JOHANNESBURG — WALTER MAX ULYATE SISULU is the most formidable political prisoner to be freed in South Africa. As head of one of the country's most distinguished and persecuted political families, he is a committed African nationalist who symbolizes the sustained defiance of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).
His wife, Albertina Sisulu, who has spent much of her life under harsh restrictions, has emerged as one of the country's most respected anti-apartheid leaders. Their restricted son, Zwelakhe Sisulu, and his exiled brother, Max, have both distinguished themselves as intellectuals in the anti-apartheid movement.
Walter Sisulu - a short, stocky, bespectacled figure - is probably the closest associate and most intimate friend of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela. Six years his senior, Mr. Sisulu is also widely recognized as Mr. Mandela's political mentor. Like Mandela, he is a nationalist at heart, and returned from a visit to the Soviet Union impressed with its industrialization but reportedly disgusted by the excesses of Stalinism.
Their political careers are tightly intertwined. It was Mandela, Sisulu, and exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo, who - as members of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s - helped to transform the ANC from a passive resistance movement into a militant revolutionary force.
In 1949 Sisulu's influence and ability were recognized with his election as the ANC's first full-time secretary-general, the second most senior position under then President Albert Luthuli. In the late 1950s Sisulu and Mandela emerged as central organizers of the Defiance Campaign - a program of protests against segregation laws.
``Walter Sisulu did not command - he persuaded,'' said one of his close associates during those years. ``He was a revolutionary because he valued and loved people.''
In 1956 Sisulu - along with Mandela - was among 156 defendants in the ``Treason Trial,'' the longest in the country's history. The court marathon ended in March 1961 with the acquittal of all the defendants.
Like Mandela, he was born in the homeland of the Xhosa tribe - now known as Transkei. Sisulu was brought up near the town of Engcobo by his mother and an uncle according to strict tribal traditions.
He was a founding member, with Mandela, in 1961 of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing which was formed after nearly 50 years of nonviolent resistance to apartheid failed.
He was arrested on July 11, 1963, for his part in plotting a revolution from a small farm in the white neighborhood of Johannesburg known as Rivonia. Mandela, who was already in prison in 1962 serving a five-year sentence for incitement, was one of 10 co-defendants.
The 11-month Rivonia trial, as it became known, ended on June 12, 1964. Mandela and Sisulu were among eight defendants sentenced to life in prison.
They served the first 18 years of their sentences together on the Alcatraz-style Robben Island prison near Cape Town and, since 1982, in mainland Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons.
When Sisulu was first banned - and ordered by the white authorities to resign his ANC post 35 years ago - he uttered words which are as relevant today: ``The time has passed when they [the government] could rule the country as if we, the people, did not exist. The time is against them, the world is against them.... We enjoy the confidence of the whole world in this noble and just task for which we are pledged to fight until the dawn of freedom.''