Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Walter Sisulu
Grandfather of the Struggle
18 May 1912 - 5 May 2003

Walter SisuluOne of Sisulu's earliest childhood memories was the trip to Cofimvaba, a village town, to be vaccinated during the influenza epidemic. He also recalls playing football and tinte, a Xhosa variant of cricket. Sisulu and his elder sister Rosabella were brought up in Ngcobo, Transkei, by his mother, his uncle Dyantyi Hlakula and his grandparents. Sisulu learned a great deal about Xhosa culture and the laws of society from his influential uncle, who was the headman of the village and a lay preacher. Early political influences were Marcus Garvey, whose supporters preached the philosophy of Africanism - getting "back to Africa". History lessons at the Anglican Missionary Institute in Ngcobo also inspired Sisulu greatly.

At 14 Sisulu left mission school to work. Between 1928 and 1940 he worked in a wide range of jobs: as a delivery man for a dairy, then as a miner in the Rose Deep Mine in Germiston, as a domestic, as a baker for Premier Biscuits, as a paint mixer for Herbert Evans in Johannesburg, as a packer for a tobacconist, as a part-time teller at the Union Bank of South Africa, and after 1938 as an advertising salesperson and real estate agent.

In 1943, as a founder member of the ANC Youth League, he attended conferences of the Federation of Democratic Youth in Romania and the International Union of Students in Poland. He also travelled to the USSR, China and the UK. In 1949 he became ANCYL secretary. He published a book on African nationalism commissioned by the government of India in 1954. In the '50s and early '60s he also wrote numerous articles for New Age, The Guardian and Liberation.

He was jailed for life along with the other Rivonia accused in 1963. On Robben Island he completed a BA in art history and anthropology and read more than a 100 biographies.

Sisulu was released from prison on 15 October 1989. He was elected Deputy President at the ANC national conference in July, 1991. He became a patron of the UDF, the Omhle Trust and the Twa Twa Trust, and an honourary chancellor of the University of Venda. He holds four honorary doctorate degrees.
Sisulu was married to Albertina Sisulu. They have five natural children who have all contributed to the South African struggle: Max, Anthony Mlungisi, Zwelakhe, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko. In addition they have four adopted children: Jonqumzi, Gerald and Beryl (whose biological mothers are Sisulu's sister and his cousin) and finally Samuel, a former Robben Islander who begged to be part of Sisulu's family and has now been formally adopted.

He has been awarded the Isitwalandwe by the ANC on the 80th Anniversary of the ANC, Bloemfontein, 8 January, 1992. The University of the Witwatersrand honoured Walter and Albertina Sisulu with the degree of Doctor of Law (honoris causa) at a graduation ceremony on 24 June 1999.

Walter Sisulu died in his sleep on 5 May 2003 with his wife at his side, two weeks short of his 91st birthday.


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