Tributes pour in…

President Jacob Zuma says the courage and fighting spirit displayed by struggle veteran and former SABC boss, Zwelakhe Sisulu, should be used as inspiration in the battle against the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

“We have laid a good foundation in the past 18 years [of democracy], but the struggle continues against poverty, inequality and unemployment. That struggle calls for the type of sacrifice, dedication and commitment that Comrade Zwelakhe displayed. It calls for supreme loyalty to the … country, which we also learn from Comrade Zwelakhe’s legacy,” said Zuma at Sisulu’s funeral service on Saturday.


ZWELAKHE Sisulu paid his dues for his role in the fight for liberation, said South African Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe.


The Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution (Casac) conveyed its condolences to the family of journalist and activist Zwelakhe Sisulu. Sisulu died on Thursday, aged 61.


“This is a tragic loss to many people like me who crossed his path,” said former journalist and head of communications at City of Johannesburg, Jabu Tugwana. Tugwana worked with Sisulu at the New Nation newspaper where Sisulu was a founding editor from January 1986.”Being led by a person of his calibre was a privilege. He was soft-spoken and very engaging.”


Tributes: From sister-in-law Elinor Sisulu

n the wake of the shock and devastation of Zwelakhe Sisulu’s untimely death, it has been a comfort for his grief-stricken family, especially the young ones, to hear different friends, colleagues and family members recounting their interaction with Zwelakhe, his work and the projects that fired his imagination. 

We were deeply moved and uplifted by the SABC memorial held on 11 October, where we heard from Joe Thloloe, who spoke of Zwelakhe’s leadership of the Media Worker’s of South Africa (MWASA) and the persecution they faced in the dark days of apartheid media censorship. 

Former SABC board member Brigalia Bam, former SABC staffer Hope Zinde and current deputy chairperson Pippa Green, gave fascinating accounts of the challenges Zwelakhe faced when he took up the reins as the first post -apartheid CEO of the SABC, at the time a propaganda government mouthpiece, riddled with apartheid spies. 

Jonty Sandler recounted his interaction with Zwelakhe in setting up New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL) while Danie Ferreira spoke of more recent business ventures. The Secretary-General of the ANC paid tribute to Zwelakhe’s contribution as an activist from a prominent ANC family. In an uncharacteristically emotional eulogy, Thabo Mbeki spoke of how he had always regarded Zwelakhe as a little brother whose loss was against the order of nature. 

Zwelakhe’s eldest brother Max could not hold back his emotions as he too spoke of the pain of losing a young brother at the official funeral on Saturday, 13 October, saying Zwelakhe should have followed protocol and not jumped the queue. 

Makaziwe Mandela described how bereft she felt at the loss of yet another brother.  Nephew Shaka Sisulu recalled how his uncle treated them as equals until there was a task to be done, when he would speak authoritatively. Nomvuyo Mdladlamba, sister of Zwelakhe’s wife Zodwa, gave an intensely personal account of Zwelakhe as a humorous and caring husband and father who could always be relied on.  

Friends and struggle comrades, Priscilla Jana, Vusi Khanyile and Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke reminisced about the to Zwelakhe. President Jacob Zuma, who gave the main tribute, praised Zwelakhe’s courage and fighting spirit, saying these should be used as an inspiration in the battle against poverty, inequality and unemployment. 

I could not help smiling to myself when Priscilla Jana, family lawyer and close friend of the Sisulu family gave her tribute. I recalled how, shortly after the launch of my biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu in December 2002, she, called me to give her feedback on the book. 

She said she liked the book and thought it was very well written. “But I have one criticism,” she said. “You did not say enough about Zwelakhe.” She then went into a long description and analysis of Zwelakhe’s contribution to the liberation struggle and the persecution he courageously endured.

A tribute to Zwelakhe would not be complete without mentioning his wife Zodwa who gave him over thirty-four years of love and unstinting support.
The irony was that I had written more about Zwelakhe than any of the other Sisulu children because he was such a central figure in the political struggles of the 1980s. 

He had shot to international prominence as an activist and a newspaper editor who suffered banning, arrest and detention at the hands of the apartheid regime. There was therefore far more information on Zwelakhe in the public domain than any of his siblings. 

I pointed out to Priscilla that indeed, Zwelakhe’s story was compelling and significant but I was not writing his biography but that of his parents. I pointed out that Zwelakhe was a far better writer than I and would hopefully one day write his own biography. 

Sadly that day never happened. Zwelakhe was far too private and humble a person to write his own autobiography. He always deflected attention from himself and never talked about his achievements. 

The tributes at the prayer services at the family, the memorial service and the funeral provided a trip down memory lane and a sense of the legacy of Zwelakhe Sisulu. We were amazed by the breadth of Zwelakhe’s interactions with a wide variety of people from different walks of life. 

We learned things about Zwelakhe that we did not know and for the young people in our family, especially those born after the demise of apartheid, the experience was also an exercise in inter-generational transfer of knowledge. 

Zwelakhe was the middle sibling in his family and in many ways he played a central role in family life. Joe Tholoe said Zwelakhe has charisma. “When he walked into a room, everybody noticed. He had presence. When he spoke people listened.” This sentiment was echoed by a number of those who paid tribute to him. 

He used this presence to further the interests of the organisations and institutions in which he worked. He also used this presence to great effect in family life. I will never forget how, when our eldest son Mlungisi passed away unexpectedly in 2008, my husband had to travel to London to arrange for repatriation of his body. 

Zwelakhe took charge of getting our shocked and grief-stricken family to pull together to make the necessary funeral arrangements. Each and every family member has a personal story about how he helped them in times of need.  His passing leaves a deep chasm at the heart of the Sisulu family. We will miss his wonderful sense of humour, his generosity, his integrity, his leadership and his gravitas. 

A tribute to Zwelakhe would not be complete without mentioning his wife Zodwa who gave him over thirty-four years of love and unstinting support. Zodwa has worked quietly in the background, never drawing attention to herself. 

Like her late husband, she has been dedicated in her own quiet way to a life of service spending forty years as a radiographer at Chris Hani Baragwanath because her commitment to the public health service has been so strong. 

She has found the time to be active in an array of community activities, in addition to being a pillar of strength to family members in times of need. We will try by all means to reciprocate at this difficult time.

Elinor Sisulu is the Author of the book titled – Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In our lifetime and she was Zwelakhe’s sister- in-law.

Obituary of Zwelakhe Sisulu

(December 1950 – 4 October 2012)

ZWELAKHE SISULU was born in Johannesburg on 17 December 1950. His father, Walter Sisulu, elected Secretary-General of the African National Congress in 1949, was attending the organisation’s annual conference when his wife, Albertina gave birth to their third son. Zwelakhe was literally born into politics.

The family home, 7372 Orlando West, was a mecca for ANC leaders, with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo among the visitors and favourite uncles to Zwelakhe and his siblings, Max, Mlungisi, Lindiwe and Nonkululeko.

Zwelakhe had happy memories of his early childhood years.His antics often led to clashes with his disciplinarian mother, but he was a favourite of his paternal grandmother Alice Manse Sisulu, as well as his father’s sister Barbie and her children, Gerald and Beryl.

In response to increasing political repression and concerns about Bantu Education, Walter and Albertina decided to send their children to school in Swaziland. Zwelakhe, who was only ten years old at the time, went to St Christopher’s in Swaziland.

Following the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the subsequent banning of the ANC and PAC, resistance leaders were intensely persecuted, and Walter was forced to go underground. Sadly, his mother and sister died shortly afterwards, leaving Zwelakhe devastated by the loss of his beloved grandmother and aunt, and the absence of his father. To add to the trauma, both his mother and brother Max were detained under the new 90-day detention law.

Albertina and Max were only released after the Rivonia raid, when Walter, Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested. After the Rivonia Trial Zwelakhe learned from the principal of his school that his father had narrowly escaped the death sentence and had been sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, while Max had gone into exile, joining Gerald, who had left a year earlier.

Albertina always maintained that Zwelakhe was more affected by his father’s imprisonment than any of the other children. Zwelakhe conceded that he became an angry, aggressive young teenager who ended up being expelled from school.

Shortly before his 17th birthday, Zwelakhe felt as if a cloud had lifted. He began to read voraciously and completed his education at Orlando High where he became increasingly politically active.

Zwelakhe started his career as a junior cadet for the Rand Daily Mail in 1975, one of an inaugural corps of black trainee journalists. During the June 1976 uprising, he witnessed police piling corpses of school children into the yard of Orlando Police Station. He described it as the worst day of his life
Meanwhile he lost another family member to exile; his sister Lindiwe left the country after 11 months of detention and torture.

After a stint at the Eastern Province Herald in Port Elizabeth, Zwelakhe returned to Johannesburg. In 1977, following the banning of the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), Zwelakhe was one of the founders and first president of the Writer’s Association of South Africa (WASA).

In 1978 Zwelakhe become news editor of the Sunday Post and married long-time sweetheart Zodwa Mdladlamba.

As president of WASA, which would become the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA), Zwelakhe was at the forefront of the 1980 industry strikes. In 1981, he was banned and placed under house arrest.

Later that year he was detained for 250 days. When his three-year banning order was lifted, he received the prestigious Nieman Fellowship, which enabled him and his family to spend a year at Harvard.

Zwelakhe believed that for newspapers needed to reflect their social reality of the people. This concept, which he called “people’s journalism”, was the driving philosophy of the newspaper he founded and edited from 1986 onwards. The New Nation rapidly gained popularity as “the People’s Paper”.

On 29 March 1986, Zwelakhe gave the keynote address at the National Education Crisis Conference in Durban. Some believed this marked the moment when he moved out of the shadow of his iconic parents, and became a leader in his own right. Unfortunately it also made him even more of a target, and he was detained in December 1986. He was released after 720 days under severe restrictions, which were only lifted shortly before his father was released in October 1989.

Following the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, Zwelakhe became his Personal Assistant for two years.

As democracy dawned in 1994, Zwelakhe was appointed Chief Executive of the SABC, with the daunting task of turning what had been a state broadcaster into a public broadcaster. Those who worked with him remember him as always being ready to talk, and to listen. He engendered a feeling that the SABC belonged to everyone.

His commitment to journalism never faltered – he joined the Independent Newspapers Advisory Board between 1996 and 1998. But he also expanded his management skills, completing an Advanced Management Programme at the Insead Institute in Paris.

In 1998 he left the public sector to head up NAIL’s (New Africa Investments Limited) Media Company in 1999, later becoming Chairman of NAIL in 2001. He spent the last few years nurturing businesses interests across Africa in a number of sectors, including media, publishing, agri-business and mining. He had a passion for the creation of sustainable new businesses.

Zwelakhe received numerous awards, from a range of prestigious institutions both at home and abroad. He was a patron of the arts, and involved in a number of projects to promote African works of arts, literature and music.

He will be missed by his family, his friends and his community for his sense of humour, even in the darkest times. He was a pillar of strength to his family, always ready to assist those in need.

He is survived by his life-long love, Zodwa and their children Moyikwa, Zoya and Ziyeka, his siblings, nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and nephews, as well as his beloved grand-daughter Lilitha.

Memories of a Memorial Service

Yesterday, the family of the late Zwelakhe Sisulu was met by over 500 fellow mourners and well-wishers attending his memorial service at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Johannesburg. Heartfelt tributes were delivered by speakers including Joe Thloloe from MWASA, former IEC chairperson Brigalia Bam, Hope Zinde, and Pippa Green from the early days of a transforming SABC, Jonty Sandler a co-founder of NAIL, business associate Danie Ferreira as well as ANC Sectraty General Gwede Mantashe and former President Thabo Mbeki. SABC Ben Ngubane opened the proceedings, whilst Gabu Tugwana, a former colleague at the New Nation and Jo’burg Communications Exec presided over the Service. Father Mkhatswa, former Tshwane City Mayor, opened with a prayer punctuated with tales of their past work together. Soothing attandees between Tributes were the SABC Choir. The memorial was open to the public and offered the last moment for many to pay homage to Zwelakhe before his funeral tomorrow.

Funeral and Memorial Service Arrangements

The Sisulu family wishes to advise that the funeral service of the late Mr Zwelakhe Sisulu will be on Saturday 13th October 2012.

The funeral service will commence at 9am at Walter Sisulu Hall in Randburg, Johannesburg. Walter Sisulu Hall is located near the corner of Malibongwe Drive and Hans Schoeman Street.

Memorial Service: The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) will be hosting a Memorial Service in honour of Mr Sisulu on Thursday 11th October at Renaissance Centre at SABC TV Park at 1:30pm. This Service will be open to all.

Tributes: “We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and sympathy that we have experienced since the passing of our beloved brother late last week”: Mlungisi Sisulu, Zwelakhe’s older brother, expressed the family’s appreciation for the support received to date. Further tributes may be sent to the family via email at

Mr Sisulu, aged 61, died peacefully in his sleep in his home in Sandton, Johannesburg on the morning of Thursday 4th October from diabetes-related complications.