A perfect example of the enigmatic genetic whirlpool at the tip of the African continent and the forces that have shaped the country, the birth of Walter Sisulu is one of the most tantalising events of his time.
Born on May 18, 1912 to Alice Mase Sisulu, a relative of Nelson Mandela's first wife, Evelyn Mase, this revered statesmen and symbol of the apartheid struggle, who served 26 years behind bars and on Robben Island for his commitment to freedom, was the product of what was seen as a scandalous union at the time.
His mother, who refused to give credence to the unspoken colour and gender barriers before apartheid became official in 1948, left her rural home in Qutubeni, Transkei, to work in white homes and entered into a long-term relationship with a white man, Albert Victor Dickinson. Though no reason is given in the Sisulus' biography ‘In Our Lifetime', Walter's daughter-in-law Elinor says the couple chose not to marry when Walter was born. Four years later the couple had another child, Rosabella.
The boy child was christened Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu at the Anglican All Saints Mission near Qutubeni – a tantalising clue that invites investigation, as the Ulyate family was a well-known 1820 Settler family that farmed in the Eastern Cape.Though he was aware of the existence of his father, who Elinor suggests wanted to adopt him, Dickinson played no role in Walter's upbringing. Walter and Rosabella were raised by his mother's extended Hlakule/Sisulu family, who were descended from the royal Thembu clan that traces its genealogy 20 generations back to King Zwide. All that is known of Albert Victor Dickinson, whom Walter only met a few times, is that he was born on July 9, 1886, and was the son of Albert Edward Dickinson of Port Elizabeth. Elinor says there were conflicting oral reports as to whether he was a road supervisor or a magistrate, but he worked in the Railway Department of the Cape Colony from 1903 to 1909 and was transferred to the Office of the Chief Magistrate in Umtata in 1910.
Walter Sisulu died on May 5, 2003, a week short of his 91st birthday. He is buried in Croesus Cemetery, Newclare, Johannesburg. His wife, Albertina, herself an important icon in the struggle years, lives in Johannesburg.
Article written by: Sharon Marshall
The Sisulu wedding, 1944. (Standing on the left is Nelson Mandela. The pretty bridesmaid next to him is Evelyn Mase, Mandela's future wife.)
(With kind permission from South African History Online.)
Source: SESA (Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa)
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