Walter Ulyate Max Sisulu was born in the village of Qutubeni in the Engcobo district of the Transkei on 18 May 1912. Sisulu was born out of wedlock. His father was a Mr. Dickenson, a white assistant magistrate. He was raised by his grandmother and uncle and only moved in with his mother when he was six years old. He attended an Anglican missionary institute, but left in Standard 4 (Grade 6) at the age of 15 after his uncle died. To help support his family he was forced to seek work in Johannesburg where he found employment in a dairy.
He returned home to undergo traditional Xhosa initiation rites, returning to Johannesburg in 1929 where he worked in a gold mine. He later moved back to the Eastern Cape to join his mother who had found work as a domestic worker in East London. In East London he came into contact with Clements Kadalie, the renowned leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU). Sisulu said later that his experience in the mines and his contact with Kadalie were formative political influences. In 1933 Sisulu returned to Johannesburg and stayed with his mother. He found work at a Premier Biscuit factory and attended night school at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, though he left without completing Standard 5 (Grade 7). He became active in the Orlando Civic Association and was secretary of the Orlando Brotherly Society, a Xhosa cultural and mutual aid group.
In 1940, Sisulu was fired from his job at the bakery for his role in organising a strike for higher wages. In the next decade he worked in various companies and always left after some or other disagreement. He entered into a partnership with a white estate agent and eventually went into business on his own. In 1940 at 28 years old, Sisulu joined the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1941 Sisulu met Albertina Thethiwe, a young nursing student from the Transkei. He was so taken with Albertina "that in a short space of time the question of marriage came up".
Walter and Albertina Sisulu were married on 15 July 1944 in a civil ceremony at Cofimvaba in the Transkei. This was followed by a reception at the Bantu Men's Social Centre in Johannesburg on 17 July. Dr Xuma, then-president of the ANC, and Anton Lembede, president of the newly formed ANC Youth League, 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.
Albertina Thethiwe’s background was relatively sheltered and through her relationship with Walter she became exposed to politics. She realised that the man she had married was totally committed to the liberation struggle and to building the ANC. He was her guide and mentor, as he was to Nelson Mandela, and to many others who interacted with him. Much of their courting revolved around attending ANC meetings and Albertina soon became a freedom struggle leader in her own right.
In 1944 Sisulu attended the ANC annual national conference in Bloemfontein as a delegate of the ANC Orlando branch. It was at this conference that Leslie Gama proposed that the ANC should establish a Youth League. Walter Sisulu, along with William Nkomo and Lionel Majombozi, both active members of the Communist Party, were responsible for mobilising others to give effect to the conference resolution and establish a youth wing of the ANC.
Sisulu, along with Lembede, Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Ashley Mda, was elected to the executive committee of the newly established ANC Youth League in 1944. Albertina Sisulu was the only woman amongst approximately 200 men present at the founding conference of the League’s Transvaal branches.
While the Youth League in its early stages, it was heavily influenced by Anton Lembede’s militant African nationalism, Sisulu always took a more pragmatic line, especially around the ANC collaboration with the Communist Party and the Indian Congresses.
During the Second World War, Sisulu campaigned against Black South Africans joining the army. He supported the Youth League in pressing for the reform of the ANC and for the ANC to adopt boycotts and other forms of direct action to address the needs of the disenfranchised. During this period he had his first clash with the police when he was charged after a scuffle on a train with a white ticket collector who had confiscated an African child's season ticket.
During the 1946 African Mineworkers' Strike, which was opposed by the ANC, Sisulu was approached and agreed to sabotage the railway line between Soweto and New Canada station. However, the person who had promised to provide him with the bomb did not arrive and this early use of sabotage as a tactic of resistance failed.
Sisulu rose very rapidly in the ranks of the ANC and became a member of the Transvaal executive in addition to being secretary of the Youth League. At the ANC national conference in December 1949, Sisulu was instrumental in the ANC’s adoption of the Youth League's militant Program of Action. At the same conference he was elected ANC Secretary-General, narrowly defeating Dan Tloome, the candidate of the ANC's left wing. Sisulu’s fearless, totally dedicated and formidable strategic and organisational abilities are recognised today as being the main factor in transforming the ANC into a mass-based militant national organisation.
In 1950, the government of DF Malan prepared to implement its new apartheid policy by introducing a series of harsh racial laws and proposing to ban the Communist Party. The ANC took the first steps to oppose the government by forming a committee to coordinate joint campaigns with the Indian Congress and the largely coloured Cape Franchise Action Committee. This was the beginning of what came to be known was the Congress Alliance.
Walter Sisulu and Yusuf Cachalia were appointed joint secretaries and their first move was to call for a national work stoppage on 26 June 1950 to protests against the new repressive apartheid laws. James Moroka, ANC president at the time, lived in the Orange Free State and was isolated from the day-to-day running of the organisation in the Transvaal and the industrial and commercial heart of South Africa (Johannesburg). Consequently, Sisulu took over many of Moroka's responsibilities in addition to being Secretary-General. As leader of the ANC, Sisulu played a central role in the advocating and the planning the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He led a group of passive resisters and was arrested and imprisoned for a brief period before being served with the first of his many banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act. In December 1952, Sisulu, Mandela, Moroka and others were tried under the Suppression of Communism Act for their leadership role in the Defiance Campaign. All 20 accused were sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years.
Sisulu was re-elected as ANC Secretary-General in the same month, and in 1953 spent five months touring China, the Soviet Union, Israel, Romania and the United Kingdom. The tour to the socialist countries convinced Sisulu to join the outlawed and newly reconstituted the South African Communist Party on his return. His membership of the underground communists is again recognised as one of the most important factors cementing the relationship between the ANC and SACP.
Walter and Mandela were banned for six months and barred from attending any gatherings or addressing meetings. He secretly continued his ANC work, and was part of the organising committee that met in secret to organise the Freedom Charter campaign and The Congress of the People in 1956. In December Sisulu was among the 156 people arrested for High Treason. The preparatory examination of the Treason Trial began on 19 December in the Johannesburg Drill Hall. Sisulu remained a defendant in the subsequent hearings, which ended on the 29 March 1961 when he, and the remaining 30 accused, were finally acquitted.
During the 1960 state of emergency following the Sharpville massacre, Sisulu and many of his co-defendants in the Treason Trial were detained for several months. Following the banning of the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), Sisulu was placed under house arrest. In June 1961 he was one of four people, with Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela and Govin Mbeki who secretly met and discussed the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK - Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s armed wing. This group constituted the MK’s high command. He served as political commissar of MK with his friend Mandela as its Commander in Chief. In 1962 Sisulu was continuously harassed by police and arrested six times, though charged only once. Finally, in March 1963, he was convicted of furthering the aims of the banned ANC and for organising the May 1961 stay-at-home protest. He was released on bail pending an appeal and placed under 24-hour house arrest. On 20 April 1963 he skipped his bail conditions and went underground at the SACP’s secret headquarters at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia.
On 26 June 1963 Sisulu made a short broadcast from a secret ANC radio station. On 11 July the police raided the farm and he was arrested with Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada and others.
Sisulu and the rest of the “Rivonia group” were held in solitary confinement for 88 days. They were charged in October 1963 and on 12 June 1964 the Rivonia Trialists were sentenced to life imprisonment for planning acts of sabotage.
That night they were flown in a military plane to Robben Island. Albertina was left to rear her and Walter’s five children, plus her late sister's two children, on her own. Albertina became the sole breadwinner of the family. She also functioned as a link between the ANC leaders in jail and those in exile. The security police harassed her constantly and she was restricted, banned, placed under house arrest, arrested and taken into custody and sometimes kept in solitary confinement.
While in prison Sisulu studied and completed his ‘O’ levels. In addition he led the first structured political discussions, which were held while the prisoners worked in the lime quarry. Here he also lectured on the history of the ANC.
Sisulu also played a key role in political organisation on the island and was instrumental in developing an underground ANC political structure called the ‘High Organ’, which dealt with the daily concerns of prison life and the maintenance of internal discipline. Members of the High Organ were the four ANC National Executive Committee 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.
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 the 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 to Freedom, p.557).
Walter and Albertina Sisulu’s children continued the political activism of their parents. Their eldest son, Max, for instance, had been detained at the age of 17 and went into exile after his father had been arrested in Rivonia in 1963. Zwelake was involved with the publication New Nation, which was placed under restriction on several occasions. He was also detained without trial for two years.
The political shift in South Africa and the southern African region that culminated in the release of political prisoners, the return of political exiles and a negotiated political settlement in South Africa marked the end of years of separation for the Sisulu family.
In April 1982 Walter Sisulu was admitted to Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town for a ‘routine medical examination’. In the same month Sisulu, Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Wilton Mkwayi were moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. Later they were joined by Ahmed Kathrada. The reason for the move was so that the Botha government could ensure greater secrecy in their effort to convince Mandela to accept their conditions for a negotiated settlement with the ANC. Mandela turned to his fellow prisoners, and Sisulu in particular, for advice in his dealings with the government intermediaries. One of the conditions that Mandela insisted on was the early release of his co-accused and on 15 October 1989, after 26 years in prison, Rivonia trialist’s Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba and Wilton Mkwayi, were released along with Oscar Mpetha, the veteran ANC and SACP Cape Leader, and Japhta Masemola, a Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) leader. Their release was greeted with scenes of wild celebration around the country. Soweto was awash with black, green and gold and a huge ANC flag was draped across the walls of the Sisulu house. Though still banned, the ANC had come out into the open.
Less than three months later, on 2 February 1990, the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released 9 days later.
Sisulu subsequently met with the external wing of the ANC in Lusaka and was asked to lead the ANC inside South Africa. This involved re-establishing ANC structures within the country and preparing for a national conference to be held inside South Africa on 16 December 1990. Sisulu formed part of the ANC delegation that met with representatives of the government at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, in May 1990. He was elected in 1991 as Deputy President of the ANC at the ANC’s first conference held inside the country since its banning more than three decades earlier.
In April 1994 South Africans enjoyed their first ever free and fair elections and overwhelmingly elected the ANC to government. With millions of their comrades, Walter and Albertina Sisulu celebrated the convincing electoral victory of the organisation to which they had devoted most of their lives. Six weeks later, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on I7 July 1994. Over one thousand people celebrated with them at the Vista University Hall in Soweto and the occasion was a fitting tribute to two of South Africa's most celebrated leaders.
Walter Sisulu was deputy president of the ANC until ill health forced him to retire from active politics in 1994. He continued to be passionately committed to the wellbeing of his community, especially children and young people and he and Albertina devoted much of their time to the Albertina Sisulu Foundation which built a multi-purpose community centre in Orlando West, Soweto. The Sisulu’s lived in a house in Soweto for most of their lives. They moved to a new house in Linden in Johannesburg only four years before Walter's death. Walter Ulyate Max Sisulu died on 5 of May 2003, a few days before his 91st birthday.