top of page



Dr. Franklin Sonn

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

Jump straight to the Episode or Full Interview

Franklin man

1939 Born Vosburg, in the Karoo

1974 Principal of Spes Bona, Athlone

1976—1990 President, Cape Teachers' Professional Association

1977 Rector of Cape Town’s Peninsula Technikon

1978—1991 Vice-chair of the Urban Foundation

1983—1995 Served on the Metropolitan Board

1989 Arrested for leading a protest march

1992 Member of Jimmy Carter team monitoring Zambia’s election

1994 Head of the Cape Teachers' Professional Association

1994 Campaigned for the ANC in the Western Cape elections

1995 Awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the College of Baruch

1995—1999 South Africa’s ambassador to the US

2000—2005 Non-Executive Director, Airports Company, SA

2002-2009 Chancellor | University of the Free State


Educator, one-time Ambassador, and civil rights campaigner Dr. Franklin Sonn was born on the 11th of October 1939 in the Karoo. He spent his early childhood in the Eastern Cape before settling in Cape Town. He came from a generation of teachers and recalled the humiliation of watching his parents get treated with denigration and the lasting effect on him and his siblings.


With the minimal career options available to many young people of color back then, he resolved to teach after completing his studies at UWC. His perspectives on the injustice and inequality of the system sharpened as he witnessed the impact of apartheid on the schooling system. Learners and their parents all bore and carried around the wounds of segregation.


Franklin managed to make lasting impacts on the schools and communities he taught and headed. He was transforming once derelict and crumbling schools into community institutions of pride. There were pushbacks from governing authorities, yet he remained focused and undeterred. His activism and strive were for change inside and outside school systems. He was galvanising teachers for change as well.


A word about his activities soon spread and reached Nelson Mandela. A few years after and upon Mandela's release from prison in 1990, Mandela called him by name at a public gathering to recognise the work he had done in his community. In 1994 he was offered three positions by Mandela, and he chose that of Ambassador, becoming the first South African Ambassador to the United States, under a democratically elected president.


Franklin has had a distinguished career. He holds a BA Honours from the University of Western Cape and has been conferred honorary doctorates from several prestigious international institutions. In 1977, he was appointed as the rector of Cape Town's Peninsula Technikon and served for 17 years. He was also president of the Cape Teachers' Association of South Africa. He continues to lend his voice to the current national policy issues, expressing his concerns that the country seems to be deviating from the visions that the forebears of this nation's democracy, like Nelson Mandela, envisioned. He, however, is confident that "we will emerge again. And that we will be a shining example to the rest of Africa, to the world... It's just the way South Africa is, that's why I love my country."

Franklin leader

The privilege to serve is more important than the rewards

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Dr. Franklin Sonn

South African

Public Servant


Appointed by President  Mandela as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States

Awards for his roles as Public Servant

1995 Awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters College of Baruch

2002 Awarded an Honorary Technical Doctorate Cape Peninsula University of Technology


Others include

International Award in Honour of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Special Merit Award | Association of Tech Principals Award for Special Services | Association of Black Accts of SA Paul Harris Award for Exceptional Service | Rotary Young SA of the Year Award | Jaycee Organisation Chancellor's Medal of Honour | Tech Pretoria Dr Humanities | Howard University

Franklin interview

Things You May Not Know About Franklin

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.




I think and you do

“... The thing that struck me most was the humiliation and the denigration of my parents and the way they were treated when we were youngsters. You see it happening in front of your eyes… They were just so resigned to it because that's the only way they could get ahead. The offense of trying to put human beings in a place that's apportioned to them, not a place where you believe you belong… One day when I was still a young teacher, I deviated from the instructions of how I had to prepare my (teaching) material because I thought initiative was so important. That's what I was always taught at home. And then the inspector came, and he looked at my stuff. I was a very good teacher, but he said I must stay for the break. During the break, after the kids left. He said,” Why didn't you do things the way I asked you to do it, how I instructed you to?” So I said, “Well, sir, I was just thinking, you know. Ek het dit net gedink.” So he says, “Listen, mistake number one, I think and you do, get that rule.”... That struck me so deeply that I thought, I'm going to organize the teachers, I'm going to spend my life doing it. And once we have a block, I'm going to give my everything to fight this thing… This idea that you only exist if you follow instructions and if you accept that you have a place allocated to you. And so every time something happened, I would see a repeat of that dictum… From then I always searched for what I could do… I came to the conviction that I must live my life, live my beliefs…”



Tutoring and catering to the wounds of forced removals

“... People were forcefully removed to live in Manenberg because of the Group Areas Act. For them to have been given notice, that they have to leave. Often the houses didn't belong to the people, they belonged to the Jew or whoever. But they had lived there all their lives, generations after generations. And when they were removed, they didn't have money to set themselves up in new areas like Lansdowne or Wetton… They were given houses in places like Manenberg and Bonteheuwel. For those people, to regroup and to settle and to accept those areas as their new home, was devastating. Many fathers died of heart attacks and strokes, it was severe. I always remember, when I go to school, on the way, I see these youngsters, I see the women, standing at the bus stop, smart women, all standing there at that bus stop, intermixed with the naughty guys, and the murderers and so on. And also the fear that they lived with. And I remember me being there and going into that area bare-handed and talking to people and at night going into the school. And so it was a time that was so horrible that I think up to now, coloured people cannot get to the point of committing it to writing and committing it to this kind of transmission of thoughts because it was an incredible situation. And the only way to get on was to find a way of regaining your pride. And I must say, the church has played a very big role. You would see mommies and daddies going with a bus and with the early trains into Cape Town to church. Until the churches were also demolished…”



Confronting F W De Klerk

“... When you meet the lion, look him in the eye and tell him the truth. But also think behind those eyes, for there's a needy guy… So over time, I moved a lot of people to understand the inequity of their doings because what struck me about the Nationalist Party leaders is that somehow they were blinkered. They thought what they were doing was in the interest of everyone and it served the purpose of protecting them in Africa. But they, by and large, never really thought for themselves what damage they're doing… I always felt that you had to deal with people, with PW, with Gerrit Viljoen, with FW de Klerk. Don't estrange him but know the line is drawn. And I remember in my home, de Klerk and his wife came to Athlone because I just had the inkling, call him, invite him. So he came and he sat, I still have the chair at my home in Betty's Bay… He indicated that he was busy. We had him for dinner, Joan and I, and a friend of mine and his wife. I just wanted a witness because in those days people imputed things to you that were never the truth. And then I said, “Look, don't let you waste time; you're in a hurry. Your policies are racist. And racism is the worst sin of our time. It's like Nazism was in those days or Stalinism was to the east Europeans. And I'm not saying this as an accusation, I just wanted to have your take on it, to hear you.”... I think he’d never been confronted in that way before… He wasn't president then. He was the leader of the Nationalist Party in the Transvaal which was the President-elect virtually in those days. And you know, our relationship started there…”

Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Franklin's conversation. 



The hero that inspired

“... A second very important thing that happened to me as a young student was when I attended a meeting at Rondebosch, and Chief Luthuli stood there in khaki clothes, a very simple man with braces. And he spoke to this predominantly white audience and he spoke so persuasively without bitterness but laying down the new rules of how one lives in a multidimensional country… After that, he was banned…”



Refused exile to stay back and fight

“... I always had this gnawing sense of the extent to which our people were dehumanized… My father and his generation were humiliated and denigrated. And it gnawed at me… At that time, all my friends left the country. It was the “Great Trek” at that time… All my peers were leaving, for England first, then Canada and later Australia. But I decided, consciously, to stay. That was in the 60s when the apartheid laws were promulgated and they came into effect. I soon decided that the only way one could live was to organize… I looked at the teachers that taught me, they were alcoholics largely, they were broken. And the teachers on my staff, my colleagues, they also drank. They were enormously frustrated and totally suppressed. And I had a problem with that and I thought, “I can't live like that,” I didn't want to leave the country. So I felt I had to do something otherwise we would have just repeated ... I remember one day I said to our teachers at a teacher’s conference in Uppington, I stood on the stage and I said to the teachers, “Say after me: Apartheid is evil”. The shock that I got, saying that… I thought, “I'm in it.” I repeated it and said, “ I'm not sitting down until you join me.” By the end of that day, they were hysterical. So suppression and the context of suppression and how people react to it is something which the kids of today, the children of today and the generation after me didn't fully comprehend. And I don't know how one will translate to people how debilitating and so destroying that time was…”



The smuggled letter from Mandela

“... A third thing in my life that struck me very deeply was once when I was sitting in my office, minding my business. This was just after I'd been very active in the community and being the only voice, because all the other voices were nabbed or nipped. I had this following, and I went on saying what I wanted to say, responsibly… So on this day I was sitting in my office, when a Methodist minister walks in, Reverend Moore, a coloured man… He sat down and said, “Look, I don't have much time, I just want to tell you that Mandela sends his best regards.”... I was surprised. Mandela and me? And I didn’t know him and neither did he know me… I immediately asked him, “How did you see him?” He says,” Well, I administer the sacraments to him in Pollsmoor.” He was in Pollsmoor then. “And he asked me to give the message.” I saw him subsequently again and this time, he had just come straight from Pollsmoor with a letter which he smuggled out from Pollsmoor… That was how I and Mandela established a relationship, which he made good the day he was released. He called my first name when we came into the city hall where we had a reception committee. And we decided to sit down. He came in with Winnie and Uncle Walter. It was very emotional because it was that day, that famous day… When he got in, he looked this way and he looked that way and then he called me by my name. And I thought this must be a huge mistake and I ducked and I hid like a child would. And then he called my name a second time, and the people started nudging me and I went up, over their heads. And since then, I had so many times with him. He'll just call on a Saturday and say, “I'm lonely, come.” And then he would talk to me… I just had a feeling that there was a link between us…”



Breaking diplomatic codes

“... I was never a quiet one, in fact… I remember one day reading in the Washington Times an article that said; ‘South Africa's controversial yet most popular ambassador in Washington’... Something to that effect, popular yet most controversial. I always say it as it is… In diplomatic terms they give you non-papers. You get summoned to the government, to the state department or to congress and your host country expresses their dismay or disdain with policies assumed by your instructing government. And then they give you, formally, a big white envelope with what’s stated. But it's meant, not to raise controversy, it's a friendly communication. And for that reason, it's called a “non-paper”. So I remember one day, the Deputy Secretary of State, one of those top titles, gave me the envelope and I said, “I'm not taking it. You don't send my president what amounts to a reprimand and expect me to carry it. I'm not taking it.” And that was a big thing because I was like breaking diplomatic code. And I started walking to my car and this guy who ran after me. And he opened my car door for me and then he threw the envelope into the car. (Laughs) I would act like that… I always stood up. I would always think about what Madiba would have done. And then I do exactly what he would have done. And you know why I was popular, I remember the last visit Madiba paid to Washington. He was asked by the Republican Foreign Affairs rep if he wouldn't extend my stay. And Madiba was very proud… I openly identified with the African Americans. Simon Barber once wrote a scathing article because I shunned congress to go to a meeting in Harlem…”



Options were limited, but to teach was destiny

“... When I matriculated, there wasn't a university for us. I just went to college as the only way to educate myself and to earn a living. Teaching and becoming a minister of the church were the options. Or become a waiter or a bus driver or a famous job at that time was a fitter and turner at Simon’s Town dockyard. Or a printer. Those were the jobs, none other. The very bright guys became doctors because they got permission, special permits to study at the universities, but only a handful. So, I became a teacher and also I loved the profession. I was told to be a teacher and still liked to be a teacher. And so that's why I chose it. And my tradition is teachers. All my relatives and aunts and uncles and parents were all teachers. I’m not sorry that I chose that as a career. I was never of the view that I will be a cowering teacher, that I would not be socio-politically involved. While I realized the limitations, like being banned unnecessarily or jailed for my opinions, It has influenced people… I think what protected me were the numbers and also that I went out of my way to engage with white people… When I was Vice Principal at Specs Bona, I did a heck-of-a-lot to build the school up. Years after I left, the college started to fall apart under the pressures. So the students came to ask me whether I would come, and they spoke to the department and the department and the students came, but then I wasn't going to go... I went to Bellville instead. I served there for seventeen years and built it into a university. And then came the call to go to Washington…”



A teacher and a voice of reason

“... What the students and the community demanded was a person other than white… They wouldn't allow a white principal to come onto the campus… I can't think of one time in my career that I was destructive... I always take pride in the fact that I wasn't focused against apartheid, I was focused in favour of human rights, of human dignity, of justice and righteousness as a cause. If apartheid came in my way, I would confront it. But that wasn't my objective. That's what Mandela told me. I wasn't going to say, “Let's destroy this dog.” And once it's destroyed, what do you have? I was going to make the government understand that the policies were unrighteous and unjust. And that the only way to change that was to have justice and righteousness... I was listened to, I was listened to. Through surveys, it was clear that the approaches I had, also through the media and the newspapers, was that I was the voice of reason… I never had used alcohol, never in my life. I would never do things that I could be tripped up on but I will speak my voice. And I wouldn't say, “I want to burn buildings.”... I often said to my learners, to my students, to my pupils at school, “Look, don't fight my battles. I must fight my battles. And I will fight my battles. I'm here to make sure that you get an education. But when I'm home tonight, if you open the newspapers, you'll see me on the front page.” I think I was responsible and the parents loved that… An old African adage says: If the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. I didn't want the learners to do what we're not able to do. Like today, where are the professors, where are the lecturers? If I'd been there, I would have been right in front. But I would also go back to the students and say, “Listen, not this, man.” But I used to tell the police, “If you want to shoot, shoot me.” I would go into those prison cells and get my students out and say, “ Take me.” No, I think that kind of action is somewhat absent today…”



The embassy on my stoep

“... You mean how could I assume the position of ambassador when I couldn't even spell “ambassador”... You know, my home was an embassy in Athlone... People came through there all the time. I remember Chest Croker spent a whole Saturday there with me in Athlone. James Wolfensohn, who became the President of the World Bank, spent two days at my home. I remember on my stoep on a Saturday morning in Belgravia Road were people like Trevor Manuel, Tito Mboweni, Derek Keys who became the Minister of Finance for de Klerk, etc. They all met each other on my stoep… We would sit for a whole day on my front stoep in Belgravia Road, Athlone. So my children grew up in an embassy. So I'm honestly, without sounding suave or arrogant, it wasn't a big transition for me. Many of the people were in Washington at the time when I got there, and they offered to help me. I remember one of them paid for me to get television training, you know. What and how to present yourself on the television and introduce me to editors and so…”



Mandela and Mbeki at war

“... Mbeki wouldn't take his calls. Mbeki was so bloody arrogant that he would not take Mandela’s calls. So one day, Mandela got advice, and people arranged for him to know when Mbeki was in the office. So that morning, he was in Pretoria, in the presidential office. That morning Mandela went into his car, he had himself driven to Union Buildings and he walked to that office, he pushed that door open and he said, “Mr President, I am Nelson Mandela and I want to talk to you.” And he faced him down… Mbeki started saying, “Woah, woah, woah, woah, Madiba.” Mandela said, “No, no, no, no, you don't take my calls.” Now that man, I've seen him in many guises. He can have a very handsome face and he can have an ugly stony face, when he puts that stone on… He went on and said to him, “From today onwards, you and I are at war, at war.” And they were like that all the time about AIDS. Remember, then he made that big AIDS speech at the V&A when they opened the Victoria and Alfred Clock Tower from where the boats go to Robben Island, that was big. There he made his speech, where he ripped into Mbeki. Mbeki was too arrogant. It was un-African; Africans can't deal with arrogance. Zuma’s still popular because he's not arrogant. People, you know, they don't like arrogance…”

Full Interview 

Franklin Full Interview
Franklin lesson

Servant Leaders must know the privilege to serve is more important than the rewards


"... I'd really like to be remembered as somebody who left a reputation and a legacy as a good South African, as a person who stood for the right principles who were standing for right rather than focusing only against wrong. And just as a lovely man, I think I'm a very nice man to get along with and without ever being demanding of others. But be aware of the privilege, the God-given privilege, because I am a religious person to be placed in a position to serve. That's more important than the rewards...."

Daniel in conversation with

Dr. Franklin Sonn




  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black YouTube Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
bottom of page