Tribute to Walter Sisulu

by Howard Wolpe, Africa Project Consulting Director

May 20, 2003

Shortly after Walter Sisulu’s release from over twenty-five years in prison, in 1989, I found myself in South Africa for one of my many visits there. At the time I was chairing the house subcommittee on Africa, and I was leading a Congressional delegation to the continent. Our ambassador to Pretoria at the time, Bill Swing, arranged for me to visit Walter Sisulu at his home in Soweto.

I shall never forget this first encounter with Walter Sisulu. Not long before his release, Walter’s wife, Albertina, had come on a visit to the United States at the invitation of Senators Boren and Nunn. While in the United States, she met not only with members of the Congress, but also with President George Bush – and she used her presence in the United States to convey a powerful message about the state of struggle inside South Africa. In Soweto that day, I began my conversation with her husband by describing Albertina’s visit to the United States, and the tremendous impact she had had. Walter began to puff up like a proud peacock. He asked me to pause a moment, called for Albertina to join us, and then asked that I repeat in her presence everything that I had just told him.

That moment captured, movingly, the extraordinary love and pride Walter felt for Albertina.

I dwell on this moment of my personal witness of Walter and Albertina’s relationship because I believe it expressed what made Walter Sisulu so special to all who were privileged to know and to work with him. As Saki Makozoma recently put it, “When you saw him and Ma Sisulu together, the room was filled with the warmth of their connection. That was the love that he also shared with his children and with many of us who knew the Sisulus as our parents. And it was a love that nurtured generations of South Africans.”

In my first encounter with Walter Sisulu, he had no desire to recount to me his own contribution to the liberation struggle. Rather, he wished to celebrate that of his wife. His humanity, his humility, his sensitivity to the feelings of others – these were qualities that not only impacted Walter Sisulu’s personal relationships, but also informed his politics – and his understanding of the role of the African National Congress.

That affirmation of his wife also spoke reams of Walter Sisulu’s singular humility. Though at the center of the ANC’s decades-long struggle, playing a critical role in virtually all of the movement’s strategic decisions and initiatives, Walter Sisulu was never one to seek titles or public recognition. He was perfectly content to let others occupy the limelight and to be the movement’s public voice.

But that did not mean that he was any less passionate or committed to the universalistic ideals espoused by the movement’s more public spokespersons. Surely no one worked harder than Walter Sisulu to maintain both the racial and the political inclusiveness that became the hallmark of the African National Congress.

There are few foreign policy issues that have resonated inside the United States more deeply than South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. For South Africa’s struggle was seen in the United States as far more than an issue of foreign policy. It was seen, rather, as part and parcel of the unfinished struggle against racism and injustice in America.

I believe it was the quality – and the message - of the leadership of the ANC that Americans found so compelling. The leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle – the Sisulus and Mandelas and Hanis and Mbekis of the ANC – insisted that theirs was a struggle not against a race, but against a system of oppression that victimized all – the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

The message of the ANC was at once challenging and hopeful – demanding unending struggle against racism and injustice, but offering an affirmative and inclusive vision of a transformed society of free men and women who would be each capable of realizing their individual human potential.

And millions of Americans were inspired by the courageous vision of ANC leaders to take direct action here in the United States. That is the explanation of how it became possible – for the first time in decades – for the United States Congress to over-ride a presidential veto on a foreign policy issue, and to impose sanctions against apartheid South Africa. That action would not have been possible had it not been for the thousands upon thousands of Americans – on college campuses, in the civil rights community, and through their churches – who were inspired by the vision and determination of South Africa’s anti-apartheid leaders to write letters to their representatives, to demonstrate before the South African embassy and consulates, to demand disinvestment of American corporations operating in South Africa. I have often said that my proudest moment in Congress was the night we finally succeeded in enacting the sanctions legislation over President Reagan’s veto. For on that night, Democrats and Republicans joined as one in affirming that the struggle for racial and social justice in South Africa was also America’s struggle.

There is probably no single individual that more perfectly embodied the non-racial idealism and humanistic vision of South Africa’s liberation struggle than Walter Sisulu, the man that recruited Nelson Mandela to the ANC.

As President Thabo Mbeki has said of Walter Sisulu, "he told us that were we ever to hate other human beings we would sacrifice our own humanity." President Mbeki reminds us that it was “. . .Walter Sisulu and others in his cadre of leaders [who] resisted for a long time the demand to take up arms against the apartheid regime.” “They did this,” Mbeki observes, because even as this regime was closing off all avenues to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in our country, they were determined that change should be brought about with the minimum loss of life among both black and white.”

In his tribute to Walter Sisulu, Macozoma observed that “Walter Sisulu led us in kindness to this place where, as South Africans, we recognize our common destiny. He journeyed with us, and showed us this magical space where we can dance, we can sing – because he was there. “

I cannot think of a more fitting characterization of Walter Sisulu’s greatness than that “he led us in kindness.”

May we all continue to be led in kindness, and inspired by Walter Sisulu’s example.

Experts & Staff