Walter Sisulu celebrates 90th birthday


Walter Sisulu

Saturday, 18 May 2002

Walter Sisulu celebrates his 90th birthday. One of the godfathers of the fight for equality in South Africa, he has fought long and hard against racism and prejudice, moving in and out of apartheid prisons, travelling the world and in 1992 was awarded the Isitwalandwe award by the ANC for his contribution to the struggle.

Here follows a transcription of Elinor Sisulu's lecture on the life of Walter Sisulu and his involvement in the ANC, presented on the 15th of May 2002 at Senate House, University of Witwatersrand. Elinor is his daughter-in-law and official biographer:


A public lecture by Elinor Sisulu

15 May 2002

Senate House

University of the Witwatersrand

co-sponsored by The Wits History Workshop

The Institute for Global Dialogue

The South African Democracy Education Trust

Introductory remarks

This paper does not aim to be a comprehensive account of Walter Sisulu's life. It is impossible to condense ninety years and a political career of more than half a century into a half hour presentation. I have instead focused on the highlights of his political career and his relationship to the ANC.


Walter Sisulu was born in Qutubeni Village in the district of Engcobo in the Transkei on 18 May 1912. His mother, Alice Manse Sisulu, worked as a domestic worker in white households and boarding houses around the Transkei.

Alice was the daughter of Abraham Moyikwa Sisulu, a prosperous peasant farmer. Walter's biological father was a white magistrate who, while acknowledging parentage of Walter and his sibling Rosabella, played little part in their upbringing or later lives. Walter was raised as a Sisulu and he identified completely with his mother's family. The real paternal influence in Walter's life was his uncle Dyanti Hlakula, the head of the Hlakula/Sisulu clan and the head of Qutubeni village. Dyanti Hlakula and his extended family were Christians and Dyanti, who was a lay preacher of the Anglican Church, had strong links with the nearby All Saints Mission, where Walter was baptised.

On 8 January 1912, a few months before Walter's birth, leading African intellectuals, lawyers, teachers, religious leaders and chiefs had gathered together in Bloemfontein to form the South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress). In 1902 the South African Native Congress - the ANC's progenitor - had been founded in the Eastern Cape, partly in response to grave concern about issues of political rights and land by the educated black elite. In the same year, the African Political (later People's) Organization, was founded in Cape Town by Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, to represent the interests of the Coloured community. (The Natal Indian Congress had been formed under the presidency of Mohandas Ghandi eight years earlier, in the same year that Natal Indians were denied the franchise.) These organisations became increasingly concerned at the exclusion of any African voice from the incorporation of the four colonies into the Union of South Africa in 1910, as well as the plans for a constitution based on the principles of racial division. The first pan-African national convention was held in Bloemfontein in 1909, and a deputation was sent to appeal (unsuccessfully) to the British Parliament.

This shared concern for unity, an abhorrence of racial and tribal divisions and experience of mobilisation led to the establishment of the African National Congress. The Rev. John L Dube was elected President, and Sol T Plaatjie Secretary. Those who initiated this were leading intellectuals, lawyers, teachers, religious leaders and chiefs. Their initial statements were couched in reasonable language with moderate views expressed - petitions to the British throne, for example, professed loyalty to the King and the British Empire. What was radical at the time was the commitment to a national rather than various tribal identities.

As they welcomed the birth of Alice Manse's baby, members of the Sisulu/Hlakula clan were scarcely aware of these dramatic developments hundreds of miles away in distant Bloemfontein. They could not have imagined that the destiny of their newest son would be inextricably intertwined with that of the new organisation.


Like most young boys in rural Transkei, Walter spent much of his childhood tending to the family livestock. He would wake before sunrise and proceed with the other boys to the cattle kraal and sheep and goat pens. The younger boys milked the sheep and goats while the older boys attended to the milking of the cows. The boys spent the days in the fields tending the animals. The cattle were driven to the kraals just before sunset. While in the fields the boys would enjoy picking wild fruit and choosing sticks for the traditional sport of stick-fighting. Walter's contemporaries remember him as a champion stick-fighter who fought honourably and was always generous in victory.

Walter started school in 1923 first in Manzana then in Qutubeni and walked the two miles to All Saints daily where he completed Std 4 and part of Std 5. He was popular with his teachers and schoolmates and developed lifelong friendships. He was particularly close to Samuel Mase, whose uncle was married to Walter's aunt. Walter's favourite subject was history and Makana, the great Xhosa chief and the legendary Zulu king, Shaka, were his heroes. He also loved Bible stories especially the story of Joseph because here was a small person who defeated a great enemy because he was able to plan. Interested as he was in Bible stories, Walter was not religious and from an early age he questioned the contradictions in the Bible.

Walter loved singing and enthusiastically participated in singing competitions with other choirs. He was an average student who never shone academically but made a deep impression on all those with who he interacted. He left school half way through standard five, shortly after the death of his guardian, Dyanti Hlakula.


After working on the farm in the Transkei for about a year Walter followed the footsteps of many of his peers and migrated to Johannesburg to work on the mines. Because at 16 he was too young to work underground, the Chief Clerk who was also from Engcobo, arranged for Walter to work for the dairy farmer who delivered milk to the mine. After eight months on the job Walter quarrelled with his boss who then assaulted him badly. Walter went to report the matter to the police and received his first taste of South African justice. The police further assaulted him and verbally abused him before calling his boss to collect him. He then went through a series of jobs - a domestic worker, a sweeper on the mines and finally a miner. He worked on the mine for 8 months and returned home when his contract expired towards the end of 1929.

At the beginning of 1930 together with his age-mates, he underwent the traditional circumcision ceremony that marked his coining of age. The rituals that preceded and followed the circumcision made a deep impression on Walter and he took his entry into adulthood very seriously. He returned to Johannesburg in mid-1930 to go back to work. As a young man he had to pay taxes and help pay school fees for Rosabella who was in school at All Saints.

Some time in 1931 at the end of his contract, Walter returned to Qutubeni where he took part in village courts. His community was feeling the effects of pressure on the land. He had a vivid memory of a large meeting at Engcobo where the local magistrate and Bunga members were giving a report to the people. The magistrate said people would have to cull their stock, especially goats, which were destroying the trees and depleting the soil. A red-blanketed man got up and caused a sensation by declaring that what the magistrate had just stated was a declaration of war on the people. He asked why black people were being asked to limit their stock whilst the magistrate did not tell the white farmers to cull their huge herds. The chiefs asked the man to withdraw his statement but he refused. Walter was highly impressed by the defiance of the red-blanketed man.

East London

Towards the end of 1931 Walter went to East London to look for work. Unfortunately for him it was a period of economic depression and high unemployment. Walter's arrival in East London also coincided with the end of a strike, which had been organised by the industrial Commercial Union (ICU). He began to attend ICU meetings where he heard the lCU leader Clements Kadalie speak about the oppression of black people. Though he was interested in the topic, he was not overly impressed by Kadalie "Even at that stage, Kadalie was a man who spoke more about himself . He later revised his opinion of Kadalie when he heard him speak in Johannesburg.

From Doornfontein to Orlando

Walter also attended meetings addressed by R H Godlo, the prominent journalist for East London's Daily Dispatch and the Xhosa monthly Umlindi we Nyanga. Walter was highly impressed by Godlo's dignified manner and oratory skills. Walter also heard a lot about Walter Rabusana, a founder member of the ANC. In East London Walter became a rugby fan and was a frequent visitor to the sports ground to watch rugby matches. After a grim period of unemployment during which he had to sell his clothes to survive he finally found a job as a domestic worker for a white family. Although he was satisfied with his job, Walter decided to return to Qutubeni at the end of 1932. He proceeded to Johannesburg in 1933 where he went to stay in Doornfontein with his mother who was working as a washerwoman.

Walter managed to get a job with Premier Biscuits, a subsidiary of Premier Milling Company, in Siemert Road in Doornfontein. He worked from 8 am to 5pm and helped his mother over weekends by delivering washing to Yeoville, Bertrams and Bezuidenhout Valley. He also attended night school at the Bantu Men's Social Club (BMSC) in Eloff Street Extension and then at the Swedish Mission School.

In 1934 Walter and his mother became one of the many thousands of African families who were forcibly removed from Doornfontein to Orlando township which had been established in 1932. Walter was forced to abandon night school after the move to Orlando because he could not afford the train fare to the city.

At the beginning of 1936 Walter was fired from Premier Milling for initiating a strike to demand higher wages - an increase of 2s 6d a week and an allocation of bread. He found a temporary job as an agent selling the newspaper Bantu World. He was a great admirer of its editor, Selope Thema, a leader in the early African National Congress, the Joint Council Movement, the Native Representative Council and the All African Convention. Shortly after starting work at the Bantu World, Walter decided to become a distribution agent for a number of papers: Bantu World (later Naledi), Ilanga lase Natal, lmvo Sobantu, Mochochonono, and the Rhodesian newspaper, Bantu Mirror.

In addition to his agency, Walter continued to look for full-time work. He was not very successful because his stubborn insistence on his rights earned him a number of dismissals. Between 1938 and 1940 he worked as a clerk, a census enumerator and a bank teller in the non-white section of the Union Bank of South Africa. Around this period Walter was learning that being a black person in South Africa meant being constantly on the wrong side of the law. While job-hunting, he was arrested and taken to Hillbrow Police Station because "something was wrong with his pass-book". He had to pay a ten shilling admission of guilt fine, a hefty amount for someone in his circumstances. What he found even more disturbing was the assaults he witnessed at the police station. He was shocked at the police assaulting some of the prisoners with the butts of their guns.

Not long after, while distributing leaflets for Bantu World, he had another brush with the law when he intervened on behalf of a young girl who was being harassed by a ticket examiner on the train to Orlando. When the train pulled in at New Canada Station, Walter was handed over to the police and taken to the Orlando Police Station. He was not allowed bail and had his first taste of "kulukut", meaning 'isolation section' in South African prison jargon. He was released after a three pound fine paid by his family. Despite the hazards of urban township life, the move to Orlando constituted a break from the past for Walter and 'home' became Orlando. His sister Rosabella joined them as well as other family members from Orlando including his cousin Caleb Mase and Walter's childhood friend Samuel Mase and his sister Evelyn.

Walter took an active part in the social life of Orlando and began to emerge as a public figure. He became the chairman of the Orlando Musical Association and a member of the Bantu Men's Social Club. He also became chairman of the Orlando Occidental Rugby Club and was always present at rugby matches. Walter's interest in African history led to his membership in the Orlando Brotherly Society, a cultural organisation formed in 1935. He also joined the Gamma Sigma Club during 1938/9. The club discussed the political problems facing the African people. At the Gamma Sigma Club he met A. P. Mda who played an important role in the Orlando Branch of the Transvaal Teachers' Association.

A political home

Walter Sisulu was formally recruited into the ANC by the trade unionist Alfred Mbele but he had been gravitating towards the ANC for some time through the wide network of contacts he had built up in his social and business activities.

By 1938 WaIter's cousin Samuel Mase had introduced him to literature from the Left Book Club. One of the books Sam introduced him to was The Making of the Transkei by Govan Mbeki. Walter was therefore highly impressed when one day in 1938 Sam brought Govan Mbeki home to visit the family. Mbeki commented in later life that one of the most remarkable things about Walter Sisulu was that he had little formal education yet he was able to hold his own among the most formidable intellects of the time (Interview with Govan Mbeki, 1995).

Walter, was also influenced by Herbert Mdingi and his two brothers Frank and David. The Mdingis were direct descendants (great grandsons) of the great Xhosa chief, Hintsa. Herbert Mdingi played an important role in shaping Walter's political outlook, especially concerning resistance to white domination. Their friendship ended when they fell out over Mdingi's support of South Africa's participation in the Second World War. In 1939 Walter read about Dr. Yusuf Dadoo's anti-war stance and was so impressed that he went to him for a medical consultation.

In the mid 1930s he met J B Marks, the prominent trade unionist, Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and ANC leader who, in the late 1930s, had helped revive the flagging fortunes of the ANC in the Transvaal. In 1936 Walter met Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma, who became president of the ANC in 1941. Xuma was from Manzana near Engcobo and his sister Diana had been one of Walter's teachers. Other leading ANC members and trade unionists he came to know at the time were Zephaniah Mothopeng, who would later become a leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, R G Baloyi, a businessman who became Treasurer-General of the ANC in 1941, Barney Ngakane, an ANC member in Orlando and Charlotte Maxeke, a pioneering member of the ANC Women's League.

In 1940 WaIter and four others, namely Thabethe, Dinelana, Nyokana and Mbere started an estate agency called Sitha Investments. Through the estate agency he established networks in the Fordsburg and Vrededorp communities. Among those he met were the Vandeyar Brothers and Goolam Pahad. In his capacity as an estate agent he came into contact with many lawyers, among them Lazar Sidelsky whose firm Wilkinson, Sidelsky and Eidelmann, later articled Nelson Mandela, at Walter's request. Walter was also friendly with trade unionist Gaur Radebe, who worked for Sidelsky and Eidelmann.

Though busy with his estate agency Walter became increasingly preoccupied with ANC work. He considered the period immediately after joining the ANC as some of the most important years of his life. "I was struggling before, you know, directionless. When I got to the ANC I began to change, even though the ANC at that time did not properly formulate its policies." It has been noted that "If joining the ANC changed Walter Sisulu's life, there is no doubt that Walter Sisulu was central in changing the character and direction of the ANC itself'. (African Communist 2nd Quarter 1992 p.8)

Shortly after joining the ANC in 1940 he was elected secretary of the Orlando Branch. Though fewer than 200 members, the Orlando Branch had an influence far greater than the size of its membership. The ANC was going through a period of revitalisation spearheaded by its new President-General, Dr Xuma. Under Xuma's leadership the ANC was streamlined and put on a sound financial footing. In one of their many discussions, Xuma spoke to Walter about the need for the youth to play a more active role in the ANC. Walter agreed with him and took it upon himself to recruit talented young people into the ANC.

One such person was Nelson Mandela. When the young Mandela arrived at his office looking for advice on how to study law, Walter immediately decided that "he was someone who would go far and should be encouraged. He was the kind of young man we needed to develop the organisation." Mandela acknowledged that it was Walter who influenced him to join the ANC: "Walter was strong, reasonable, practical and dedicated. He never lost his head in a crisis; he was often silent when others were shouting. He believed that the African National Congress was the means to effect change in South Africa, the repository of black hopes and aspirations. Sometimes one can judge an organisation by the people who belong to it, and I knew that I would be proud to belong to any organisation of which Walter was a member". (Long Walk to Freedom: 110). At the beginning of 1942 Oliver Tambo was another young man who found his way to Walter's office and became part of his ever-increasing network.

His friend A P Mda introduced Walter to two promising young men, the brilliant lawyer Anton Lembede and the journalist Jordan Ngubane, who had made his mark writing for Bantu World. One evening Lembede, Mda and Ngubane made their way to Walter's home in Orlando East where they met Walter, Mandela and Tambo. By the end of the evening they had formed the core of the Congress Youth League that would revolutionise ANC politics after its launch in 1944.

In his assessment of Walter Sisulu as one of the most influential South Africans of the twentieth century, Allister Sparks wrote that some people are born great while others have greatness thrust upon them while there are a rare few "who qualify for such exalted recognition because of the greatness they thrust upon others. Walter Sisulu is such a person". (AIlister Sparks "Walter Sisulu" Article in They Shaped Our Century: The most influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century:163). Few would disagree with Sparks's characterisation of Walter Sisulu as the ANC's primary kingmaker who helped mould the thinking of the organisation's two most important leaders, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Walter had clearly cast himself in the role of someone who would identify and nurture promising talent for the ANC and he believed, quite correctly as it turned out, that the future leader of the ANC would come from the ranks of the Congress Youth League. In the formative years of the Youth League it was Lembede, not Mandela or Tambo, who WaIter had imagined as a future ANC president. When the 33-year old Lembede died of a sudden illness in 1947, WaIter was overcome with grief at the loss of a personal friend and the loss to the organisation of a gifted and charismatic leader.


Walter's life was transformed in the 1940s, both professionally and politically. In 1941 he met Albertina Thethiwe, a young nursing student from the Transkei. He was so taken with her from their first meeting, " that in a short space of time the question of marriage came up".

Walter and Albertina Sisulu were married on 15 July 1944 at a civil ceremony in Cofimvaba in the Transkei. This was followed by a reception at the Bantu Men's Social Centre on 1 7 July. Dr Xuma and Anton Lembede were the main speakers. Lembede warned Albertina that she was marrying a man who was already married to the nation.

Walter and Albertina had five children: Max (born 1945), Lungi (born 1948), Zwelakhe (born 1950), Lindiwe (born 1954) and Nonkululeko (born 1958). They also helped raise Walter's sister's children, Gerald (born 1944) and Beryl (born 1948) and Walter's cousin's son Jongumzi (born 1957). In their early years of family life Albertina worked as a nurse while Walter's mother played an active part in raising the children.

Coming from a sheltered background as she did, Albertina Thethiwe knew little about politics when she met Walter Sisulu. He was her guide and mentor and as he had done in the case of Nelson Mandela, he introduced her to the ANC. Much of their courting revolved around attending ANC meetings and Aibertina was one of the Sisulus who later developed into a leader in her own right with a commitment to national liberation as unshakeable as that of her husband. She became a leading figure in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and was active in the pass law protests of the 1950s. She was one of the organisers and participants in the August 1956 march of 20 000 women to the Union Building. She was influenced by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and other prominent women leaders of the time but she always maintains that her husband was her first and best political teacher.

Programme of Action

The Nationalist Party victory in the 1948 elections highlighted, even to the more moderate leaders of the ANC, the need to find new ways of responding to increasing injustice and oppression. The Youth League had long recognised the need for something more dramatic than the deputations and petitions of the past. The Youth League's National Executive, of which Walter was a part, had drafted a radical new Programme of Action, which was adopted at the 1949 ANC conference. At that conference the old guard of the ANC was swept away by the militant Youth League and to his surprise Walter Sisulu was elected Secretary-General of the organisation. "I knew when I was elected as secretary-general that the whole burden of mobilising the movement was on my shoulders and it was something I would not be able to do if I had other interests". Albertina fully supported his decision and was more than happy to take on the task of being the sole breadwinner of the family. She even subsidised the ANC by paying his monthly railway ticket! Walter became the first full-time Secretary-General of the ANC with a salary of five pounds a month. Professor Z K Matthews was highly critical of Walter's decision. He pointed out, quite correctly, that Walter would not receive the five pounds because the ANC had no money!

"Walter this is irresponsible," he said. "How do you aspire to lead the nation if you cannot even provide for your own family?" (Interview with Walter:1993).

As Secretary-General of the ANC, Walter was the central figure in the turbulent Fifties, the decade that marked a new era in resistance politics. He has been described as "the quiet engine of the ANC", who drove the implementation of the Programme of Action that transformed the ANC from an ineffectual protest movement to a mass organisation that would bring freedom to South Africa. He was the first volunteer to be arrested in the 1952 Defiance Campaign against unjust laws and in the court appearance that followed he articulated his commitment to the struggle against white supremacy:

As an African and national secretary of the Congress I cannot stand aside on an issue which is a matter of life and death to my people. My duty is perfectly clear - it is to take the lead and to share with the humblest of my countrymen the crushing burden imposed on us because of the colour of our skins. ...In conclusion, I wish to make this solemn vow and in full appreciation of the consequences it entails. As long as I enjoy the confidence of my people, and as long as there is a spark of life and energy in me, I shall fight with courage and determination for the abolition of discriminatory laws and for the freedom of all South Africans irrespective of colour or creed. (Walter Sisulu: Leader of the ANC and Man of the People. IDAF p 10)

From Defiance to Treason

Time and space do not allow for a detailed examination of Walter Sisulu's role in the major campaigns of the 1 950s:the Sophiatown removals; the campaign for the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955; the campaign against the introduction of Bantu Education; the bus and potato boycotts; the political strikes later in the decade; the Treason Trial and the pass law campaigns. Suffice to say that as Secretary-General of the ANC he travelled the length and breadth of the country, maintaining contact with all the branches and provinces. It was he who had to sort out problems and conflicts in different parts of the country. When Walter attended the annual conference of the Cape Province, Professor Z K Matthews, the ANC president of the province, introduced Walter:

As for the General Secretary, it is hardly necessary for me to welcome him here. He is a son of the Cape Province and he was with us until quite recently. During his recent Cape tour he was instrumental in taking the ANC to the heart of the Transkei, that area that is supposed to be surrounded with an Iron Curtain. During his brief sojourn there, they sought him here, they sought him there, they sought him everywhere, and when he had already returned to headquarters, they were still seeking. He will soon have to be known as Mr. Walter 'Scarlet Pimpernel"' Sisulu, the ubiquitous General Secretary of the ANC. (Karis and Carter Vol 3:128)

Walter Sisulu did not only seem to be everywhere during his stint as ANC Secretary-General. He also seemed to know everyone. He interacted with all the major political activists of the time, young or old, conservative or radical. He could count among his friends, leaders and members of the ANC, the Communist Party of South Africa, the trade unions and even members of the Non-European Unity Movement, which was implacably hostile to the ANC. His capacity to establish deep and lasting friendships across barriers of race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender and age, facilitated his political work and considerably strengthened the ANC.

Walter was acutely conscious of the importance of the international community in the struggle against apartheid and some would argue that he laid the foundation for the international solidarity campaign by being the first person to place apartheid on the agenda of the United Nations through his 1952 petition to the UN. Before 1952 the South African issue before the United Nations had been the treatment of peoples of Indian origin in South Africa, which was brought to the UN by India.

In 1952, WaIter wrote to one of his many acquaintances, the American writer George Houser to request assistance in mobilising support for the Defiance Campaign. Houser was inspired by Walter's request to establish an organisation called Americans for South African Resistance, the forerunner of The American Committee on Africa and its sister organisation the Africa Fund. Speaking many decades later on the 25th anniversary of the Africa Fund, Walter acknowledged that the significance of the Americans for South African Resistance was "that it pioneered the idea of an organised lobby against apartheid outside South Africa and helped inscribe the issue of apartheid on United States foreign policy'. (Walter Sisulu "Challenges to Africa", The Africa Fund Lectures, September 1991 p.5.) While mobilising support of the Defiance Campaign, Walter also established contact with, among many others, Reverend Martin Luther King and the famous African American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was then Chairman of the Council on African Affairs. He also wrote to Canon John Collins, the head of Christian Action who went on to set up the Treason Trial Fund, the forerunner of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF). Walter took the opportunity to pursue his international solidarity work when he and Duma Nokwe were invited to the 1953 Youth and Student Festival in Bucharest, Bulgaria. On the same trip he visited Israel, Poland, China, the USSR and Britain. During his stay met the veterans of the Pan Africanist Movement to discuss die possibility of a Pan African Conference. He also made contact with Mbio Koinage, the brother-in-law of then imprisoned Kenya African National Union leader, Jomo Kenyatta. From London Walter wrote to the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, proposing that a UN resolution be tabled for the release of Jomo Kenyatta. Walter also started corresponding with Kenneth Kaunda, the leader of the Northern Rhodesian nationalist movement, a correspondence that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Not surprisingly Walter's visit to Eastern Europe and China attracted the attention of the security police. A Ministry of Justice memorandum on Walter dated 10 September 1953 noted Walter's presence at die World Youth Festival: 'As a result of his participation in the above festivities Sisulu has acquired first hand information about the methods the communists use to spread propaganda and that he was stuffed full of poisonous propaganda is not to be denied. It is desirable that Sisulu's activities be stopped as soon as he is back in the country'. Soon after his return Walter Sisulu was forced to resign from his position as Secretary-General of the ANC and banned for two years.

By the time the Freedom Charter was adopted at the 1955 Kliptown Congress of the People Walter was still banned and could only watch from a nearby rooftop. Despite the restrictions imposed upon him, he remained at the centre of the ANCs organisational machinery and was one of the 156 ANC leaders tried in the famous Treason Trial from 1956-61.

From armed struggle to Rivonia

After the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, the banning of the ANC and the PAC all avenues of legal political activity were closed. Walter was one of the moving spirits behind the decision to embark on armed struggle through the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. A victim of the intensified persecution of political leaders following the launch of Umkhonto's sabotage campaign, Walter was arrested and suffered continuous arrests and harassment from 1961-3. In March 1963 he was sentenced to six years in prison for incitement arising from the countrywide anti-Republic strikes in May 1961. It was a dark period for the Sisulu family, both personally and politically. The death of Walter's mother in November 1962 was followed by the death of his sister Rosabella in March1963. A month after his sister's death Walter went underground to join the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. On June 26 he made a dramatic broadcast on the ANC's pirate radio, in which he announced that he had not left the country and that many ANC leaders had gone underground to keep the organisation in action. "Never has the country, and our people, needed leadership as they do now, in this hour of crisis. Our house is on fire'. He outlined the crisis in die country and urged people to stand together in the name of freedom, saying the ANC would lead the way with new methods of struggle. Even as he spoke Walter was aware that his wife was one of the thousands of people in jail. He would later learn that his 17-year old son Max had also been arrested. The security police had detained Max and his mother to extract information about Walter's whereabouts. They were released after Walter's arrest with Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein, Dennis Goldberg and Arthur Goldreich on 11 July 1963 at Lillisleaf farm in Rivonia.

Rivonia Trial

The highlight of the Rivonia Trial was undoubtedly Nelson Mandela's statement from the dock, one of the great political speeches of all time. Less publicised was the performance of Walter Sisulu in the witness box. Deprived of the opportunity to cross-examine Mandela, the prosecutor Percy Yutar directed all his venom at Walter. It seemed an uneven match - Percy Yutar, the deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal with a PhD in law, pitted against a political prisoner who had not even reached high school. The odds were further stacked against Walter when Yutar spitefully instructed the police to have Walter isolated for the duration of his evidence. For the five days of his cross-examination and the weekend in between, Walter was in solitary confinement. He was not allowed any contact with his co-accused during lunch adjournments or recess and during exercise periods in jail. He was even driven to court in a different vehicle.

Walter defied all odds by producing a virtuoso performance in the witness-box."Only one phrase could describe his performance - absolutely brilliant!" enthused Kathrada: "At the end of it all Walter emerged from the witness box as cool, as calm and unruffled as when he had entered it. Our lawyers and even die accused were amazed at his composure, his phenomenal memory and the masterly manner in which he acquitted himself'. (Sisulu prison biography :135)

Joel Joffe, the Instructing Attorney to the accused wrote that Walter was one of the finest witnesses he had ever seen:

Walter in the witness box had been a triumph. The way he came through revealed his real qualities of stability, calmness and certainty in himself which had made him a leader in his organisation, and which had ultimately made him Secretary General of the African National Congress. His colleagues who had persuaded us beforehand that he would be more than a match for Yutar had understood him well. (Joffe p151) .Dr Yutar had tried to take on Walter in the political arena and Walter had just destroyed him. I have never in my experience as a lawyer, seen a witness perform better under extreme pressure Joel Joffe: Talent consortium interview) The whole court, I think, had been impressed by this sin all man of meagre education bit of tremendous sincerity, calm, conviction and certainly. To sentence such a man to death would not be easy for any judge. (Joffe p151)

On 11 June 1964 Judge Quartus de Wet pronounced a guilty verdict on Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Denis Goldberg.

Rusty Bernstein was found not guilty. Court was adjourned until the following day when sentence would be announced.

After the verdict had been passed, the lawyers passed by the jail to see their clients, who were preoccupied with the question of how to conduct themselves in court if the death sentence was passed. The lawyers explained that beginning with the first accused, the judge would ask them if they could give any reason why the death sentence should not be passed. Mandela said he would have a lot to say. He would tell the court that his death would not mean the end of the liberation movement and that he was ready to die for his beliefs. The lawyers pointed out that militant statements would not help their chances of a successful appeal. Mandela, Sisulu and Mbeki were not interested in an appeal. As senior leaders of the liberation movement they felt that they should demonstrate that they were ready to die for their beliefs. Bram Fischer gave an account of this meeting in a letter to a young communist party member in exile on 24 June 1964:

"I must tell you one important event. Some days before the end of the argument in court, Govan, Walter and Nelson came to an early morning consultation to tell us of a decision they had taken with regard to the sentence Wit turned out to be capital punishment. They had made up their minds that in that event there was to be no appeal. Their line was that, should a death sentence be passed on them, the political campaign around such a sentence should not be hampered by any appeal for mercy... or by raising vain hopes...we lawyers were staggered at flrst, but soon realised the decision was politically unassailable. But I tell you this story not because of its political wisdom. I want you to know to what incredibly brave men you and others will have to be successors. (Quoted in Francis Meli: South Africa Belongs to Us p.158.)

With heavy hearts the lawyers went off to prepare their plea in mitigation of sentence while the accused sat down to write what George Bizos referred to as "pleas in aggravation of sentence". Walter's statement was as follows:

Statement prepared by Walter Sisulu in the event of his receiving the death sentence. (Written by himself)

I have dedicated all my life towards making a contribution to the best of my ability. The destiny of my country and of my people has placed me in the position where l find myself today; namely to challenge the immoral laws of your government against my people and indeed against humanity.

I am to face the gallows simply because I have dedicated my life towards making my humble contribution to my fatherland and to the advancement of the aspirations of my people. I am condemned because I have dared to challenge the Apartheid Monster of the Vorster and Verwoerd clique.

All honest men have an obligation to smash oppression and tyranny wherever it exists and by whatever means. History is full of examples of the execution of those who stand for the truth.

I am quite confident that our blood will certainly water the Garden of Freedom!

Fortunately for the families of those concerned, the liberation movement, the South African nation and indeed the African continent, the death sentence was not passed. On l2 June 1964 the Rivonia trialists were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Robben Island

The story of the struggles political prisoners had to wage to survive the grim conditions on Robben Island would fill volumes and indeed many volumes have been written on the subject. (These include Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela biographies by Anthony Sampson and Martin Meredith, Ahmed Kathrada Letters from Robben Island, Natoo Babenia Memoirs of a Saboteur, Neville Alexander Robben Island Dossier 1964-74, Eddie Daniels Robben Island: There and Back 1964-79, Moses Dlamini Hellhole, Robben Island: Reminiscences of a Political Prisoner, Michael Dingake My Fight Against Apartheid, Indres Naidoo and Albie Sachs Prisoner 885/63: Island in chains: Ten Years on Robben Island. D.M. Zwelonke Robben Island). This presention will focus on two key strategies for survival - education and political organisation.

For political prisoners there was nothing better than academic achievement to raise their morale and make them feel their prison years were not wasted. Education was a major preoccupation of the Robben Islanders at a collective and an individual level. Former prisoners speak proudly of wiping out illiteracy on the Island. The appellation "University of Robben Island" was well deserved - many prisoners arrived there with no tertiary education and left with one or more degrees to their name.

Walter managed to complete his '0' levels on the Island, quite a drawn out process, since he was allowed to write only one '0' level subject a year. He then enrolled for a BA with UNISA. His prison files provide evidence of a running battle with prison authorities about the obstacles put in the way of prisoners who wanted to study. His studies were constantly interrupted when he was found using study materials for other than studies. Finally his studies were abruptly terminated by his jailers when they uncovered copies of Mandela's prison memoirs. As a result of that discovery Mandela, Kathrada and Walter 'lost their studies' for four years and Walter was never really able to continue his academic career again.

Walter's prison colleagues generally say that Walter is a brilliant man though it did not reflect on his academic studies: "He was always curious to know more and more. He was an intellectual but not in the sense of academic or formal training." (Interview with Ahmed Kathrada). Mac Maharaj best describes the anomaly between Walter's level of formal academic achievement and his intellectual capacity:

He would plough through many books on his own but for speed he would say 'just read this chapter and tell me what it says'. He'd help you understand the chapter through his questions. He would cut through a problem by always getting to its essence whereas many of us who came from an academic background wanted to work around a problem, mulling over every phrase, every sentence and forgetting what was the main content. It is supposed to be basic to any good education to summarize a chapter in 10 sentences. Many of us chaps never succeeded in doing that. We write a summary that is even longer than the chapter itself.

It was in the field of political education that Walter made his greatest contribution. Among the first structured political discussions held in the lime quarry was a series of lectures given by Walter on the history of the ANC. Mandela believed that Walter "was one of the greatest living historians of the ANC" whose lessons "were wise and full of understanding" (Long Walk: 557). Ahmed Kathrada agreed that no one could equal Walter in knowledge of the history of the ANC, knowledge that he had gained through long years of membership and his natural curiosity which led him to gather as much knowledge as he could from the older people before him. (Interview with Ahmed Kathrada). Michael Dingake referred to Walter as "a walking history of the organisation. Comrade Walter's memory was phenomenal. Not only did he remember events, and the names associated with them but also the circumstances under which they occurred". (Dingake: 214)

It was not only ANC members who were impressed by Walter's lectures. According to Neville Alexander the YCC group attended the lectures very excitedly "because we had never read about this ANC. As Unity Movement people we had been so indoctrinated that we did not know the history of the ANC. Walter gave those lectures in a very attractive, anecdotal and sometimes analytical way". (Interview with Neville Alexander). After one of the lectures, Leslie van der Heyden asked Walter how the ANC could justify point two of the Freedom Charter that said, "All national groups shall have equal rights". The Unity Movement felt that this point explicitly recognised racial groups. Neville Alexander recalled that Walter "was humble and honest enough to say he could not give a satisfactory answer and we should direct our question to Nelson, which we did by the way". (Neville Alexander interview). The result was a lengthy debate between Nelson Mandela and Neville Alexander on the national question.

By the time the post-1976 generation arrived on Robben Island Walter's informal lectures on the ANC formed the major component of a fully-fledged course of study known as Syllabus A. The syllabus, devised by the High Organ, consisted of two years of lectures on the ANC and the liberation struggle, a course on the history of the Indian Struggle by Kathrada, a history of the Coloured People and a course on Marxism by Mac Maharaj. Nelson Mandela acknowledged Walter's contribution to Syllabus A:

It was Walter's course that was at the heart of all our education. Many of t.he young ANC members who came to the island had no idea that the organisation had even been in existence in the 1920s and 1930s, through to the present day. For many of these young men, it was the only political education they ever received. (Long Walk: 557)

Walter also played a key role in political organisation on the Island. The ANC prisoners believed that the struggle for better conditions in prison was an extension of the wider struggle. Walter recalled that "like the (Rivonia) Trial, we wanted to make of prison a stage of the struggle for the Movement and we developed strategies for that". (Walter Sisulu interview with George Houser and Herb Shore pp1 54,163). A cornerstone of that strategy was to create the political machinery to operate as the ANC within prison in defiance of prison rules that no prisoner was allowed to speak on behalf of other prisoners or air the grievances of other prisoners.

The ANC machinery set up for the single cells section was the High Organ or the High Command as it was sometimes called. Members of the High Organ were the four NEC members Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Mhlaba. Mandela and Mhlaba acted as the secretariat of the High Organ with Mandela as the overall leader. A fifth member was co-opted on a rotational basis. The High Organ dealt with the daily concerns of prison life and the maintenance of internal discipline (Long Walk :525). The High Organ was not an executive structure though its opinions carried a lot of weight. Decisions from the High Organ to the cells were discussed, debated and sometimes rejected. The High Organ operated only in the single cells. ANC cadres in the general section had their own structure called the Disciplinary Committee, better known by its acronym, the DC. In his Memoirs of a Saboteur, MK veteran Natoo Babenia described the interaction between the two structures:

There was the possibility of democracy in all these structures, but there was also the chance for top down telephones. Sometimes we would talk back to the leadership and tell them they were talking nonsense. Or it could work the other way around. ~Babenia 160)

Walter was a great advocate of unity and he abhorred tensions and divisions within his beloved organisation. The High Organ was not immune to these tensions and debates sometimes became bitter and acrimonious. In his dealings with his colleagues Walter never allowed political differences to develop into personal animosity.

Walter was admired for his capacity to reach out to people, bring out the best of everybody and make them feel part of a team. This gave him the ability to transcend his political differences with fellow prisoners. Eddie Daniels, the only liberal party member of Robben Island was deeply moved by the way in which WaIter and Mandela made him feel a part of their group. Daniels eventually became a member of the ANC. PAC leader Kwedi Mkalipi often recalls how Walter befriended him by insisting that they talk to each other despite their political differences. (Kwedi Mkalipi, Talent Consortium interview.) Walter also maintained his old friendship with Zeph Mothopeng and got on well with Clarence Makwethu and Japhta Masemola. Walter always regretted that the friendly relations he had with PAC members and leaders on a personal level never translated into cooperation at an organisational level.

The senior ANC leadership on Robben Island played complementary roles. Nelson Mandela was much sought after by his fellow prisoners for his political and legal advice. Govan Mbeki was the theoretician, admired for his intellectual prowess and sought after as a teacher. His fellow prisoners, especially the younger ones saw Walter as a father figure who they could approach for emotional support and advice on family problems.

In the aftermath of the 1976 uprisings Robben island was shaken by an influx of fiery young men. The 1976 generation, coming mainly from the black consciousness tradition, saw the older prisoners as conservative old men and looked down on them for what they perceived to be their cooperation with the prison authorities. In their first few years on the Island the Unity Movement prisoners, under the influence of Mandela, Sisulu and the Rivonia prisoners, had come round to the view that constant confrontation was unproductive and 'negotiations, patient discussions and persuasion' were often more effective ways of dealing with the authorities. (Neville Alexander quoted in Sampson: 277). The post-1976 generation interpreted this approach as collaboration with the enemy and had no respect for it. Confrontation between the young prisoners and warders was a daily occurrence. The willingness of the senior prisoners to listen to the youth paid dividends and they slowly began to exert their influence over the young

Last updated : 17-May-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011