07 May 2003
Nelson Mandela: Farewell to a friend and a comrade in arms.
By ancestry, I was born to rule. Sisulu helped me understand my real vocation to be a servant of the people
Xhamela [Sisulu's tribal name] is no more. His absence has carved a void. A part of me is gone.
Our paths first intersected in 1941. During the past 62 years our lives have been intertwined. We shared the joy of living, and the pain. Together we shared ideas, forged common commitments. We walked side by side through danger and tribulation, nursing each other's bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom.
His passing was not unexpected. We had long passed the age when either of us would protest against the brevity of life. At the end of the Rivonia trial in 1964, when we faced the prospect of the death sentence, we knew, we resolved to walk the plank, not protesting our innocence, but proclaiming the justness of our ideals and the certainty of their triumph. I know he planned to meet the hangman with a song on his lips.
Yet a silence engulfs me, an emptiness creeps in my being. He would not want it that way. He would want me to exorcise this emptiness by looking back on our lives so that we may look ahead with greater resolve and optimism.
By ancestry, I was born to rule. Xhamela helped me to understand that my real vocation was to be a servant of the people.
I was drawn inexorably into his circle of friends. We would gather at his Orlando home. His mother was always able to feed us, hordes of us. We nourished ourselves on our conversation – a pot of boiling ideas about freeing our people from bondage, about placing Africa on a pedestal.
Whenever I cast my mind back I am struck by Xhamela's qualities. He had little formal education – he left school after standard four. But he was deep in that circle. His home was our gathering place. He held his own; he interacted with ease and without a trace of inferiority. He was attracted to each of us, yet he was the magnet that drew us all together.
That was his hallmark: an ability to attract and work together with highly competent and talented young men, a ready sounding board for ideas. He was a powerful influence who exuded respect for their talents, and a born diplomat.
He was courageous, and his quiet self-confidence and clarity of vision marked him out as a leader among us. However, he neither sought nor wielded his authority by virtue of office. He was ever ready to draw others into leadership. When he was banned by the apartheid regime from holding office in the ANC, he smoothed the way for Oliver Tambo to take up the post as the Secretary General. He never asked of others what he was not prepared to do himself.
Rivalry between organisations was to be expected in prison. Many among us prisoners were perceived to be leaders of one or other organisation. But all prisoners saw Xhamela as the leader of all of us, irrespective of the organisation one belonged to – a leader of the entire people.
Since the birth of democracy, many among us have taken up high office, travelled the world and received numerous awards from all over the globe acclaiming one's leadership. Walter Sisulu did not become a member of parliament, a cabinet minister or a president, and neither has he been showered with awards and decorations as others have been. Yet he towers above all of us with his humility and intrinsic dignity, which needs no extra decorations to proclaim it.
When one lives as closely as Walter and I have, it is easy to take each other for granted. I felt secure in the knowledge that he would be there for me.
In a peasant society a person walking with a stout stick, a staff – longer than an ordinary walking stick and lesser than a pole – is a common sight. One always has it around. It aids one maintain a steady, firm gait. It is a crutch one leans on, helps you not to falter in your walk. It is also a weapon to help one defend oneself against any unforeseen danger that may arise in the journey. With it one feels secure and safe.
Such was Xhamela to me. He was blessed with that quality that always saw the good in others, and therefore he was able to bring out that goodness. He had an inexhaustible capacity to listen to others, and therefore he was able to encourage others to explore ideas.
Of course, there were moments when I found him vexing and frustrating. I grew into the idea of an ANC Youth League from a position of militant African nationalism. Our first objective was to radicalise the ANC, to shape it into militant leader of the African people mobilised into mass struggle.
Xhamela firmly held to the view that the ANC should be a uniting force of the African people. Only this would shape the platform for the ANC to claim the leadership and unite all the oppressed against the system of white minority rule. Today the ANC and through it the African people are able and required to set the tone and national agenda for our country. The real challenge is to formulate and present this in a way that unites all South Africans – black and white – to share and work together in the common objective of eradicating poverty and creating a prosperous, non-racist and non-sexist South Africa. Walter's vision of an ANC that unites and constantly expands its support across South African society remains as valid today as is was at that time.
There were also times when Xhamela and I crossed swords in the National Executive Committee of the ANC. At times the clashes were so sharp that some of the comrades were taken aback. Such incidents happened before we went to prison, while we were in prison and even after we came out of prison. We had grown up and lived in the strong culture of vigorous debate in the ANC. None of these sharp exchanges were allowed to harm our friendship and the bonds that held us in the ANC. In fact when we differed with each other or another comrade, we in the ANC would go out of our way to draw the one we differed with closer into the ANC. Walter, as Secretary General of the ANC went out of his way to cultivate such a culture of vigorous debate, free of any trace of vindictiveness.
Despite the pain of struggle, Walter in his inimitable way would claim that life has been bounteous to him. First and foremost he would claim the gift of a lifelong partnership with his wife, Albertina, and their family.
Living one's beliefs, combined with a generosity of spirit, are qualities that both Walter and Albertina shared. It made them a very special couple who moved together in thought and action at all times. Because they as a couple were totally giving of themselves, they were at all times secure in their relationship.
Above all, he would claim the gift, the privilege, of having lived to see freedom reign in South Africa.
In a sense I feel cheated by Walter. If there be another life beyond this physical world, I would have loved to be there first so that I could welcome him. Life has determined otherwise. I now know that when my time comes, Walter will be there to meet me, and I am almost certain he will hold out an enrolment form to register me into the ANC in that world, cajoling me with one his favourite songs we sang when mobilising people behind the Freedom Charter:
Has your name been enrolled
in the struggle for freedom
Permit us to register you
in the struggle for freedom.
I shall miss his friendship and counsel. Till we meet again, Hamba kahle, Xhamela. Qhawe la ma Qhawe. (Go well, Rest in Peace, Xhamela. Hero among heroes.)
by Nelson Mandela
The independent / UK