Item 963 - Xhamela is no more : Tribute to Walter Sisulu

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Xhamela is no more : Tribute to Walter Sisulu


  • 2003-05-05 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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Death of Walter Sisulu

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  • English

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Xhamela is no more. May he live forever!

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 the valley of death, nursing each other’s bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom.

From the moment when we first met he has been my friend, my brother, my keeper, my comrade.

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 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.

There was Anton Lembede, who held Master of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees; a fiery personality espousing a militant African nationalism. There was Peter “AP” Mda with a keen analytical mind. Where Lembede was prone to heady, almost mystical flights of ideas, AP was sparing and judicious with words, a model of simplicity and clarity. There were Oliver Tambo with his sharply mathematical mind, Dr Lionel Majombozi, Victor Mbobo, William Nkomo a medical student, Jordan Ngubane a journalist, David Bopape and so many others. Out of that ferment of ideas and personalities was born the idea of the ANC Youth League.

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 the centre of our being together. 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. When we established the ANCYL in 1944 we elected Walter treasurer. When in 1949 we radicalized the ANC with the adoption of the militant Programme of Action, we elected Walter the Secretary General of the ANC. In 1952 when we planned and launched the Defiance Campaign during which almost 8 500 volunteers courted and went to prison, Walter, with Yusuf Cachalia, was the joint secretary of the National Action Council. When we founded Umkhonto We Sizwe in 1961, Walter was on the High Command.

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 OR to take up the post as the Secretary General. He never asked of others what he was not prepared to do himself.
Rivalry between organizations was to be expected in prison. Many among us prisoners were perceived to be leaders of one or other organization. But all prisoners saw Xhamela as the leader of all of us, irrespective of the organization one belonged to – a leader of the entire people.

Since the birth of democracy many among us have travelled the world and received numerous awards acclaiming one’s leadership. With or without any such awards Walter’s status as a national leader is beyond challenge.

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 ANCYL from a position of militant African nationalism. Our first objective was to radicalize the ANC, to shape it into militant leader of the African people mobilized into mass struggle. I have often told the anecdote about how the three of us – Xhamela, Oliver Tambo and I – went to a joint meeting determined to force the calling off of the joint Votes for All Campaign, which we felt had been pre-empted by the Communist Party and thus undermined the leading role of the ANC; how Xhamela broke rank and supported the continuation of the campaign once Ismail Meer acknowledged our criticisms and appealed for the campaign to continue in the interests of the larger good. In recounting the story I always made Walter the butt of our jokes and told how OR and I walked on one pavement, leaving Walter to walk alone on the other, as we headed for Park Station to make our way home. In the telling I make out that Walter broke ranks because Ismail flattered Walter once Walter wavered in the face of Ismail’s ready acceptance of our criticisms.

It is time to make amends, though Walter, without fail, endured my telling the anecdote with a chuckle and a sharp repartee. Xhamela shifted because he had an abiding idea of what the ANC should become. He 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. More than the flattery, it was Ismail’s appeal not to allow mistakes made in the launching of the campaign to confuse the people by calling off the campaign that found a resonance in Walter’s core ideas.

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 has made them a very special couple who have moved together in thought and action at all times. Because they as a couple were totally giving of themselves, they have at all times been 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 of his favourite songs we sang when mobilizing people behind the Freedom Charter:

Libhaliwe na iGama lakho
kuloMqulu weNkululeko
Vuma silibhale kuloMqulu
(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.)

N R Mandela
5 May 2003

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Acquisition method: From hard drive ; Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation Prof J Gerwel. Accessioned on 25/04/08 by Razia Saleh




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