Walter Sisulu

South African activist

Walter Sisulu
Walter Sisulu.jpg
Deputy President of the African National Congress
In office
July 1991 – 1994
PresidentNelson Mandela
Preceded byNelson Mandela
Succeeded byThabo Mbeki
Secretary-General of the African National Congress
In office
PresidentJames Moroka
Albert Luthuli
Preceded byJames Arthur Calata
Succeeded byOliver Tambo
Personal details
Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu

(1912-05-18)18 May 1912
Ngcobo, Transkei (now Eastern Cape), South Africa
Died5 May 2003(2003-05-05) (aged 90)
Political partyAfrican National Congress
Albertina Sisulu
(m. 1944)
  • Lindiwe Sisulu
  • Max Sisulu
  • Zwelakhe Sisulu
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Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu (18 May 1912 – 5 May 2003) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC), serving at times as Secretary-General and Deputy President of the organization. He was incarcerated at Robben Island, where he served more than 25 years' imprisonment.[1]

How Walter Sisulu started working for democracy

Walter and Albertina Sisulu wedding with Nelson Mandela and Anton Lembede. Evelyn Mase is to the left of the groom and Anton Lembede is to the right of the bride. Nelson Mandela is far left. Rosabella Sisulu looks out over the couple.[2]

Sisulu was born in Ngcobo in the Union of South Africa. His mother, Alice Mase Sisulu, was a Xhosa domestic worker and his father, Albert Victor Dickinson was white. Dickinson worked in the Railway Department of the Cape Colony from 1903 to 1909 and was transferred to the Office of the Chief Magistrate in Umtata in 1910.[3][4] Sisulu's mother was related to Evelyn Mase, Nelson Mandela's first wife. Dickinson did not play a part in his son's upbringing, and the boy and his sister, Rosabella, were raised by his mother's family, who were descended from the Thembu clan.[5] Dickinson later went on to become the Attorney General of the Transvaal.

Educated in a local missionary school, Sisulu left in 1926 to find work. He moved to Johannesburg in 1928 and did a wide range of manual jobs.

He founded Sitha Investments in 1939. It was situated at Barclay Arcade between West Street and Commissioner Street in the business district of Johannesburg. Its objective was to help blacks and Indians buy houses in Apartheid South Africa. During its operations, Sitha was the only black-owned real estate agency in South Africa.

He married Albertina in 1944; Nelson Mandela was his best man at their wedding.[6] The couple had five children, and adopted four more. Sisulu's wife and children were also active in the struggle against apartheid.

His son Zwelakhe Sisulu became a journalist and union leader, went on to found the New Nation (at the time South Africa's largest black newspaper), served as Nelson Mandela's press secretary, became CEO of the South African Broadcast Corporation, and later a businessperson.[7][8]

An adopted daughter, Beryl Rose Sisulu, served as ambassador for the Republic of South Africa in Norway.[9]

ANC activism

Sisulu joined the ANC in 1941. In 1943, together with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, he joined the ANC Youth League, founded by Anton Lembede, of which he was initially the treasurer. He later distanced himself from Lembede after Lembede, who died in 1947, had ridiculed his parentage (Sisulu was the son of a white foreman). Sisulu was a political networker and had a prominent planning role in the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"). He became secretary general of the ANC in 1949, displacing the more passive older leadership, in a post he held until 1954. He also joined the South African Communist Party.

As a planner of the Defiance Campaign from 1952, he was arrested that year and given a suspended sentence. In 1953, he travelled to Europe, the USSR, Palestine, and China as an ANC representative. He was jailed seven times in the next ten years, including five months in 1960, and was held under house arrest in 1962. At the Treason Trial (1956–1961), he was eventually sentenced to six years, but was released on bail pending his appeal. He went underground in 1963, resulting in his wife being the first woman arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 (or "90-day clause"[10]). He was caught at Rivonia on 11 July, along with Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and 14 others. At the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial (1963–1964), Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. With other senior ANC figures, he served the majority of his sentence on Robben Island.

On 15 October 1989, he was released after 26 years in prison, and in July 1991 was elected ANC deputy president at the ANC's first national conference after its unbanning the year before. He remained in the position until after South Africa's first democratic election in 1994.


In 1992, Walter Sisulu was awarded Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honour granted by the ANC, for his contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa. The government of India awarded him Padma Vibhushan in 1998. Walter Sisulu was given a "special official funeral" on 17 May 2003. In 2004 he was voted 33rd in the SABC 3's Great South Africans.

The Walter Sisulu National Botanic Garden, Walter Sisulu University and Walter Sisulu Local Municipality are named after him.

See also


  1. ^ Obituary: Walter Sisulu – BBC News obituary, 5 May 2003.
  2. ^ Sisulu, Elinor (10 June 2011). "Tribute: Life, love and times of the Sisulus". The New Age. Archived from the original on 2 February 2014. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  3. ^ "Walter Sisulu – ANC Page". Archived from the original on 22 April 2011. Retrieved 4 June 2011.
  4. ^ Beresford, David (7 May 2003). "Walter Sisulu". The Guardian.
  5. ^ Walter Sisulu Archived 16 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine Walter Sisulu.
  6. ^ "SA mourns anti-apartheid icon 'Ma' Sisulu". The Namibian. NAMPA. 6 June 2011. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011.
  7. ^ Sapa and Mkhulu Mashau (14 October 2012). "Zwelakhe Sisulu laid to rest – South Africa | IOL News". Retrieved 28 January 2013.
  8. ^ Hultman, Tami (5 October 2012). "South Africa: Zwelakhe Sisulu – a Remembrance". AllAfrica. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
  9. ^ Female ambassadors luncheon.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Lever, H. (Summer 1969). "The Johannesburg Station Explosion and Ethnic Attitudes". The Public Opinion Quarterly. Oxford University Press, American Association for Public Opinion Research. 33 (2): 180–189. doi:10.1086/267689. JSTOR 2747759.

Further reading

  • Sisulu, Walter Max; Houser, George M.; Shore, Herb (2001). I Will Go Singing: Walter Sisulu Speaks of His Life and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa. Robben Island Museum.

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Walter Sisulu.
  • Anti-apartheid fighter Sisulu dies – BBC News article, dated Tuesday, 6 May 2003
  • South Africa mourns Sisulu – BBC News article, dated Tuesday, 6 May 2003
  • Nelson Mandela's tribute to Walter Sisulu – BBC News article, dated Tuesday, 6 May 2003
  • The African Activist Archive Project website includes the audio of a January 1987 Interview with Walter Sisulu conducted in 1954 by George M. Houser of the American Committee on Africa. The website also includes photographs of Sisulu and demonstrations in the U.S. in support of the defendants in the Rivonia Trial.
  • Interview with Walter Sisulu by Tor Sellström within the project Nordic Documentation on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa – dated 15 September 1995
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