Anti-Apartheid Leader Walter Sisulu Dies at the Age of 90

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Speaker of the South African National Assembly Frene Ginwala Talks About the Man Who Worked Quietly Behind the Scenes As Nelson Mandela Became the Public Face of the Mass Liberation Movement.

One of the leaders of the movement against apartheid in South Africa has died.

Walter Sisulu passed away last night. He died two weeks before his 91st birthday.

He spent a quarter of a century in prison for his organizing against the apartheid regime.

Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was born in the Eastern Cape. His mother Alice Sisulu was a black domestic worker and his father Victor Dickenson was a white assistant magistrate.

The first time Walter Sisulu ever saw a train was when he rode one that took rural recruits to work at the Rose Deep Mine. Sisulu also worked as a domestic worker, paint mixer, advertising agent, and newspaper columnist.

Sisulu’s family was forcibly removed from their home in Doornfontein to the new Orlando township in 1934. (Hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and forced into teeming 'townships' during the apartheid era.)

In 1944, Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo founded the African National Congress Youth League. The Youth League revolutionized the ANC, transforming it from a minor political party into a mass-based liberation movement.

Sisulu was the organizing genius behind the ANC’s major political protests in the 1950s, [according to the South African Broadcasting Corporation].

He eventually entered the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. He was arrested six times in 1962 and after going underground a year later was finally arrested in July 1963. The white apartheid regime sentenced Susulu to life in prison for plotting sabotage and revolution. He was imprisoned on Robben Island with his close friend Nelson Mandela for a quarter of a century.

Walter Sisulu was released in 1989 at the age of 77 as the mass popular movement forced the apartheid regime to begin negotiating a transfer of power.

He immediately resumed his organizing. He was elected deputy president of the African National Congress in 1991 and was part of the ANC team that negotiated with the ruling National Party.

South Africa’s first democratic election was held in April 1994.

Mandela said recently,

“Sisulu stands head and shoulders above all of us in South Africa… 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.”

Nelson Mandela said in a statement:

“His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone… Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments… We walked side by side through the valley of death, nursing each other’s bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom.”

  • Dr. Frene Ginwala, Speaker of the South African National Assembly, Co-chair of the Global Coalition on Africa, member of the ANC National Executive. Frene Ginwala is a long-time activist for the African National Congress and for women’s rights. In 1960, she left South Africa to arrange the escape of the late Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC, and to help establish the ANC office in exile. Ginwala became Head of the Political Research Unit in the office of President Tambo and was known for her research on South Africa’s nuclear program, sanctions, and the arms and oil embargo. She also lectured at universities and institutions in various countries and participated in UN, UNESCO and other international conferences. When the ANC was unbanned, Dr. Ginwala returned to South Africa after more than 30 years in exile. There she helped to found the Women’s National Coalition, and became its first convener. She also served as the deputy head of the ANC Commission for the Emancipation of Women, the ANC Representative on the Science and Technology Initiative, and headed the ANC’s Research Department. She was on the ANC negotiating team during the transition to a democratic South Africa. She entered Parliament in 1994 and was elected Speaker of South Africa’s first democratically elected National Assembly.

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