Walter Sisulu, who together with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led the campaign that freed South Africa from the grip of apartheid, died on May 5, only days before his 91st birthday.
In a tribute to Sisulu, Blade Nzimade, general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), said the Party “dips its banner, and expresses its heartfelt condolences to Mama Sisulu, to the Sisulu family and to our movement, the African National Congress [ANC].”
Nzimade said Sisulu “is synonymous with more than a half-century of mass struggles led by the African National Congress,” adding that Sisulu’s life “is the story of a rural boy, son of a domestic worker, later an urban worker nurtured within the ranks of the African National Congress.”
Nzimade also talked about Sisulu’s membership and leadership in the SACP. “After its banning in 1950, the Party was reconstituted in 1953 in the deep underground. Comrade Sisulu was recruited in 1955, and later became a member of the Central Committee. Comrade Walter, the communist – this is a story that will, at some stage, have to be told in its fullness.”
“A thoroughly democratic South Africa is the best monument that we can build in honor of Comrade Walter. Let us honor him by deepening the struggle for a better life for all, and most critically by tackling, collectively, the twin challenges of jobs and poverty eradication,” Nzimade concluded.
Sam Webb, chair of the Communist Party USA, said Sisulu combined revolutionary courage, determination and modesty in a “unique package. During his long life of struggle he set an example for people everywhere who are engaged in the struggle to make a better world.”
Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) echoed Nzimade: “Comrade Walter would have insisted that we carry on, fighting to rid the country of all the evils we inherited from apartheid – the poverty, inequality, mass unemployment and HIV/AIDS which still blight our communities.”
COSATU asked workers throughout the country to honor Sisulu’s memory on May 7 by holding hands and bowing their heads during lunchtime at their places of work, saying “it would be fitting to make such a gesture in remembrance of the late African National Congress leader.”
Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC secretary general, lauded Sisulu, for his service to the ANC, first as its secretary-general during the Defiance Campaign in the 1950s and later as its deputy president during the constitutional negotiations leading up to the 1994 democratic elections. “He has never ceased to be a source of advice and inspiration to ANC leaders and members,” Mothlane said. In 1992 Sisulu was awarded Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honor of the ANC, for his contribution to the struggle for liberation.
In 1961 Sisulu, Mandela and 154 others stood trial for treason. Although acquitted, they were arrested once more in 1963 and convicted of conspiring to overthrow the state, sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 26 years in prison, most of it on Robben Island. Sisulu was set free in October 1989, a precursor to Mandela’s release four months later.
Compounding his own isolation, Sisulu’s wife and children suffered arrests, banning orders, exile and official harassment.
Weakened by age and illness, Sisulu declined to seek a position in the new, democratic government elected in April 1994, when Mandela became president after the first all-race balloting. In December 1994 he stepped down as ANC deputy president bringing to an end a half-century of active participation in the South African freedom struggle. His wife, Albertina, and eight children survive him.
The funeral service of Sisulu was set for May 17 at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Other memorials were held in Cape Town and Pretoria on May 13.