Former president Nelson Mandela at the same ceremony saluted him for
the life-long work he did for the ANC.
“Walter Sisulu is a humble and selfless leader who taught us that
wisdom comes from sharing insight,” Mandela said.
He came to Johannesburg from Engcobo, Transkei in 1929.
He was only able to attend school until Standard Four (Grade Six) after
which he studied on his own to improve his education.
Sisulu became a mineworker in Johannesburg, working a mile underground
in arduous and dangerous conditions, sleeping in the grim barracks in
one of the Reef compounds.
His next job was in East London as a “kitchen boy”.
He then returned to Johannesburg to work in a bakery for 18 shillings a
He picked up some information about trade unions and ended up leading
his fellow workers on a strike for higher wages. The strike was defeated
and he was fired.
Sisulu joined the ANC in 1940 and was among the group of radicals who
formed the Youth League in 1943/44.
The organisation’s leadership had, in the late 1920s, split over
whether to cooperate with the Communist Party, and the ensuing victory of the
conservatives within the ANC left the party small and disorganised
through the 1930s.
In the 1940s the ANC revived under younger leaders who pressed for a
more militant stance against colour bars in South Africa.
The ANC Youth League attracted Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson
Mandela, who in turn displaced the party’s moderate leadership in 1949 at what
many view as the party’s watershed conference.
Under Sisulu, Tambo and Mandela’s leadership the ANC began sponsoring
non-violent protests, strikes, boycotts, and marches, in the process
becoming a target of police harassment and arrest. By the end of World War
II the ANC had begun strong agitation against the pass laws, and when
the largely white electorate voted in the National Party in 1948, the
ANC’s membership grew rapidly, rising to 100000 in 1952.
In 1944, he married Nontsikelelo Albertina, with whom he was to have
five children. Mrs Sisulu was a much-loved and internationally respected
activist in her own right. Her work earned her the title Mama Africa.
Sisulu was elected ANC secretary general in 1949, a post he held until
1954 when banning orders forced him to resign the position.
He served on the joint planning council for the Defiance Campaign, and
led one of the first batches of passive resisters when the campaign
began in 1952. Campaigners refused to carry the notorious “pass book” all
native South Africans had to carry by law and hundreds were arrested.
Sisulu was one of the accused in the Treason Trial, which began in
In 1960, during a State of Emergency, he was detained without trial. He
was arrested six times in 1962 and placed under 13-hour house arrest on
October 26 and under 24-hour house arrest on April 3, 1963.
Pending an appeal against a six year sentence, he forfeited bail of
R6000 on April 19, 1963, and went underground. In July 1963, Sisulu was
arrested and detained under the 90-day law.
At the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he was the main defence witness and was
subjected to a fierce attack from the prosecutor, Percy Yutar.
Sisulu told him: “I wish you were an African. Then you would know…”
He was charged with sabotage and other offences in the Rivonia Trial
and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. He was released in
October 1989 after 26 years in jail.
He was elected ANC deputy president at its national conference of July
1991 and remained in that position until after South Africa’s first
democratic election in 1994.
In January 1992, Sisulu was awarded Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the
highest honour granted by the ANC, for his contribution to the struggle for
Sisulu remained active in the ANC following the end of his term as
deputy president in December 1994. For several years he maintained an
office in the ANC’s Johannesburg headquarters and undertook a number of
responsibilities on behalf of the organisation.