Had he still been alive, Walter Sisulu would be 100. The City and others celebrated his legacy on this important milestone, saying he was an example to all.
THE life of Walter Sisulu was celebrated over two days in Johannesburg to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the struggle icon, who is affectionately known as the father of the nation.
Walter SisuluPaying tribute to Walter SisuluBorn on 18 May 1912, Sisulu would have turned 100 year this year. He passed away on 5 May 2003.
About this gentle giant, Nelson Mandela said at his funeral: “His greatness as a leader derived from his humility and his ingrained belief in and respect for collective leadership. He knew and taught us that wisdom comes from sharing insights and listening to and learning from each other. He was always the unifier, never a divider, where others of us would speak a hasty word or act in anger, he was the patient one, seeking to heal and bring together.”
A veteran freedom fighter, Sisulu joined the ANC as a young man, a move that changed his life and gave him a sense of purpose, he once said. His impact on the ANC in turn helped it become a mass movement that had the Freedom Charter as its vision for a post-apartheid South Africa.
To mark this historic milestone, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the ANC Gauteng and the Sisulu family partnered in commemoration and celebration of his life and legacy.
A symposium was held on 18 May at Wits Great Hall in Braamfontein, on Wits University East Campus. Speakers included the likes of Elinor Sisulu, his daughter-in-law; Kathrada, the anti-apartheid activist; Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC politician and businessman; and Noor Nieftagodien, the Wits lecturer in the History Workshop.
To encapsulate the broadness of Sisulu’s life, the symposium was followed by an afternoon of song, dance and cultural activities to depict the witty, fun and creative aspects of his life. Keynote speakers on 19 May included Andimba Toivo ya Toivo and Ruth Mompati.
Toivo ya Toivo is a Namibian political activist and liberation struggle icon who played a significant role in the founding of the South West Africa People’s Organisation, or Swapo. He spent 16 years in prison on Robben Island after being convicted under South Africa’s anti-terrorism law and served time in jail alongside Kathrada, Sisulu and Mandela.
Mompati joined the ANC in 1952, and worked as a legal secretary at Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law firm. She became active in the Federation of South African Women, which was launched in 1954, and played a leading role in the lead up to the Women’s March in 1956.
Ahmed KathradaAhmed Kathrada prepares to deliver a tribute to Walter SisuluWhen the ANC was banned, she began working underground and subsequently went into exile in 1962. She held office as a secretary and head of the women’s section of the ANC in Tanzania.
During the celebration, artists such as Mara Louw and the Imilonji Choir, among others, performed.
“It is a great honour and deeply humbling to be asked to reflect on the life and work of ‘Isitwalandwe’ Walter Sisulu on this day, the 100th anniversary of his birth,” said Ramaphosa, the chairperson of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, at the symposium.
“When we gather on an occasion such as this to pay tribute to one of the giants of our struggle, we remember a life lived in the service of our people and celebrate a contribution that profoundly shaped our history, our country, our organisation and, quite honestly, many of us.”
He added: “It is significant that he should have been born in the same year as the ANC, a movement that he was to play such a central role in shaping … Over more than 50 years of selfless service, Tata Walter Sisulu was to have a profound influence not only on the liberation movement, but on the course of the struggle for democracy, justice and freedom in South Africa.”
Reflecting the life of Sisulu, Ramaphosa said he joined the ANC in 1940, after being recruited by trade unionist Alfred Mbele. At that time he paid two shillings and sixpence membership fee, was given a card, and became a member of the influential Orlando Branch. Soon thereafter, he was made the treasurer of the branch and from 1942 onwards he attended virtually all the annual ANC conferences. He was one of the founding members of the ANC Youth League.
“It is remarkable that just nine years after joining the ANC he would rise to the post of national secretary-general of the ANC. He stepped down from his last official position in the organisation, as ANC deputy president, in 1994. In the intervening years, he had been one of the most active, prominent and influential leaders in this country,” Ramaphosa noted.
George BizosRemembering an old friend: Human rights advocate George Bizos “By the time Walter Sisulu joined the organisation, he had already experienced nearly 10 years of the harsh life of a young migrant worker from Eastern Cape as a miner, domestic worker and a factory employee.”
Sisulu’s formal schooling had stopped at standard four – grade six today – and as he went from job to job he studied for his matric, mainly via correspondence courses. Even at that young age, Sisulu was spontaneously organising fellow workers and instigating strikes, for which he would get fired.
“But he was not simply a firebrand,” Ramaphosa explained. “In fact, some of his outstanding characteristics, even at that time, were his sharp intellectual curiosity, his measured judgements and keenly observant mind. He was always learning, observing, analysing … These are attributes that would serve him and his organisation to great benefit in the years that were to come.”
In 1938, he established his own estate agency and was active in local politics. He joined the Civic Association, and dates the start of his active politics from that time onwards. He met Gaur Radebe, a communist, and together with Herbert Mdingi, they launched the Transvaal Civic Association. But Sisulu was also active in choirs and other cultural and mutual aid organisations.
“His wealth of human experience, his uncanny strategic ability and his measured reasoning would soon be put to its greatest test,” Ramaphosa said. “The character of the ANC started to change from being a movement whose major activity was its annual conference into a more tightly functioning and centralised organisation.”
At the 1943 conference, there was a call for the formation of the Youth League, and the conference gave the go-ahead. Sisulu and a group of young activists, including Anton Lembede, AP Mda, Tambo, Jordan Ngubane, Willie Nkomo and Mandela, threw themselves into the work of setting up the Youth League. It was launched in 1944 with Lembede as president, Tambo as secretary and Sisulu as treasurer.
Sisulu was influenced by other people and events that were unfolding in the country at the time, said Ramaphosa. “The campaigns of James Sofasonke Mpanza, the 1946 mineworkers strike and the 1946 Indian passive resistance campaign were to make a major impression on him.”
Taivo ya TaivoNamibian political activist Toivo ya ToivoBy the time the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, the ANC Youth League had already developed a programme of action that called for more militant political work. It lobbied hard for this programme to be adopted by the ANC at its 1949 conference; its lobbying was successful and Sisulu was also elected as the secretary-general, the first full time secretary-general of the ANC.
“I knew that there was no money to finance the movement. But I was obliged. Once I had accepted, once I was elected I knew that it’s the end of my business or anything else. I had to be full time. I couldn’t draft a Programme of Action and call upon the people to support it without leading it … I had confidence in my wife, that I would have her support fully as indeed it showed. She supported me fully,” Sisulu said.
Ramaphosa pointed out that Sisulu’s lifelong romance with his wife, Albertina, became the stuff of legends. “Seldom has a struggle couple shown such enduring love and understanding. Without her support, her political wisdom and strength of character, Walter Sisulu would never have been able to achieve what he did. And she in turn in later years, while he was in prison, became a leading source of inspiration to all those fighting for freedom.”
Thereafter, Sisulu threw himself into preparing for the Defiance Campaign, which meant persuading people that not only were they going to protest, as in the passive resistance campaigns, but that they were also going to deliberately court going to jail.
Under his tenure as secretary-general, the ANC membership grew from a few thousand to over 100 000. The example of more than 8 000 people going to jail for actively defying apartheid laws gave inspiration to millions of oppressed South Africans that freedom could be won, if it was fought for.
“His interaction with members of the Communist Party and Indian Congresses strengthened his belief that effective opposition to apartheid required maximum unity of oppressed people as well as support from democratic whites,” said Ramaphosa. “He took the initiative to start the establishment of the Congress of Democrats and later the Coloured People’s Congress. The gradual and patient cementing together of a Congress Alliance was one of the crowning achievements of the congress movement.”
Sisulu was forced to resign from his post as secretary-general because a banning order was imposed in July 1954. Yet work went ahead on drawing up the Freedom Charter. Its content was as important as the process of its development. The campaign brought together activists across the organisational and racial spectrum in doing mass work.
This style of work, which defined the character of the ANC, was given life under Sisulu’s guidance, he said. “In time to come the Freedom Charter became the founding document of the ANC, precipitating breakaways by Africanists within the ANC and serving as the guiding document for successive decades of struggle.
“Other famous battles, such as resistance to the removals, as in Sophiatown, the Potato Boycott and the famous march of women on the Union Buildings were evidence that popular resistance was growing in response to an ever-more repressive state.”
Then, in 1956, came the arrests for the Treason Trial, which lasted for four years, but during which members of the ANC structures continued to operate.
Ramaphosa explained: “The trial became an anti-government focus and militancy in the country, such as the famous bus boycotts, continued unabated. All the while, the leadership of the ANC contrived every means possible to meet and to give leadership in increasingly difficult times. And then the infamous massacre at Sharpeville took place on 21 March 1960, and this changed everything.”
Ultimately, it led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and Mandela going underground. Tambo left the country just before this to build the organisation abroad. The government declared a state of emergency, and 250 people were detained.
In the next year, Sisulu faced prosecution twice; in 1962 he was arrested six times and placed under house arrest. Pending an appeal, he forfeited his bail and went underground, speaking on Radio Freedom on 26 June 1963 assuring people that Umkhonto we Sizwe had decided to fight on an “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth basis”.
On 11 July 1963, Sisulu was arrested in Rivonia and one year later he, together with the other Rivonia trialists, were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
“Although Walter’s political involvement spanned the latter part of the last century, he was very much a leader for the 21st century,” Ramaphosa said. “Though we may be tempted to describe him as an outstanding leader of a bygone era – one of a generation of freedom fighters who have now, sadly, left the field of battle – we would be mistaken.”
Nearly 10 years after we mourned his passing, the spirit of Sisulu remained with us, he added. “His life serves as an inspiration. His wisdom still guides us as we grapple with the challenge of building a better life for our people.
“As we pay tribute to ‘Isitwalandwe’ Walter Sisulu, we look to his example as a guide to how we should act today, and how we should prepare for tomorrow.”
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