Address by Nelson Mandela during the 90th birthday celebration of Mr Walter Sisulu

18 May 2002

Mr President,
Ladies and Gentleman,
Comrades and Friends

We are highly privileged to be able to celebrate the 90th birthday of such a giant and a cornerstone of our movement.

Our movement has made its name in the history of liberation movements, not only of Africa but the entire world. For ninety years it has been fighting uncompromisingly for the liberation of our country and the emancipation of its people. Great freedom fighters - men and women of exceptional courage and commitment - have played their roles in making our movement achieve for the people as it has done. Amongst those the name of the man with whom we celebrate today, stands supreme.

Walter Sisulu has lived through and witnessed the major events of the last century that shaped South Africa. What is more important, is that he was a major participant in decisively shaping and making that history.

Often in addressing younger people I make the point that what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead. For this, there can be no greater and more inspiring example in the history of our organisation, and hence of our country, than Walter Sisulu: a man whose every deed speaks of leadership that made the kind of difference which brought us to where we are today as a country and a people.

Actually we should not be speaking on this occasion. Walter is such a unique source of historical experience and such a rich font of information and knowledge that we should be celebrating by hearing him tell his story, and so listen to and learn about our own.

Of course, on a personal level I can tell of a relationship - a friendship and comradeship - that was profoundly formative in my life. The nature of that relationship and the spirit that informed it was such that the personal was transcended. The essence of that relationship was in how it shaped ones life as a member of our organisation. The unstinting commitment to the common good and to the service of the people completely filled the life of Walter Sisulu and deeply touched those like ourselves.

There are so many examples I can quote of the wisdom and leadership qualities of Walter. In all of those instances he demonstrated the ability to see the broader picture and to project himself way beyond the immediate considerations that others found ourselves focusing on.

The question we as a movement, and particularly our younger people, should be asking is what we learn from the life of this giant of our struggle and where it guides us to for the future.

While the circumstances and the specific nature of the challenges in our country might have changed, the task of our organisation basically remains the same: to lead the country in creating a better life for all our people, particularly the poor. The cardinal attributes of Walter Sisulu, the freedom fighter, remain as important to emulate today, as it ever was the case.

The absolute selflessness with which he gave his life to the struggle is especially important to remember and hold dear as the new conditions create the temptations of self-interest and personal enrichment. Corruption, opportunism and self-serving careerism have no place in the organisation Walter Sisulu led and helped build.

His discipline in service of the organisation and the people must serve as an abiding example. In everything he did or spoke, the paramount consideration was: what is best for the organisation and for the advancement of the liberation struggle?

We all respected his wisdom and leadership, more so because he was such a strong exponent of collective leadership. He knew and taught us that wisdom comes from sharing insights and listening to and learning from each other.

He was a unifier, not a divider. Where others of us would speak a hasty word or act in anger, he was the patient one, seeking to heal and bring together.

We congratulate him on his birthday and thank him for having given so entirely of his life to the struggle and to our organisation. And when we talk about how entirely he has done that we cannot forget to mention Albertina who was such an integral part of that giving in entirety.

And one cannot forget the rest of their family either. Many families suffered a great deal during apartheid. Families were divided and broken up as parents or children were persecuted, killed, jailed, driven underground and into exile. The Sisulu family count among those who have suffered severely and who have given most selflessly of themselves.

As we congratulate Walter, we above all shall commit ourselves to being faithful to the example he has set as a leader, a freedom fighter and a servant of his people.

Congratulations, Walter, and best wishes for the years we have left.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation