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Fought the Power - Walter Sisulu

Illustration/Tom Chalkley
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Published 1/7/2004

After Walter Sisulu collapsed in the arms of his wife after a long illness on May 5, two weeks before his 91st birthday, African National Congress President Thabo Mbeki declared that "the African colossus that lies in front of us might have fallen, but he has not died."

Mbeki, who delivered the oratory speech at Sisulu's funeral in Soweto, noted that Sisulu, former secretary general of the ANC and a longtime advocate for majority rule in South Africa, would live on through the changes he helped bring to his country. "Yesterday, our people walked bending low, and low because they bore the heavy yoke of tyranny," Mbeki said. "Today, we talk of freedom, as though yesterday never was."

Everyone knows of the work of Nelson Mandela, the South African civil-rights leader who helped bring down the system of racial apartheid that oppressed the country's majority black population for nearly 40 years. Sisulu's work, though not as well-known, was equally important to achieving that same goal. As Mandela emerged as the face of the South African struggle, his mentor and friend Sisulu was there, working behind the scenes to defy injustices perpetrated by the racist white government that held control of the country until 1994.

Sisulu was born in 1912. His mother was a black domestic worker, and his father was a white civil servant who never formally acknowledged his son. Sisulu attended an Anglican school, but he dropped out when he was 15 years old and held a series of the blue-collar jobs available for black South Africans at the time: gold miner, "kitchen boy," factory worker, part-time bank teller. He also attended night school, and by the 1930s he managed to go into business for himself as a real-estate agent in Johannesburg, and he began to get involved in political and labor issues. Sisulu joined the ANC in 1940, just as the white Afrikaner National Party began to take hold of the South African government.

By 1948, the Afrikaners had a strong majority in the government, and they invented the apartheid system as a means to keep control of economic and social institutions in the country. A Population Registration Act was put into effect, under which privileges were extended to the nation's people depending on race. Whites enjoyed much social freedom and economic advantage; blacks had painfully few rights. Despite the fact that Sisulu could have passed as "coloured" to gain higher social acceptance, he registered himself as black to fight the government-sanctioned racism.

Over the next 20 years, he fought alongside Mandela and other ANC leaders to end the systematic racism. Sisulu wrote articles, books, and editorials on African nationalism, and he helped organize boycotts, strikes, and civil-disobedience movements to calling for an end to apartheid.

In 1962, Sisulu was arrested numerous times for promoting the aims of the ANC, which had been banned by the government several years earlier. He went into hiding in 1963, pending an appeal on a sentence for his activities, and he broadcast messages of resistance via a secret ANC radio transmitter hidden in a safe house near Johannesburg. When the safe house was discovered, Sisulu was arrested again and put on trial for treason alongside Mandela; both were sentenced to life in prison.

By the late 1980s, increasing pressure from the international community was urging a change in the political climate of South Africa. In 1989, Sisulu and five other senior members of the ANC were released from prison; Mandela was released in 1990.

By 1994, when the ANC won its first national election in South Africa and Mandela was elected the country's president, Sisulu retired from active political life. But until the very end, he spoke out against human-rights abuses and injustice in the world, and he never stopped being a staunch supporter of the rights of nonwhite people everywhere.

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