Walter Sisulu

(May 18, 1912 - May 5, 2003)

Born into a peasant family on 18 May 1912 at Engcobo in the Transkei, Walter Sisulu was raised by his mother and his uncle, who was a headman. He attended an Anglican missionary institute, but left in Standard 4 (Grade 6) at the age of 15, when his uncle died and he was forced to find employment in a Johannesburg dairy to help support his family.

Sisulu was of mixed ancestry and his light appearance set him apart from his peers. He was conscious of this and resented his family's deferential attitude to Whites. He returned home and underwent traditional Xhosa initiation rites, returning to Johannesburg in 1929 where he obtained work in a gold mine. He then moved to East London, was employed as a domestic worker, and briefly came into contact with Clements Kadalie's Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union.

Sisulu moved back to Johannesburg with his mother and sister in the early 1930s, and worked in a number of factories. He studied privately and took part in cultural groups, including the Orlando Brotherly Society, a Xhosa organisation, which prompted an interest in tribal history and encouraged economic independence from Whites.

In 1940, while working in a bakery, Sisulu was fired for his role in organising a strike for higher wages. Continually clashing with various other employers he established a real estate agency, but this closed down after two years.

In the same year Sisulu joined the African National Congress (ANC) and later became treasurer of the ANC Youth League, adopting a militant and anti-White stance. During the Second World War he campaigned against Black South Africans joining the army, and became one of the ANC activists pressing for the adoption of a more radical form of nationalism within the organisation.

During this period Sisulu had his first clash with police when he was imprisoned after a scuffle on a train with a white ticket collector who had confiscated an African child's season ticket.

In 1946, at the time of the African Mineworkers' Strike, he tried to organise a general strike in support of the protestors' demands. He continued his work for the ANC, becoming a member of its Transvaal executive. In December 1949 he was instrumental in the ANC's acceptance of the Youth League's programme of action, and at the same conference was elected Secretary-General, defeating Dan Tloome, the candidate of the ANC's left wing.

In 1950 the ANC, together with the Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party (SACP), formed a co-ordinating committee, and Sisulu and Yusuf Cachalia were appointed joint secretaries. Their first move was to call for a national work stoppage on 26 June 1950 to protests against race laws.

James Moroka, ANC president at the time, lived in the Free State and was isolated from the day-to-day running of the organisation in the Transvaal. As a result Sisulu had to take over many of Moroka's responsibilities. He served on the joint planning council for the Defiance Campaign, led a group of passive resisters, and was arrested and imprisoned for a brief period before being banned under the Suppression of Communism Act.

In December 1952 Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Moroka and others were tried under the Suppression of Communism Act for their leadership of 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, Rumania and the United Kingdom. He appeared impressed with Soviet industrial development but was repelled by the authoritarianism of the Stalinist regime. This tour was a catalyst in mellowing his views from racially exclusive nationalism to support for a multi-racial Congress alliance.

His banning order, which prevented him from attending gatherings, was tightened in mid-1954 when he was forced from the ANC. Although he had played a leading role in organising the 1955 Congress of the People, Sisulu was legally unable to participate. He secretly continued to work for the ANC, and because of his changed attitude to co-operation with other racial groups in opposition to the government; he increasingly came under attack from the Africanist group in the ANC.

In December 1956 Sisulu was amongst the 156 people arrested for High Treason. The preparatory examination of the Treason Trial began on 19 December 1956 in the Johannesburg Drill Hall, and lasted for nine months. Sisulu remained a defendant in the subsequent hearings, which ended in March 1961 when he, and all remaining accused, were finally acquitted. During the 1960 state of emergency Sisulu and many of his co-trialists were detained for several months.

Following the banning of the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), Sisulu was placed under house arrest. During 1962 Sisulu was harassed by police and arrested six times, but charged only once. Finally, in March 1963, he was convicted for 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 went underground to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and on 26 June made a short broadcast from a secret ANC radio station.

On 11 July 1963 Liliesleaf Farm, the ANC's secret headquarters, was raided by police. Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others were detained there, and Sisulu was held in solitary confinement for 88 days. He was charged in the Rivonia Trial in October 1963 and on 12 June 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment for planning acts of sabotage. The following day Sisulu, Mandela and other convicted Rivonia trialists were sent to Robben Island.

In April 1982 Sisulu was admitted to Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town for 'routine medical examination'. In the same month he and Mandela were removed from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison, Cape Town.

In October 1989 the South African government released Sisulu, six other ANC leaders and a PAC political prisoner. The unbanning of the ANC on 2 February 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela followed this a week later.

Sisulu subsequently met with the external wing of the ANC in Lusaka and was asked to lead the ANC internally. This involved re-establishing ANC structures inside 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, which met with representatives of the government at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, during May 1990.
Walter and his wife Albertina, President of the Transvaal United Democratic Front, lived in Soweto with five children. He passed away on 5 of May 2003.

Source: S. Gastrow, Who's Who in South African Politics, No. 3.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix