Growing Pains: Remembering grandpa

2014-05-18 15:00

It was exactly 102 years ago that my hero was born.

Today, more than a decade after his passing, Walter Sisulu rests in higher esteem in my mind than at any other time since I first idolised him, when he and his comrades stared down at me from a black and green 1983 calendar with the words “free our leaders” etched in yellow across the top.

I was four yet I understood how he was willing to sacrifice his life for our cause. And that made me proud. Now, three decades on, I understand how he lived his life with integrity and honour, and that makes me even prouder.

And sad – because I understand it is the exception, not the norm. Today, integrity and honour are not prerequisites for leading people. They are hollow words political actors throw around, like those others: “revolution”, “diverse” and “with the people”.

We’ve all heard the stories of Sisulu meeting Nelson Mandela, and the latter being impressed because Sisulu was a big shot real estate agent. While Mandela admired Sisulu’s secretary (apparently a rare sighting), he marvelled at how he’d come by “the leader of our people”.

History tells us this wasn’t just a fleeting impression. He worked alongside Mandela until the end – guiding his protégé, protecting his comrade, elevating his leader.

Casting my jaded eye on our body politic today, I am amazed at how far we’ve gone astray. Leadership today is cynical. It exists for the edification of the “master” and woe is the apprentice that dares think his own thoughts.

Today, our elders use the youth as mouthpieces, shields, stepping stones and fluffers of their egos.

Sisulu wasn’t devoid of ego. Wanting to change the world suggests you do think highly of yourself. A story that his daughter-in-law biographer captured beautifully was of one of the first times he faced trouble with the law.

He was on a train home when he came to the rescue of a young lady being harassed by a ticket official. Official and grandpa then got into

an argument that resulted in blows being traded, and him being arrested. Years later, having read that particular paragraph, I asked him about it.

He just laughed and nodded, as if it was the obvious thing to do, as if any of us would fight for defenceless people threatened by power.

I’d desperately like us to be part of a nation that fights to protect its own. I agonise about all the times I have not lived up to this ideal, and our commitments to each other.

I sometimes wonder about the conversation he had with his beloved Tienie, when he told her he was going into politics full time. He was the first black person to become a full-time politician as secretary-general of the ANC.

The obvious implication was that he would no longer be bringing home the bacon as the ANC had no money, and he would be away from home more often.

I can’t imagine going home and saying: “Honey, I’m changing jobs?…?no, not for more money, for less. Actually, for no money. And I’ll need some transport money. I’ll be travelling more. You may want to clock in some extra hours at work.”

But nothing worthwhile comes easy. Especially not freedom.

As I get older, I unearth more about my grandfather’s life. In different parts of the country I am told of his visits there. “He came to organise here,” old men with missing teeth tell me in desolate spots. When did he get the time? How did he even get there, I wonder.

On a trip to Israel, I am told he stayed in a kibbutz on his return from China. Pictures of him standing shoulder to shoulder with Communist Party combatants show up frequently. It was here he adopted the idea of a children’s pioneer corps, the Masupatsela a Walter Sisulu.

In the Masupatsela, I learnt about our struggle while my grandfather was in jail. It was like the gift of a time capsule – all the things granddads teach their grandkids saved in an institution.

He really understood the value of institutionalisation: taking your best values and ideas and preserving them.

I suppose it was this that led him to throw in his lot with the ANC. He’d discovered the organisation as a youngster pinballing from one job to the next, being fired for his involvement in strikes or for talking back.

The ANC wasn’t perfect, but it was the perfect place to make his mark because it was democratic. It’s in the party’s DNA to plug into the will of the people. This appealed to him. Even in his home, he wanted everyone to have their say.

The only thing he wanted more for his family was education. His reverence for learning may have come from regret. He had left school at an early age for the silliest of reasons – he’d skipped school to go stick fighting. And the next day he didn’t go to avoid a hiding. And so too the next day. And the next.

The next thing you know, there’s a university named after him. And despite its humble beginnings, it’s an institution that could one day exemplify his life story: one of triumph through perseverance, service, humility and love.

Long may his love guide us.

» Shaka will celebrate Walter Sisulu’s birthday by joining the WSU fundraiser jazz concert at The Lyric theatre tonight. He will also grab another copy of Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime, at Exclusive Books. Join him

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