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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and Tata Walter Sisulu
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (R) embraces Tata Walter Sisulu

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Remembering Walter Sisulu, Mentor to Nelson Mandela and Father of South Africa's Liberation

By Kate Tuttle

Nelson Mandela is now the only one left. Of the three-man partnership that forged the African National Congress into a revolutionary tool for liberating black South Africans — then transformed it into a ruling party of the continent's most successful democracy — Mandela now stands alone. Oliver Tambo, the professor and strategist, who held the ANC together during long years in exile, died in 1993.

And now Walter Sisulu, who brought Mandela in to the party in the 1940s and continued mentoring him the next half century, has passed on to history. While his name will never be as famous as Mandela's, Sisulu's role in South Africa's liberation is hard to overstate. It was Sisulu who recruited Tambo and Mandela, whom he met in Johannesburg in 1941 when the younger man was a newcomer to the city, into the newly formed ANC Youth League. Before long the young lions had transformed the organization from its roots as a mostly middle-class intellectual and philosophical movement to a powerful political force that took on South Africa's apartheid government, launching acts of civil disobedience, partnering with other ethnic constituencies, and adopting, in 1955's Freedom Charter, perhaps the most progressive political document of the 20th century.

Walter Sisulu, whose work with South Africa's Communist Party and Indian Congress had helped convince him of the power of multiracial coalitions, was the man who helped Mandela and others cling to this ideal even as they endured decades of imprisonment on Robben Island. Called by one of his ANC colleagues "the organization's encyclopedia in prison," Sisulu was the man, both wise and humane, whom Mandela relied on above all others. To emerge from nearly 30 years in prison still committed to fairness and equality — still believing in the concept of justice — was a genius shared by both men. In prison, Sisulu told reporters, "it was not possible to despair" because "the spirit of the people outside was too great."

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First published: May 6, 2003
Excerpted from full-length article and reprinted with permission from Africana.com

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