Responding to the Walter Sisulu Lecture, Celebrating the Legacy of Sisulu

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By: Lindiwe Sisulu

President Mbeki, our sincerest gratitude to you for availing yourself to provide the university community and us your perspective and insights. It is perhaps also a historical one that we together celebrate in conscious reflection on our leader Walter Sisulu. I am confident the student community will be seized with the analysis of your speech plausibly for the rest of the academic year.

To the students of Walter Sisulu University, whose initiative this is and remains. When the family was first approached to give its name to the University, there was a great deal of controversy around naming institutions like this one after people. The then Minister of Higher Education then, Professor Kader Asmal, vehemently opposed this practice. Asmal’s contention centred on the notion that it in a historical setting had not proven good practice. He, in addition, remonstrated practices of this nature were bereft of supporting research that it yielded the aspirational results that initially were intended. There were, of course, several other interpretations and arguments. However, what finally prevailed was, this is an institution that predominantly caters for the very people that Walter Sisulu represented.

A constituency and people defined as inferior mainly disadvantaged rural, underprivileged black students. We were convinced then that he would have agreed to his name being associated in usage because these are the people closest to his heart, those who mirror his upbringing. Furthermore, that if any meaningful change were to come to this country, these would be the people to drive that change. These are the people who would put others first. No conditions were laid out when we acceded to give the name. The rest is history.

Notwithstanding the acknowledged reality and complexities and challenges as rightfully outlined by Advocate Ngcukaitobi, chairperson of the Council, in December 2020, we are satisfied that there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It has probably been said to you before, but this comes from us, his children. We are very proud of this man; we are very proud of the generation of Rivonia trialists, a generation that included  Anton Lembede, Oliver Reginald Tambo, Duma Nokwe and many more. They detail a generation that set a standard in scaling the heights far ahead of their time. In short, they were a phenomenal generation.

A generation that gave us the foundation of our principles: the Freedom Charter. Perhaps a less commonly known fact is that the man after which your university is named played a daring and critical role as one of the members of the organising committee that met in secret and under constant threat to organise the gathering that would become known as the Congress of the People.

In this sense, what is written in the Charter and adopted by the people as a foundational document that would guide us into the future were words already registered in the heart of Walter Sisulu and lived out in commitment sacrifice in a life dedicated to freedom? It is a rich heritage predicated on a diaphragm of critical values and an unswerving commitment left for new generations.

In this context, the Walter Sisulu Lecture is an initiative of the students because you sense the need for knowledge to fill the gaps left by how history is being written and articulated. Gaps in history leave dark places of ignorance and disempowerment. They leave whole generations in the dark about where they come from, who held the torch before them, what inspired those gone before them, and what makes them strong today. Walter Sisulu’s life is about all this, about standing for a cause, a way of doing politics, about self-giving sacrifice, about unreserved love for his people. That is a light that shines upon the dark places in our history, our way of doing politics, and upon this new generation. That is the light the life and work of my father shine upon this generation, and it is in that light that I stand here today.

A moment ago, I used the word “selflessness.”  At the funeral of my father, Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu shared the following: “I want to declare loud and clear that after a life so exemplary, so inspiring, we are filled with deep thankfulness. We have come to celebrate a wonderful life poured out so unselfishly on behalf of others.” It is a quality our people have embraced for as long as anyone can remember, and it has enriched our lives immeasurably. But it is something that has become rare in our political and communal life, now more marked by selfishness and self-centeredness. But it is a value Walter Sisulu had clung to tenaciously as he mentored those comrades younger than himself. Comrades such as SA’s first democratically elected President, Nelson R. Mandela. He could have kept his knowledge for himself, used his experience to build his career in the organisation. Still, he shared selflessly, bringing out the best in others, nurturing their gifts and talents, and living an example of dedication from which others learnt. In that too, I am my father’s child. I urge the young scholars here today: gather as much knowledge as you can, learn the ways the world works, not to emulate, but to critique, weigh and judge; share this with others so that together we can face the onslaughts, withstand the temptations, and build a nation.

The people have heard and understood Albert Luthuli as he told us that “Somewhere ahead there beckons a civilisation, a culture, which will take its place in the parade of God’s history beside other human syntheses…It will not necessarily be all black, but it will be African.” So South Africans today continue to fight for that nonracial, inclusive, profoundly African society even in the face of continued racism, narrow ethnic nationalisms, new black nativism, and revived tribalism that can only lead to disaster if left unchecked. These were Luthuli’s words, but they would have remained the musings of a lonely prophet had they not been embraced, given life and a future by a hopeful, determined people.

The hope I am speaking of is not the optimism of wishing-well politics. It is grounded in the history of struggle. This year marks the 66th anniversary of one of the most remarkable political moments in South African history when the people came together in Kliptown. This meeting brought together over 3000 delegates from civil society and political formations, from every religious community, from across the country, white and black, to write and adopt the Freedom Charter, one of the most important political documents of the twentieth century. The Congress and the historic document that was its handiwork express, most profoundly, the resilient, uplifting hope of the people set against the dismal, hope-less politics of apartheid.  Apartheid, which had become the official policy of the land in 1948, was beginning to tighten its grip on every aspect of life in South Africa. From the start, this process would be relentless. At Kliptown, the people responded, with righteous anger but not with hatred; with utter disdain for legalised racism but with no thought of racism in return; with the unequivocal rejection of the society that was being forced into shape but with an unerring eye on the alternative society they dreamed of and worked for. So, against all the realities of apartheid, against the distorted imaginings of white superiority and black inferiority; and in the face of white dispossession of their land, their dreams, and of their future, they spoke through the Freedom Charter:

South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people… that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood… without distinction of colour, sex or belief… And therefore, we, the People of South Africa, declare…

This was a moment of incredible political insight, but even more: it was a moment of untrammelled, defiant hope. The Freedom Charter is an irrevocable exposure of the evil of apartheid. Every phrase is a devastating critique of the political, sociological, and moral suppositions of apartheid; every sentence is a ringing condemnation of the political, social, and economic intentions of apartheid; every word a resounding declaration of resistance against the politics of apartheid. In one single paragraph, the fundamental truths about genuine democracy are held up as a scorching judgment of apartheid South Africa:

It exposes and rejects the foundational distortions and fallacies of apartheid: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it…”

It stipulates the essential requirement for legitimate governmental authority: there is no true government without the consent of the governed.

It spells out the difference between naked power and legitimised authority.

It unmasks apartheid’s political heresies by holding on to the belief in the strength of a common humanity responsive to, responsible for and accountable to one another, and to the belief in the power and necessity of a nonracial, inclusive democracy based on equality and reconciled diversity.

Let us hear Sisulu in his prism of what the Charter stands for: “Once our people understand the Charter and its significance, the attainment of economic and political power in our lifetime – nothing can stand in the way of making it demands a reality.”

That is why the Charter is such a credible example of what M. M. Thomas of India meant when he spoke of the power of the people as “the bearer of dignity and for significant participation in the shaping of their own history.”  In life, praxis and epistemology, Walter Sisulu understood what that meant and how to translate that into genuine service to the people. It means that we not after power for power’s sake, that we understand that power should never be power over others, which quickly leads to abuse, but power shared with others. That is the power that seeks to empower those left disempowered by oppression and exploitation. That is why Walter Sisulu said, “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” In this, I am my father’s child.

In its judgment on apartheid and its claim on the altogether different vision of the future, the Charter did one other, profound thing. It wrested power from the hands of the powerful oppressor and placed it firmly in the hands of the powerless people, thereby empowering the people beyond measure. Apartheid may have shaped the past; it may have a stranglehold on the present, but it shall have no right to fashion the future. That right belongs to the people.

 

In claiming that right, the Charter, in ways we may not yet have fully understood or appreciated, gave the people the power and authority of authentic speech. It is speech vested in the will of the people, a choice to freedom now being asserted over against the willful arbitrariness of apartheid. The emperors of ancient Rome proclaimed, “All is mine to the decree.” Those were decrees backed by the merciless violence of the empire, always against the people’s interests, disdainful of the hopes of the people, destructive of the lives of the people. A decree announced in the arrogant assurance that the people could not withstand it, change it, or rise in resistance against it. These were decrees that always benefited the rich and powerful, the privileged inner circles of imperial patronage.

 

In like fashion, against the people’s will, against the common good, and against the yearnings of the future, the architects and builders of apartheid decreed its laws, its crimes, and its inhumanity. Now, through the Charter, the people assert their will, and the people declare. And it is a declaration of the will to hope, life, and freedom. That is the power of transformed and transformative speech. It is the language of revolt, the grammar of hope, creating space for the politics of freedom, completely undermining the certitudes of apartheid by making them a site of struggle and creative contestation.

In this sense, the organising of the Congress of People as a historical reality was possibly Walter Sisulu’s proudest moment in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1956.   I am telling you this to be continuously inspired by this generation that gave up their lives.

I wish for you a spirit of renewal.   I wish for you the courage and determination to justifiably claim back what is your heritage and make all of us proud one day soon. Raise yourselves to that challenge and be that which will propel this country forward. Consciously refuse to be associated with anything that does not take South Africa forward. Imagine him looking down on you. Remove the frown on his face: imagine him saying: I am proud of you. Yet if we are here because of the initiative of the student body of the University, we must equally also remind our academic staff and personnel also to strive to make the values of Walter Sisulu count as a daily reality.

It was a moment that shifted the power from those sitting on the thrones of racist presumption to the people walking in the shadows of the light: in the shadow of painful struggle, but in the light of confident solidarity; in the shade of sacrificial suffering but the light of contagious courage; in the shadow of constant contestation and temptations of betrayal, but in the light of unstoppable freedom. This is the hopeful politics the people have bestowed as a gift to every generation, and this is the politics that should inspire us now, at this moment of new and renewed struggles.

It is good to remind ourselves that the Freedom Charter is a living document. That means it is meant to be a guide to new generations as we move forward. I am not unaware of the criticism levelled at the Freedom Charter, and none more heavily than at those first words of the Charter: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it …” This is not the place for a complete discussion about those debates but allow me to make two quick points.

Some take these words to mean that the indigenous peoples of South Africa, in saying this, have surrendered their ownership of the land.  Nothing can be further from the truth. The Freedom Charter can never be separated from the people who gave rise to it: the oppressed, dispossessed, and disinherited people of South Africa. They are the ones who fought for the land, from the first attempts by the Portuguese in 1510, by the Dutch in 1654 and 1657 and those 178 years of resistance against colonialism. Even though history tells us that in the end, they lost those first battles against imperialism, the inalienable truth of the fundamental claims has remained unchanged: this is the land of our ancestors, and it is the land of their offspring. The Freedom Charter, born on the waves of a new militancy, gives notice that the struggle for the land continues, that political magnanimity must not be confused with abdication; that our desire for a nonracial, democratic community must not be confused with resignation to colonialist “facts on the ground.” It is not the Freedom Charter that has given space to the infamous Article 25 in our Constitution: it is, instead, an ongoing desire to sustain colonialist arrangements. The Freedom Charter did not legitimate that desire, and it is being challenged today by a new generation.

Second, considering this, the cry, “Land expropriation without compensation”, is not acceptable. It might sound radical, but in fact, it is not. I agree with Tariq Patric Mellet; the aggressor colonialist confiscated land from Africans without compensation. The real victims seek restorative justice to return land unjustly and brutally stolen from the original owners of the land. And it is on these terms that we would want to see the debate move forward.

These, among other things, are vital issues the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not address.  There was, in fact, no natural social justice, no authentic restoration – not of land, nor of history, nor of the dignity of our people. These are issues that need to be addressed as we move forward.

When we celebrate the life and times of Walter Sisulu, although often not cited in our political discourse, we are confronted with hearing him in naked relevance of this hour when he prophetically reminds us. The people are our strength. In their service, we shall face and conquer those who live on the backs of our people.  in the history of mankind, it is a law of life that problems arise when their conditions are there for their solutions.”

It is said that no one is indispensable. And in the long curve of life and the cycles of endings and new beginnings, I suppose that is true. But I believe it is only valid if there is no example to follow, no life to emulate, no star to guide, no legacy to honour. So, in the long run, we may find that all the heroes of our past, too, are not indispensable. But what remains more authentic than this is the fact that they are and always will be unforgettable. What they have been will always be in our hearts, and what they have done will always guide us toward what we should do if this struggle continues.

What counts is what we do when we are alive, and that is what makes us indispensable. Indispensable for the moment in which we live, for no one can do what we must do for ourselves. No one can make us believe what we know to be untrue, so no one can tell us we cannot be strong, we cannot be courageous, we cannot be faithful to our cause, our people, and our God. No one can make us forget that if there is pain and suffering, rejection and exclusion, injustice and violence inflicted upon the vulnerable, there is something to fight for. And no one can make us forget what we are called to do in this moment of our times, making us indispensable. This is what joins indispensability to unforgettability. What makes the heroes and heroines of our past unforgettable are that they remind us that we, too, can be as indispensable, and we, too, can be as memorable. This moment is such a moment.

 

“There are no short-cuts. There are no easy answers. There are no complete formulas. Only continuous campaigning among the people, with a continuous response to their own activities, taking them a step forward each time, can lead us to our goal.” as Sisulu cautioned us.

These are the values and ethics that Walter and Albertina Sisulu bequeathed us, and I intend to make them always stand at a personal and public level.

Thank You

Lindiwe N. Sisulu