Friends, family pay tribute to man who connected American president with Madiba

A tribute at the late Frank Sassman’s funeral service at the Methodist Church in Grassy Park highlighted the role he played in ensuring that America became the first foreign country to congratulate anti-Apartheid struggle icon Nelson Mandela after his release from 27 years of political imprisonment in 1990.

Among others, Mr Sassman had worked as a librarian at Steenberg and Wynberg libraries for many years.

Mr Sassman’s youngest son Ben said: “When Nelson Mandela was released from prison the US government wanted to be the first foreign government to congratulate him. My dad was responsible for making that historical phone call happen between then US president George Bush Jnr and Madiba.”

At the time Mr Sassman had been a United States Information Services (USIS) public affairs specialist at the US Consulate in Cape Town, according to his eldest son Paul Sassman, who said USIS subsequently rewarded his father with its National Employee of the Year Award.

Other speakers at the funeral service included church pastors Harry James and Gino Nel, as well as Janine Floris, who sang a poignant song honouring Sassman, who had been 82 years old when he died of ill-health at the Melomed Hospital in Mitchell’s Plain on May 18.

Other tributes included an ode to Mr Sassman by Nathan Sassman, who was glad that his godfather “could extend a helping hand to politicians, mayors, plumbers, ambassadors, doctors, mechanics, nurses, municipal workers….. (and others)”, through his work.

Tributes came also from Mr Sassman’s former work colleagues, including his then USIS boss and mentor Robert Gosende, who said: “He was not only the finest colleague with whom I had the pleasure of working, but also a wonderful friend.”

Cousin, Mario Davis said Mr Sassman would be remembered for his warmth, infectious presence, authentic character and great sense of humour.

Mr Sassman’s son, Paul Sassman who is principal of EC Primary School in Grassy Park, said his father was born in 1939 in Tokai, near what is now Blue Route Mall, as the fifth of eight children of fisherman Robert Sassman and his domestic worker wife Katherine Sassman.

Paul said when his father was five years old the family had been forcibly moved to Steurhof under the Apartheid era Group Areas Act. There, Mr Sassman attended Central Primary School and South Peninsula High School, before obtaining a Library Science degree at UCT and a degree in Communications from Unisa.

With the family again forcibly removed by the Group Areas Act from Steurhof to Retreat, Mr Sassman met and married his wife Monica. They raised their children, Paul, Benjamin (Ben) and Sonia in Retreat and Lotus River.

Paul explained that his father had worked as a librarian for 14 years in Steenberg and Wynberg, from where he was head-hunted to become the USIS’s chief librarian, and subsequent public affairs specialist – a position he held for 29 years before retiring in 2000.

Mr Sassman then joined the Collaborative Education With South Africa (CEWSA) project, which Paul and three fellow-teachers had initiated five years earlier to distribute free text and reference books to underprivileged children countrywide.

“When dad retired he came on board, because he had more time and the project had become so big that we didn’t have the time to manage it. It ran for almost 10 years and he became involved during the last five years,” said Paul.

“He loved working with people, meeting new people and enjoyed helping people. We got the books from the USA and distributed them throughout the country to places such as Paarl, Oudtshoorn, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town.

“We got the books from a Texas dispensing project. That was just one facet of dad’s life and who he was. He wanted to uplift everybody, because he knew what struggling was about, as his father had been a fisherman and his mother a domestic worker,” added Paul.