Walter Sisulu Biography

Born Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, May 18, 1912, in Transkei, South Africa; died May 6, 2003, in Soweto, South Africa. Activist. Walter Sisulu was a South African political leader who, as a result of his activism, spent more than 25 years in prison. With Nelson Mandela, he helped guide the African National Congress's campaign against apartheid, but he was less well–known than Mandela, perhaps because he preferred to work behind the scenes. Together, they transformed the African National Congress (ANC) from a banned liberation movement into the ruling party of South Africa. Sisulu was born in the Transkei in South Africa, a former British protectorate, now known as the Eastern Cape, the son of a white construction worker and an African maid. Shortly after Sisulu's birth, his father left his mother. Under the racist designations then used in South Africa, Sisulu's mixed heritage made him a "Coloured," thus setting him apart from his all–black peers. He was angry at his father for abandoning the family, and also at the rest of his family for appeasing whites. These factors fueled his youthful desire to become an activist and work for social change in South Africa.

Sisulu identified with his African heritage as a member of the Xhosa people. He was initiated into the Xhosa under the tutelage of his uncle, who was a village leader. After a brief education at an Anglican mission school, he left at the age of 15 to find work to support his family. He took whatever work he could find, laboring as a paint mixer, delivery person, gold miner, and baker. While working, he continued his studies through correspondence courses. During his time as a baker, he tried to organize the workers into a union, and as a result, was fired. In 1940, he started his own real–estate business in Johannesburg, selling land to black Africans before the apartheid system (which enforced strict racial segregation) took away their rights of ownership. During this time, he also became involved in the ANC, an activist organization that aimed to improve the rights and lives of black South Africans. As a member of the ANC, in 1941 he helped recruit activist Nelson Mandela to the cause, acting as a mentor to the younger man, paying his school tuition, introducing him to his first wife (a cousin of Sisulu's) and even arranging for Mandela to find lodgings in his mother's home. Together, they founded the ANC Youth League, which espoused a rather militant approach to the ANC's campaign against the oppressive South African government. According to Bill Keller in the New York Times, Sisulu later said of Mandela, "I had no hesitation, the moment I met him, that this is the man I need for leading the African people."

In 1944, Sisulu married his wife, Albertina; Mandela, who later became president of South Africa, was his best man. As Sisulu became more involved in political causes, Albertina took over the jobs of supporting their family and raising their children. From 1949 to 1954, Sisulu served as secretary general of the ANC. In addition, Sisulu was a founder of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhunto we Sizwe. As a result of his activities, Sisulu, along with Mandela, was a defendant in South Africa's Treason Trial, a four–year trial in which 156 people were charged with high treason against the government. Although all the defendants were acquitted in 1961, Sisulu was often placed under house arrest in the ensuing years. In 1963, he went underground, hiding from the government. Later that year, he, Mandela, and other anti–apartheid activists were arrested, and convicted of treason. The government demanded that they be sentenced to death, but instead, they were sentenced to life in prison. During his long prison term, Sisulu's wife and children were subjected to arrests, banning orders, and government harassment. Sisulu was released from Pullsmoor Prison on October 15, 1989. Mandela was released four months later, and apartheid began to crumble.

When Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, he made Sisulu one of his closest advisors, although Sisulu's age and poor health prevented him from taking an official position in the new government. Behind the scenes, Sisulu emphasized moderation and reconciliation in the years after apartheid was over. According to the New York Times 's Keller, he said, "Bitterness does not do your cause any good. That doesn't mean you don't get angry. But you don't let it get in the way of your policy."

Sisulu died on May 5, 2003, at his home in Soweto, near Johannesburg, at the age of 90; he had suffered from a long illness. According to Nita Lelyveld of the Los Angeles Times, Mandela said, "His absence has created a void. A part of me is gone." Sisulu is survived by his wife, Albertina; a daughter, Lindiwe; four sons, Zwelakhe, Max, Mlungisi, and Nonkululeko; and three adopted children.


Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2003, sec. 1, p. 11; Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2003, p. B12; New York Times, May 6, 2003, p. C17; Times (London, England), (May 7, 2003).

Kelly Winters

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