Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu
May 18, 1912 – May 5, 2003
Nationality: South African
Walter Sisulu was the child of a Xhosa woman, Alice Mase Sisulu, and a White man, Victor Dickingson. Born in Qutubeni, an area in the Engcobo district of the Transkei, Walter was raised by his grandmother and uncle. At the age of six, he went to live with his mother who worked as a domestic but his father, a civil servant, was never involved in his life.
He was compelled to leave school at the age of 15 to find work to help support his family after his uncle died. This prompted a move to Johannesburg where he initially worked at a dairy and was later employed in various jobs, which included working in gold mines. It was during that time that Sisulu met Clements Kadalie, the founder of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union. The combination of his relationship with Kadalie and his experiences in the mines had a great influence on his dedication to trade unions and political beliefs. In the early 1930s, Sisulu joined the Orlando Brotherly Society, a Xhosa cultural and aid group of which he eventually became secretary.
The early 1940s would bring several important figures into Sisulu’s life. He was still active with unions and was fired from his job at a bakery for leading a strike for increased wages. In 1940, Sisulu joined the African National Congress (ANC) which he persuaded Nelson Mandela to join when the two met a year later. The pair would remain steadfast friends for the rest of their lives.
Around this time Sisulu met another person who would loom large in his life and the history of South Africa, Albertina Thethiwe. Thethiwe was a nursing student also hailing from Transkei who Sisulu initiated into the ANC and South African politics. The couple married on July 15, 1944, with Mandela serving as Sisulu’s best man. They would have five children of their own and also adopted relatives’ three children.
1944 saw the formation of another union of sorts. Sisulu and a few other members of the ANC, which included Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli, Mandela, and Albertina, formed the ANC’s Youth League. The Youth League wielded great influence within the ANC and Sisulu personally worked to discourage the enlistment of Black South Africans in the military during World War II. In 1948, as apartheid officially became law, Sisulu responded by developing the ANC’s Programme of Action which was implemented the following year and resulted in him being elected Secretary-General. He and the ANC fought back against apartheid by organizing strikes, protests, and boycotts.
By the early 1950s, Sisulu was responsible for most of the ANC’s day-to-day operations and had formed alliances with the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), and the Cape Franchise Action Committee (FRAC). He and other group members would be harassed by police, arrested, put on trial, and banned from political activism multiple times. In 1953, he went on a months-long tour to several countries, some of which were communist. The experience inspired him to join the outlawed SACP when he returned.
He along with other leaders of the ANC were arrested in 1963. Sisulu was released on bail and placed under house arrest from which he escaped and went underground. A few months later the safe house was raided and Sisulu along with the others present was arrested. In 1961, Sisulu, Mandela, and others had secretly organized MK – Spear of the Nation, the ANC’s armed wing, in response to the Sharpeville Massacre. Sisulu along with other top members of the ANC was charged with and convicted of plotting to overthrow the government for which they were sentenced to life in prison.
Sisulu and the rest of the group served 18 years on Robben Island and the rest of their sentence at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. But prison bars only contained Sisulu physically, he continued to broaden his mind and work for justice and equality. Sisulu strengthened his mind by completing his formal education. He and the other ANC leaders reformed an underground version of the organization within the prison. Initially, Sisulu held informal lectures that eventually served as the foundation for Syllabus A, a study of the ANC’s history and various liberation struggles and philosophies from around the world.
Walter Sisulu was released in October of 1989 after serving 26 years in prison. Like Winnie Mandela, Albertina had remained politically active during her husband’s imprisonment and had become a notable activist in her own right. In the lead up to the first democratic election, Sisulu served as deputy president of the ANC. But, following Mandela’s landslide election as president, Sisulu declined an official position in the new government. Instead, he opted to remain an advisor to Mandela and retired from the ANC.
Walter Sisulu died shortly before his 91st birthday following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
- Boddy-Evans, Alistair. 2016. “Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, Anti-Apartheid Activist.” ThoughtCo. July 12, 2016. https://www.thoughtco.com/walter-max-ulyate-sisulu-4069431.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 15, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Sisulu.
- Offenbacher, Elisheva. 2014. “Walter Sisulu (1912-2003).” Blackpast. January 26, 2014. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/sisulu-walter-1912-2003/.
- “Walter Ulyate Sisulu.” n.d. South African History Online. Accessed September 27, 2020. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/walter-ulyate-sisulu.
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