Friday Feature

Walter Ulyate Sisulu
Biography of a Freedom Fighter
(1912 – 2003)

“It is a law of life that problems arise when conditions are there for their solution.”  
- Walter Sisulu

Walter Ulyate Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist and a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). He was born on 18 May 1912 in Ngcobo in Transkei (now Eastern Cape) to Alice Mase Sisulu and Albert Victor Dickenson. He was married to nurse and anti-apartheid activist, Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu (nee Thethiwe), and together they had eight children, three of which where adopted.

In Ngcobo, Sisulu attended the Anglican Mission Institute, however, after the death of his uncle at the age of fourteen, he left for Johannesburg to find work. In Johannesburg, Sisulu took up a range of work as a delivery man for a dairy; in the masonry and carpentry department, then as a miner of the Rose Deep Mine in Germiston; as a domestic; and as a baker for Premier Biscuits. In 1940, Sisulu was dismissed at Premier Biscuits because he not only organised a strike for higher wages, but he also attempted to form a union. 

Sisulu also worked as a paint mixer for Herbert Evans in Johannesburg; as a packer for a tobacconist; as a part-time teller at the Union Bank of South Africa, and after 1938 as an advertising salesperson and real estate agent. His real estate business, Sitha Investments sold property to Black and Indian people, and prior to the apartheid government shutting its operation, it was the only Black owned estate agency in South Africa.

In 1940, Sisulu joined the ANC and allied with the organisation’s principle of African nationalism. It was also around this this time that he met Albertina Sisulu, who he later married in 1944. In 1943, as founding member of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), he attended conferences of the Federation of Democratic Youth in Romania and the International Union of Students in Poland. He also travelled to the Soviet Union, China, and the United Kingdom. When he returned to South Africa he joined the SACP.

In 1949 Sisulu became ANCYL Secretary-General, where he organised the strategy of active protest, most notably the Defiance Campaign of 1952. For his role in the Defiance Campaign, he was arrested for a brief period before being served with the first of his many banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act. Ultimately, Sisulu was tried and sentenced for nine months imprisonment with hard labour and suspended for two years for his role in the Defiance Campaign. No longer able to attend public meetings, Sisulu resigned as Secretary-General was forced to work in secret. Sisulu co-organised The 1955 Congress of People but was unable to participate in the event. In the aftermath of the Congress of People, 156 anti-apartheid activists were arrested, with thirty of them tried at the Treason Trial. Released on bail, Sisulu went underground which resulted in the arrest of Albertina Sisulu under General Laws Amendment Act of 1963. She became the first woman to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 Sisulu, Mandela and several others formed Umkonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. During 1962 and 1963 Sisulu was arrested six times but released on bail in April 1963 Sisulu went underground, joining up with the Umkonto we Sizwe, who were secretly located in Rivonia.  

In 1964, at the Rivonia Trial, Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment with other anti-apartheid activists. Sisulu served the majority of his sentence on Robben Island, and served the remaining at Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town.

In 1989, after twenty-five years imprisonment, Sisulu was released from Pollsmoor Prison. He was elected Deputy President of the organisation in 1991, a year after the ANC was unbanned. Sisulu was responsible for restructuring the ANC in post-apartheid/democratic South Africa.

On the eve of South Africa’s democratic elections, Sisulu retired, and nine years later on 5 May 2003, following a long period of ill health Sisulu died. 

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