Walter Sisulu was born in Eastern Cape on 18 May 1912, the same year as the founding of the African National Congress (ANC). He was the son of a white father, Albert Dickenson, and a Xhosa mother named Alice Mase Sisulu. His father had little input into his upbringing and Walter was raised by his mother’s family who were related to Nelson Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase.
Despite having a white father, young Walter was initiated into the Xhosa tradition, his uncle being a local chief. Sisulu attended a local missionary school after which he moved to Johannesburg in 1928 and worked in various manual jobs, jobs which included a stint in a Johannesburg gold mine, a bakery and in domestic service.
African National Congress
In 1940, the 28-year-old Sisulu, infused with militancy and hatred of the white supremacist government of the ‘United Party’, joined the ANC. The following year, living in Soweto and appointed the regional leader of the ANC in Johannesburg, he took in a young lodger whose name was Nelson Mandela. Sisulu lost no time in recruiting Mandela into the ANC. In 1943, together with Mandela and Oliver Tambo, Sisulu joined the ANC’s Youth League. In 1944, Sisulu married Albertina Thethiwe, with Nelson Mandela as his best man. (Such was the strength of their friendship, Mandela was master of ceremonies 50 years later at Walter and Albertina’s golden wedding anniversary).
Sisulu was made Secretary General of the ANC in 1949, earning £5 per month, and played a key role in the formation and planning of the activities of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’). Sisulu was also a member of the South African Communist Party.
He was arrested in 1952 for planning a campaign of defiance and given a suspended sentence. He visited the Soviet Union and countries of the Eastern Bloc, and Israel and China as an ANC representative, gathering support for the struggle in South Africa. He was jailed several times in the next decade and was often held under house arrest.
In 1962 he was sentenced to six years in prison but was released on bail pending his appeal. In 1963, Sisulu joined Mandela and went underground. His wife, Albertina, was arrested in his stead, becoming the first women to be arrested under the so-called ‘90-day Law’, an act introduced in 1964 which gave the police the power to detain suspects for 90 days without charge or access to legal advice. Suspects could then be rearrested and detained for a further 90 days. Their 15-year-old son, Lungi, left at home to care for his younger siblings, was also arrested. Lungi, in a recent interview, states, ‘If you have experienced the torture, the crying and the dying of your comrades in the next cell…..I heard all of that and it did leave me scarred.’
After only a few months on the run, Sisulu was captured, along with sixteen others, at at Lilliesleaf Farm, an ANC hideout in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. In 1964, at the ‘Rivonia Trial’, Sisulu and nine other leading ANC members, were tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. The accused faced the death penalty and it was only under international pressure that the judge transmuted the sentence. With Mandela and other senior ANC figures, he served the majority of his sentence on Robben Island.
Sisulu’s daughter, Lindiwe, followed in her parents’ footsteps and joined the ANC. She was arrested in 1975 and detained for two years during which time she was tortured.
In 1989, aged 77, Sisulu was released after serving 26 years in prison, a year ahead of Mandela. Following the lifting of the ANC ban, Sisulu was elected its deputy president, often referred to as ‘Nelson’s aide’, and remained in position until December 1994, eight months after South Africa’s first democratic election. After a lifetime of struggle and quarter of a century in prison, Sisulu declined an offer to serve in the new government.
In 1992, Walter Sisulu received the Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honour awarded by the ANC for his service to the liberation struggle.
Walter Sisulu died on 5 May 2003, a fortnight shy of his 91st birthday. He was survived by his wife Albertina (affectionately called Ma-Sisulu) who died on 2 June 2011.
Lindiwe Sisulu has been a member of parliament in South Africa since 1994 and since 2009 has been the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.
Lungi Sisulu is currently the Chairman of Arup SA Ltd.