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Reporter's Notebook On The Life And Times of Walter Sisulu - 2003-05-16

This weekend (Saturday) South Africans bury veteran anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu, who died last week just 12 days before his 91st birthday. VOA’s Delia Robertson knew Mr. Sisulu and sent us these memories from her reporter’s notebook:

I watched silently as the tall white man reached out his hand and, his voice choked with emotion, thanked the short black man for all he had sacrificed for his country. The short man pulled the tall man towards him and wrapped his arms around him in a sustained and vigorous hug.

The short black man was Walter Sisulu and the tall white man, my father, Duncan Robertson. It was a year since Walter Sisulu’s release from jail in October 1989, and since I had first met him and had also been the recipient of one of his famous introductory hugs. In that year, like many other South Africans, I had learned to love him as a second father and felt privileged to call him Ntate, or father, Sisulu.

And so I was thrilled when my parents asked to meet Ntate and his wife, Albertina, or Ma Sisulu, whom I had known for several years before her husband’s release. During that memorable visit in their small Soweto home, the Sisulus told my parents they would just have to get used to sharing me, because, they said, “she is now our daughter too.”

I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to be so honored. The Sisulus were renowned for drawing people into the ever-expanding embrace of their love. Amina Cachalia, a veteran anti-apartheid activist who knew Walter for fifty years, told me he was the kind of person who drew people to him.

She said, "Walter was just such a teddy-bear type of personality – somebody that you just wanted to hug all the time. Even when I met him first he gave me that impression. But he was a wonderful soft, gentle, man to sit and talk to about anything. And you felt he was like yourself, an ordinary guy that you could talk to and yet he had quite a mind and quite a vision that he always tried to instill in others and talk to others quietly about. He was an unassuming sort of a chap and yet he had this quality of getting over what he believed in and what he wanted others to believe in."

I once asked Ntate Sisulu how, given his treatment at the hands of the white apartheid government, he was able to show such warmth to white people whom he had never previously met –- why he seemed so free of any bitterness:

"We were not fighting the white man to go to the sea. No, we were fighting for the system. We must participate, we must have a share in the affairs of this nation. And to be bitter therefore, would be to defeat my basis, my very development, and therefore I must avoid becoming anti-white," he said.

His friend Amina Cachalia told me the foundation of both the private and the political Walter was his absolute belief that all people are equal.

She said, "Complete non-racialism and a coming together of all people, all the time, to carry on the democracy that he helped [bring] about. I think his legacy is enormous and if we can carry on and imbibe that legacy we will be better people in South Africa."

In June 1964, along with his dearest friend Nelson Mandela and five others, Walter Sisulu was given a life sentence for sabotage. He was the first defendant in what is now famously known as the Rivonia treason trial, which lasted a year from their arrest at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg.

Walter’s long road to jail began in the eastern Cape Province of South Africa where he was born on May 18th, 1912. His mother was Alice Sisulu, a black domestic worker and his father a white magistrate, Victor Dickenson. The relationship between his parents lasted several years and although his father helped the family financially for a few years he never acknowledged either Walter, nor his yuounger sister Rosabella. Their maternal uncle, the village headman, acted as their father.

The uncle’s death when Walter was fifteen years old and in grade six forced him to leave school and head for Johannesburg, where he got work in a dairy. Several different jobs followed -- he was a domestic worker, a factory worker and for a time he worked in a bakery, from which he was fired for organizing a strike for higher wages. Continued clashes with a range of employers over union activities ultimately led to him becoming a self-employed estate agent.

His union activities brought Walter into contact with the African National Congress, which he joined in 1940. Nine years later he was elected secretary general. It was during this period that he met Nelson Mandela, became his political mentor and recuited him into the A-N-C. Walter told me that he immediately recognized the potential in Mr. Mandela and, as he did with so many other political leaders of the period, he pushed South Africa’s future president toward leadership roles.

He said, "Well, first of all he meets me, he was a much younger man, he meets me already in the movement and in that way I am influencing the direction and we discuss naturally with him. Then I was dealing with a man who was bright himself – he had ideas."

But the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party had come to power in 1948 and introduced statutory racism in the form of apartheid. In the ensuing years Walter Sisulu was in the forefront of peaceful protests such as the Defiance Campaign of 1952. For these and other acts Mr. Sisulu and other senior ANC leaders were charged in December 1956 with treason. They were acquitted nearly five years later.

Three months after that, Mr. Sisulu and other A-N-C leaders decided to to escalate the fight against apartheid to an armed struggle, and established the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. It was not long before he, along with his colleagues were operating underground and, in July 1963 he arrested in Rivonia and for the second time, tried for treason.

It is not possible to speak of Walter Sisulu without also mentioning his wife Albertina or Ma Sisulu. They were South Africa’s most loved couple. But Ma Sisulu was an activist in her own right and, as Amina Cachalia reminded me, kept their family together even though she too, suffered severely at the hands of apartheid’s enforcers.

She said, "But of course Albertina had the brunt of the separation and she really missed him all the years. And hers was such a tremendous responsibility to keep that family together, [she was] sometimes in jail, and sometimes away, and sometimes being tortured, and he in prison – so it was tremendous loss for her and I think if anybody deserved a better deal, it would be Albertina."

Walter told me that no other woman came close to Albertina.

"When I took up the position of being a secretary general, that very night I knew, finished with me: I can’t go to business, I can’t be employed, I’ve got a duty to the people. Changed my whole approach. What was I going to depend on? I was not paid a salary, I wasn’t going to earn anything. I depended on my wife. I say remarkable, because with no means she was able to keep the family together," he said.

Walter was former president Nelson Mandela’s dearest friend and the man Mr. Mandela constantly reached out to for support and advice. Using Mr. Sisulu’s clan name, the former president said Walter was a man of rare humanity.

He said, "Xhamela has never been president of the A-N-C. He had never been a member of parliament. He has never been honored as some of us were honored. Nevertheless, he stood a head and shoulders above all of us. What was the reason for this? Because he had the gift of humanity."

Ntate Sisulu’s humanity has continued to touch new people in the aftermath of his death with television shows and radio talks shows dominated by discussion of his life. Amina Cachalia told me that many white South Africans have approached her to say they now have new insights into the anti-apartheid struggle.

She said, "But the people that talked to me the other day said it had opened up a new understanding for them – the man’s death. And what he had stood for and what he had done and the legacy he has left for the people – and these were all white people – that they’ve understood things better. And I said, well, if Walter could have done that in death as much as he did it to us in the earlier days, then his legacy is tremendously important."

Walter Sisulu’s legacy, his sacrifices and his work for democracy in South Africa are well documented and will become a part of history. But his friend and fellow activist Amina Cachalia says his death reminds us that the generation that offered forgiveness to end oppression is passing from our midst. Hamba kahle Ntate Sisulu – farewell Walter.