The sixth edition in Robben Island Museum’s (RIM) series of memorial lectures shone a spotlight on anti-Apartheid struggle hero Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu, under the theme: the enabler, a political and fatherly portrait.
Speaker, author and political activist Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi gave the keynote address at the Westin Hotel on Thursday March 9.
The lectures were launched in 2018, when retired Constitutional Court judge and human rights activist, Albie Sachs, discussed Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the country’s Constitution as the world celebrated Madiba’s centenary, and aims to honour ex-political prisoners and add their voices to the narrative.
Mr Sisulu, a key leader in the African National Congress (ANC) and a political activist, was a confidante and mentor to Mr Mandela.
He was also the co-founder of the ANC Youth League, served 25 years on Robben Island alongside Mr Mandela, and also served as post-apartheid deputy president of the ANC.
RIM CEO, Abigail Thulare, said the lectures were in line with preserving South African history and honouring the heroes who fought for freedom.
“Reflecting on the life and teachings and the sacrifice of Walter Sisulu, one is left with a lump in their throat and is left with deep admiration and respect for a leader who sought not to be placed on a pedestal on the forefront, but led side by side on the trenches, and even from behind.
“He was a close comrade of Nelson Mandela but what is important is the journey they took to get our country to freedom. One can say that today, we find ourselves in a point of this country’s crucial journey to ultimately having a prosperous South Africa.”
During the keynote address, Advocate Ngcukaitobi said much was written of the life of Walter Sisulu as a struggle activist, however, the lecture sought to honour him with the theme: the enabler, a political and fatherly portrait.
Advocate Ngcukaitobi said this year marked 60 years since the Rivonia Trial, which was one of the most consequential trials in the 20th century.
At the trial, Walter Sisulu was charged with treason and sabotage along with Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Wilton Mkwayi, Govan Mbeki and Denis Goldberg.
In 1964, the apartheid regime sentenced them to life imprisonment.
“I would like to suggest that Walter’s evidence in the trial carries with it deep meanings about leadership, personal sacrifice and a commitment to freedom – concepts that are till as relevant today as they were in 1963.”
He said the trial gave Mr Sisulu a chance to envision South Africa, who said the only way was to live together as black and white.
“Those (Rivonia trialists) were the last leaders who stood for an idea, to reject the notion that the world will always be like this. We do not need Walter Sisulu to be alive today, he already gave us 90 years of his life, 26 of which this country kept him in jail, but we need his spirit. We need his commitment, we need his belief in the possibility of change. We need his ability to catalyse even in the most hostile of climates.”
Messages of support and memories of Mr Sisulu were shared by James Urdang, Education Africa CEO and Mr Sisulu’s mentee, and Robben Island council member, Professor Saths Cooper.
Former Tourism Minister, and daughter, Lindiwe Sisulu said it was heartfelt to honour those, including her father, who had given so much to South Africa.
She said upon visiting Robben Island in the last few years, it was painful to see how the struggle stalwarts, including her father, lived and where they slept. She said most of her family were incarcerated on the island along with her father. “We have to make Robben Island a living site, never to forget what people have been through and what was done for us.”
She recalled the day she heard her father was released from prison after 26 years on Robben Island. “I coudn’t believe it.” She said she sought help because she was having a difficult time completing her degree and dealing with the family, and she eventually left university to go see her family.
She recalled that being part of the family was not always a pleasant experience. “I was in prison from the age of 7, and we had gone to toyi-toyi because our parents were arrested.”
She said her father was an anti-corruptionist to the core. “We need to remove the cancer of corruption from our country, especially in the public service.
“Our leaders didn’t die so that a few can benefit, they died so that we can all have our fair share in what South Africa has to offer.”