Walter Sisulu


By 1600 all of what is now South Africa has been occupied by indigenous Africans. European encroachment begins in 1652 when the Dutch establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern tip of Africa. The British seize the settlement in 1795, leading to conflict with the established European farmers (the Boer). The conflict eventually boils over into the Boer War of 1899-1902. The British win but ultimately opt to give South Africa independence.

The Union of South Africa is formed on 31 May 1910. Black South Africans have limited voting rights and are subjected to growing discrimination. In 1948 the National Party wins the all-white general election on a campaign promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Opposition to the apartheid system by the black majority is ruthlessly suppressed. The National Party will remain in power until 1994. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 18 May 1912 in the village of Qutubeni in the Engcobo district of Transkei, South Africa. His mother is a black domestic worker and his father a white public servant. Sisulu is never formally acknowledged by his father. He is raised in the tribal tradition by his mother's family and undergoes Xhosa initiation rites. He receives his primary education at the village school and at a nearby Anglican mission.

1928-40 - He moves to Johannesburg and works in a range of jobs, including dairy-worker, labourer, miner, domestic, baker, various factory jobs, part-time teller, and advertising agent. He studies at night school and eventually goes into business for himself, setting up a small real estate agency. In the early 1930s he brings his mother and sister to live with him in Johannesburg.

Over this period, Sisulu gradually becomes more involved in political activities, organising several strikes and joining an organisation called the Orlando Brotherly Society.

1940 - Sisulu joins the African National Congress (ANC).

1941 - Sisulu meets Nelson Mandela and recommends him for employment with a lawyer in Johannesburg. The work, along with loans from Sisulu, enable Mandela to complete his law degree. The two become firm friends.

1944 - Together with Mandela and Oliver Tambo he founds the ANC Youth League. Sisulu is appointed as the league's treasurer.

Sisulu marries Albertina Thethiwe, a nurse who also becomes prominent in the antiapartheid movement. The couple have five children, four of who spend time in exile or prison.

1948 - The National Party is voted into power by the white electorate. The party has campaigned on the promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Discrimination against blacks, "coloureds" and Asians will be codified and extended.

All South Africans are legally assigned to one racial group - white, African, coloured or Asian. All races have separate living areas and separate amenities (such as toilets, parks and beaches). Signs enforcing the separation are erected throughout the country. Only white South Africans are allowed full political rights.

Black Africans have no parliamentary representation outside of the supposedly independent homelands created by the state. Mixed marriages are prohibited. Black trade unions are banned. Education is provided only up to a level to which it is deemed "a native is fitted". Separate universities and colleges are established for Africans, coloureds and Indians. Jobs can be categorised as being for whites only. Travel without a pass is not permitted.

Police powers are expanded. Those charged with dissent are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The Suppression of Communism Act (1950) allows the police to "list" almost any opponent of apartheid as a supporter of the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa.

Opponents can be "banned", an order subjecting them to lengthy periods of house arrest and preventing them from holding public office, attending public meetings and visiting specified areas. The Native Administration Act (1956) allows the government to "banish" Africans to remote rural areas.

During the 1950s there are approximately 500,000 pass law arrests annually, more than 600 individuals are listed as communists, nearly 350 are banned, and more than 150 are banished.

Meanwhile, Sisulu and Tambo are elected onto the ANC national executive.

1949 - The ANC Youth League's devises a Program of Action to achieve full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans. The program advocates the use of boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and noncooperation. It is adopted by the ANC at its annual conference on 17 December.

Sisulu is elected secretary-general of the ANC. He closes his estate agency business and becomes a full-time party organiser.

1952 - In February the ANC calls on the government to repeal all unjust laws or face a Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. Mass rallies and strikes staged on 6 April and 26 June attract thousands of supporters. Sisulu serves on the planning council for the campaign and leads one of the first groups of demonstrators.

The government reacts by introducing harsher penalties for protests against apartheid. Campaign leaders and opposition newspapers are banned and about 8,500 people are arrested, including Sisulu.

Sisulu is designated as a statutory "communist" and sentenced to nine months in prison. Because of the disciplined and nonviolent nature of the defiance campaign the sentence is suspended for three years.

Before the sentencing he tells the court, "I wish to make this solemn vow and in full appreciation of the consequences it entails. As long as I enjoy the confidence of my people, and as long as there is a spark of life and energy in me, I shall fight with courage and determination for the abolition of discriminatory laws and for the freedom of all South Africans irrespective of colour or creed."

Sisulu travels abroad following the trial, first to Britain and then on a five-month tour of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China.

Meanwhile, the defiance campaign has helped build ANC membership from about 7,000 at the beginning of the year to more than 100,000 by the year's end.

1954 - Sisulu publishes a book on African nationalism. He also writes numerous articles for domestic and overseas newspapers.

1955 - As a designated communist Sisulu is banned under the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered to resign his post as secretary-general of the ANC.

The ANC writes a Freedom Charter stating that South Africa belongs to all people living within it regardless of race, that all South Africans should be treated equally before the law, and that the country's wealth should be distributed equitably. The charter is being discussed at the Congress of the People held near Soweto on the southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg on 25-26 June when police surround the meeting, announce that they suspect treason is being committed and take the names and addresses of all those present.

1956 - Sisulu, Mandela, Tambo, Joe Slovo and 152 others are arrested for high treason and charges under the Suppression of Communism Act. The defendants are acquitted on all counts in 1961. The court finds that the ANC does not have a policy of violence.

1959 - A radical faction of the ANC splits from the parent body and forms the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The PAC advocates direct action against the apartheid regime.

1960 - During the 1960s, the regime introduces a program of forced relocation. Africans, coloureds and Asians are moved from areas designated for whites only to the "homelands" and other declared areas. By the 1980s about 3.5 million have been relocated.

In March the PAC begins a national campaign against the pass laws. Africans are asked to assemble outside police stations without their passes and challenge the police to arrest them. The confrontation turns violent on 21 March when police open fire on a peaceful protest at Sharpeville, a black township near Johannesburg. Sixty-nine black Africans are killed and 186 wounded. Most have been shot in the back.

When demonstrations continue, the government declares a state of emergency and arrests about 18,000 protesters, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC. Both organisations are banned. Sisulu is detained without trial for five months. The ANC goes underground.

1961 - On 31 May South Africa leaves the British Commonwealth and becomes a republic. The ANC organises a national strike in protest. When the government responds by introducing new and harsher laws, and by mobilising its armed forces to break up the strike, ANC leaders conclude that the time has come for the Congress to move beyond nonviolent protest.

In November Sisulu attends the meeting of ANC leaders that establishes Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC. Sisulu is appointed Umkhonto's political commissioner and sets up regional commands.

On 16 December Umkhonto launches a campaign of sabotage against power lines, pass offices, government buildings and other infrastructure targets. Over the next two years about 200 acts of sabotage are carried out by Umkhonto.

Sisulu faces prosecution twice in 1961. In 1962 he is arrested six times and placed under 13-hour house arrest.

1963 - In March Sisulu is convicted of promoting the aims of the banned ANC and sentenced to six years in prison. He is released on bail pending appeal and placed under 24-hour house arrest. On 19 April he goes underground. He broadcasts a message of resistance to the nation from a secret ANC radio transmitter on 26 June, assuring the people that Umkhonto will fight "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth".

Sisulu is rearrested on 11 July when police raid an ANC safe house in Rivonia, a suburb on the northern outskirts Johannesburg, and discover arms and equipment.

In the aftermath, Sisulu, Mandela and other leaders of the ANC and Umkhonto are placed on trial for sabotage and for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. Sisulu is called as the main witness for the defence. The so-called Rivonia Trial receives considerable international attention.

The defendants face the death penalty. They plead not guilty, arguing that the government is responsible because it forced them into their actions.

Meanwhile, the government acts to crush any further resistance to apartheid, introducing the General Law Amendment Act. The act allows police to detain suspects for 90 days without charge or access to legal advice. Suspects can then be rearrested and detained for a further 90 days.

1964 - On 11 June eight of the Rivonia accused, including Sisulu and Mandela, are convicted. All eight are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony 7 km off the coast from Cape Town.

The prisoners are kept in tiny cells measuring about two square metres. They sleep on the floor on straw mats and have to use a bucket for a toilet. The cells have only one small barred window. By day they work the island's lime quarry where, because of the light and dust, most suffer from "snow blindness".

Refusing to be bowed, the prisoners begin a program of self-development, with the better-educated inmates giving lectures to the rest. Sisulu's course on the history of the antiapartheid struggle is particularly popular. He also continues his own education, completing a BA in art history and anthropology. The prison becomes known among the inmates as the Robben Island University or the Nelson Mandela University.

"We were united as prisoners," Sisulu later says of his time in jail. "And we were determined to unite South Africa. That sustained us."

The Robben Island inmates become a focus of world attention and a symbol for the struggle of black South Africans. However, despite growing international criticism of the apartheid regime, foreign investment continues to pour into the country and immigration rises.

1973 - The United Nations (UN) declares apartheid "a crime against humanity".

1975 - The withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial administration from Angola and Mozambique sees the installation in those countries of new independent governments hostile to South Africa's apartheid regime. Umkhonto training and camp facilities are quickly set up in Angola. The ANC military wing now has a base close to South Africa.

On 23 October, and with the blessing of United States President Gerald Ford and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, South Africa invades Angola. The South African forces come within 100 km of the Angolan capital but are forced to pull back when Cuba sends 10,000 to 12,000 troops to assist the Angolan resistance.

1976 - An uprising in Soweto begins on 16 June when high school students protest against the enforced use of Afrikaans in schools. After the police respond with tear gas and gunfire, demonstrators attack and burn down government buildings.

The uprising leads to weeks of demonstrations, marches and boycotts throughout South Africa. Violent clashes with police leave more than 500 dead. Several thousand are arrested. Thousands more seek refuge outside the country, many with the exiled forces of the ANC.

1977 - The UN adopts a mandatory embargo on arms sales to South Africa.

1979 - With capital leaving the country because of political instability, and with the economy beginning to slow, the government attempts to reduce industrial unrest by allowing black workers to form unions. The first chink in the apartheid system has appeared.

1980 - Opposition to South Africa on the African continent is further entrenched when Robert Mugabe's antiapartheid government takes power in Zimbabwe.

1982 - Sisulu, who suffers from a heart condition, is admitted to a hospital in Cape Town for treatment. Along with Mandela, he is then transferred from Robben Island to the maximum-security Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland.

1983 - The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of nearly 600 organisations, is formed to persuade the government to abolish apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu emerges as one of the front's principal spokesmen. By 1984 the front has a membership of more than three million.

1984 - The National Party introduces a new constitution in an attempt to stem dissent. However, the constitution, which establishes three racially segregated houses of parliament, for whites, Asians, and coloureds, but excludes blacks from full citizenship, has the opposite effect and is denounced as a continuation of apartheid.

1985 - Conflict and violence escalate. In 1984 there are 174 fatalities linked to political unrest. In 1985 the number rises to 879. Capital begins to flee the country. Forty US companies pull out of South Africa in 1984. Another 50 leave in 1985. Inflation rises and standards of living drop.

The government declares states of emergency in various parts of the country; the first time the emergency laws have been used since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The laws allow police to arrest without warrant and to detain people indefinitely without charge and without notification to lawyers or next of kin. Censorship of the media is also extended.

1986 - In October the US Congress passes legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa. All new investments and bank loans are banned, air links between the US and South Africa are terminated and the importation of many South African products is stopped.

1987 - While the union movement becomes increasingly militant, with the number of days lost to strikes reaching 5.8 million in 1987, armed members of the ANC and PAC stage raids on South Africa from their bases in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The regime responds by renewing a series of states of emergency, unleashing its police, and sending its military forces on counter-strike raids.

Media restrictions are tightened and the UDF and other activist organisations are effectively banned.

Condemnation of the regime grows around the world. More foreign investors withdraw, banks call in loans, the currency collapses, economic production declines and inflation becomes chronic.

1988 - In May South African President P.W. Botha, a National Party hardliner, directs the head of his intelligence service, Niel Barnard, to meet secretly with Mandela to discuss the possibility of a peace settlement. More than 60 similar meetings follow.

1989 - The "secret" talks culminate with a face-to-face meeting between Mandela and Botha at Botha's presidential office on 5 July. Botha subsequently resigns following a stroke and is replaced by F.W. de Klerk, a moderate within the National Party.

Sisulu is released from prison on 15 October with five other senior members of the ANC.

Mandela meets with de Klerk in December. Negotiations on the terms and conditions for Mandela's release begin.

1990 - On 2 February de Klerk announces that Mandela will be released. He also rescinds the orders banning the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other previously illegal organisations. Restrictions on the UDF and the media are lifted. Mandela is finally released from prison on Sunday 11 February.

In June Mandela and de Klerk met officially for the first time. In August Mandela announces the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle. In October the government repeals the law requiring the races to use separate amenities.

1991 - On 5 June the government repeals the law making it illegal for Africans to own land in urban areas and the law segregating people by race. A new law allows all races equal rights to own property anywhere in the country. The law assigning every resident of South Africa to a specific racial group is repealed on 17 June. The international community responds by lifting most of the sanctions on South Africa.

On 7 July, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa since the organisation was banned in 1960, Mandela is elected president of the ANC. Sisulu is elected deputy president. Tambo is elected the organisation's national chairperson.

1992 - Sisulu is presented with the Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe award, the ANC's highest honour.

White South African's overwhelmingly vote "yes" in a referendum asking if the reform of apartheid should be continued.

1994 - The ANC wins the country's first all-race elections. It becomes the majority partner in a Government of National Unity with the National Party. Nelson Mandela is inaugurated as president on 10 May.

The ministry of the new government includes blacks, whites, Afrikaners, Indians, coloureds, Muslims, Christians, communists, liberals and conservatives. However, Sisulu is absent. Weakened by the heart condition that has plagued him for many years, he has made a personal choice not to run for office.

Sisulu steps down from active duty in the ANC on 17 December, giving up his post as deputy president and retiring to his modest family home in Soweto.

1996 - A new South African constitution that bars discrimination against the country's minorities, including whites, is signed into law by Mandela on 10 December. The new constitution contains a bill of rights and ends the Government of National Unity. The ANC takes government in its own right. The National Party becomes the opposition.

1999 - The ANC wins the general election held on 2 June, increasing its majority.

2003 - Sisulu dies on the evening of 5 May at his home in Soweto after a long illness. His state funeral held on 17 May at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto is attended by tens of thousands.

Delivering his eulogy at the funeral, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, "I want to declare loud and clear that after a life so exemplary, so inspiring ... we are filled with deep thankfulness. ... We have come to celebrate a wonderful life poured out so unselfishly on behalf of others."


2005 - The National Party, which introduced the apartheid system after coming to government in 1948, officially disbands on 9 April. The party had received less than two percent of the vote at general elections held in 2004.


Nelson Mandela's prominence as an icon for the struggle by black South Africans against the apartheid regime tends to overshadow the contributions of others committed to the cause. But alongside Mandela there were hundreds of others just as committed, including Sisulu, and behind these hundreds there were millions, inside and outside of South Africa.

Sisulu's origins were far humbler than those of Mandela. His life experience closer to that of the average black South African. Sisulu was a modest man, a self-educated man, a man of great energy, great courage, and great wisdom. He personally overcame the injustices of the apartheid system and brought a whole society along with him.

"Sisulu stands head and shoulders above all of us in South Africa," Nelson Mandela has said. "You will ask what is the reason for his elevated status among us. Very simple, it is humility. It is simplicity. Because he pushed all of us forward and remained quietly in the background."

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