay whatever the necessary price might be, as was demonstrated during the 1946 mine workers strike and the mass struggles of 1950 in Alexandra Township.

Walter Sisulu's commitment to our movement and our struggle was further to be tested during the 30-year period of extreme repression from 1960 to 1990. This period gradually built up during the 1950s with the passage of the Suppression of Communism Act and the banning of the Communist Party, through the violent suppression of mass action, and the marathon Treason Trial of 1956-61. Walter Sisulu was among those targeted by the apartheid regime as it prepared to hit at our movement harder, using ever more brutal means. At no point did he waver or seek to retreat.

Then began the period of extreme repression proper, with the 1960 massacres at Sharpeville and Cape Town, and the banning of the ANC and the PAC. For Walter Sisulu and his comrades, this was to culminate in the Rivonia arrests and trial, and their life imprisonment by the apartheid courts. Thus Walter Sisulu was to spend 25 years of his life in the apartheid jails.

Once more, during the Rivonia Trial, he, together with the others, demonstrated his willingness even to pay the supreme sacrifice to secure the freedom of his people by using the witness box as a platform to sustain the political offensive against the oppressors' regime. When the time came, together with the others, he decided that it would be politically incorrect to appeal against the death sentence, in the event that such a sentence was handed down.

As they had argued with regard to the struggle in general, these leaders of our movement said that they would rather rely on the struggles of the masses of our people to save them from the gallows, rather than depend on the humiliating mercy of their oppressors. If the masses he loved could not save his life, Walter Sisulu was ready to go to the gallows defiantly singing of the freedom he knew would come, even if he had been murdered by the apartheid regime.

But even as he fought against the increasingly brutal system of apartheid, Walter Sisulu never abandoned the vision and conviction that had informed the response of our people to the European settlers from the very first days of their arrival in the Cape. Our people were ready to share their country with the new arrivals, extending to them the traditional welcome with which new settlers were received.

However, these settlers were intent on colonisation, the seizure of the land of the indigenous population, and their subjugation and super-exploitation as a colonised people. But still, throughout the centuries during which our people fought for their liberation, at no time were they driven by an anti-white sentiment, being inspired by the desire for a just and peaceful coexistence between themselves and the new arrivals from Europe.

And so it was that Walter Sisulu and others in his cadre of leaders, resisted for a long time the demand to take up arms against the apartheid regime. They did this because even as this regime was closing off all avenues to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in our country, they were determined that change should be brought about with the minimum loss of life among both black and white.

Indeed, when it became absolutely necessary to resort to armed struggle, our leaders directed that it should be carried out in a manner that minimised loss of life. This position was maintained throughout the period of armed struggle.

Some of our critics, who played no part in the struggle to liberate our people, content to enjoy the privileges of the apartheid system, often comment in a disparaging manner about the effectiveness of our armed struggle.

Perhaps what they will never understand is the humanism that drove Walter Sisulu and our leaders, which imposed an obligation on Umkhonto we Sizwe to conduct its operations under the most restrictive political commands. Contrary to what they suggest about an effective armed struggle, we are proud that Umkhonto we Sizwe did not conduct itself in a manner that would have resulted both in many operations and the death of many non-combatants, both black and white.

But it is precisely this that we, the fighters for the victory of the national democratic revolution must understand, that Walter Sisulu gave a particular and distinct character to our movement. He taught us that because we were opponents of white racist tyranny, we must ourselves be principled adherents of the vision of a non-racial South Africa, and the practices this entailed, even within our movement.

Because we were enemies of a neo-fascist regime, we must ourselves remain very firm in our adherence to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

He taught us that specifically because we were fighting a regime that based its relations, especially with the rest of the African continent, on the use and the threat of the use of force in all its forms, to achieve domination, we had to remain loyal to the internationalist traditions of our movement, which respected the independence of peoples, and equality, friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation among the nations.

We had to fight and defeat all efforts that sought to encourage us to copy our enemy in its ideology and methods. Whereas it pursued anti-human policies, we, for our part, and at all times, had to affirm and re-affirm the humanist purposes of the ANC and the rest of the broad movement for national liberation. This is exactly why at the Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela said he was as opposed to black domination, as he was opposed to white domination.

As we bid farewell to this great giant of our struggle, Walter Sisulu, all our leaders, cadres and members have a duty both to study the life and invaluable contribution of Walter Sisulu and others of his comrades. All of us have a duty to try as best we can to emulate Walter Sisulu in doing all the things that are necessary further to advance the national democratic revolution. This includes a deep understanding of the need to make the necessary sacrifices to give effect to our express commitment to serve the people of South Africa, as Walter Sisulu did, without seeking any rewards of any kind.

One of our old freedom songs says: "We are the soldiers of Luthuli. Wherever we may be, we pledge to bear witness to the nobility of our cause." At the passing of Walter Sisulu, and as our tribute to him, we must proclaim by word and deed: "We are the soldiers of Sisulu. Wherever we may be, we pledge to bear witness to the nobility of our cause."