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Last Updated: Monday, 5 May, 2003, 22:42 GMT 23:42 UK
Obituary: Walter Sisulu
Walter Sisulu. Picture: 1989.
Walter Sisulu spent 26 years in South African's prisons

Walter Sisulu was a peasant boy who rose to become deputy president of the African National Congress and one of the foremost influences in South African politics.

His firm belief in a non-racist philosophy, at a time when many black activists were arguing differently, proved decisive in shaping the philosophy and political direction of the ANC.

The son of a white foreman who came to his native village in the Transkei to supervise black road workers, Sisulu went to Johannesburg at the age of 15 to earn money for his family.

Walter Sisulu
Walter Sisulu - Mandela's 'mentor'
Over the next 10 years, his career development was subsumed by his trade union activism and his decision, in 1940, to join the ANC.

The following year, he took in a lodger named Nelson Mandela and encouraged him to join the ANC.

The two men, along with Oliver Tambo, founded the ANC Youth League in 1944, and within five years had taken over the organisation itself.

Clandestine broadcasts

In 1949, a year after the governing National Party enshrined apartheid into South African law, Sisulu was elected to the ANC's top executive position, secretary-general, where he organised the strategy of active protest.

The result was that, during the next 12 years, he served seven jail terms. When, in 1961, the ANC took up the armed struggle, Sisulu went underground, delivering weekly broadcasts via a clandestine radio transmitter from a farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Eventually he was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 88 days. Then, in 1964, he and others including Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life and imprisoned on Robben Island.

Family in peril

Men who emerged from that prison before him spoke of Sisulu's strength, of the warm humour and wisdom that made him a father- figure, sustaining them through years of labouring in the lime quarry.

These were years during which he had to live with the knowledge of the torture of his daughter, Lindiwe, and of the repeated banning and imprisonment of his wife Albertina and of his son Zwelakhe.

His release came in 1989 when Sisulu was 77. He had spent more than a quarter of a century behind bars.

The South African regime was giving way to domestic and international pressure to bring majority rule. A year later, the ANC was unbanned and his great friend, Nelson Mandela, was also out of jail and inviting him to be his deputy in the party.

Dream fulfilled

His biggest immediate challenge was to try to stifle the black on black violence that erupted between the ANC and the Inkhata Freedom Party.

He campaigned in the first truly multi-racial elections in South Africa and saw his dream of black majority rule fulfilled.

He retired after the election, though he kept an office at ANC headquarters where he would drop in from time to time.

Almost alone among the organisation's leaders, he still lived in Soweto, with his wife Albertina, in the same small red-brick house where, 50 years before, his mother took in other peoples' washing.

For a man whose life had been devoted to an ideal that had been so dramatically achieved, he shunned the air of a conqueror.

Walter Sisulu obituary
The BBC's Jeremy Vine looks back on Walter Sisulu's life

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