About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Walter Sisulu

A discussion with the ANC's vice-president in which he looks back on his years In the struggle, the people who influenced his thought and what it was like to disrupt CPSA meetings in the late 40s!

Walter Sisulu has just celebrated his 80th birthday. When he talks three words keep recurring: Organisation, Discipline, Struggle. Three hard words that he speaks ever so softly, this most human of human beings.

He was born and baptised WalterMax Ulyate Sisulu in the year 1912.

His family were peasants in the Engcobo area of Transkei. He was raised by his mother and an uncle. In standard 4 he was forced to leave school when his uncle died.

The 15 year old Walter Sisulu then followed the path of thousands before him. He travelled from Transkei to eGoli in search of a wage, a wage to support his family.

He worked in a dairy. He worked in a gold mine. He worked as a domestic in East London.

He returned to Johannesburg in the early 1930s. He worked in a number of factories, and always it was tough, always it was struggles with the bosses, and brushes with the law.

If joining the ANC changed Walter Sisulu's life, there is no doubt that Walter Sisulu was central in changing the character and direction of the ANC itself.

He was a founder member and treasurer of the influential ANC Youth League. He was elected to the Transvaal executive of the ANC.

In 1949 he became national secretary general of the ANC itself. These were the crucial years in which the ANC transformed itself into a more effective organisation, with a clear policy and programme of action. Above all,, these were the years in which the ANC discovered its mass base.

"It was a changing period, it changed the approach and outlook of the ANC,"he explains. "The 1944 launch of the ANC Youth League also helped to give greater direction to the ANC. When the ANC president of the time and the senior members thought of a youth league they thought of the National Party where the president gives the direction and the youth were merely the organ.

"We in the Youth League had other ideas. So much so that the ideology and the manifesto of the Youth League were completely different from the mother body. It was deliberately done to reshape the mother body as such.

"The idea was that you don't elect people or appoint people into positions because of their status but they were to be elected on the basis of policies."

Question: Can you tell us about some of the people who Influenced your political outlook?

Sisulu: Yes I think there are outstanding personalities who I have worked with in the past. These include Moses Kotane, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, JB Marks, Michael Harmel and Rusty Bernstein.

By association, by discussion, by theoretical exchanges they helped to shape my own out-look.

I think Moses Kotane in partieularhas played a major part in bringing about a type of accept-able alliance between the ANC and the Party. He realised the importance of a nationalist movement. The doubts which people expressedbefore, you must know that, in the period of the war, nationalism was something that was abhorred because of Hitler nationalism.

Even in the Party there were those doubts as to how you work with a nationalist.

Kotane and Dadoo were able to show that the dangers of extreme left tendencies would destroy the chances of the Party. If the Party itself did not understand this reality of nationalism, there was a danger of it being ignored by the great masses of the people.

Not enough is said today of Kotane and Dadoo, they are the foundation stone to the alliance of the present liberation movement. They broke down the antagonism that existed in thê early days, the antagonism existed also because there were sectarian tendencies within the Party itself.

Perhaps the coming together of the ANC and the Party has done one thing which people do not understand. The Communist Party changed from being mechanical in the early 30s, to being broad in its approach. In other words, although people would think of the Communist Party being dictated to by Moscow, the situation was different. The Party had to consider the situation at home. It was dealing with a powerful movement, the ANC, and it was necessary to examine things soberly. Perhaps that is why they did not bring in a mechanical approach in our politics."

Question: 80 years of struggle - what would you do different If you could go back?

Sisulu: You are asking me a very difficult question. Because you force me to say: I don't remember. I don't remember anything that I can say: No I regret, I shouldn't have done this. There has been consistency in my ideas of the struggle. That's all I can say.

As old as the ANC itself

Walter Sisulu was born In 1912, coincidentally the exact year of the launch of the African National Congress. Their two histories have been Inextricably linked.

'The most Important period for me was the years Immediately after I Joined the ANC In 1940.1 was struggling before, you know, directionless. When I got to the ANC I began to change, even though the ANC at that time did not properly formulate Its policies.'

THE THOUGHTS OF COMRADE WALTER

NATION BUILDING

I myself, I'm a very firm believer In the building of unity in our country. When I talk of national liberation, and I talk of non-raclallsm, I am expressing my deep, and I mean deepest, feelings. And today the ANC Is following that line, to be a nation building machinery is very Important. In particular In this stage.

PAN-AFRICANISM

The Youth League had the Idea In their minds of pan-africanlsm. Under the Influence of the Youth League, a resolution was therefore passed at an ANC conference that there Is a need for a Pan-Afrtcanist conference. !men wrote letters to various organisations throughout the continent.

In 1953 I attended the International festival In Poland convened by the the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It was my very first trip abroad, my first chance to come into contact with the world. Because of my correspondence the delegates who came from West Africa, and from various other parts of Africa, were very anxious to meet me. I convened a meeting In Poland of all the African delegates. We exchanged views about pan-africanlsm.

Al the time I was also corresponding with men like Kaunda (who still talks about those times today) and Nkrumah, suggesting a pan-african congress. We felt the pan-african congress should be held In Africa. And Indeed such a congress was later convened by Nkrumah when (as a result of Ghanaian Independence) he was in a position to do It.

DISCIPLINE

I am a firm believer, like Moses Kotane, In discipline. An organisation Is not governed by anger. It must be governed by analysis, by examining the situation, and not mechanically.

STRUGGLE

Firstly I came Into political struggle because of pass laws. I have personally suffered in the early 30s, gone Into Jail for passes. And all that has shaped my life.

MAKANA

Among the heroes that, as small boys, we were fascinated by was Makana.

It was especially the story that Makana wrote to the British governor, or some colonial authority, saying: 'At 8 o'clock I'll have breakfast with you.' Meaning he was going to attack!

That very approach, I mean, It fascinated us!

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.