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Prof. Olive Shisana

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Olive woman

1950 Born in Pietersburg, South Africa

1970 Matriculated Lemana High School near Louis Trichardt

1973 BA in social sciences at the University of the North

1975 Went on exile

1978 Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland

1981—1984 ScD in public health from John Hopkins University

1986—1991 Health Statistician and then Acting Chief of the Research and Statistics Division in the District of Columbia, USA

1991—1993 Helped the Western Cape establish the School of Public Health 

1991—1994 Research Specialist for South African Medical Research Council

1994—1995 Special Advisor to the Ministry of Health

1995—1998 Director-General for the Department of Health

1998—2000 Executive Director for Family and Community Health for the World Health Organisation

2001 Head of Department, Medical University South Africa

2002 Certificate of Recognition, US Congressional Black Caucus, Washington 

2003 Honorary Doctorate of Law from Monash University, Australia

2004 Advisory board of Venda University and African Genome Education Institute, Cape Town

2005 Advisory Board of George Washington University and Scroll of Honour, National School, and Technology Forum

2005—2015 CEO of Human Sciences Research Council

2013 South African Academy of Sciences “Science-for-Society” Gold Medal

2015-Currently President and CEO of evidence-based solutions


In 1988, American investigative journalist Dana Priest wrote an article in the Washington Post about a then 36-year-old Olive Shisana titled; "South African Must Roam No Longer." It described the grueling life circumstances that led the young Olive in 1975 to flee her country into exile. The article was written after a U.S. Immigration Judge ruled that Olive and her husband, William, were eligible for political asylum, a stepping stone to obtaining U.S. residency and citizenship. The judge cited the couple's substantial contributions to their professional fields and worked to bring about change in their native country, South Africa.


Olive's life story began some 9000 miles away, exactly 36 years before that immigration ruling in Arlington, Washington DC. She was born in 1950 to a farming family on the rich and fertile lands of a rural area in Pietersburg, South Africa. Her family's dwelling place was viciously dragged from under the family's feet in 1965 by the white apartheid administration to make way for white occupants. This period marked the beginning of economic and social turmoil for Olive and her family as they struggled to save and send her to the university.


By the time she enrolled at the University of the North in the early 1970s, her political awareness had become even more heightened in the face of the institution's systemic racist and unjust policies. She soon joined student political movements, organised protests, and not long after came under the ire of the Special Branch. She became a target and had to escape the country in 1975.


Olive arrived in America in 1977, living in a less politically harsh and functional democratic State; she was able to flourish academically, earning scholarships studying in prestigious American institutions. After her schooling, she immersed herself into the service of the predominantly Black citizens of Washington DC who come from low-income backgrounds.


Following the liberation of South Africa in the early 1990s from the clutches of apartheid, Olive returned home to serve her people. She helped the University of the Western Cape establish a School of Public Health and was Research Specialist for the South African Medical Research Council. In 1994 she was appointed as a Special Advisor to the South African Ministry of Health, contributing to her role to restructure the country's health system.


In 2017, she completed a ten-year tenure as the first black female CEO of the HSRC. During her time in the public service, she achieved considerable reforms in providing antiretroviral medication for those infected with HIV. She continues to channel her passion for health care into everything she does to this day. She and her daughter have together established a research program that investigates the application of telemedicine and telehealth. The project aims to provide services to patients in remote and rural areas.

Olive leader

Put the people first and yourself last

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Prof. Olive Shisana

South African

Public Servant


Research Specialist for South African Medical Research Council


Special Advisor to the South African Ministry of Health

2007 - 2017

CEO Human Sciences Research Council 

Awards for her roles as Public Servant

2002 Certificate of Recognition , United States Congressional Black Caucus, Washington

2003 Honorary Doctorate of Law from Monash University, Australia

2005 Scroll of Honour, National School and Technology Forum

2013 Academy of Science of South Africa Science-for-Society Gold Medal

2013 One of the top 100 world-class South Africans

2017 The Order of the Baobab in Bronze

Olive interview

Things You May Not Know About Olive

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

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Displaced and lived in a tent

“... I grew up in the rural areas. Apartheid was something that was academic except when you went to town. We used to go with my father to the farm and we would load the produce into the car and go and sell in town. That's how we got our clothes, that's how we got our tuition for school and so forth, and so, we used to go to town and see how they were treating my father, in particular when he was driving the car. It seemed like he had no right to be in town. Whenever he was driving the car, they would kind of insult him. That began conscientising us. We thought “Something must be wrong in this society. Why is it that we black people, when we go to town, we are told that we can’t drive, we shouldn't be here.” And yet, he was a very conscientious driver for many years…. A time came when we were forcefully moved by the apartheid government. They removed us from Makotopong and we then moved onto the new Makotopong, what is called Nooitgedacht, which fell under Chief Regale. When we arrived there, it was terrible. We were put in tents, it was raining, it was cold. Everything that you can imagine of living in a tent. And after a while, we all started building a home for ourselves with whatever resources we had… We could no longer farm and sell our produce to pay for things. So my father said, “No, let me set up a business.” And he set up a stall. And he set up a general dealer and so forth. And we all had to build it ourselves. I remember I was learning how to drive a big van, I went to the river to get sand and build. After doing all of that, we had enough money now to be able to pay for university education…”



Her role models and the one who got bombed

“... I took that time and went to the University of Natal, the medical section which was the black section. And that's where I met Steve Biko. He picked me up from the train station. He said, “Oh, you're Themba Sono’s younger sister, so let me help you,” because my brother, Themba, used to be with SASO. He took me and drove me to the campus. And shared with me the struggles that they were experiencing. I was like, “Oh, okay, we're not alone in Turfloop. It's not just Turfloop but there are other campuses having similar problems.” That's what helped me to conscientise. So when I came back to the university when they opened it, I became part of the SRC… That trip from the train station to the University of Natal was a defining moment for me. Here's somebody who is an activist and is a medical student. He's very serious about being a medical student but at the same time, he's an activist.… Abraham Tiro was a very important person in our lives because he was the first one that we really dealt with who stood up and said, “This cannot be.” You know, “We cannot be treated the way we’re treated.” And we saw him as a role model. That's why it was so painful when we heard that he was sent a parcel bomb and killed in Botswana. It was a very painful experience because we're like, this was the person we looked up to who said, “Let's carry on, with the struggle.” So he was a really very important person at that time. We were not, at that time, we were not even thinking about the Mandelas, the Sisulus and all that. We were young people looking at where we were. The other person that played a greater role in terms of our own, you know, perception in my own family is my own brother, Themba Sono because he was very tough in terms of the apartheid government. He was not compromising when it came to the apartheid government even though there were times when people called him all sorts of things simply because he said, “Let us work with the Bantusans in order to change this administration. We’ll never change it without getting them involved.” It was only years later that people actually realized what it is that he was saying when the ANC came into power…”



Returned to serve selflessly

“... So when I got back to South Africa, I was given a job at the MRC and it was a prestigious job, but I said okay, I'll work at the MRC part of the time. But the other time I'm going to help the University of the Western Cape to set up a school of public health because public health is so important to have. We all have medical schools, I'm in the area of medicine but we actually don't have a school of public health which is going to prevent the diseases that are going to spread amongst the people in the country… So I took up a part-time job to set up that school of public health with Jakes Gerwel, a great person who helped me do that work… From that, I ended up being asked to serve as the Director-General of Health. First as a special adviser to the minister, then as the Director-General of Health. The first task was to immediately transform the Department of Health so that all the fourteen departments that were there for the different provinces, from the Bantusans and all that, can serve all South Africans. That was not an easy job… The Minister of Health asked me to sit in management meetings in order to influence them in terms of the direction that we wanted to see happen. As soon as I got into those meetings I felt I was not welcome. It was all-men except one woman, all-white except one coloured fellow. And I realized I'm not making a difference. Every time I say something, they just disregard what I say. They didn't even think it was important that I was sent by the minister to sit in those meetings. I told the Minister, there's no way that we're going to transform the health department like this. I can go to as many meetings as you want me to go, but nothing will change. She asked what must be done, and I suggested that we create our own structure that must have both the old order and the new order. The old order has experience in running a service, the new order has knowledge about what should happen to the people of South Africa, positive knowledge… She then agreed…”



People first policies

“... We realised that health outcomes were massively dangerous for smokers. Many people suffered from so many diseases arising from tobacco smoking. So we took up this issue and as soon as we took it up, the British American Tobacco came up and said, "No, no, no you cannot do this because if you do this, there will not be any money for sporting activities, the economy is going to suffer," and so forth. So a lot of people were against it and it wasn't just the BAT and the other companies but it was also the ordinary South Africans who believed in smoking. And felt that if you smoke, it's okay, they'll give you money and you can go watch soccer. We said, "No, no, no you can be able to substitute that, other countries have done that." There is evidence that shows that it actually worked. We presented the evidence and we were steadfast. We were able to make a difference with regards to that. We managed to take that again to the legislation in parliament and eventually made it a point that it was actually acceptable…”



Evicted from nature’s beauty

“... They came in and they said to the community, “We've declared this place a white area and we are going to be using this place from now onward…”. They were going to use it as a bombing range. It is still a bombing range today. They also used the other side of it as a farm. They said you all need to move because we've declared this place a white area. The reason was because the place is so beautiful. It had mountains all around and hills and a river around it. So they forcefully moved us by coming in with the big trucks and they would put everything you have, you know, take you and just dump you in a dusty place. And they didn't even care. And then you found yourself without a place to live. And when it rains, you all get wet. And they didn't care. And the worst part of it is that there was very, very little compensation for your property, so little that you couldn't build a house again with that money. And thank God that the ANC came into power because they were able to restore the land back to us. So we now have that land…”



The narrow escape

“... So when I finished, I decided to take up a job in Tembisa, as a social worker. There again, the discrimination was just intolerable. Whenever the white administrators were to talk to me, they'd talk to me through the window. They came outside and talked through the window. As if, if they came into my room something would contaminate them. I felt like I didn't need to be there… So I started organizing there with the unions, we all started talking as we had had enough. We were planning a strike but then they decided to clamp on me before it could materialize in a big way. I was dating William, my childhood sweetheart at the time. I heard about their plans and I said to him, it looks like we're going to have a problem here. He agreed as one guy had told us that they were definitely looking for me. He had a Chrysler, so we got into the car and he said to me, “You must lie down, I'm going to take newspapers and put it on top of you because they shouldn't see you.” I asked if we could make it and he said yes. As soon as we got out, they saw us and they chased us. So it was a big chase, we drove and drove until we got to Mamelodi. We went there because we needed to pick up something. This was something that we were to need in case we were to get out of the country. And I don't want to say what it was because I think it was illegal… We were going to get shot at if attempting to cross the border, so we had to find a way to get out… So William and I slept in Mamelodi that night and the following morning we said, “No, we've gotta get out here and leave… Before then, after quitting my job, I tried to run my father’s business for quite some time and the police decided to come there. They decided to follow me and my parents were always hiding me in my grandmother’s place. They'd always come and say, “Where is she? We know she's here. We know she's involved in these protests at Turfloop,” and that kind of thing. So my parents figured that it wouldn't be good for me to be there, so they took our pictures for proof that showed that we were alive. They buried them in the garden and unfortunately over time, the people who came in to buy the place built on top of that soil. So I will never get those pictures… So that’s how we left the country through Swaziland and when we got to Swaziland at the border, they looked at the papers that we had and said, “Okay, okay, you can go,” because we got them fraudulently but I won't tell you any details about it. So we got into Swaziland…”



The pain and gains of transformation

“... It was difficult. The newspaper articles were full of so many unpleasant things about us… When we wanted to do the transformation, I brought in someone named Jacob Gale… He came in to moderate the session because I figured out they're not going to trust me because I don't trust them. So I must bring someone else who's independent who can come in and help us through the process. So we had a meeting and we brought in people from different provinces, the heads of government from the different provinces. So when we got to the meeting, this guy asked a question I had told him to ask. He asked them if we need a Department of Health nationally or not. They said, "What do you mean? We have a Department of Health, we've got positions. What do you mean?" He says, "No, no, no, no one at the moment can say there is a National Department of Health… After much persuasion, they all agreed that we don't have a National Department of Health. So he says, "Okay since you want a national Department of Health, how should it be structured? Tell me, what should it do?" And they said, "We must do this," we spent days trying to identify all the things it was supposed to do… When they finished, I said, " This is a new Department of Health, no one has a position in it. Including myself, I don't have a position in it, it's an empty structure. So we're going to advertise for these positions." My goodness, there was uproar all over. "How can she just take over? How can she just take us out of our positions?... This American has come to do this and that… But we were determined that we're going to advertise and we're going to be very quick in our transformation because once they get used to you, you'll never do anything with the transformation. We quickly advertised and filled the positions... I was the last one to be appointed Director-General… Soon Comrade Dullah Omar came to ask me, "I'm struggling to transform the Department of Justice. I'm trying to create the new Department of Justice and these people are objecting."... They were afraid of what they saw happen in the Department of Health… I told him we just did it very quickly and immediately established a new institution. He took a long time to try to understand them, now they know him, they are not going to agree for him to do this… That's why at the time I was not very popular in the Department of Health because they saw what happened. But my popularity in the department came after we had a new Department of Health which brought everybody together regardless of whether they were, black, white, Indian or coloured…”

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



The radical turn

“... So I went to the University of the North, now called the University of Limpopo. And when we got there, we began to feel the real wrath of apartheid. All those things that we experienced when we were young, of seeing it in town, now they were happening right on our campuses. The apartheid government wasn't really that soft on us, so we had Abraham Tiro, who was a leader at that particular time. And he then decided that look, it's not correct for the whites to come in and occupy the front seats at the graduation ceremony when they haven't paid a single penny. For these young (Black) people who are graduating, their parents struggled just to put them here, and yet, the parents have to sit at the back; far from seeing their own children in the graduation. So we participated in the demonstrations. We became radical and said that it shouldn't be the way it is. So we decided to participate and I will never forget the scene, the day they threw us, all of us from the campus. They put in a guard of honour with white police wearing uniform. And with dogs and guns. And they made a guard of honour for us to get out of the hall where we were congregating because we refused to get out so they decided to take us all out to leave. And you felt that if you were to cough or to say something, either the gun is going to shoot you or the dog is going to get you, the bulldogs. And we, you know, we left and dispersed and went everywhere else…”



Still in danger

“... Once we arrived in Swaziland, we thought we were going to stay with someone who my sister had organized that we could stay with. That person soon received a call asking him; “Did you receive people like this… Her name is Olive Sono and her husband, William Shisana, they were driving a Chrysler car. Did you receive them?”. So he asked us to leave, saying we couldn't stay there. He said if he kept us, the Special Branch was going to come and get us. We asked him where we could go and he said to try Mozambique. So we drove to Mozambique. When we got on the road, there was a guy whose name was Garin who asked us for a ride. He showed us around because we didn't know anybody in Mozambique. As we were driving, he was able to communicate with FRELIMO who were all over the road and they had their own little Kalashnikovs… FRELIMO was the liberation movement at the time. So we drove and drove and he negotiated for us all the way. Until when we got there, he then put us up with a brother-in-law and we stayed with the brother-in-law for a while. He then sent us to the United Nations to say that look, you've got to take these people to the UN. And that's how we ended up with the UN. And from there we stayed in Mozambique for about eighteen months. And I tell you, it was a harrowing experience because at a young age, you had all these young soldiers that were trained and they didn't understand what it is to protect anyone. Their job was just to shoot, if they're told they need to shoot. That's all they were trained to…”



Here is $20, don't get lost in New York

“... I left Mozambique and went to Tanzania and the ANC assisted me to get to the United States. I remember they gave twenty dollars, it was Alfred Nzo, the Secretary-General of the ANC and Mandy Msimang, they gave me twenty dollars and said, “Here's twenty dollars, here's the telephone number of the ANC office in New York, don't get lost.” I got there, became a student and started working there. As soon as I had an opportunity, I entered in for a master’s degree, and then a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University. When I finished I immediately organized some of our colleagues in the United States. I said, “Let us go and serve the people of Washington, DC.” Washington, DC is predominantly black. Many experts don't want to go and work from Washington, DC. We're coming from one of the best universities in the world, Johns Hopkins University at the time was one of the top five universities in the world. And I said, “Let us go and work there.” And so several of us went to work there… We all decided to work in Washington,DC and people asked us, “How can you have a degree from Johns Hopkins which allows you to work anywhere else and you choose to go and work in Washington, DC?” We said it’s because that's where most of the people are suffering. We worked in the public institution, with research and statistics, vital records, including all births and deaths recorded in Washington, DC. I ended up being the person who had to register them. So anyone in Washington, DC who died and was born, or who married and divorced had my name on that document… It was important for me to feel that I got to serve the people of Washington, DC…”



Her biggest battle

“... That was one of the biggest struggles that I can say I've ever had in my life… The Minister and I were twin sisters on policy. And what made me so strong in what I was doing on policy was because I knew that once she said, "I agree with this policy," it's going to be implemented come hell or high water. So the backing was strong… We soon decided to take on this struggle with the pharmaceutical companies. The drugs in this country were way too expensive. There are too many people living with HIV that will never be able to obtain the drugs. I went to Lilongwe to represent her in a meeting of the SADC and it involved the issue of drugs and big-time pharmaceutical companies. I took a hard-lined position that you cannot leave Africans to die while you are providing treatment for people in Europe, in the United States because you're afraid of round-tripping of the drugs. Round-tripping means that when they take the drug from Europe, bring them to Africa at a reasonable price, those drugs will go back to Europe and it will benefit the Europeans and they would have lost. I said, "You cannot do that." And secondly, they said people will never comply with medication/adhere to the treatment. It was a fight that people like Mark Haywood, who today is a strong advocate for this, was anti the position I had taken. Our own people that are expected to support me were anti the position. So immediately after that, we had a meeting at the World Health Organisation where there was a debate about public interest versus private interest with regard to the revised drug strategy. And I was leading the team of southern African countries. I realized is that we had the whole world against us and we were so few. So I contacted Ralph Nader in the United States and asked for lawyers from the U.S. that were protecting the public interest to come and back us up. So they set a table outside. While we were busy negotiating, every time there was a question that we couldn't answer, I'd send somebody to go tell them what it is they want and that person comes back. We debated and debated and eventually forced the entire one hundred and ninety-two countries not to take a decision because of the fact that there was no agreement. So, you know, we fought that battle. But eventually, with the skill of Nkosazana Zuma, we managed to take that issue to Cuba. And in Cuba, she managed to get the entire two-thirds…”

Full Interview 

Olive Full Interview
Olive lesson

Servant Leaders must put the people first and yourself last

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"What I would say to people, first of all, ask yourself a question: is what I'm doing going to beneficial to the people of this country or not? If in your own honest assessment, you conclude that this is beneficial for the people of South Africa then do it. If you have any doubts that it will be beneficial to the majority of the people of this country, don't do it, don't do it. Put the people of South Africa first. And put yourself last. That's what you need to do. And if you can do that I do believe we can have a great South Africa. This country has got great resources, it's got great people, it's got great minerals, it's got great, you know, infrastructure that was built especially after 1994. And we're strategically located, weather wise things are good. We've hit so many things that are good, you know, that we can build upon. Let us build upon that and create that South Africa that everybody will be happy to become part of."

Daniel in conversation with

Prof. Olive Shisana




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