Walter Sisulu 1912 - 2003

Life timeline - pre 1940
18 May: Walter Ulyate Max Sisulu is born in Engcobo District in the Transkei, in the same year, the ANC was formed.
Walter returns from his aunt Agnes’ home at Cofimvaba, Transkei, about 30 miles from his mother’s home at Qutubeni. For a long time during his early life, Walter’s mother Alice had to work away from home. Walter tended cattle, sheep and goats like any peasant youth.
Early 1920s
Walter is exposed to a mediated version of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African liberation for black people via village meetings arranged by Wellington Buthelezi, a visiting Natalian who assumed an American identity.
Sisulu leaves school at the age of 15. His mother works in faraway East London, and Dyantyi Hlakula, a family figure who was a point of identity and stability for Walter, dies.
At the age of 16, Walter uses an older cousin’s identity to be accepted as a migrant labourer by the mine recruitment office. Sisulu travels 1000 kilometres to Johannesburg by train, only to be judged too young for underground work on his arrival. A compromise is struck where he is released from his contract by a relative, and works for a dairy farmer delivering milk to the mine. he attends various educational organizations. He later became secretary of the "Orlando Brotherly Society", a Xhosa organization, which prompted an interest in tribal history and encouraged economic independence from whites.
After a quarrel he is beaten badly by his employer, and on reporting it to the police, receives further abuse. Other jobs as domestic worker, dormitory sweeper follow. Tired of city life, Walter returns home and once back in the Transkei, undergoes a traditional Xhosa initiation rite.
Again a migrant, Walter returns to Johannesburg to reluctantly work 9 hour days loading ore underground in a gold mine. After a cave-in killed several miners in the shaft which he usually worked, a depressed Walter was transferred above ground. A strike threat over poor conditions led to concessions, and Walter has his first experience of organized industrial action.
At mid-year, some time after his 120-day contract expires, Walter returns home to the Transkei. Finding domestic work in a liberal household in East London, Walter vainly attempts to meet the ANC’s founder, Walter Rubusana. Also influenced politically by Booker T Washington’s Up from Slavery, and culturally by the writing of WEB du Bois.
Sisulu returns again to his village, Qutubeni, delivering a parcel to the son of a white stranger he met in East London. Typically, he is received with disdain by the recipient, a white pharmacist.
Returning to Doornfontein, Johannesburg and staying with his washerwoman mother, Walter finds work at a bakery. Unbeknown to Sisulu at the time, a neighbour is Joe Slovo. Attends night school at the Bantu Men’s Social Club and takes driving lessons, getting to know the city better.
The Slum Clearance Act affects Walter and his mother, amongst thousands of Black inner-city residents. He is forced to move to Orlando, which is later part of Soweto. Conditions are far from the promises made by the local government.
Walter initiates a higher wage strike at Premier Milling Company, which is dissolved and he leaves. Suffers pass book and other police harassment and resolves to “suffer under the system until I have defeated it”. Works temporarily at Bantu World, a newspaper run by Selope Thema, a founder member of the ANC and a fine journalist. Also finds various clerical jobs, including with the Johannesburg municipality enumerating the population census.
Finds employment at Union Bank of South Africa as a marketing agent, persuading potential clients to open accounts. This affords him contact with a wide range of people. By chance he has contact with Communist Party member Rusty Bernstein, who loans him the first piece of left literature which Walter read: Stalin’s 1913 article on the National Question. Meets Govan Mbeki, then a student at Fort Hare, after reading his The Making of the Transkei, and also Kaizer Matanzima, the Thembu chief.

17 July 1944, Walter and Albetina at their wedding reception in Johannesburg. © Family Collection