Sisulu welcomed us into his home in Orlando West with a big hug for each of us. He then led us into a bedroom and found us each a seat. Then the interview began. Throughout the interview, Sisulu answered our questions with freshness, humility and warmth.
When the interview ended, we left quietly. We drove back to the office in silence, each one of us so touched and moved by the meeting that we did not feel like talking. Meeting Walter Sisulu was an honour and a privilege that no words could really describe.
When we finally did speak, it was to talk of the great dignity of the man. Having spent twenty-six years of his life in prison, the former Secretary General of the ANC shows no trace of bitterness. In its place there is only love — and the desire to carry on the struggle in a true fighting spirit. We salute you, Walter Sisulu, a noble man who, together with his comrades, has dedicated his life to a noble struggle.
Below we give you the interview that Learn and Teach conducted with Walter Sisulu.
You spent 26 years in prison. What did the experience do to you? Are you the same man you were all those years ago?
I don’t know. I think I am the same man. Perhaps I have learned to be more tolerant in living with people in jail. A man and wife may quarrel sometimes. So you can imagine what it’s like when you live with a number of people for so many years. You irritate each other with little things… But there is also great friendship. I think one of the greatest experiences is the way you come closer to each other. So, I feel I am the same person, with the only difference being additional qualities of tolerance.
What kind of things did you miss most during all those years in prison?
People. Communication is the most important thing in prison. You want to communicate with people. And you tend to relive your life, think of the past, your childhood, and your dreams. You miss children. You just want to touch a child. That is what I think one misses — communication, talking to people, touching people.
It is quite clear that both you and the other leaders have come out after all these years in very good shape, both mentally and physically. How do you explain this. Has it to do with discipline perhaps? Or early nights, no alcohol, no parties?
No parties, no alcohol, no anything.(laughs) But you’ve got a balanced diet, although it’s detestable. Also, discussions. Political discussions. That also keeps us quite alive. And there were many, of course, who were also studying. And also exercises, physical exercises. Even if you were alone in a room you did exercises. For instance I was using an exercise bicycle given to us by the Red Cross. I was the man who used to really use that bicycle. Later, Nelson also (Mandela) used to use it. And then there was jogging in the yard. Everyday, everyday.
You also live the life of a person who is disciplined. But more than that, you are inspired by the people outside. The little contact you have, the few newspapers you have — these help you to keep in touch with the world.
Prisoners will always find a way to get newspapers. If there’s anything that prisoners will steal it’s newspapers — stealing a newspaper was a profession. The warders actually used to joke: “You can put thousands of rands, leave them there, they will never touch a thing, but if you leave a paper, it will go!”
Could you please tell us how you heard that you were going to be released?
We had just finished our exchanges with Nelson in which he had indicated that they were going to release us. But he didn’t know the date. But that same day, Ramaphosa, Saloojee, my wife and others visited Nelson. When we had finished talking with Nelson, the authorities did not want us to meet the others on their way in, so they hid us in the Victor Verster men’s mess until they had finished with Nelson. As we were waiting in the men’s mess the announcement was made by de Klerk, I think. So we heard it on the TV.
How did you feel at that moment?
I wasn’t excited at all. You see, I had been already separated from the others for eight months. I was sent to the cell where Nelson was before. There, I was in touch with Nelson more regularly than I was when I was with the others. He himself told me they were going to release me. But it seemed that the more powerful forces were opposed to this, especially before the elections, so they decided that I wasn’t going to be released until after the elections.
Could you please describe the process of being released, from hearing that you were to be released to being driven home to Soweto?
Well, we were taken to Jan Smuts Airport by plane and then to Diepkloof Jail. There, they told us that we would be told when we would be released. And then on the 14th (of October), the Commanding officer came to inform us that we would be released on the 15th. He couldn’t tell us the exact time, but it would be on the 15th. Now we were ready to go home. We were woken up at half-past two to get our things, and then we were given our “Certificates of Liberation” and our clothes were loaded and each was driven home separately.
I was brought here by Major Potgieter, a Security Branch man. We spoke a lot on the way and he knew a great deal about the movement, particularly about (Harry) Gwala. He was quite polite and quite a nice man.
Can you describe your thoughts and feelings as you drove from Sun City to your home in Soweto?
I was thinking about one thing: that the people will be waiting.
From the moment you and the other, comrades were released, you’ve been surrounded by well-wishers and supporters, TV people, newspapers and so on. Do you find it difficult?
No, I find it exciting!
What do you think de Klerk hopes to achieve by releasing you and the others?
The way the question is put gives the impression of them releasing us on their own free will. It is not so. They are releasing us because there is pressure internationally and at home. But they could have delayed it. The question of timing has something to do with what they want to achieve. What they wanted to achieve is some sort of lessening of tension with the international forces. That was what was in their minds.
Do you think that de Klerk is different from his predecessor, PW Botha. Is he committed to real change?
No, he’s not different in the sense of real change. But he’s a different man from Botha. He’s more sophisticated and more of a diplomat compared to Botha. Botha was completely crude in his methods and he believed very much in force. He was a man of the army and his language was that of a man of the army. Botha was in fact annoying his own colleagues. De Klerk has shown his ability by unifying the cabinet against Botha himself.
As for the question of commitment to change, it’s not a question of de Klerk himself — it’s the policy of the Nationalist party. They had already committed themselves to some form of reform but de Klerk also wants recognition internationally, and would move more smoothly and perhaps faster in some directions than Botha.
Will they go all the way to a transfer of power?
No! They’ve got a problem with the transfer of power. Usually it’s not an easy thing for a government in power to surrender power. They will surrender a certain amount of power because of pressure. But they still want to retain power — whatever language they use. They say there will be no domination of one group by another, there will be no counting of heads — as is the case with democracy — but instead there will be a counting of ‘groups’. This really means that they want to retain power for the ‘white group’.
And to the common white man it does make some sense. They fear one man one vote will be really surrendering to what they call “black” domination. Now we are not talking about black domination, we are talking of non-racial democracy. We are not counting faces, saying this is dark, this is darker, this is light. We are counting the merits of each person.
There is talk of the government trying to divide the so-called internal ANC from the external ANC. Do you believe this is the case?
Yes. I believe this is so. It was their idea from the start. They want a sort of internal ANC and external ANC with the hope that it will bring about a complete clash between the two. It hasn’t happened in the past and it’s not going to happen. We reject that type of thing out of hand.
There are also claims that the government is trying to cause a split between the so-called nationalists and communists within the ANC?
That has always been their intention. The Nationalist party has for many years used the method of “swart gevaar” and “rooi gevaar”. Sometimes “swart gevaar” becomes a hot issue and sometimes “rooi gevaar”. And they have made the question of communism a big issue because in this way they appear to be allies with countries which do not agree with communism.
What is the position with armed struggle? Does it continue, as usual?
It continues. It will continue like the entire struggle will continue in all its different forms and will even be intensified in some ways because there is no reason not to do so until negotiations bring about a new situation.
At the moment Mandela is meeting with Masemola. This meeting has been dubbed “unity talks” between the ANC and the PAC. Do you hold out any real hope for such unity?
I have been in contact with with Mandela and there is no question that the meeting was initiated by Masemola, not by Mandela. Nelson did not even know what he was going to be talking about. Now, if Masemola does raise the question of unity, Mandela has indicated that he will refer him to the external mission. They will be the right people to deal with the matter. There is a lot of nonsense in the papers, issued largely by the the propagandists of the PAC like Alexander. They are making a big issue of it in the press, even after they’d interviewed me and know that this is not the case.
But as you perhaps know, Mandela did bring about the release of Masemola, who was not one of the Rivonia trialists. The authorities were usually very hostile to Masemola, and it was through Nelson that finally he was released.
Does the ANC have any stated conditions for unity with the PAC?
Well, I can’t answer this question because I am not informed. I would only be able to answer it if I were to visit the ANC in the external mission. The ANC did say at the conference about two years ago that we do want unity. But the clashes which have taken place within the two groups may complicate things.
Turning to the Welcome Home rally in Soweto last week, can you say what it meant to you to be given such an heroic welcome by so many thousands of people?
Well, it meant a great deal. It meant one thing: that there can be no going back. It meant that the people are tired of oppression and that they are looking forward to a new order. There has been no rally of such magnitude in the history of South Africa. I was amazed with the standard of discipline of the 100 000 people. There wasn’t a single incident — not even a bottle thrown.
General Victor saw me a few days before and he said: “Man, I’m worried. What worries me is not so much the rally itself but when the people go home they’ll get excited.” There wasn’t ever that. The people went home quietly, to every part of the country. To me that was absolutely outstanding and amazing.
(Ken) Owen, (the editor of Business Day newspaper), and his like, will say that the rally showed that the ANC has no support. This is a very disgusting approach. It is a low standard of journalism when you say something which you know very well is not true. The truth is, that rally was very important.
In your speech at the rally, you spoke of the ANC as being “the leader in the liberation struggle”. Could you explain what you meant by that?
The African National Congress has been accepted as the leading national liberation movement by the African people since it was established in 1912. At first the ANC was an organisation of only African people. Today there is no one who would doubt that the ANC is the leading organisation, except sometimes perhaps Buthelezi. The people know it, it is so. It has an international reputation and is recognised throughout the world as well as by the people of South Africa.
In your speech you had a special word of praise for the “young lions” of SAYCO. Why is that? Do they perhaps make you think back to when people like yourself, Mandela and Anton Lembede formed the ANC Youth League and changed the ANC from a “gentlemen’s club” into a militant mass-based organisation?
Precisely. I know that the youth will be vigorous in their approach, and that they can even be reckless sometimes — as sometimes we were — but they are the people to sustain the struggle.
In your speech, you also saluted the workers in this country. What is the role of the working class in the struggle?
It is a very important role, especially in a country which is semi-colonial, because the majority of the oppressed people are workers. In South Africa you don’t even have a peasant class, but rather worker-peasants, so really the oppressed people are the working people and they are the most important. For the working class to have grown so strong gives even greater hope to the liberation of this country.
Will you comment on the contribution of COSATU?
COSATU is another amazing mark that I have noted since I have been in jail. In a short space of time, we have seen the working class united under COSATU. I think COSATU alone has over a million members now.
Do you think the position of women has changed since you were imprisoned? Are they now more active in the struggle than they were before. What is your message to them?
I salute them and I say that there is no liberation without women. But, I don’t know if I can say they are better organised today. You must remember that in the 50s women organised over 20 000 people to march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demonstrate against passes. They were organised! But I don’t think women today are less organised. But it has been very difficult to have a unified women’s organisation. They are still working on it and there are still problems of getting it moving, but I think the women are militant. The women are the backbone of the movement.
How did you feel when Ma-Sisulu was elected President of the UDF?
Well, I did not expect it. I was a bit surprised. I knew she was very active, but I didn’t expect that. I knew she was a person of determination and that she would make much of what was given to her. I was only sorry that I had given her less inspiration, or rather less help when I was still free. And I thought I should have done much more. But she has done even better than I could have done.
Are you still very much in love?
Oh! Too much!
In your speech, you express your concern about the violence in Natal, calling it “a blot on our noble struggle for liberation”. Is peace attainable in Natal and what is the best way to achieve such a peace?
Well I think the steps that have been taken — such as the formation of the Peace Committee, consisting of Cosatu, the UDF and Inkatha — is in fact the best way. And if all parties were co-operating, we would come close to achieving peace.
I think that peace is attainable. But, you see, we are dealing not only with the situation in Natal. The ruling class is largely behind the situation. They are using every possible way to manipulate the situation. Vlok (Minister of Law and Order) continuously said in Parliament that the UDF and COSATU, were responsible for the situation in Natal — not Inkatha — even though people produced documents to show what was really happening. He just did not care. Next thing, he was meeting with Buthelezi!
Can you comment on what is happening in Namibia and what a SWAPO victory will mean for South Africa and the ANC?
This is an unprecedented election. The enthusiasm of the people is so great and this great enthusiasm really means a victory for SWAPO. They are more organised and they are the people who are regarded as the leaders.
The elections are a great inspiration to the ANC and to the people of SA. And we look forward to SWAPO winning. After all they’ve been our allies. We’ve worked together under difficult conditions, they’ve been with us in prison, we’ve been working together in the external mission. Many of their plans were made together with us and many of the SWAPO people come from the ANC. They’re almost just different names, SWAPO and the ANC.
Finally, do you think you will see liberation in your lifetime?
Well, I’m hoping that liberation will be in my lifetime. But that doesn’t depend on my wishes — it depends on the concrete situation, the realities that exist. The people are driving forward to freedom. I am quite confident that liberation will come!
NEW WORDS humility — if a person has humility, they do not think they are better or more important than other people tolerance — having patience and not expecting others to behave like you want them to merits— the strong points and qualities of a person an incident — an event, especially where there is violence manipulate a situation — make a situation go the way you want it to