Walter Sisulu is one of South Africa’s most prominent leaders in the fight against apartheid, a key figure in the African National Congress (ANC) and also playing a pivotal role in Madiba’s life. Sisulu sought no high political office or position of power, shunned the spotlight locally and internationally. Yet, his wisdom and leadership were the bedrock of the fight against racial injustice in South Africa.
By the time he joined the ANC, Sisulu had already experienced the harsh life of a young migrant worker from rural areas in South Africa. Educated in a local missionary school, he moved into Johannesburg to find job in 1928. He was a man with great courage, everywhere he went he would spontaneously organise his fellow workers and instigating strikes which led him fired many times. But that didn’t stop him, instead. His outstanding characteristics and intellectual curiosity would serve him and ANC enormously.
In 1938, he established his own estate agency which real overwhelmed Nelson Mandela enormously when he visited his offices for the first time. At that time he was active in local politics and he was part of the Civic Association. Sisulu together with Gaur Radebe and Herbert Mdingi launched the Transvaal Civic Association, and was also active in choirs and other cultural and mutual aid organisations.
Sisulu’s wealth of human experience as a small businessman, community activist and also his reasoning would soon be put into test, when he realized that ANC’s ideas to fight the straggle were too weak and changed their character from being a movement whose major activity was annual conference, to a tighter functioning and centralised organisation. However, the politics of the ANC were still very much in a conservative mould, most especially with regards to its prevailing tactics of deputations, petitions and delegations.
The 90 year old took time to analyse and learn other people and events that were happening at that time in South Africa. Analysing campaigns such as the 1946 mineworker’s strike that was led by James Sofasonke Mpanza and also the Indian passive resistance campaign. The mass character of these movement influenced him to push ANC to change many of its ideas.
The ANCYL was already in the second stage of its development in 1948, when the Nationalist Party came into power. And the movement had drafted a programme of action that called for more militant political work. The ANCYL had to work hard to make sure that the programme was adopted by the ANC seniors in 1949, and Walter Sisulu was appointed as its Secretary General. And became the first full-time Secretary General of the ANC.
Walter Sisulu is described as a unifier and also tolerant, but more than all a person whose determination was to get the job done. Even though Sisulu new very well that they was no money to support the movement, he had to come to terms with the fact that it was the end of his business. He was obliged to do this work, but what kept him going was the amazing support he got from his wife.
His wife, Albertine Sisulu ensured that he had money to travel and also ensure that she provided for the family while Walter Sisulu was away working for the nation. Their lifelong romance became an exceptional example of how marriage should be like. Their enduring love and understanding will never be explained. Without her support, wisdom and strength character, it’s hard to believe that Walther Sisulu would have been able to achieve what he did. No surprise that she ended up becoming a source of inspiration for the ANC.
Walter Sisulu was the first person to persuade ANC leaders and activists to not only campaign in a passive and peaceful way, but also go deliberately to “court going to jail”. Sisulu visited almost every part of the country to send the message about the campaign which was called (The Defiance Campaign) one must remember social media at that time was not available to spread messages easy and quick, and he also took time to build or revive branches, everywhere he went. As Secretary General of the ANC, he grew the number of ANC membership to over hundred thousand. His Defiance Campaign took away all fears of imprisonment among leaders and activists of the ANC and gave birth to rising militancy, and it also inspired millions of oppressed South Africans to fight.
Sisulu was one of the first people to move away from narrow nationalism that dominated certain quarters of thinking within the ANC collectively. He believed that in order to succeed the Apartheid government, all those who were oppressed needed to unit. And took the initiative to establish the Congress of Democrats and later the Coloured people Congress. Sisulu wanted people to be very involved in the ANC, so he and other leaders traveled the country looking for new ideas from ordinary people to fight the straggle. In doing this mass work, it brought together activists across the organisational and racial spectrum.
Walter Sisulu was arrested multiple times for his work, but the famous Rivonia trail would see him, Nelson Mandela and other leader’s sentence to life imprisonment. However, their ideas were used to free them and also to free South Africa.
Even though he’s no longer with us, his values, capabilities and qualities of leadership are still relevant and needed today. Even though, it’s been more than 14 years after we mourned his passing, his spirit and wisdom remains with us and ANC need to let his wisdom be the guide again, and they need to make decisions that will make them pull in one direction. His story is important to go through it now and then, it’s surely clear that his ideas were meant for this century