Walter Sisulu: Some Early Life Influences

There are men and women across Africa who, though not widely celebrated in the media or popularized in history lessons across the continent, have made critical contributions to nation-building and regional advancement; Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu qualifies as one of such.

Walter Sisulu has been described as Nelson Mandela’s mentor, one of the pillars of the African National Congress (ANC), a political leader whose activism led to his imprisonment in Robben Island for over 25 years. From his youth, Walter Sisulu’s life was one of immense commitment to the ideal of freedom for people of African descent in South Africa, and by extension that of the continent and the diaspora.

There were many influences that, early on in his life, shaped Walter Sisulu’s thinking, and for a man whose mindset reportedly helped shape that of many, including Nelson Mandela’s, it is fundamental to shine a measure of light on the influences and principles that molded him. In doing so, hopefully, Africans of today can borrow a lesson or two in the continued efforts to liberate the continent from the clutches of superimposed poverty, late-stage capitalism, corruption, dependency, moral decline and erosion of community rights.

Born in 1912 in Transkei South Africa to an African mother and a white father (who abandoned him and his Xhosa mother), one of the earliest influences on Mr. Sisulu was the writings of Marcus Garvey. When he was barely a teen, Walter Sisulu was exposed to the Pan-Africanist thoughts and writings of Marcus Garvey through village meetings organized by one Wellington Buthelezi. Buthelezi was a Garvey-influenced entrepreneur who traveled around South Africa’s African communities preaching the message of imminent liberation from their Caucasian oppressors. Much about Marcus Garvey’s message must have struck a chord on the young impressionable mind of young Walter Sisulu.

Marcus Garvey was the Jamaican founder of The Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) who believed in the economic empowerment and political independence of People of African descent the world over. Garvey’s thoughts and messages extolled heroes of the African race, the beauty of African culture, the richness of her history and the possibilities that abound within that group of people.  Garvey’s goal was to unite all Africans in the diaspora economically, socially, politically and culturally.

By 1919, Marcus Garvey and the U.N.I.A had their hands in various hugely successful corporate interests.   Black Star Line was established as a shipping line for the establishment and provision of support to trade relations between people of African descent all over the world, starting from Africans in America, the Caribbean, South Central America, Canada and Africa. The Negros Factories Association and other such companies were also established to produce commodities, with the aim to establish big manufacturing hubs across the Western hemisphere and in Africa. Garvey and U.N.I.A’s interests also included a printing press, restaurant chain, hotel, laundries and grocery stores. He made it clear to his over 2 million followers known as Black Moses that Africans will not gain respect in the eyes of the world until they are economically strong.

Garvey’s message that every African should take pride in her history and achievements and maintain the dignity of the Black race hugely inspired many in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and also inspired many African anti-colonial freedom fighters, including Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, to mention few.

Garvey’s message was new and inspiring to Walter Sisulu who was already angry at the racist oppressions his African people were subjected to.  He also found unnerving the reverence accorded to Caucasians by his African people. As a result, Dr. Wellington Buthelezi did not have to preach too hard for Walter Sisulu to readily and passionately embrace the ideals of pan-Africanism as espoused in the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Walter dreamed of a glorious future for the oppressed people of South Africa.

Like Marcus Garvey who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and would become largely self-taught, afterwards, Walter Sisulu would drop out of school at the age of 15 and move away from his village community in search of paid employment. He continued, however, to educate himself just as Marcus Garvey who stood for the education of people of African descent, famously teaching that mental liberation is foundational to all other forms of liberation.

Garvey’s message of pride in African culture must have equally contributed to Walter Sisulu’s strong interest in his Xhosa culture. He believed in Marcus Garvey’s dictum that a “people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Walter would relocate back home to his roots in Transkei, sometime in 1929, in order to undergo a traditional Xhosa initiation rite.

After some time at home, Walter returned to Johannesburg to take up a job loading ore in a gold mine. It was while working underground under poor conditions that Walter got to experience his first organized industrial action by African workers against the Caucasian mine owners. That would leave a deep impression on him in various ways to mobilize the masses in order to demand change and better treatment.

Walter’s stay in Johannesburg was brief and he would shortly return to his hometown in Transkei. It was around this time in his young life that Walter became enthralled with the teachings, writings and messages of Dr. Walter Rubusana. Dr. Rubusana was one of the founding members of the ANC and its first vice-president. Dr. Rubusana is legendary in South African history for being the only African ever to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council. The founder of a Xhosa newspaper who despite Western education had strong regards and connections to his African Xhosa roots, Dr. Rubusana was influenced strongly by the works of two Pan-Africanists in the United States, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dr. Rubusana was a strong advocate of education for Africans, and beyond that made a case for mother-tongue education, especially in early childhood education. To promote African literature, history and languages, Dr. Rubusana wrote in his native Xhosa, going on to publish Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini (Defend Your Heritage), a compilation of traditional epic poetry, edifying Christian essays and Church history. Walter Sisulu was strongly influenced by this book as it brought home Marcus Garvey’s teachings on the cultural pride and dignity of the African. Walter tried his utmost, although unsuccessfully, to meet with Dr. Rubusana, even traveling to his home.

Walter was likely drawn to the works W.E.B. DuBois through his admiration for Dr. Rubusana, for he would go on later in life to say that the ideals of DuBois had a tremendous influence on him. W.E.B DuBois, an African American, is largely acknowledged for his phenomenal role in authoring one of the foremost scientific treatises in the field of American sociology. Beyond that, Dr. DuBois was a Pan-Africanist who believed in the equality of all races and published several seminal works to that effect. He actively participated in the very first Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900 and played a key role in drafting the famous “Address to the Nations of the World,” which was a letter to world leaders denouncing racism and demanding self-government and political rights for people of African descent all over the world.

Through these influences and so much more, the young Walter would, in 1941, rise to become the co-founder of ANC Youth League, together with Nelson Mandela. In 1949, he was appointed the first full-time Secretary-General of the ANC, a position he held until 1954.

Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were behind the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress. Together with other like minded nationalists, both Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were, in 1963, charged with sabotage and treason.

The influences on Walter Sisulu’s early life were already deeply entrenched, and chains could not rip them away. While in prison, Walter Sisulu earned a bachelor’s degree and was instrumental in the organization of systematic and highly organized political discussions with his peers while they worked in the lime quarry. His lectures on ANC history delivered informally at that time were later turned into a full-fledged course of study.

Walter Sisulu was a man who was hungry for knowledge and who knew the power of cultivating relations with, and working with like-minded people, not from a place of competition but from a place of co-inspiration. He found meaning in the greater good of his community, which transcended any quest for personal enrichment. Walter educated himself by reading books, exposing himself to different ideas and mindsets and interacting with people from across cultures and cadres. Africans of today do have a lot to learn not just from Walter but from the works of the different men who influenced him to become the champion of liberation that he lived to become.

Dr. Chika Esiobu blogs at www.chikaforafrica.com and tweets @indigenizAfrica

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