Walter Sisulu’s Garden

19 March 2004

The Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden outside Johannesburg has been renamed the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, in honour of the freedom fighter was was also “the father of everyone” with whom he spent a quarter of a century behind apartheid’s prison bars.

Under a white marquee and against the backdrop of the rushing Witpoortjie Falls, around 100 people gathered on Tuesday to celebrate Sisulu’s life by unveiling a plaque and renaming the gardens in his honour.

Among those in attendance were Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Mohamed Valli Moosa, the Sisulu family and Sisulu’s widow, Albertina, Adelaide Tambo, several deputy ministers, and long-time friend and comrade Ahmed Kathrada.

Sisulu’s life closely reflected the struggle of the African National Congress which, like him, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2002. Almost a year later, Sisulu died. He was buried on 16 May 2003, a day short of what would have been his 91st birthday, at Johannesburg’s Newclare Cemetery, where a memorial garden has been established in his honour.

The Roodepoort garden, some 30 kilometres west of Johannesburg’s city centre, is one of a network of eight botanical gardens around the country.

It consists of around 300 hectares of landscaped and natural veld areas, planted with only indigenous trees and 600 species of indigenous flowering plants and shrubs. Over 230 species of birds have been recorded in the garden, as well as a number of reptiles and small mammals.

Kathrada, asked by the Sisulu family to speak on their behalf, said that on Robben Island, Sisulu “was the father of everyone – loved, admired and respected by every prisoner. He was a leader, policy-maker, historian. This honour is well-deserved and most appropriate.”

Mandela and Sisulu, Robben Island prison yard, 1966
Mandela and Sisulu, Robben Island prison yard, 1966.
(Photo: UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

On 11 July 1963 Liliesleaf Farm, the ANC’s secret headquarters at the time, was raided by police. Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others were detained, and Sisulu was held in solitary confinement for 88 days. He was charged in the Rivonia trial in October 1963, and on 12 June 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment for planning acts of sabotage.

On the following day Sisulu, Mandela and the other convicted Rivonia trialists were sent to Robben Island.

Prisoners had individual cells on Robben Island, but once they were moved to Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town in 1985, Kathrada and Sisulu shared a cell for four years. Saturday nights for Sisulu were family nights – he used to spend hours going through his photograph album, slowly turning the pages.

Kathrada said Sisulu was “crucial in opening doors that were previously closed”. Sisulu was released from prison in 1989, after spending 26 years behind bars.

In the foreward to “In Our Lifetime”, the recently published biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Nelson Mandela writes: “If we as a liberation movement and a nation were to be given the choice of one life story to be told, that story would have to be Walter Sisulu’s.

“In his life and the work of his life are captured and demonstrated the best, the noblest, the most heroic, the most deeply humane that our movement and our country represent and seek to represent.”

Source: City of Johannesburg website