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Max Sisulu

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Max man

1945 Born in Soweto, South Africa

1963 Went into exile

1970s Trained and Educated across Africa and overseas

1985 Awarded a one-year, Govan Mbeki research fellowship at the University of Amsterdam in Holland

1986-1990 Head of the ANC Department of Economic Planning (DEP) in Lusaka Zambia

1990 Returned from exile

1991 Established and became the first Director of the National Institute of Economic Policies (NIEP) 

1994 Member of Parliament

1994-1998 Member of Parliament and Chair of Portfolio Committee on the Reconstruction and Development Programme(RDP)

1997 Chief Whip of the ANC

1998-2003 Deputy Chief Executive of Denel Aerospace

2003-2006 Group General Manager at SASOL

2009-2014 Speaker of Parliament

2018 Independent non-executive director Board of Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited

The Sisulu family names immediately conjures up images of heroes of the liberation struggle . The dominant figure in such images will be Walter Ulyate Max Sisulu. However, what may not be immediately apparent is the fact that the struggle for South Africa’s liberation, from the clutches of the repressive apartheid system, had many other players in the Sisulu clan/household. One of them is the first black male Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, Max Vuyisile Sisulu. Max was born on the 23rd of August 1945, the oldest of the five children of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. His parents were very involved in political activities, and they were also actively involved in their community. They lived with extended family members, so Max grew up in a large and extended family setting, in a quaint four-bedroom house that often doubled as a crucial ANC meeting spot.

The diversity of his parent’s background, their work, and the hostility of a repressive state made his involvement in the struggle inevitable. In 1963, he and his mother, Albertina, were arrested as a way of frustrating and breaking his father Walter, who was in hiding then. Their arrest was a way of sending a strong message to Walter, to dissuade him from continuing with his political activities resulting in the first of many arrests and detentions for all other members of the Sisulu family. Shortly after his release, he went into exile. He soon joined uMkhonto we Sizwe, pledging to dedicate his life to the liberation of his people. He traveled across the African continent and overseas, getting trained and educated while working for the ANC in exile. He lost family and friends along the way. He escaped death twice. His father, along with other Rivonia trialists, was incarcerated for over 25 years. He returned from exile in the late 1980s and got to work contributing his quota towards the actualisation of a new democratic South Africa.

His first-hand experience in the struggle for a democratic nation has sharpened his determination to ensure that past gains are not swept away by any present greed and lack of respect for the rule of law. This kind of mindset saw him through his time as speaker of parliament. It is also one that continues to be at the fore of everything he does today. As he explains, “the importance of institutions of democracy needs to be protected, because once you destroy the institutions that we created, then clearly, you know you are destroying the foundations of our democracy and freedom. We nearly died for freedom. Why do we destroy it after democracy? it doesn’t make sense.”

Max leader

Deliver on the promises you make

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Max Sisulu

South African

Public Servant


Member of Parliament and served as Chair of the Portfolio Committee on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)



Speaker of Parliament

Max interview

Things You May Not Know About Max

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

since 1920s


The African, Xhosa, his father, Walter Sisulu

“... He made a choice that he didn’t want to be classified as a colored, although in South African terms he was colored. He saw himself as an African, which he was…We always saw ourselves as Africans in Africa. He grew up in the area of Transkei, under the leadership of his uncles, he didn’t see himself as separate, and different, he ate what they ate, the conditions were the same. His culture was the Xhosa culture, everything about him was Xhosa, except the color of the skin. Everything was Xhosa, this is why he volunteered to go to the mines when he was a young man, but they refused to let him, saying he was too young. He saw himself as part of a whole and didn’t see himself as separate and different. Under apartheid, he would have had some privileges, but his conviction was that he was part of the oppressed, and he wanted to continue to fight for the freedom of all, and not the freedom of a few… It was also a political choice, a political decision. There comes a time when people have to start making difficult decisions. Joining Umkhonto we Sizwe wasn’t an easy decision, we knew we would die, and many people died, but it was a decision that had to be taken. You had to choose between right and wrong, and people made choices…”



The mystery of the buried books and finding any missing child

“... Our house had a big garden and at some point, we used a garden to bury the banned books. The police came at different times that looking for these books. They would search our house. After a while, we forgot where the books were buried especially after he (Walter Sisulu) left so we had to start a project of digging to find some of the books. Some were found, others we couldn’t find. So the house had a history. It was our home, we were born there and grew up there. My grandmother was a very good person to people around. When we were distributing leaflets at night, doing all sorts of things like slogan painting ( Thabo Mbeki also part of the slogan painting group ), my grandmother would organise all the young people and we’d go out at night to distribute leaflets and pamphlets. My grandmother wouldn’t sleep until we all got back home and she will count us and says one is missing, let’s wait for that one, that was my grandmother. She also ran a feeding scheme program and she’d go to town in Soweto and basically it was giving almost free bread and skimmed milk which was donated. She ran that feeding scheme very very well and so she was popular because of that…”



The time in exile when the enemy blew up the plane

“... I went into exile as a 19- year old. After I was released from jail, I joined uMkhonto we Sizwe. We first went to Gaborone, Botswana. There was a refugee camp there with many people. Botswana was an important place then, as many young people were leaving their countries to Botswana. From South Africa, from Zimbabwe and from Namibia. We were grateful at the time because of the refuge that Botswana gave us. We were leaving from Botswana to different parts, and in our case to Tanzania. So on this day we were waiting for a plane to pick us up. The night before we were supposed to leave, there was jubilation, we’d never been on a plane before and we were flying to Tanzania. We had never seen Tanzania. We had been at the camp for a while, eating pap and baked beans, so after a while it gets boring…. So we were looking forward to the change and also looking forward to doing military training. So as we were waiting for the plane, we saw the plane land, and we were so excited. We were not far from the airfield, the camp was not far from the airfield where the planes were landing and taking off. At around 4 o'clock in the morning, we were awake. We knew that at six or seven we would be leaving. Suddenly we saw the plane up in flames, just 2 hours before we were to leave… They had blown up the plane! And that was it… It had to be one of the agents of apartheid, they were the only ones who benefited, from blowing up the plane. we were only grateful that the plane blew up on the ground not in the air when all of us would have been on the plane so that was of course a blessing in disguise but also it showed that the apartheid regime could not and would stop at nothing to protect itself and also to kill. Many of our people had died at home and abroad, killed by the apartheid system so we were prepared to die for freedom and all of us were young keen and ready to join Umkhonto we siswe… The struggle became our life, the struggle became us and we became part of that struggle even today we fight for democracy we fight to make sure that the quality of life, of the ordinary person, improves, that is what we promise in the Freedom Charter and that is still part of our vision…”



Walter Sisulu, the sometimes unpaid icon

“... He was the secretary-general of the ANC, and the secretary-general is one that has to keep the organization together. You become the glue. He was a committed person, secretary-general of the ANC, and of course unpaid. Sometimes he got something, but most of the time the ANC had no money, so the person that kept us alive was my mum, as a nurse. But my dad kept on because it was his conviction that freedom is going to come and the secretary-general had a role to play. He was the one that formed the ANC, that shaped the ANC, together with people like Duma Nokwe. That was Duma’s idea and Tata’s idea. They got this when they travelled to Eastern Europe at the time. We were also part of a growing African movement, because African countries became free, starting with Ghana. So we saw that light, that Africa is now beginning to move, and we were encouraged by that, and what Tata and Duma Nokwe and others did, was simply to emphasize that we also need to liberate ourselves, we are our own liberators, nobody was going to come and liberate us. You are your own liberator, and this case South Africans. We were our own liberators. Many people were prepared to die, and that’s why, they had the slogan amadelakufa, which means that we are ready to die… Tata started playing an important part because he was secretary-general for a long time and contributed a lot. He had a very profound vision of the future, he knew the past, he lived the present, but he had this vision of what kind of South Africa we wanted…”



His first role was a car watchman

“... Our house was usually full of police too. They would come to search the house. There used to be ANC meetings taking place, mostly in the evening. People were coming from different parts of Johannesburg and we the kids were always out to secure the cars so the meetings will go on for a long time. We looked after the cars for two reasons. The first was to give a warning if there were any police, special branch coming, because a lot of cars in Soweto, would draw attention. Obviously, it wasn’t just to protect the cars, because nobody would dare and come take the cars from that ANC environment. Secondly, it was also to be on the lookout. So that if we thought the police were coming, we would give the warning that the police are coming, and that kind of thing. At the time my father was not allowed to talk to more than two or three people. So it was both for Security and protection…”



Almost killed in a bomb blast

“... When you see that freedom that you fought for, that your colleagues died for, that some of us nearly died for, it’s something… I was nearly killed in a bomb blast in Lusaka, the one that killed JD (John Dube), the chief... When my parents came over to Lusaka, they were happy to see that I am alive because they were told that your son is dead, they were happy to see that I was happy and well, but most importantly that the spirit of no surrender was still there. We were going to fight until we win, so we shared those moments of happiness, we also shared some moments of sadness, because they kept coming up with stories… Saying so and so passed away etc… It was joy but also mixed a bit with sadness because some members of the family had died, but most important for us was that majority of members of the family were alive, my brothers, my sisters, my parents, my aunt, so that was a wonderful feeling… We reminisce about the past, we organised dinner for them and we slept in the wee hours of the morning. We talked the whole afternoon and the whole evening. So it was a nice family reunion…”



A parliament that serves

“... When you are a speaker, you are not the speaker of the ANC, you are the speaker of parliament, and therefore you make allowance for other parties. You can’t suppress them, you allow them, and give them as much space as the others, sometimes you give them a bit more, because they are the minority party. You want parliament to be a parliament of all the people of the country, so you want the small party’s voice to be heard, you don’t say this is a small party, they must have a small voice. They must have an equal voice, as these are members of parliament, and they have the right to express themselves. So you open opportunities for all. This is why we ran training programs for members of parliament because we believe the more you know, the better you do. We started training programs, we went to the European parliament, and they gave us some money, and we started the training of people at WITS. Even today, you have lots of young people from parliament, studying at different universities, because it opens up opportunities for them. It’s also part of democracy, and parliament has to play a role of not just lawmaking, but also makes sure it opens up opportunities for people of the country. So parliaments are there to ensure you abide by the rules, and everybody does, but parliament is also a place to learn and to let people to express themselves…”


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


since 1940s

The jailbird family and the house where it all began

“... I was born in Soweto, I was the eldest of 5 children, that is myself, my two late brothers, Zwelakhe,Mlungisi and Lindi (Lindiwe) the minister, and later we were joined by two of our cousins whose mother had died. So we had a fairly big family and we lived in Soweto. The house was always full, full of people, not only the family. My grandmother was staying with us and my aunt was staying with us too. It was a four-bedroom house. The house was also full of police all the time. They came to search the house, part of their harassment. Then my mum was a nurse, so the house was always full of people coming for medical treatment. She was also a midwife, so she had to go help deliver children. There was also the political family. Mandela was in and out of our house as well as Oliver Tambo, and there were meetings, of course, ANC meetings mostly in the evening. People were coming from different parts of Johannesburg and we the kids were always out to secure the cars so the meetings will go on for a long time. So we lived in a house that was obviously a busy and full house. We remember the house with fondness because I left from that house into exile. My mum and I also left from that house to go to jail, and also Zwelakhe and Mlungisi. All my family has been to jail at different times of course and it was all out of that house. So it’s an important landmark for us. In Soweto, we always want to go back to the house to remember the past and where we came from. A lot of the planning of the fight against apartheid took place in that house with the entire ANC leadership. We are hoping to turn that house into a museum of some sort, a “storytime Museum”...”


Freedom came at a price

“... We were all arrested at one time or the other. I was arrested when I was a teenager together with my mum. This was because we were looking for my dad who was underground. They detained us as a way to inflict pain on the family and on my father. We grew up knowing that we had to fight to get what we wanted, which was freedom. We knew that freedom would not come easy. We knew freedom wouldn’t just be given to you as a gift, freedom is a right and you fight for it and we were prepared to fight for it and mobilise for it. We are happy that we achieved that freedom in our lifetime, Tata’s Lifetime, Mama’s lifetime, in our lifetime. So we succeeded, the system failed, we achieved what we sought to achieve, and they failed to achieve, their continued repression and maintaining the system of apartheid… Many people died for freedom, freedom didn’t come easy, it didn’t come cheap, people died for it, and there were massacres. Soweto, Sharpeville, people fighting in Langa. These were all people fighting for their rights to live as human beings in the land of their birth… I was detained, my mum was detained, all members of the family, at one point or the other, were detained, we know prison, we know the conditions. I left for exile when I was very young, to join uMkhonto we Sizwe so that I could train to come back and fight for this freedom. So from that perspective we as an oppressed people succeeded in destroying apartheid and they, despite their miltary power, failed to continue to suppress the people…”



Surrender never an option

“... One thing we were clear about when we took the oath of uMkhonto we Sizwe, was that we will not surrender. We will rather die than surrender. So it was not something that we were going to be debating. A lot of people died for their rights to a life of freedom. We continued the struggle until it was won. Struggles take different forms, at different times. Surrender means there’s no struggle. There was no way we could hand over and surrender everything. Individuals might surrender, some of them did and went over to the enemy and surrendered, Mtembu sold out. He surrendered and sold out. But the vast majority of the oppressed people didn’t surrender, didn’t sell out. They had the spirit that we will continue until we win and that spirit even continues today. We know we have won the freedom, but we haven’t got this economic power yet, so we are not going to surrender that too, there’s now a different kind of struggle, under different conditions. It’s a struggle for socio-economic justice, socio-economic change, and change for the vast majority of the people. Again there can’t be a surrender of that struggle, for a better life, the struggle for a better life will continue, until we all reach that better life for all…”


Patrick Mthembu was the only high-ranking ANC leader who turned state witness at the Rivonia Trial.  Shortly after the Rivonia Trial, Mthembu gave evidence at the trial of Wilson Mkhwayi. As a result of his evidence, Mkhwayi was sentenced to life.



Nkandla, to be on the right side of the law

“... You cannot keep such a secret, because if you use taxpayers money, you have to account for that. It was common sense that you needed to find a mechanism that was going to do two things, first you should be on the right side of the law, your own law. Secondly, it would’ve enabled the building of the house to continue, but managed differently. Because nobody said that you can’t build a house for the president or contribute, but it should be managed differently. You would not have ended up with what we are having now. It’s a worst-case scenario. An ad hoc committee was the best possible scenario, it would’ve saved a lot of people embarrassment, it would’ve saved us a lot of money as a Nation, and the principle of justice would also have been protected. The importance of institutions of democracy, like parliament, would have been protected, because once you destroy the institutions that we created, of democracy, then clearly, you know you are destroying the foundations of our democracy and freedom. We nearly died for freedom, why do we destroy it after democracy, it doesn’t make sense. The institution of parliament must stand there and outlive us, it must be a beacon of hope for future generations, people must have faith in the institutions of parliament. Once you destroy that confidence, you are destroying not just the hopes and aspirations of the people, but also our common goals in the future. There are short-term gains that people make, but the long-term gains are the most important ones. Why destroy an important institution of democracy, because of a house?...”


Full Interview 

Max Full Interview
Max lesson

Servant Leaders must deliver on the promises you make


Well, since the first parliament we envisaged the issue of accountability, responsibility, being responsible, but also being a representative of the people, that’s why we had programs called, bringing people to parliament, and taking parliament to the people, so that those are not seen as separate, you are a representative of the people, you need also to listen to the people. And so, that has to continue. To be a true representative of the people, it means listen to them. And also you deliver on the promises you make to the people, otherwise people will vote you out, simple as that. So the incentive is, if you want to stay on… Deliver on the promises made.

Daniel in conversation with

Max Sisulu




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