Raymond Suttner, The influence of Walter Sisulu and Moses Kotane in moulding the political development of Nelson Mandela

There is no doubt that Mandela was at times after his release more popular than the ANC and that he could sometimes act without organisational authority. Despite his increasing stature in the 1950s, within prison and after his release, there were always situations in which he would not or could not do certain things, even if that was what he considered necessary. These were sometimes seen in an overt organisational context. But very often these constraints were manifested outside the meetings, in particular, in his relationship with powerful and organisationally significant individuals such as Moses Kotane (General Secretary of the SACP) or Walter Sisulu.

While Sisulu is recognised as having been Mandela’s most enduring friend, his political significance is not always appreciated. Equally, Kotane is often erased, as in the well-known Jurgen Schadeberg picture of Mandela next to Kotane outside the Treason trial (which is posted here). It has become conventional to identify Mandela, but not Kotane in this photograph. Yet Mandela would never have done anything without Kotane’s approval. It appears that the same held for Chief Albert Luthuli, former ANC president, who despite not being a Communist, became very close to Kotane during the Treason Trial. It is reported that Luthuli would always ask of a path of action: ‘Does Moses know about this?’

Mandela was notoriously obstinate. This could be both a strength and a problem for his comrades. Sampson quotes Sisulu as remarking:

‘When [the government] saw a reasonable tone, they misjudged the person. It’s easy to underestimate Madiba when he’s nice – without knowing his stubbornness in approach …They look at the softness of the soft line: he is not aggressive, he is not wild. Then the possibilities are imagined to be there: to get Mandela. The National Party were prepared to discuss because [they thought] the leadership would come from them, not from the ANC’.

Sisulu recalls how when warders on Robben Island shouted at them to hurry: ‘Now Nelson is a very stubborn chap. He responded to this by walking very, very slowly and of course we all walked slowly too. The warders had to beg him to cooperate and walk faster’. After that, the segregation prisoners walked to the lime quarry at their own pace.

But this same personality trait sometimes required remedial action. Anyone who knew the late Walter Sisulu would understand that here was one individual who could be relied on to make Mandela ‘see sense’ where it was felt that the ‘old man’ was being ‘totally obstinate’. The story is told of how Mandela’s security advised him that it was not safe to go into KwaZulu Natal during the period of IFP/ANC violence, prior to the 1994 elections. Mandela insisted that he would go, irrespective of what intelligence they may have gathered. The security officials were making no progress and decided to secretly phone Sisulu. Sisulu had a word with him and firmly indicated that he would not proceed. Mandela cancelled the visit and laughingly scolded them for ‘reporting’ him.

While the ANC in 1990 was depicted on a banner at its 1990 consultative conference as embodied by the trinity of great men – Oliver Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu, Tambo was already very ill and had not been in constant contact with Mandela, as Sisulu had been in prison. The primary relationship between Sisulu and Mandela was always one in which Sisulu would be in the background and Mandela would be in the overt leadership position. But deference to Sisulu’s understanding and judgment is a constant theme of their interaction.

What is important to understand about the ANC from the 1950s and at least prior to 1990 or 1994, is that the position someone holds, deputy president or no position, the extent to which that person appears in the public eye as an office bearer is not necessarily an indication of their actual influence and power within the organisation and indeed in relation to individuals who formally held power.

This is not to argue that Luthuli, Mandela or Tambo were merely puppets. What it seeks to do is more than caution against a ‘great man’ (for they were mainly men) view of history. More than that, one had an organisation with formal arrangements as well as networks, which may not have resulted in individuals occupying specific organisational positions. Someone like Sisulu would always be consulted, irrespective of the position he held and the same went for Kotane. That is why, before Mandela raised the question of formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the spear of the nation, MK, the ANC armed wing) formally in the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) he felt he had to convince Kotane and forestall his opposition. When he had first raised the matter Kotane had been opposed, considering it reckless. Sisulu had been silent and advised that Mandela ask Kotane to meet privately. That night Mandela spent long hours with Kotane, resulting in Kotane not raising opposition and keeping silent when the NEC met and discussed the formation of MK.

Interestingly, Sampson remarks that Mandela regarded Sisulu as his ‘intellectual superior’, and that may have been true, at least when initially meeting him. But in a broad strategic sense this may have remained the case. Mandela was often tactically brilliant but also impetuous. Sisulu appears to have often been slow to come to a view but had a sense of the long term. He was the first amongst himself, Tambo and Mandela to understand the limitations, despite its initially radical character, of the narrow Africanist position and broke rank in order to seek alliances with non-Africans.

He also understood that election as secretary-general in 1949 made him the voice of the entire organisation. It is said that ‘Mandela had a narrower view than Sisulu. “When I became Secretary-General my duty was to unite people”, Sisulu said later, “whereas Nelson and [A.P.] Mda, then a Youth League leader were still thinking in terms of projecting the Youth League …’ He meant thereby that Mandela and Mda remained wedded to a narrower vision of Africanism, embraced in the Youth League, while the organisation as a whole had to become a national body, reaching out beyond the African people, as it later did.
While the most striking public feature of the Rivonia Trial was Mandela’s speech from the dock, Joel Joffe, attorney for the trialists remarks on the deference accorded to Sisulu’s views, on the part of all the other prisoners, and claims that over time the legal team found themselves in a similar relationship, waiting to hear and deferring to his view on particular matters.

None of what has been said about the influence of other people is intended to detract from the greatness of Nelson Mandela. The object is to explain that Mandela developed over time. He was willing to learn and there were older comrades who were able to advise him in a way that enhanced his leadership qualities.

(This is based on my article (Mis)Understanding Mandela, on this blog site, where all the sources can be found)

4 thoughts on “Raymond Suttner, The influence of Walter Sisulu and Moses Kotane in moulding the political development of Nelson Mandela

    • Thanks, I am trying in what I write to humanise Mandela, who is at once a great man, but also someone with frailties, vulnerabilities etc that we all have. That way his legacies can empower us instead of leaving us viewing him only with awe

  1. Thanks for this article. You are exactly correct. Sisulu was always the most respected of the three and his opinions were always sought out. Oliver Tambo tended to be rather reserved.

    • I wrote this a while back, partly based on my impressions in watching them interact. I have done some other things on Sisulu in a book of essays but I don’t know if you have seen Elinor Sisulu’s bio of Walter and Albertina. Its the best source

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