He was the heart and soul of the ANC during apartheid's most brutal years. At 9pm on 5 May, two weeks short of his 91st birthday, Walter Sisulu, one of Africa's greatest sons, died in the arms of his equally famous wife, Albertina, whom he married in 1944 and together had 5 children.
The best tribute comes from his best friend, Nelson Mandela: "Whamela is no more," Mandela emotionally lamented. "May he live forever. His absence has carved avoid. A part of me is gone... While many of us have been honoured by countries in every continent with awards, including Nobel Peace prizes, there is one man who has not received some of these. But, nonetheless, he stands head and shoulders above all because of his humility and simplicity."
It was a poor Mandela who walked into the offices of Walter Sisulu in the 1940s. Sensing his potential, Sisulu made Mandela part of his household and mentored him. They became life-long friends, a friendship that was to be a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. They subsequently spent a quarter of a century in prison on Robben Island together. It was one of history's most amazing friendships and political partnerships.
Sisulu was born on 18 May 1912, the year Africa's oldest liberation movement, the ANG, was founded. According to ANG documents, it is not widely known that Sisulu's mother Alice Sisulu was a domestic worker and his father Victor Dickenson was a white civil servant.
Walter migrated to Johannesburg from his birthplace Encobo, Transkei (now the Eastern Cape) in 1929. Of peasant origin, his formal schooling ended at the age of 15 in Standard Four. He found a job in the mines and worked in deplorable conditions at starvation wages. Then he went back to East London in the Transkei to work as a "kitchen boy". But he returned to Johannesburg to work in a bakery for a measly 18 shillings a week.
As part of a trade union, Sisulu led his coworkers in strikes upon strikes and was dismissed. This was followed by a succession of jobs and dismissals after dashing repeatedly with white bosses, He continued during this period to study for senior school standard, He joined the ANC in 1940.
Breathing new life into the ANC, Sisulu and a group of radicals--Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo and Mandela--formed the ANG Youth League in 1944. He was the national secretary. In 1949, he became the first full-time secretary of the ANC. It was these founders of the Youth League who started sponsoring strikes, marches, boycotts...