Walter Sisulu, 90; Political Leader Helped Shape Anti-Apartheid Fight

Times Staff Writer

Walter Sisulu, the South African political leader who spent more than 25 years in prison alongside Nelson Mandela and, with Mandela, helped shape the African National Congress’ campaign against apartheid, died Monday. He was 90.

In a statement, Sisulu’s son, Max, said his father had died in his Soweto home, in the arms of his wife of 59 years, Albertina.

A much-loved figure in South African politics, Sisulu, who would have turned 91 on May 18, was born in 1912, the year the ANC was founded. He was in many ways as important as Mandela in the struggle against South Africa’s racist system, but he was less well known -- in part because his role was as a behind-the-scenes organizer, but also because he decided, because of poor health, not to seek office in South Africa’s first post-apartheid government.


After Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s historic April 1994 election, he frequently sought the guidance of Sisulu, who was one of his closest friends and colleagues for more than six decades.

Sisulu was always a voice for moderation, preaching the importance of a national reconciliation after apartheid was over.

“His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone,” Mandela, 84, said Monday night, in a statement to the South African Press Assn.

“Our paths first intersected in 1941. During the past 62 years, our lives have been intertwined. We shared the joy of living, and the pain. Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments. We walked side by side through the valley of death, nursing each other’s bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savored the taste of freedom.”

It was Sisulu who recruited Mandela to the ANC, a year after he joined in 1940. He saw the potential of the statuesque and handsome younger man and reached out to him -- helping Mandela enroll in law school, paying his tuition, even putting him up as a lodger in his mother’s home.

The two were co-founders, along with the late Oliver Tambo, of the ANC Youth League, which favored a more militant approach to the campaign against the government.


They soon took over the ANC, with Sisulu serving as its secretary general from 1949 to 1954.

Sisulu also was a founder of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhunto we Sizwe.

Both Mandela and Sisulu were defendants in South Africa’s infamous Treason Trial, a four-year trial in which 156 people were charged with high treason against the government.

All the defendants were acquitted in 1961. But over the next two years, Sisulu was repeatedly placed under house arrest. In 1963, he went underground.

But later that year, he, Mandela and other top anti-apartheid leaders were arrested at a farm in Rivonia, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.

Sisulu’s fellow political prisoners said after their release from Robben Island that Sisulu’s presence had been a saving grace -- that he was always calm and patient, even when their situation seemed most hopeless.

The day after his own release, speaking to reporters outside his modest home in Soweto, Sisulu explained his steadfastness this way:


“It was not possible to despair because the spirit of the people outside was too great,” he said.

On Oct. 15, 1989, Sisulu was released from Pullsmoor Prison. Mandela’s release -- which signaled the beginning of the end of apartheid -- came four months later.

The ANC issued a statement Monday calling Sisulu “a giant of the liberation struggle and one of the founding fathers of South Africa’s democracy.”

Like Mandela, Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was born in the Transkei, an area on the eastern coast of South Africa that is now known as the Eastern Cape.

But unlike Mandela, whose father was a chief, Sisulu’s origins were poor. He was the child of a black maid and a white construction worker. His father left the family when Sisulu was small.

Sisulu identified with his black lineage, as a Xhosa, and was initiated into the Xhosa tribe, under the guidance of an uncle who was a leader in their village.


He was educated for a while at a mission school, but left when he was 15 to support his family. In the ensuing years, he took whatever jobs he could -- paint mixer, delivery person, gold miner and bank teller, and continued to learn on his own through correspondence courses.

He was fired from his job as a baker for trying to organize the workers.

In 1940, he set up a real estate business in Johannesburg, aimed at selling black South Africans the small amount of land available to them before the apartheid system took away their rights of ownership. He also got involved in the ANC.

In 1944, Sisulu married Albertina, who was a nurse. Mandela was his best man.

From early in the Sisulus’ marriage, as Sisulu’s political involvement increasingly took up more of his time, it fell to Albertina Sisulu to support the family and raise their children.

After his imprisonment, she became an outspoken activist in her own right -- both fighting against apartheid and for women’s rights while enduring 18 years under house arrest.

Sisulu is survived by his wife; a daughter, Lindiwe; four sons, Zwelakhe, Max, Mlungisi, and Nonkululeko; and three adopted children.