Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, Anti-Apartheid Activist

Walter Sisulu

Gideon Mendel / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu (May 18, 1912–May 5, 2003) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and co-founder of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. He served in prison for 25 years on Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela, and he was the second post-apartheid deputy president of the ANC, after Mandela.

Fast Facts: Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu

  • Known For: South African anti-apartheid activist, co-founder of the ANC Youth League, served 25 years alongside Nelson Mandela, post-apartheid deputy president of the ANC
  • Also Known As: Walter Sisulu
  • Born: May 18, 1912 in the eNgcobo area of Transkei, South Africa
  • Parents: Alice Sisulu and Victor Dickenson
  • Died: May 5, 2003 in Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Education: Local Anglican Missionary Institute, earned a Bachelor's degree while imprisoned on Robben Island
  • Published Works: I Will Go Singing: Walter Sisulu Speaks of His Life and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa
  • Awards and Honors: Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe
  • Spouse: Albertina Nontsikelelo Totiwe
  • Children: Max, Anthony Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe, Nonkululeko; adopted children: Jongumzi, Gerald, Beryl, and Samuel 
  • Notable Quote: "The people are our strength. In their service we shall face and conquer those who live on the backs of our people. In the history of mankind it is a law of life that problems arise when the conditions are there for their solution."

Early Life

Walter Sisulu was born in the eNgcobo area of Transkei on May 18, 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 toward South Africa's white administration.

Sisulu attended the local Anglican Missionary Institute but dropped out in 1927 at age 15 while in fourth grade 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.

Working Life and Early Activism

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 joined the African National Congress (ANC) and allied with those pressing for Black African nationalism and actively opposing 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.

Leadership in the ANC and Founding of the Youth League

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, whom 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. Through the Youth League, Sisulu, Tambo, and Mandela greatly influenced 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).

Arrest and Rise to Prominence

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. With his 19 co-accused, he 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.

Adoption of Multi-Racial Government Advocacy

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.

Sisulu 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.

Banned and Arrested

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 able to attend public meetings, he resigned as secretary-general and 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 in what became known as the Treason Trial.

Sisulu was one of 30 accused who remained under trial until March 1961. In the end, all 156 accused were acquitted.

Forming Military Wing and Going Underground

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. Only the last arrest—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 and joined up with the MK. While underground, he delivered weekly broadcasts via a secret ANC radio transmitter.


On July 11, 1963, Sisulu was among those arrested at Lilieslief Farm, the secret headquarters of the ANC, and placed in solitary confinement for 88 days. The lengthy Rivonia trial, which started in October 1963, lead to a sentence of life imprisonment (for planning acts of sabotage), handed down on June 12, 1964.

Sisulu, Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and four others were sent to Robben Island. During his 25 years behind bars, Sisulu earned a Bachelor's degree in art history and anthropology and read more than 100 biographies.

In 1982, Sisulu was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, after a medical examination at Groote Schuur Hospital. He was finally released in October 1989.

Post-Apartheid Roles

When the ANC was un-banned on February 2, 1990, Sisulu took a prominent role. He was elected deputy president in 1991 and was given the task of restructuring the ANC in South Africa.

His biggest immediate challenge was to try to end the violence that erupted between the ANC and the Inkhata Freedom Party. Walter Sisulu finally retired on the eve of South Africa's first multi-racial elections in 1994.


Sisulu lived his last years in the same Soweto house that his family had taken in the 1940s. On May 5, 2003, only 13 days before his 91st birthday, Walter Sisulu died following a long period of ill health with Parkinson's Disease. He received a state funeral in Soweto on May 17, 2003.


As a prominent anti-apartheid leader, Walter Sisulu changed the course of South African history. His advocacy for a multi-racial future for South Africa was one of his most enduring marks.


  • Nelson Mandela's Tribute to Walter Sisulu.” BBC News, BBC, 6 May 2003.
  • Beresford, David. “Obituary: Walter Sisulu.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 May 2003.
  • Sisulu, Walter Max, George M. Houser, Herb Shore. I Will Go Singing: Walter Sisulu Speaks of His Life and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa. Robben Island Museum in association with the Africa Fund, 2001.
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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, Anti-Apartheid Activist." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, July 31). Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, Anti-Apartheid Activist. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, Anti-Apartheid Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).