Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu (18 May 1912 – 5 May 2003) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC), serving at times as Secretary-General and Deputy President of the organization. He was jailed at Robben Island, where he served more than 25 years' imprisonment.
Sisulu was born in Ngcobo in the Union of South Africa. His mother, Alice Mase Sisulu, was a Xhosa domestic worker and his father, Albert Victor Dickinson, was white. Dickinson worked in the Railway Department of the Cape Colony from 1903 to 1909 and was transferred to the Office of the Chief Magistrate in Umtata in 1910. His mother was related to Evelyn Mase, Nelson Mandela's first wife. Dickinson did not play a part in his son's upbringing, and the boy and his sister, Rosabella, were raised by his mother's family, who were descended from the Thembu clan. AV Dickinson later went on to become the Attorney General of the Transvaal.
Educated in a local missionary school, he left in 1926 to find work. He moved to Johannesburg in 1928 and did a wide range of manual jobs.
He founded Sitha Investments in 1939. It was situated at Barclay Arcade between West Street and Commissioner Street in the business district of Johannesburg. Its objective is to help blacks and Indians to buy houses in Apartheid South Africa. During its operations, Sitha was the only black-owned estate agency in South Africa.
He married Albertina in 1944; Nelson Mandela was his best man at their wedding. The couple had five children, and adopted four more. Sisulu's wife and children were also active in the struggle against apartheid.
His son Zwelakhe Sisulu became a journalist and union leader, went on to found the New Nation (at the time South Africa's largest black newspaper), served as Nelson Mandela's press secretary, became CEO of the South African Broadcast Corporation, and later a business person.
An adopted daughter, Beryl Rose Sisulu, served as ambassador from the Republic of South Africa to Norway.
He joined the ANC in 1941. In 1943, together with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, he joined the ANC Youth League, founded by Anton Lembede, of which he was initially the treasurer. He later distanced himself from Lembede after Lembede, who died in 1947, had ridiculed his parentage (Sisulu was the son of a white foreman). Sisulu was a political networker and had a prominent planning role in the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"). He was made secretary general of the ANC in 1949, displacing the more passive older leadership, and held that post until 1954. He also joined the South African Communist Party.
As a planner of the Defiance Campaign from 1952, he was arrested that year and given a suspended sentence. In 1953, he travelled to Europe, the USSR, Palestine, and China as an ANC representative. He was jailed seven times in the next ten years, including five months in 1960, and was held under house arrest in 1962. At the Treason Trial (1956–1961), he was eventually sentenced to six years, but was released on bail pending his appeal. He went underground in 1963, resulting in his wife being the first woman arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 (or "90-day clause"). He was caught at Rivonia on 11 July, along with 16 others. At the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial (1963–1964), he was sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. With other senior ANC figures, he served the majority of his sentence on Robben Island.
In October 1989, he was released after 26 years in prison, and in July 1991 was elected ANC deputy president at the ANC's first national conference after its unbanning the year before. He remained in the position until after South Africa's first democratic election in 1994.
In 1992, Walter Sisulu was awarded Isitwalandwe Seaparankoe, the highest honour granted by the ANC, for his contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa. The government of India awarded him Padma Vibhushan in 1998. Walter Sisulu was given a "special official funeral" on 17 May 2003. In 2004 he was voted 33rd in the SABC3's Great South Africans.
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