Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu

Anti-Apartheid Activist and Co-Founder of the ANC Youth League

Walter Sisulu
Political Activist Walter Sisulu at Robben Island Reunion. Gideon Mendel/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Walter Sisulu was born in the eNgcobo area of Transkei on 18 May 1912 (the same year the forerunner of the ANC was formed). Sisulu's father was a visiting white foreman supervising a black road-gang and his mother was a local Xhosa woman. Sisulu was raised by his mother and uncle, the local headman.

Walter Sisulu's mixed heritage and lighter skin were influential in his early social development – he felt distanced from his peers and rejected the deferential attitude his family showed towards South Africa's white administration. Sisulu attended the local Anglican Missionary Institute but dropped out after 4th grade (1927, age 15) to find work at a Johannesburg dairy– to help support his family. He returned to the Transkei later that year to attend the Xhosa initiation ceremony and achieve adult status.

During the 1930s Walter Sisulu had several different jobs: gold miner, domestic worker, factory hand, kitchen worker, and baker's assistant. Through the Orlando Brotherly Society Sisulu investigated his Xhosa tribal history and debated black economic independence in South Africa.

Walter Sisulu was an active Trade Unionist – he was fired from his bakery job in 1940 for organizing a strike for higher wages. He spent the next two years trying to develop his own real estate agency. In 1940 Sisulu also joined the African National Congress, ANC, in which he allied with those pressing for black African nationalism and actively opposed black involvement in World War II. He gained a reputation as a street vigilante, patrolling his township's streets with a knife. He also obtained his first jail sentence – for punching a train conductor when he confiscated a black man's rail pass.

In the early 1940s, Walter Sisulu developed a talent for leadership and organization and was awarded an executive post in the Transvaal division of the ANC. It was also at this time that he met Albertina Nontsikelelo Totiwe, who he married in 1944. In the same year, Sisulu along with his wife and friends Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela formed the ANC Youth League; Sisulu was elected as treasurer. The Youth League was also ​​the agency through which Sisulu, Tambo, and Mandela could influence the ANC. When DF Malan's Herenigde Nationale Party (HNP, Re-united National Party) won the 1948 election the ANC reacted. By the end of 1949 Sisulu's 'programme of action' was adopted and he was elected as secretary-general (a position he retained until 1954.

As one of the organizers of the 1952 Defiance campaign (in collaboration with the South African Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party) Sisulu was arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act, and with his 19 co-accused was sentenced to nine months hard labor suspended for two years. The political power of the Youth League within the ANC had increased to the stage that they could push for their candidate for president, Chief Albert Luthuli, to be elected. In December 1952 Sisulu was also re-elected as secretary-general.

In 1953 Walter Sisulu spent five months touring Eastern Bloc countries (the Soviet Union and Romania), Israel, China, and Great Britain. His experiences abroad led to a reversal of his black nationalist stance – he had especially noted the Communist commitment to social development in the USSR but disliked Stalinist rule. Sisulu became an advocate for multi-racial government in South Africa rather than an African nationalistic 'blacks-only' policy.

Unfortunately, Sisulu's increasingly active role in the anti-Apartheid struggle led to his repeated banning under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1954, no longer to attend public meetings, he resigned as secretary-general – was forced to work in secret. As a moderate, Sisulu was instrumental in organizing the 1955 Congress of People but was unable to participate in the actual event. The Apartheid government reacted by arresting 156 anti-Apartheid leaders: the Treason Trial. Sisulu was one of 30 accused who remained under trial until March 1961. In the end, all 156 accused were acquitted.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 Sisulu, Mandela and several others formed  Umkonto we Sizwe (MK, the Spear of the Nation) – the military wing of the ANC. During 1962 and 1963 Sisulu was arrested six times, although only the last (in March 1963, for furthering the aims of the ANC and organizing the May 1961 'stay-at-home' protest) led to a conviction. Released on bail in April 1963 Sisulu went underground, joining up with the MK. On 26 June he made a public broadcast from a secret ANC radio station describing his intentions.

On 11 July 1963 Sisulu was amongst those arrested at Lilieslief Farm, the secret headquarters of the ANC, and placed in solitary confinement for 88 days. A lengthy trial which started in October 1963 lead to a sentence of life imprisonment (for planning acts of sabotage), handed down on 12 June 1964. Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and four others were sent to Robben Island. In 1982 Sisulu was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, after a medical examination at Groote Schuur Hospital. In October 1989 he was finally released – after serving 25 years. When the ANC was un-banned on 2 Feb 1990 Sisulu took a prominent role. He was elected deputy president in 1991 and given the task of re-structuring the ANC in South Africa.

Walter Sisulu finally retired on the eve of South Africa's first multi-racial elections in 1994 – still living in the same Soweto house that his family had taken in the 1940s. On 5 May 2003, following a long period of ill health and only 13 days before his 91st birthday, Walter Sisulu died. 

Date of birth: 18 May 1912, eNgcobo Transkei

Date of death: 5 May 2003, Johannesburg