Africa: Walter Sisulu, 05/09/03

Africa: Walter Sisulu, 05/09/03

AFRICA ACTION Africa Policy E-Journal May 9, 2003 (030509)

Africa: Walter Sisulu (Africa Action document)

This posting contains a statement from Africa Action on the death of Walter Sisulu, plus excerpts from two documents highlighing two periods from Sisulu's life-long engagement in the freedom struggle.

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Statement from Africa Action -- May 7, 2003

Walter Sisulu: The Struggle Continues

Africa Action was saddened to learn of the death of Walter Sisulu, a key leader of the South African liberation struggle and a hero who inspired all of us. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and to all of the people of South Africa.

South Africa has lost a leader and the rest of the world has lost a great man who worked tirelessly to make this a better world. Walter Sisulu was the central organizer of the African National Congress (ANC) from the time he was elected Secretary General in 1949 until the treason trials in the early 1960s. He spent 26 years in prison with Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters and after his release continued to campaign for the liberation of his country.

"Walter Sisulu has now passed away, but his work to create a better, more just society continues in South Africa and around the world," said Salih Booker, Executive Director of Africa Action. "At Africa Action we hold a special place in our hearts for Walter Sisulu because he provided the spark that created our organization." When a young civil rights activist wrote the ANC in 1952 asking what could be done to support the organization's plans for a non-violent campaign to defy unjust laws, it was Sisulu who wrote back to welcome the support and ask for political and financial assistance.

In 1952, Americans for South African Resistance organized public meetings and protest at the South African consulate in New York. After raising thousands of dollars to support the legal defense of Defiance Campaign activists in South Africa, that young civil rights activist, George Houser, and his colleagues formed the American Committee on Africa, the organization that later became Africa Action.

"He was a quiet man, often working behind the scenes, but getting the job done," said Houser, who was the Executive Director of the American Committee on Africa for nearly thirty years. After retiring, Houser conducted a series of oral history interviews with Walter Sisulu out of which came the book 'I Will Go Singing.' Sisulu told Houser that after his arrest in 1962 for sabotage, he and Mandela assumed they would be sentenced to death and executed. "I thought I must go to the gallows singing-for the sake of the youth who follow us... We must show that our death would not mark the end of the liberation struggle."

But Sisulu and his colleagues were not executed, and working from prison with the banned African National Congress they continued the struggle for freedom. After his release, Sisulu agreed to come to the United States at our invitation to meet with Congressional leaders, civil rights activists, church leaders and other activists pressing for the end of apartheid and free elections in unified, non-racial South Africa.

Nelson Mandela suggested this week that if there is another life after this world, Walter is already there, working to enroll everyone he meets into the African National Congress, cajoling people with his favorite songs and mobilizing people behind the organization's original document -- the Freedom Charter -- affirming the right of all people to be free. Our promise to you, Walter, is that Africa Action will continue the work you started, the struggle for political, economic and social justice in Africa. A Luta Continua.

To learn more about Africa Action visit



Walter Sisulu: I Will Go Singing as told to George Houser and Herbert Shore

George Houser and Herbert Shore, both active in the African liberation struggles, held extensive interviews with Sisulu to put on record an oral history of his life. This history has been published under the title I Will Go Singing. The book can be ordered from the on-line bookstore of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at A brief excerpt follows, referring to the Rivonia trial which resulted in life imprisonment for Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other defendants:

Walter Sisulu: Both the prosecutor and the judge challenged the right of ANC to claim to speak for the African people when its membership was so small compared to the population.

I told him we speak for the aspirations and the hopes of the African people. We listen to what is in their hearts whether they are members of ANC or not. Dr. Yutar [the prosecutor - eds.] then said sarcastically - I remember clearly - "Sisulu" - he always called me this, never "Mr." or any other title. He started out trying to address me as "Walter" but I would not accept that - "You think you know what is in the hearts of all the Bantu, or do you spend your time agitating, telling them what ought to be there."

That was when I said to him, "We do not have to tell the African people what ought to be in their hearts. Dr. Yutar, I wish you were in the position of an African. I wish you were an African and knew the position.

He asked me if I had been persecuted by the police myself. "What is this so-called persecution and arresting indiscriminately with no offence? How do you know they arrest people innocently?" I told him they arrested my wife. In 1962 I was arrested six times. I have been persecuted by the police.

I said to him, "Dr. Yutar, you have a young son about the same age as my son. How would you feel if your son came to court to see you and he was arrested for not having a pass, especially since he is only fifteen and didn't have to carry one. But the police would not believe him. How would you feel? That is persecution of the innocent by the police ."

But it was Operation Mayibuye that they asked me most about. I repeated over and over again that we were discussing the plan still, some for, some against; that we knew violence would come, but we had not yet agreed to guerilla warfare. At the time of our arrest no decision had been taken. I myself did not think that conditions were right for such an operation to be undertaken. And we were never planning to encourage or collaborate in an armed invasion of South Africa from outside.

Everyone, my comrades and all of the defense lawyers, were pleased. They felt I had done well in my contest with Yutar. George Bizos [one of the ANC's lawyers - eds.] said that he could now collect on his bet. He had wagered with the others that Yutar would be drawn into a political discussion and that I would best him. So I was pleased.

But still you expected the death penalty?

What else could I expect? It must be the death sentence. They had charged us with sabotage instead of treason because a charge of treason would have required a preparatory examination and the accused would have to know the evidence against them so that they could prepare their defense properly. But whatever they call the charges, in terms of the material found, it qualifies as treason, and I could not see anything else but death.


We heard that at one point as you were passing the other accused in the court, you made a sign across your throat with a finger, implying that you were going to get the death penalty. Did something like this happen?

I have no doubt that I did. Because when we were arrested, I said - I think I was talking to Govan Mbeki then - you see, there is no way out of here. I was sure there was no way of escaping the death sentence. I'm not sure what Govan's attitude was. I'm not sure, but I was certain that for at least six of us there could be no verdict other than guilty. The question was the sentence. And I was certain that at least four of us would hang.

When did the verdict finally come?

On May...yes, May 20th, that was it, the prosecution handed out their final statement. They were very fancy - bound in blue leather, I remember.

I was thinking how I must go to the gallows. And I thought I must go to the gallows singing - for the sake of the youth who follow us, so they will know that we went without fear and that we had fulfilled our task in life. I would sing with a strong voice so that they would all hear. We must show that our death would not mark the end of the liberation movement, but would be an inspiration to our people in their struggle. The rest would now be up to them. I was ready.

There was an exchange between the judge and Dr. Yutar, which gave us a little bit of hope. It seemed that the judge accepted that the MK and the ANC were separate organizations and that the plan for guerilla warfare had not as yet been approved. In fact, at one point he interrupted Brain's closing argument to state that he accepted that no decision or date had been fixed on for guerilla warfare. He adjourned the court until June 11 when the verdict would be given. During that time, Nelson wrote his law exams for London - while we were waiting.

When the day came for the verdict, the police packed the court and the streets around it. Justice de Wet gave his verdict very quickly. He said he would give the verdicts without reading the reasons for them, but he emphasized that he had very good reasons.

Nelson, I, Dennis, Govan, Raymond, Andrew Mlangeni, and Elias Motsoaledi were guilty on all four counts. Kathy was guilty on one of the four counts and Rusty was acquitted. The judge then stood up and adjourned until 10 o'clock the next morning for sentencing.


When the sentence was finally rendered what was your feeling?

Oh, it was like a discharge. It was like a discharge because I said, well, I really felt that legally we were guilty of what they call treason and I could not see how you can escape it. Therefore when they came with a sentence like this, I thought, well, it's like a discharge. Our movement should have been broken, without leaders and without hope. But instead it was alive, singing, marching in procession right there around the court, with ANC colors flying.

It was not just our celebration, but had become a world celebration with ANC colors waving. We were expecting death, and now we were all alive, preparing for the next phase of the struggle.

International pressure helped us avoid the death sentence. No doubt. No doubt about it. We had very good lawyers, but the situation in South Africa was such that it was not going to be the ability of the lawyers that determined. The attitude of the government was so hostile, so clear, so worked out, so systematically worked out, that on the basis of that there seemed to be no way we were going to escape the death sentence. Now we were a central part of a worldwide movement.


American Supporters of the Defiance Campaign by George M. Houser

Statement at a meeting of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid on June 25, 1982, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the "Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws"

brief excerpts only - full statement available at

I first heard about plans for the Defiance Campaign when a long-time friend of mine, Bill Sutherland, returned from a trip to London in early 1952 with the news that a non-violent civil disobedience campaign against racist laws was to take place in South Africa soon. As believers in non-violence and as staunch and active opponents of racism, we felt we should do something to support the campaign. We contacted the ANC in Johannesburg and I opened up a correspondence in early 1952 which grew steadily over the next several months. The Joint Secretaries of the Campaign were Walter M. Sisulu, the Secretary General of the African National Congress, and Yusuf A. Cachalia, Secretary-General of the South African Indian Congress. I wrote to them on CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] letterhead and Sisulu replied on 26 March: "Your letter of the 17th of March has been a source of great inspiration to me. I am very delighted to learn that your organisation (CORE) has taken such a great interest in the struggle for fundamental human rights by my organization."


Through correspondence with Sisulu and Cachalia and by reading the memoranda which began coming to me from the movement in South Africa, I saw the plan for the Campaign develop. The first joint meeting to lay the foundation for the effort took place on July 29, 1951, at the invitation of the ANC. At that time the organisations involved committed themselves to "declare war" on apartheid laws such as the pass laws, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Bantu Authorities Act. Cachalia wrote me that in January 1952 the ANC had written to Prime Minister Malan demanding the repeal of certain apartheid laws, failing which mass action against racist laws would begin. ,,,

In New York we felt we had enough information about the campaign to make a decision on what we ought to do. We decided to set up an ad hoc support group for the campaign and adopted the name Americans for South African Resistance (AFSAR).

Our task, as we conceived it, was to be a vehicle for information about the Campaign and to raise funds. The National Action Committee in South Africa was calling for one million shillings by the end of March. We decided we would do what we could, but over a longer period of time, for we had no funds and were just getting organised. Our first public activity was a mass meeting planned for 6 April in solidarity with the ANC and the SAIC of South Africa. ,,,

About 800 people attended our meeting held at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where Adam Clayton Powell was minister. Speakers were Powell, Canada Lee who had starred in the movie version of "Cry, the Beloved Country", Vithal Babu, Secretary of the Indian Congress Parliamentary Party in New Delhi, who was briefly in New York, and Donald Harrington, minister of the Community Church. The resolution of support for the South African Campaign, passed by acclamation at the meeting, was sent to the Joint Action Committee in South Africa, Prime Minister Nehru in India, Manilal Gandhi, President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. With our note to Walter Sisulu we sent our first check of $300 collected at the meeting to support the campaign.

The meeting was followed by a motorcade of cars with protest banners floating alongside from Harlem down to the South African Consulate at 65th and Madison. ...

The civil disobedience began on 26 June. A group of 52 were arrested at the Boksburg "Native" Location, 20 miles from Johannesburg. Led by Nana Sita, the president of the Transvaal Indian Congress, they had broken the law by trying to enter the Location without a pass giving them permission. A second group were arrested in Johannesburg at 11.30 p.m. for defying the curfew regulations. This was led by Flag Boshielo of the ANC who said to the police: "We are nonviolent fighters for freedom. We are going to defy regulations that have kept our fathers in bondage." ...

Both Sisulu and Cachalia were arrested on 26 June. Nelson Mandela, who was the Volunteer-in-Chief for the campaign and the president of the ANC Youth League, was arrested the evening of 26 June. Other leaders of the ANC and SAIC were arrested within a few days, including Dr. Dadoo, president of the Indian Congress, Moses Kotane of the National Executive of the ANC, and J.B. Marks, president of the African Mineworkers` Union. ,,,

Our sources of information about the Campaign were several - the bulletins arriving from South Africa, continued correspondence, some press reports in American papers such as the New York Times, but most important was Prof. Z. K. Matthews. He arrived in New York in late June 1952 to take up his position as the Henry Luce Visiting Professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, a post which was to continue for one year. I made contact very soon with Matthews and we saw each other frequently. He shared the stream of information coming to him from South Africa ,,, With this kind of data we began to issue bulletins at least once a month about the progress of the Campaign. The information coming from Matthews was treated anonymously. ...

In 1952 the General Assembly of the United Nations began its session in October. Spurred by the Defiance Campaign, India took the lead in calling for an agenda item which for the first time would deal with the whole racial conflict in South Africa. ... Z.K. Matthews give expert testimony to the Committee relevant to its consideration of the issue. ... The U.S. made clear it would vote against Matthews` appearance. ...

Up to December 16, 1952, the total number arrested in the Campaign was 8,057, of which 5,719 were in the Eastern Cape, 423 in Western Cape, 1,411 in Transvaal, 246 in Natal and 258 in the Orange Free State.

The government was bound to respond to the growing impact of the Campaign with severe measures, and it did so toward the end of 1952. It passed the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Laws amendment Act. Dr. R. T. Bokwe, the brother-in-law of Z.K. Matthews, wrote to me on 30 December saying that no meetings of more than ten people were allowed in African locations or reserves. Practically all African leaders, including himself, had been served letters from the Minister of Justice forbidding them from attending gatherings. He told me that he could not even attend a church service.

On April 15, 1953, elections (for whites) were held in South Africa, the first since the Nationalists came to power in 1948. They strengthened their hold on the government by increasing their majority in parliament. Apartheid was extended also. The Population Registration Act was passed, requiring all people in South Africa to register with the government by race. Plans were laid for eliminating Sophiatown, an area of the city where Africans could own land, and creating the area now called Soweto.

The Defiance Campaign came to an end. We in AFSAR had a series of meetings to decide whether we should disband, set up a more permanent organisation dealing with South Africa or establish something even broader. We decided on the third course. Thus AFSAR was transformed into an organisation which would relate to the whole anti-colonial struggle in Africa. The name chosen for this new entity was the American Committee on Africa. [Transcribed from tape. From E.S. Reddy collection.]

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Date distributed (ymd): 030509 Region: Continent-Wide Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +US policy focus+


Message-Id: <> From: "Africa Action" <> Date: Fri, 9 May 2003 12:55:16 -0500 Subject: Africa: Walter Sisulu

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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