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Saturday, May 10
Second to Mandela? Hardly that
By Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Next Saturday, South Africa will hold its first state funeral since the end of white rule. The gentleman being honored is Walter Sisulu. Though many around the world looked upon this diminutive black man -- called "Tata" (father) by many of his countrymen -- as, at best, second to Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid, Mr. Sisulu was much, much more.
Without dispute, he was the behind-the-scenes strategist of that country's civil rights movement. His stoic, quiet demeanor brought blacks of all backgrounds together in protests against an unjust system. Ultimately, he agreed to violence only after decades of civil protest had failed. This week, Mr. Mandela said of Mr. Sisulu: "He never lost his head in a crisis... He was often silent when others were shouting."
And he was courageous. Under threat of death on the gallows, Mr. Sisulu refused to testify against Mr. Mandela during their 1964 trial for treason. Both men, along with three colleagues, were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz. Upon their release in 1989, the unassuming Mr. Sisulu returned to the black township of Soweto. He rejected all offers to become part of the democratic government elected in 1994.
Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was born into poverty in 1912 in the Transkei homeland of South Africa. His parents were Alice Sisulu, a peasant washerwoman, and Albert Dickinson, a white supervisor sent to the area to supervise black road workers. He was 30 years old when he saw his father for the only time.
A member of the Xhosa tribe, Mr. Sisulu attended a local Anglican missionary school until age 15, when he dropped out to help support his family. Like most black youngsters of that era, he left his village for the "City of Gold," Johannesburg. He worked as a dairyman, a gold miner, a domestic servant, a baker and a factory worker. When he kept getting fired for trying to organize the other black workers to demand fairer treatment, he decided to open his own business, a real-estate office. In 1940, he joined the African National Congress.
In 1941, a tall, impoverished but self-assured Nelson Mandela, fresh from the Transkei, arrived in Johannesburg. He had been told to contact Mr. Sisulu, "a man of connections." Over the next several decades, Mr. Mandela, who was six years younger, came to rely on Mr. Sisulu as mentor, confidant, counselor and friend. Together with Oliver Tambo, who died in 1993, the two men rejuvenated a stagnant ANC that had lost its activist zeal.
For many reasons, all people have cause to mourn Mr. Sisulu's passing. His example disabused Mr. Mandela of the notion that to become a leader one had to have a university degree. In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela said of Mr. Sisulu, who had only a primary school background, that the man had educated himself beyond the level of most people with graduate-school credentials. Still, so great was his respect for formal education that emotionally and financially he supported Mr. Mandela's efforts to earn a bachelor's and a law degree.
If Mr. Mandela was respected, Mr. Sisulu was loved. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this married father of five children and four adopted children is that he chose to endure the degradation and humiliation of apartheid. Like Walter White, the second executive secretary of America's NAACP, Walter Sisulu could have "passed."
In 1950, South Africa adopted the Population and Registration Act and the Group Areas Act, intended to ensure white control of the country. The first law authorized government officials to classify all residents as to race -- White, Indian, Colored or Black -- based on light or dark complexion. In addition, such distinctions as nose size and curliness of hair could determine where one could live and work. These apartheid restrictions, which also allowed removal of blacks from their land to remote areas, often had the effect of separating members of the same family. Some were sentenced to intractable menial, debased status; others were allowed a more human existence.
As a person of mixed race, Mr. Sisulu could have opted for higher status, based on his light complexion and other physical characteristics. Instead, he chose to label himself "black," to fight with other blacks against government-sanctioned racism. To him, any classification other than full citizenship for all South Africans was a mockery of human decency.
If morality reveals itself in the courage to make selfless choices about race, Walter Sisulu, whom Nelson Mandela calls "the true architect of black South African freedom," instructed all of us how to do the right thing.