South Africa


A son’s tribute to a son of South Africa, Max Coleman —  a man of deep principle

A son’s tribute to a son of South Africa, Max Coleman —  a man of deep principle
Black Sash and Detainees' Parents Support Committee members Max and Audrey Coleman, 18 September 2009. (Photo: Russell Roberts/Sunday Times)

A memorial service was held on Wednesday to honour the anti-apartheid activist, who died on 16 January 2022. Here is a tribute from son Neil, delivered at the service.

Programme director, leaders of Kagiso Trust, comrades, friends, and family, especially my mother Audrey Coleman, I greet you as we celebrate and commemorate the life of Max Coleman. 

Our mother Audrey was crystal clear when we planned this memorial that she wanted the memorial to be a celebration of his life, and not a sad affair. She also did not want a service which lionised or hero-worshipped my father as an individual. She, together with the family, see his contribution as part of a large movement of people who heroically fought for justice in our country; a struggle which now falls on our generation, and the next, to complete. 

But as is often the case, it is only since his death that we have come to fully appreciate the significance of his life. The extent of our father’s legacy is reflected in the outpouring of love since his passing. The family has received a flood of messages, and countless posts on social media. 

In this spirit, we want to remember the people and communities our dad worked with, what his work and values represented, and what those values still mean in today’s South Africa.

Many will remember Max for his role in the 1980s and early 90s, the darkest years of repression — the incredible role he, my mom Audrey, and many activists in the detainees’ movement played in supporting detainees and their families, exposing repression, and campaigning against the growing ruthlessness of the apartheid state, as the system became more unstable, and therefore increasingly vicious. 

See the video link up to the memorial service here:

Fellow activists around the country built detainees structures which both supported detainees and their families, and acted as protection for clandestine resistance activities by communities, at the height of repression, when most organisations were banned, and activists hounded.

Many activists cut their teeth building the detainees movement, including fine leaders who have passed on, such as Sophie Masite, Jackson Mthembu, and Graeme Bloch; as well as leaders who continue to play an important role in society, such as Amos Masondo, Barbara Creecy, and Daphne Mashile, and a number of others present today. 

We also have with us, physically and virtually, many survivors of detention and police brutality, including Connie Seoposengwe, Cheryl Carolus, Zwelinzima Vavi, Pravin Gordhan, Popo Molefe, my brother Keith, and of course Frank Chikane, who we nearly lost.

The few months we spend in detention was like a parking fine, compared to what many activists experienced (a severe one though!)

We honour those who have passed and pay tribute to the activists who continue to pursue the struggle for justice. 

We also want to recognise that this week was the 40th anniversary of Neil Aggett’s death, the trade union activist who was killed in detention, joining many others brutally murdered by the apartheid regime.

In this article, Neil Coleman pays tribute to his father. Photo: SUPPLIED

The values our father so courageously fought for under apartheid remained relevant as we entered the democratic era, and he continued to feel passionately about human rights and justice. While Max was proud of the achievements made, such as our democratic constitution, and certain progressive laws and policies, he remained concerned that, as stated by my parents after they received the Luthuli Award, “the freedoms South Africans fought for are not the freedoms enjoyed today”. 

My dad was not interested in palace politics or in factions and would have been disgusted by the shenanigans we are seeing unfold in the once-proud liberation movement. He was less concerned with who belonged to which camp, and more interested in what the movement and its leaders were doing to improve people’s lives.

My father hated corruption and dishonesty. He had to deal with an act of petty corruption by a so-called ‘leader’, who defrauded the DPSC; and later went on to grand scale corruption and looting in the Free State.

The best way to honour Max, and his generation of principled comrades — the Sisulus, the Tambos, and others who rose from the crucible of struggle — is to develop a new generation of servant leaders — leaders whose mission it is to serve, and not benefit personally from their positions.

Max was not an ideologue, concerned with high theory. He would have fully agreed with liberation icon Amilcar Cabral (later echoed by Chris Hani) who said: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. . .”

Neil’s brother Colin Coleman (centre) with Max and Audrey Coleman during his 55th birthday party on October 28, 2017 in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / John Liebenberg)

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that he supported, and recognised the importance for instance of a National Minimum Wage, and Universal Basic Income. He was a strong supporter of workers’ rights and recognised the critical role of the labour movement and other mass-based organisations. We are honoured to have leaders of the major federations here today.

My father strongly disapproved of economic policies aimed at benefiting an elite, and which disadvantage the poor. He recognised that trickle-down economics which maintained structures of economic privilege could only perpetuate the disadvantage caused by systems of class, race and gender oppression. 

In the statement issued by my parents after the Luthuli awards, they call for rekindling of the vision of an egalitarian, non-racial South Africa. In his letter to our family, the President undertakes to honour this commitment.

 The best tribute the government can pay to the memory of my father is to announce the introduction of a basic income guarantee for all adults so that no family in South Africa has to go to bed not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

Max Coleman hated injustice, hated inequality, hated poverty, and saw them all as a form of violence. 

His hatred of injustice applied not only to South Africa. He had a keen sense of justice for oppressed peoples everywhere. Therefore it is no accident that his last public speech — when he and my mom received the Sataghraya award — was to call for freedom for the people of Palestine.

At the same time, he was an optimist. The last book he wrote — at the age of 89! — was called Africa in Today’s World, facts and figures of the continent whose time has come. In a message received from Premier David Makhura, he indicates that he was reading this book on the same weekend that my father passed away.

Max was a highly principled man. He taught us values, as children and adults, not by speaking them but showing us what it means to live a principled life. He was utterly uncompromising when it came to acting on his beliefs.

Nevertheless, Max was a man of few words. Our father didn’t pronounce his values or opinions from the rooftops. Indeed, he was often the last person to speak, if he spoke at all. He preferred to live his values, and to be a backroom boy but sometimes the force of circumstance thrust him into the limelight.

My dad was in firm control of his ego. Ten or so years ago he was approached by a prominent person who wanted to nominate him for a Presidential award. He refused, saying there were many people who deserved it more than him! This is the type of man our father was.

He was a humble doer of great deeds. 

My father showed huge respect for people from all walks of life, listening deeply to people, respecting them, and engaging with their lived realities. He was never an elitist. Compare this to the contempt some of our leaders show for ordinary people. 

 According to a tribute received from Joe, a DPSC worker

“He was humble with great authority, a sharp listener and team worker.  A man with lots of wisdom and a great intellectual.  We learned from his actions and decision making. Some of us came to the DPSC without formal education but he never undermined anyone’s standing. He treated us all equally.”  

Joe adds:

“I will always remember him as the greatest human being I have ever interacted with in my whole life as a political activist.”

My father’s greatest hero and confidante was my mother, Audrey. He, together with all of us, was in awe of her energy, her incredible organisational ability, and her compassion. While my father was often the public face, my mother was the relentless dynamo who the security police dreaded. Wherever there was a crisis my mother was there, whether it was some small prison in a remote Eastern Cape area; or in Boipatong after the massacre; or ministering to hundreds of child detainees.

My father and mother were a formidable combination. Far from the saying ‘behind every successful man stands a woman’; my mother was never behind anybody. My dad’s total respect for my mom, and her work, was a role model for all couples. They were a strong woman and a strong man, marching together.

Delegates to a Detainees Parents Support Committee conference in the 1980s: Mkhuseli Jack is on the far left, with Neil and Max Coleman (2nd from right and far right). Photo: SUPPLIED

Sometimes his exposure to so many activists landed my dad in embarrassing situations. Because he had contact with numerous people, but didn’t know all their names, he would say “how are you comrade”, when in doubt, for fear of offending them. When he did this at a party one time, the person turned around, and said “excuse me comrade do I know you?!” He had the good humour to laugh at himself when he relayed this incident.

Our dad believed in the fundamental goodness and kindness of humanity. Max Coleman certainly knew that people were capable of evil: he had lived through a world war, apartheid crimes, and much more. But he promoted a similar theory to the one articulated by historian Rutger Bregman that, contrary to much popular wisdom, and apparent evidence, humanity has the unique benefit of a kindness gene. And the family has experienced enormous kindness after my dad’s passing.

Max always educated us, from a young age, to understand that people are fundamentally good and that they are shaped by their circumstances. He helped us to understand that society needed to be transformed if people’s full potential were to be realised. And as a scientist, he was in awe of the possibilities that the world offered, if those in power were prevented from abusing people and the planet.

As the brothers chose our life paths, he gave us his unconditional support, remained proud of us, but wanted to make sure we stayed on a righteous road. 

Towards the end of his life, he struggled with old age and ill-health; but he never lost his respect and kindness towards people. Especially his grandchildren and of course his beautiful wife — as he always referred to her — who never failed to bring a smile to his face. 

In their statement after receiving the Luthuli award, my parents say that we look to future generations, and hope that the Coleman grandchildren, will be part of this future. We hope they and their generation take forward the values our father represented. We now leave it in their hands.

Max Coleman embodied the popular expression: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Well, our dad did something. DM

Neil Coleman is Co-Founder and Senior Policy Specialist at the Institute For Economic Justice (IEJ)


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