Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu (born 1912) was one of the most important leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. In the 1940s he was a founder of the Congress Youth League, which led the ANC into militant resistance to apartheid. He became general secretary of the ANC and a chief strategist and organizer of the Defiance Campaign in the 1950s. Although a political prisoner for many years, he remained influential and instrumental in the ultimate end to apartheid.
Walter Sisulu was born in 1912 in the South African "native reserve" territory of the Transkei (granted independence in 1976, but reincorporated into the Republic of South Africa in 1994), among the Xhosa-speaking section of the Southern Nguni people. His family were African peasants and members of the Anglican Church. He himself was of racially mixed ancestry. He attended school up to standard IV (the equivalent of American grade 5 or 6), but later in life advanced his education through self-study and correspondence. Unlike most prominent Black leaders of his day, he had neither formal higher education nor professional training, but his intelligence and drive carried him to the foremost rank of African nationalist leadership in the 1940s and 1950s in company with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Sisulu began his working life in 1929 when he migrated to Johannesburg, like so many Africans before and since. He worked in a dairy, in the gold mines, in a kitchen, and as a factory hand during the 1930s. He brought to these experiences a resentment of white paternalism and a political militancy which found expression in labor activism and strike organizing. In 1940 he joined the African National Congress (ANC), then being rejuvenated by the well-known leader A. B. Xuma.
Dissatisfied with the cautious middle class respectability and conservatism of the ANC leadership, he collaborated with other young militants in organizing the Congress Youth League and helped formulate its "Programme of Action" calling for non-violent civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts to resist South Africa's traditional segregation as well as new apartheid laws imposed by the post-war Afrikaner Nationalist government.
With the replacement of Xuma with a successor picked by the Youth League—James Moroka—in 1949, Sisulu became the ANC's first full-time secretary-general, conducting the day-to-day operations of the ANC. He served also in this capacity under Moroka's successor, Albert Luthuli, and was responsible for organizing and directing the Defiance Campaign of civil disobedience in the early 1950s during which he was repeatedly arrested, jailed, and put under ban or house arrest.
Sisulu's initial Black nationalist exclusivism softened in these years as he worked with the South African Indian Congress and the small left-wing white Congress of Democrats in a multi-racial umbrella organization called the Congress Alliance. In 1953 he accepted an invitation arranged by Communist members of the Congress of Democrats to visit Europe, Russia, and China with other African leaders. These experiences reinforced a growing interest in socialist ideas, although he was never a Communist himself.
By the mid-1950s Sisulu, in company with other leaders, was subjected to ever-stricter police control and banning orders which reduced his active participation in the resistance movement and weakened its organization, but he continued his leadership behind the scenes. Then in 1956 he was arrested and tried for treason with 156 others. The treason trial lasted until 1961 when, after acquittal, he resumed "illicit" political activity. By this time the ANC resistance movement had come to harrowing days of ideological division with the splitting away of the Pan Africanist Congress under Robert Sobukwe, followed by violent police repression culminating in the Sharpeville massacre of June 1960. Defying house arrest, Sisulu joined Mandela and others in an underground organization called Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) committed to carrying on the resistance in a sabotage campaign. In 1963 he was captured, convicted of sabotage and revolutionary activity, sentenced to life imprisonment, and incarcerated in the political prison on Robben Island in Table Bay. In 1984 he, Mandela, and others still in captivity were moved to the Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
Sisulu's wife Albertina and son Zwelakhe were also harassed by South African authorities for their activism in support of political and economic freedom.
Despite his militancy and radical tendencies, Sisulu was a political pragmatist and essentially a moderate. His early outlook was formed in his Transkei youth under the influence of Xhosa historical traditions and the millenarian movement of Wellington Buthelezi, who was partly inspired by the West Indian Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey. But Sisulu abandoned his early Africanist racial exclusiveness when experience, reflection, and his pragmatic nature led him to a racially inclusive vision of South Africa's future, rooted in the political morality of the Western democratic tradition. Sticking to the Congress Alliance and its multi-racial ideal, he opposed the Pan Africanist split under Robert Sobukwe. With other leaders of the ANC he believed that their non-violent resistance would eventually undermine the hard-line Afrikaner Nationalist apartheid government and persuade disillusioned whites to cooperate in a common South African society with equal rights for all. Tragically, the power, conviction, and ruthless determination of the apartheid regime remained virtually unshaken for yet another generation. But the challenge raised by Sisulu and his colleagues remained the unanswered question of the future, and the issues and alternatives they then courageously and steadfastly defined ultimately prevailed.
Sisulu was released from prison at the end of 1989 by Frederik W. de Klerk, P. W. Botha's successor. In 1991, he was elected ANC deputy president and was a leading figure in the negotiations with de Klerk's government for a transition to a non-racial South Africa. In January 1992, Sisulu, along with colleagues Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, received Isitwalandwe Medals on the 80th anniversary of the ANC Bloemfontein.
In 1994 Sisulu returned to Robben Island where he had been imprisoned for over 20 years, to star in a film on the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF). He officially retired later in 1994, after seeing his friend, Nelson R. Mandela, inaugurated as president. In May 1997, Sisulu was honored at an 85th birthday celebration.
Further Reading on Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu
Sisulu figured prominently in political histories of South Africa and its African National Congress, such as Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa: The African National Congress, 1912-1952 (1971); Mary Benson, The African Patriots: The Story of the African National Congress of South Africa (London, 1963); Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (Johannesburg, 1983); and the documentary history of African politics by Thomas Karis and Gwendolen Carter, From Protest to Challenge…, Vols. 2, 3, and 4 (1973 and 1977). Sisulu's biography appeared in Norbert Brockman's, An African Biographical Dictionary (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1994). See also The Guardian, January 25, 1995.