A REFLECTION ON WALTER SISULU- AN OUTSTANDING ANC ACTIVIST AND BRILLIANT ORGANISER OF THE PEOPLE – By Sihle Zikalala
Today, the 18th of May 2020, marks the birthday of our late beloved father in the ANC, isithwalandwe Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu.
Born on this day in 1912 in the village of Qutubeni, Engcobo, our father would have been 108 years, making him as old as his cherished political home, the African National Congress.
Walter Sisulu and his sister Rosabella were children of Alice, a daughter of the Sisulus, and Albert Edward Dickinson, a white prosecutor. It was Dyanti Hlakula at Qutubeni who became a father figure to Walter Sisulu, and he fully identified with his maternal family.
Elinor Sisulu, the author of the prolific biography, “Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime”, reveals that Walter’s Sisulu’s hatred for the diabolical pass system drew him to political activism. Sisulu consciously refused to use his skin colour to gain any advantage. Instead, he chose to fully identify with the struggles and aspirations of the oppressed African masses. Elinor Sisulu cites him to have said, “I am a black man, I am an African, I am subject to all the laws that affect my people…I never wanted to see my skin colour determine my race. I was an African in every sense of the word. No less, no more.”
When we consider the choices, sacrifices, and contribution of revolutionary stalwarts like Walter Sisulu and his generation in building and sharpening the ANC to become an effective instrument of liberation in the hands of the oppressed masses, we realise that we can best honour them by renewing and strengthening the ANC. Only an effective and well-oiled ANC machinery is capable of uniting South Africans and forging a truly non-racial, non-sexist, equal, and prosperous society. Walter Sisulu’s life and legacy serves as a crucial reminder to all ANC cadres and activists that without an effective ANC, the struggle for the full emancipation of blacks in general and Africans in particular, will remain a dream deferred and betrayed.
Aged 16 and arriving in Johannesburg for the first time in 1928 to work at the mines, Sisulu began gravitating towards his political home, the ANC. And it was in 1940, eighty years ago, that Alfred Mbele, a trade unionist, formally recruited Sisulu into the ANC. Since joining, the ANC became his life. He is cited by his biographer and daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, saying: “I was struggling before, you know, directionless. When I got to the ANC I began to change, even though the ANC at the time did not properly formulate its policies.”
Elinor Sisulu reveals that from a young age at All Saints Mission in the Eastern Cape, Walter Sisulu was inspired by many Biblical stories. The story of how David using a sling defeated Goliath stayed with him. It taught him that with proper planning and meticulous execution, you can defeat a formidable enemy.
Sisulu also drew inspiration from brave African kings like Shaka, Moshoshoe, and the famous left handed warrior prophet, Nxele or Makanda, who distinguished himself in the frontier wars and was banished to Robben Island. In 1936, Sisulu met Charlotte Maxeke who is said to have made a lasting impression on him about the potential of women in advancing the struggle for liberation. Sisulu would later actively champion gender equality and the participation of women in the ANC whom he saw as key in galvanising the ANC and giving it its broad mass character and strength.
It was always clear to Sisulu that only an ANC that drew support from a cross section of the oppressed could defeat the tyranny of white domination. In a letter to his son, Max Sisulu, who had escaped South Africa during the Rivonia Trial, Sisulu was unwavering in his conviction that the ANC is the legitimate mouthpiece of the oppressed masses. He encouraged Max saying, “Whatever happens to us, history is on the side of the oppressed people.” Together with his comrades, they formed the ANC Youth League which radicalised the ANC and infused it with the militancy and activism it needed. In all the major campaigns of the ANC in the forties, fifties, and sixties, Sisulu was at the centre and forefront of those developments.
Sisulu is credited for his ability to identify great talent and to nurture it. When he met Nelson Mandela for the first time in 1941 at his office in Johannesburg and learning that he wanted to be a lawyer, Sisulu knew that Mandela could go far if encouraged. For him, knowledge of the law was also a crucial weapon in the ANC’s struggle against national oppression and the plethora of racist laws.
In 1942, Sisulu also became close to OR Tambo who was brought to his office by an ANC comrade, Congress Mbatha. It is said that Sisulu was immediately “impressed by Tambo’s intelligence and serious nature” and both “became close on the basis of a shared political outlook.” Later, Sisulu was instrumental in assisting Tambo to be articled.
Elected in 1949 as the Secretary-General of the ANC, Walter Sisulu understood the enormity of the responsibility of the Secretary- General of the ANC. He left his estate agency, and became the first full time Secretary-General of the ANC. Thanks to his wife, our mother and ANC stalwart, Albertina Sisulu who was a nurse, she supported Walter Sisulu and their children without protest. The ANC had no money, and legend has it that Walter Sisulu never got paid the 5 pounds and later 10 pounds he was entitled to as his salary. Thanks to Albertina Sisulu, it was her who also paid for the ANC SG’s train ticket from Orlando West to the ANC offices in Johannesburg. Sisulu criss-crossed the country building ANC branches and addressing community grievances. It was under him as Secretary General that the ANC implemented the 1949 Programme of Action, leading to such successful major political campaigns like Defiance campaign, the Congress of the People and the collection of the demands of the Freedom Charter.
Under him, the ANC membership grew phenomenally and he was instrumental in leading the ANC to forge alliances with the South African Indian Congress and the white Congress of Democrats at a time when there were many inside the ANC who objected to these initiatives.
In isithwalandwe Walter Sisulu, the ANC had a Secretary-General who was disciplined, a democrat, a unifier, and someone who ensured that resolutions of the ANC were implemented without fail once adopted. He believed in collective decision making, and once decisions were taken, he ensured that the unity of the ANC and those of the Congress Alliance was achieved and strengthened through common programmes and campaigns.
One of the best descriptions for Walter Sisulu’s impact in the ANC as Secretary-General comes from Ruth First whom Elinor Sisulu cites at length:
“This is the period when Walter Sisulu, night and day, became the centre of the organisational drive of the ANC. And this is the start of a new history in the life struggle of the ANC. And from this time on, largely under the leadership of Sisulu, though not exclusively, we have an ANC in direct and continuing contact with the masses, leading political strikes and mass disobedience campaigns. We have a reconstitution of the ANC with a system of branch and cell organisations which prepared it for the period when the ANC was forced underground and we have a policy of unity in action in the ANC…which policy was in fact in this period under the secretary-ship of Walter Sisulu”
Throughout his life, Sisulu crossed swords with his own comrades if he believed their actions were compromising the integrity of the ANC, undermining its unity, and weakening it to implement its decisions and policies. He never hesitated to fight anyone whom he believed wanted to use the ANC for their own nefarious ends. He fully believed in the Freedom Charter and the ideal of a non-racial South Africa which belongs to all, black and white.
In 1958, explaining the decision to expel Madzunya and Leballo, Sisulu said, “Congress is a broad and tolerant organisation, firmly wedded to democratic principle and refusing to impose a single ideology on its members. But, at the same time, the ANC is not merely a debating society, and cannot tolerate open sabotage of its struggle.”
The ANC will remember Sisulu also as the Secretary-General of the ANC who laid the building blocks for international solidarity for the struggle against apartheid. Elinor Sisulu puts it thus: “ In 1950, he had prompted members of the Executive to draft a memorandum to the United Nations…it was subsequently published in booklet format under the title ‘South Africa Behind Bars’ and circulated at the UN headquarters. In this way, Walter laid the foundation for the international solidarity campaign by being the first to place apartheid on the international peace agenda. Until then, the only South African issue to come before the United Nations had been the treatment of people of Indian origin in South Africa, and that had been brought by India.”
Elinor Sisulu also shows that Walter Sisulu was successful to mobilise support for the ANC from international leaders and global artists in the US like George Houser, Martin Luther King Jr, Paul Robeson and organisations like Americans for South African Resistance, a predecessor of The American Committee on Africa.
Walter Sisulu spent 26 years in Robben Island and Pollsmor prison with fellow Rivonia Trialists. Political prisoners from various political parties trusted him and looked up to him as a father-figure. Between 1990 and 1994, Walter Sisulu served as the Deputy President of the ANC, and on the 10th of May 1994, he witnessed the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, a comrade and friend he had groomed and attracted to the ANC at the beginning of the forties.
After 1994, the ANC continued to make use of one of its trusted cadres and fine diplomats, Walter Sisulu, to mediate conflict. Sisulu also became involved in a number of community upliftment initiatives. While he understood that there was a need for a number of ANC cadres to be in government, he was also concerned that this could also weaken the ANC itself. Till his last day on earth on the 5th of May 2003, Walter Sisulu’s heart and passion was organisational work in his beloved ANC. He represents the best in the traditions and values of the ANC. He belongs to that glorious generation of our leaders who understood that the ANC is a prized heritage of our people their weapon of struggle against political and economic oppression.
We remember him on his birthday and honour him for not dishonouring the good name of the ANC, for not seeing the ANC as a vehicle for self-enrichment.
We honour him for his unfailing humility, friendship, and deep love for our country and people.
We honour him for being a true democrat, a supreme organiser of the people, and fierce defender and enthusiastic executor of ANC policies and decisions.
ANC Youth League President Anton Lembede was correct in warning Albertina Sisulu on her wedding day that she was marrying someone who was already married to the struggle. In remembering him on his birthday, we also salute his wife and comrade-in-arms, umama Albertina Sisulu, for her selflessness and for fully supporting Cde Walter Sisulu. We honour the entire Sisulu family and their children for the huge contribution they have made to our freedom and democracy.
Walter Sisulu pushed many of our leaders to be in front and chose to focus on organisational work, and often, away from the glare of the public. He never saw himself as being above his organisation and always saw himself as part of the collective leadership. He never sought praise or personal glorification. The ANC is blessed and truly proud to have attracted a revolutionary cadre of his calibre. In him, we had a Secretary-General who never spared himself in strengthening the organisational machinery of the ANC so that it could best serve our people.
On his birthday, the greatest gift we can give to honour the memory of this gentle giant and colossus of the liberation struggle is to heal, unite, and strengthen his beloved ANC so that it can fulfil its historic mission of restoring the dignity of the millions of landless and poor masses. We can honour him by returning to the ANC’s traditions of unity in action, democratic centralism, and servant leadership.
And we must do everything to emulate his example of attracting and nurturing quality activists and cadres who understand that the ANC exists not for its own sake, but for the total emancipation of our people.
May the spirit of our Secretary-General and courage of this soldier of uMkhonto weSizwe inspire his organisation, the ANC, to fight to the bitter end to defeat the enduring legacy of race-based and gender-based poverty and inequality.