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WALTER SISULU

Walter Sisulu Sisulu & Mandela

It goes without question that the free and independent South Africa as we know it today, is credited mostly, and deservedly so, to the great African Statesman Nelson Mandela. Mandela's huge stature has often overshadowed the important role played by other prominent South Africans in the liberation struggle; among them, Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu. Sisulu, Mandela's mentor and sidekick almost throughout the entire liberation struggle, remains a household name in South Africa, eventhough his worldwide recognition is paled compared to that of Mandela.

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was born in 1912 in Ngcobo, Transkei to Victor Dickenson, a white civil servant, and Alice Sisulu, a black domestic worker. Incidentally, 1912 was also the year the African National Congress(ANC) was founded. Sisulu obtained his childhood education at the Anglican Missionary Institute in Ngcobo and is reported to have taken quite a keen interest in World History. His major inspiration as a young boy is said to have come from none other than Marcus Garvey, the legendary Carribean, who at this time was already championing the Black Liberation struggle. At the tender age of 14, Sisulu left the Anglican Missionary Institute to take up active employment. Eventhough he ventured into the employment world quite early, he was wise enough to realize that education was the key to success and thus he took it upon himself to further his knowledge through self-study.

In 1929, Sisulu's search for a better paying job took him to Johannesburg where he took up various jobs until 1940, when he ventured into politics by joining the ANC. His rise to political prominence came in 1944, when together with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others, they founded the Youth League, a radical wing of the ANC. The Youth League advocated a "more aggressive" approach in dealing with the white establishment, arguing that the government had proven to be totally insensitive to diplomacy. They also advocated for a more "African" ANC, one that would be controlled entirely by black South Africans. This was the source of a lot of controversy and squabbling within the party because up until then, the ANC had been an all-inclusive party housing anyone opposed to the oppressive white regime. There was for example, a significantly large number of Asians in the ANC, most of whom experienced similar oppression under the white establishment. The Youth League therefore not only instilled racial tensions within the party, but threatened to tear it apart altogether.

Somehow, cooler heads prevailed and the ANC survived this transition, with its membership remaining almost intact. As a matter of fact as time went on, the radical approaches put forward by the Youth League became quite popular, especially after the 1948 all-white elections which demonstrated yet again that this was a government not ready to bow to any kind of diplomatic pressure. In response to the all-white elections, the ANC adopted the Programme of Action in 1949 as the official party policy. The Programme of Action basically outlined the strategies the Youth League was planing to employ to pressure the white establishment to abolish its oppressive laws. Some of the proposed strategies included strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. The same year that the ANC adopted the Programme of Action, Sisulu became the party's Secretary-General. With these developments, the stage was now set for a major showdown between the white establishment and Sisulu's gang of youthful ANC leaders.

The first major showdown came in 1952, when the ANC initiated the Defiance Campaign in an effort to pressure the government to scrap all unjust laws. The Defiance Campaign as the name suggests was simply a call by the ANC on its followers to peacefully disregard all unjust laws. The white government came down hard on the Campaign participants rounding up approximately 8,500 people including Mandela and Sisulu. Sisulu was sentenced to 9 months in prison, but due to the non-violent nature of his offence, his sentence was suspended for 3 years. In addition to the sentence, the government designated Sisulu a Communist, meaning that under the Suppression of Communism Act, he was effectively banned from holding any public office. He was therefore forced to step down as ANC Secretary-General in 1955, and his place was filled by Oliver Tambo. It is important to note that eventhough the white government crushed the Defiance Campaign in an effort to silence ANC faithfuls, it virtually created ANC the mass party as we know it today. After the Defiance Campaign of 1952, ANC membership is said to have dramatically risen from a paltry 7,000 to a warping 100,000 members.

In 1960, the white government introduced pass laws in an effort to keep the various races separate. During the same year, in response to a demonstration organised by the ANC to protest the pass laws, the government arrested 18,000 protestors and banned the ANC. As a result, the party went underground and its leaders came to the conclusion that the only way they could achieve their dreams was through military action. In November 11th 1961, they established Umkhonto We Sizwe("Spear of the Nation"), the military wing of the ANC. Sisulu was chosen to head Umkhonto. On July 11th 1963, Sisulu, Mandela and other leaders of ANC and Umkhonto were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government by violent means. This resulted in the world-famous Rivonia Trial in which 8 of the accused including Mandela and Sisulu were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on June 11th 1964. They served their sentences at Robben Island prison, now a major tourist attraction and a lasting reminder of the injustices committed under apartheid. While in Prison, Sisulu completed a B.A in Art, History and Anthropology.

Sisulu was released from prison on October 15th 1989. A year later, his comrade Mandela was also released and the ban on the ANC lifted. On 7th July 1991, at the historic first national conference of the ANC since it was banned in 1960, South Africans turned out in record numbers to pay tribute to their great warriors and overwhelmingly elected Mandela President of the ANC and Sisulu Deputy President. Sisulu's priceless contribution to the struggle for Democracy in South Africa will forever be appreciated, and evidence of this came recently when South Africans from all walks of life came out in large numbers to shower him with gifts and well wishes on the occassion of his 90th Birthday.

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