A quiet engine of change


IF YOU ever think about being tired, think about Walter Sisulu. Sisulu is 79. His days and nights are spent driving and flying to meetings. His midnights and pre-dawn hours are often spent hopping in a car to quell township disturbances. Too often, his destination is the funeral of a young person.

His only admitted sources of relaxation are listening to choral music and visits with his grandchildren. When asked what was the last book he has read, he laughed. He has not read one lately. He did his reading in nearly three decades in prison. Despite the nights of putting back together loose pages of his dictionary after games of Scrabble, he probably remains incapable of spelling the word "vacation."

A classic Sisulu story is that within a few days after he was released from prison in 1989, he was perturbed by the sight of a young man standing outside his home. Sisulu did not know the man was guarding his home and asked him why he was not in school instead of loitering.

"For the time being," Sisulu said on a Boston visit this fall, "destiny decides that I am one who is there to help the situation. When the situation changes, I will perhaps will relax."

Nelson Mandela is the undisputed worldwide symbol for the struggle to end South African white minority rule over its black majority. Mandela is in the U.S. this week, lining up investment in a post-apartheid South Africa. Sisulu is a deputy president of the African National Congress who has always been comfortable being a quiet engine.

Sisulu is the son of a woman who washed clothes for white families. He worked in mines, factories, white kitchens and a bakery, where he was fired in 1940, at the age of 28, for organizing workers. All the time, he took correspondence courses, and he eventually started a real estate agency.

In the early 1940s, he gave Mandela a job, gave him money for his college correspondence courses, purchased the suit he wore for graduation, and introduced him to white lawyers. By the mid-1940s, the two of them were part of a young group who wanted the ANC to move toward civil disobedience, worker strikes and consumer boycotts.

In 1949, Sisulu was named ANC secretary general. He said, "As long as I enjoy the confidence of my people, and as long as there is a spark of life and energy in me, I shall fight with courage and determination for the abolition of discriminatory laws and for the freedom of all South Africans."

In 1964, he and Mandela and several others were sentenced to life in prison for government treason. In prison, Sisulu's job was to politically educate inmates to the history of South Africa and the ANC. He did so with a gentle style that made him become known as the uncle figure of the ANC. His family is intimately involved in ending apartheid. His wife, Albertina, was once banned from public gatherings. A journalist son, Zwelakhe, was jailed for two years on no charges.

Sisulu remains the uncle figure today. "I suppose," he said, "it is because I have always considered myself available. Some of the young members want arms. We are trying to get spears banned. I tell them that we believe in self-defense, but 'you're not in the government yet. You are not in the army or the police.' "

Sisulu moves around with almost none of the fanfare of Mandela. Mandela's tour of the U.S. last year attracted hundreds of thousands of people to stadiums and motorcades. Sisulu's visit in Boston, to raise money and remind people -- amid the volumes of news about Eastern Europe -- that the white government is still enforcing apartheid and encouraging violence among black people, was marked by a private visit with politicians and a reception with about 200 die-hard activists. That is how one 79-year-old person spends the autumn of his life.

"I sometimes feel we don't do enough," Sisulu said. "We are at a critical stage in my country. Nobody should think that the positive changes that have occurred are irreversible. It is incorrect to say we are reaching a peace. My task is to educate people."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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