Remembering Walter Sisulu

On the 101th anniversary Xhamela’s (Walter Sisulu’s clan-name) birth on 18 May 1912, his family remembers him fondly.

First Published in City Press 19 May 2013. Amended since


If I didn’t know better, I would think the common image of a good-natured, warm and ever-smiling revolutionary was no more than publicity for the victorious…

But I saw it first-hand in a man I was lucky enough to call Tat’omKhulu (granddad)

As a laaitie (little boy), visiting his office on the 10th floor of the majestic Shell House, the headquarters of the ANC after its unbanning in the early 1990s, was always a treat because no matter how serious the time, or the issues they discussed behind those huge closed doors, he would always emerge with a wide grin and his trademark jocular disposition.

It is one of the hallmarks of a remarkable man, and I have come to appreciate it more as I get older and get weighed down by the seriousness of it all. Often, it feels like there isn’t a reason to smile about anything. And yet, we have our liberty.

My cousin Zoya shared with me her earliest memories of Tat’omKhulu. They were of visiting him at Pollsmoor Prison.

The trip there was always difficult and peppered with harassment. But all of those feelings washed away when he walked in.

She and fellow grandkids Moyikwa and Nwabi would clamber all over him before turning him into a human guinea pig, mixing different concoctions of Cup-a-Soup ­flavours for him to taste.

“Of course, this was always with lots of laughter and that gentle smile – all his love and generosity concentrated in those short visits.”

Vuyelwa, another cousin, remembers how he used to listen, deeply, attentively to every word. And this was whether you were relating a ­story to him, telling him of your woe or simply reading to him.

She would come home from class and join him on the veranda. He would sit back and close his eyes as she read Long Walk to Freedom to him (Nelson Mandela’s Biography), interrupting occasionally to explain things. And perhaps letting her know he was still very much awake.

They would sit there until the sun went down and the shuffle of Gogo’s slippers preceded her voice calling them in for supper.

Many of his grandchildren will tell you about reading for him, and then him drawing them into an analytical discussion about the newspaper article they had just read. I’m informed that is how they began ­political training in the old days.

When my older cousin Ginyi read Tat’omKhulu’s biography to him, Ginyi was amazed at how much he ­remembered, and the clarity with which he recalled details of events many decades ago.

He had an incredible memory. Our grandmother would often use him as her memory bank, referring certain questions we had about the past to him.

The relationship between our grandparents was also quite illustrative of the man he was. Ginyi goes on to tell the following story:

One Saturday morning on one of Gogo and Sis’Nkuli’s (their youngest daughter) monthly grocery shopping trips I drive all three of them there.

Tatomkhulu comments on the hot weather and suggests he might prefer to wait in the car for grocery shoppers, in a swift but firm tone Thole says ” hayi Tata kushushu apha ngaphandle awno hlala emotweni (it’s too hot to stay in the car)”

Sis’Nkuli quickly comes to the rescue and suggest I stay with him at one of the restaurants as they shop.

Left alone, grandfather and grandson have a very casual chat on what is going on in school friends plans, which made me wonder if sometimes he just wanted to know us better by asking those question and he would listen very attentively almost as if he was reliving what you are telling him in his mind.

Tatomkhulu indicates that he is thirsty so standup to buy a bottle of water for him, at the counter I buy his water and 2 Ice creams, as I approach the table and put the bottle of water in front of him and hand in the second ice cream, he hesitates for a second and says your grandmother would never allow me to eat that( the ice cream that is) as I sit down he beckons for it with the biggest sneaky smile, the only thing that was left of him to do would be to rub his hands in anticipation.

He reached out for his ice cream still keeping that ( I’m going to enjoy that ice cream) smile on his face. He takes the first lick and cracks out laughing with that familiar Xhamela high pitched laugh, I laugh too which makes him laugh even more with every lick.

Half way through his ice cream and laughter he says “your grandmother must not know about this”  I’m sworn to secrecy. Very little is said during his very clearly enjoyable ice cream experience and laugh combination. Once he had finished cone and all he comments with “that was very good” still with a smirk on his face like a naughty little school boy. 

LovebirdsGogo and Sis’Nkuli return he still has a big smile on his face, the inevitable question “Tata wancuma Ka Ngaka (what a big smile you have!)”


I don’t quite recall what he said but Gogo seemed fine with the responds. We pack the groceries in the car and leave. For some reason he still had that naughty smile on his face Gogo began to ask ” yitoni Ke” she had not even finished her question Tatomkhulu replied “U Ginyi undiphe i-ice cream (Ginyi gave me ice-cream!” 

HAW! I thought I was sworn to secrecy.  

What a beautiful story neh. And there are tones more in our collective treasure trove of memories.

As a family, a fortnight ago, we recalled the day of his passing a decade ago, but this weekend we recall the anniversary of his birth a century and a year ago. And we recalled it by reflecting on some of the many attributes that made him the man he was.

I hope South Africans will join us in remembering the authenticity of this gentle giant. Surely this must be the how he was able to remain grounded regardless of how bad things were or how much influence and power he was privileged with.

More Importantly, for us today, I hope we remember how he chose to be all these things, and so can we too.

Long Live the Spirit of Walter Sisulu, Long Live!

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