Category Archives: The struggle against apartheid

For the Joy of Reading: It’s Me, Marah

For those of us who were there on the day, it was an iconic moment.   It is something that we will never forget.   Indeed, songs have been written about it.   It has entered into the folklore of Glasgow.   Tour guides show people where it happened.   On 9th October 1993, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of 9 cities and boroughs in the UK.   It was pouring with rain.   Marah Louw came onto the stage to sing, and Mandela got up and danced with her.   It was the day Mandela danced in the Square.   It was part of his welcome to Glasgow.   It was extraordinary.   It will never be forgotten.   It was the day that Marah Louw entered into the world’s consciousness.   So who is she?  That is what this book is about.

This is the life story of a remarkable woman.   Growing up black and a woman in apartheid South Africa was a double disadvantage, and it took considerable courage to take on the apartheid state.   Marah chose to do this by making a career for herself as a singer, actor and entertainer, and by challenging the laws that attempted to deny her the career path that she had chosen.   She also challenged the apartheid state at the very heart of its ideology by marrying and living with a white, Scottish man inside the country.

As if all this was not enough to deal with, there is a mystery surrounding her birth, which her family are very unwilling to deal with.   This is a theme that haunts the book from the opening to the closing pages.   Marah puts this down to her family abiding by African custom, which is true but it is not just an African custom.   I can assure her of this.   My mother had the same experience and we are a Welsh family.   The common factor, I think, is the Methodist tradition, but I have no evidence for that.

There is much in this book that is a revelation, even to those of us who are well versed in the horror of apartheid.   It is the telling details about the petty spite that hit home the most.   There is one story about how it was assumed that Marah had to be the maid because she was black and she answered her own door.   By that stage, the Group Areas Act had been abolished and she was living with Bill in a comfortable area.   Marah opens the door and is asked to fetch “the madam”.   When the visitor found out that the “madam” was black, she ran away.   And then there are the insults – calling her a “kaffir”.  [It has always struck me that “Kaffir” is an Arabic word, and was probably introduced to South Africa by Moslem slaves from what is now Indonesia.   It is certainly not a Dutch word.   This is perhaps one of the ironies of history].

As this book reveals, Marah has not had the easiest of lives.   Her personal life has been fraught with difficulties and tragedies, as well as with joy and hope and success.   The point is that she has overcome it all.   She has survived divorce, betrayal, shipwreck (literally) and she has had her triumphs.   She was a friend of the great singer Miriam Makeba.    She has performed on stages across the world.   She has sung at Presidential inaugurations, and she has danced with Nelson Mandela.

This book is a celebration of life.   It tells how she has sweetened the waters of our lives.   It tells the wonderful story of the woman who took Glasgow by storm the day that Mandela danced in the square.

Ahmed Kathrada

Ahmed Kathrada was a giant.    His contribution to the international struggle against racism has been matched by very few people.   He and his fellow Rivonia trialists were an inspiration to millions of people across the whole world and across generations, inspiring us to “take up the spear” and to fight against racism wherever we found it.   Especially, he was one of the people who inspired the world to take up the struggle against apartheid, that crime against humanity,, for a period of some forty years.   That was an astonishing achievement when you consider that he spent 26 of those years incommunicado in an apartheid prison.

Kathrada’s picture, with those of the other Rivonia trialists, appeared on posters, on placards and banners throughout the world.   Wherever there was opposition to apartheid, Ahmed Kathrada’s picture was in evidence and was an inspiration to millions as they did what they could to bring down the apartheid regime through sanctions.   And it should never be forgotten that international solidarity was the fourth pillar in the struggle against apartheid, the others being mass action, making South African ungovernable and the armed struggle.

So what was it about Ahmed Kathrada that inspired so many of us to become involved in the international struggle against apartheid.   First, he was not one to shrink from a political struggle because it was difficult and would involve great sacrifice on his part.   He took the very simple stance that racism and its offshoot, apartheid, was wrong and that it had to be opposed.   He was not like the many who kept their heads down and hoped that apartheid would go away.   He was involved, from the very beginning, in organising the mass action that was needed to challenge apartheid laws.   Within his own Indian community he was one of the organisers of the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s.   LIke so many others, including Nelson Mandela, he was arrested and faced prison for his opposition to apartheid laws.   From the very beginning, he was in the forefront of the struggle.

His involvement in the planning and organisation of the Congress of the People, that seminal event in the liberation struggle, was acknowledged by the apartheid state when he was arrested along with 155 others and charged with treason.   The Treason Trial attracted international opprobrium and the 156 trialists became heroes of the liberation struggle.   The trial lasted for four years, and Kathrada was one of those still on trial when the Treason Trial collapsed in ignominy.   The year was 1960.    It was the year of the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations (which meant that it was treasonable to be a member), and the ferocious clampdown by the apartheid state.

Kathrada was not one of those who surrendered.   He did not accept that opposition to apartheid was no longer possible.   He recognised that such opposition would now be illegal and therefore had to be conducted underground.   He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) which became the armed wing of the now illegal ANC.   He became a member of the Regional Command, helping to plan and organise the attacks on power stations and other symbols of apartheid power.   The launch of these attacks on 16th December 1961 was a huge, direct challenge to the power of the apartheid state as Johannesburg and Durban were plunged into darkness.   They attracted international attention with Robin Day, of the BBC, interviewing Nelson Mandela.    They were reported across the world.

The apartheid state responded by introducing the 90 Days Law allowing detention without trial and, following the Sharpeville Massacre, had already arrested hundreds of people.   There was no question that South Africa was in crisis.   In the UK, the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement called its first demonstration in Trafalgar Square, directly outside the South African High Commission.   Then came a disaster.   The whole of the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg, and were brought to trial with the already arrested Nelson Mandela. Ahmed Kathrada was one of the Rivonia trialists.

They were charged under the Sabotage Act, facing the death penalty.   The prosecutor was Percy Yutar and the judge was Quartus De Wet.   The trialists took the decision that the defence had to be a political one, even though this risked their lives.   Nelson Mandela made the speech from the dock that has achieved legendary status.   He represented the position taken by all the trialists, refusing to beg for their lives but stating quite clearly that, if necessary, they were prepared to die.

Much to the surprise of the whole world, Quartus de Wet sentenced them to life imprisonment.   Kathrada was given the opportunity to appeal his sentence.   According to Joel Joffe, one of their legal representatives at the trial, Kathrada refused to do this.   The reason that Joffe gives in his book “The Rivonia Story” is that Kathrada did not think that there was any point in an appeal.   He preferred to take his chances on liberation when it came.   There was a real danger that if any appeal had gone forward, the appeal court might find the sentences to lenient, and impose the death penalty.   Kathrada refused to expose his comrades to this risk.   His integrity would not allow him to do it.   That is a measure of the greatness of the man.

So began the long period of imprisonment.   Kathrada, because he was Indian, was allowed more privileges than his African comrades.   He was supposed to have better food and was entitled to wear long trousers.   There followed a long period of struggle in which he refused these privileges until they were given to his comrades as well.   Kathrada was able to complete five degrees, including history and criminology, while he was in prison.   Slowly but surely the apartheid prison authorities were forced to concede that Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists were human beings.

Worse still was to come for the apartheid authorities.   Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, where the children involved recognised that their leaders were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and the other Rivonia trialists, the apartheid government of PW Botha was forced into secret negotiations.   The example of the Rivonia trialists had galvanised the world.   The campaign for their release was growing.  Barclays Bank withdrew from South Africa.   Chase Manhattan Bank refused to roll over the apartheid debt.   The Commonwealth imposed sanctions despite Margaret Thatcher.   Sanctions were imposed by ordinary people in the UK.   Some 20,000,000 or more people were boycotting South African goods by the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988.   The demand for the release of Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists became unstoppable.

On 15 October 1989 Kathrada, along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu  were released from prison.   Govan Mbeki and Denis Goldberg had already been released.   Along with the Rivonia trialists Jeff Masemola, Billy Nair, Wilton Mkwayi and Oscar Mpetha were also released.   Of the Rivonia trialists only Nelson Mandela remained in prison, and the apartheid regime was preparing for his release and the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations.   This was a victory for the dignity, courage and resolve of the Rivonia trialists, confronted as they were by an appalling and racist ideology, apartheid.

Nor did they fail us in the years to come.   They were old.   They had spent two and a half decades in prison.   They could have claimed that they were tired and rested on their laurels.   They did not do so.   They began that long and difficult process of negotiating the end of apartheid, which culminated on that glorious day, 27th April 1994, when the whole of South Africa went to vote in the first democratic elections held in that country.

Ahmed Kathrada was an MP in that new Parliament, that first democratically elected Parliament in South Africa.   He accepted a post as a Presidential advisor.   He was involved in the drafting of the new constitution.   He helped President Mandela to initiate the process of reconciliation.   When he finally retired from public office, he set up the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, with the express purpose of combatting racism.

Ahmed Kathrada was never a man to choose a quiet life before principle.   Nor did he ever avoid the battle so that he could be safe.   His whole life is a testimony to his morality.   He gave his whole life to the fight against apartheid, to the fight against racism and for the right of people to treated with dignity and honour.   This week we have buried a man whose whole life is a testimonial to what we should aspire to achieve.

Hamba Kahle, Comrade Kathy, Hamba Kahle.

Lucky Ranku

Lucky Ranku was an extraordinary man who had two great passions in his life.   The first was his love of music, and the second was his hatred of apartheid in his homeland of South Africa.   Lucky used his extraordinary talent as a musician to rally people in the battle against apartheid.   In exile in the UK, he, along with Julian Bahula, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, Marah Louw and a host of others, introduced audiences to the sheer joy and exhilaration of kwaito, of township jazz and of South African music.

It did not matter to Lucky what the size of the audience was, whether it was in a small club somewhere in London or in front of 70,000 people at Wembley Stadium.   Lucky always made himself available in the cause of destroying apartheid, and of liberating his people from its tyranny.   This was something that he was absolutely passionate about.   It was something to which he committed his talent and his life.   For Lucky, this was not a sacrifice.   It was simply something that he had to do.   And he did it with great aplomb.   Anyone who heard him play was truly lucky.   This was especially the case when he was playing with his great friend Julian Bahula.

My best memory of Lucky however came after the end of apartheid.   1997 was the 30th anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko, and Action for Southern Africa’s south-east region decided to organise a commemorative concert at the Union Chapel in Islington.   Lucky was one of the first people to come on board, helping to organise the music for the evening.   Others followed his example.   Felix Cross organised a choir to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika” to open the event.   Donald and Wendy Woods gave us a photograph of Steve Biko for the front page of the concert programme.   So many people helped.    But it is true to say that without Lucky there would have been no music, and without music there would have been no concert.

Lucky helped us to organise an extraordinary evening, as he had done so many times.   Music played a huge role in organising the opposition to apartheid worldwide.   It was people like Lucky and his friends who made their music available in the battle against the evil of apartheid.

I am very proud to be able to pay tribute to an extraordinary musician, an extraordinary man.   I am so grateful that I had the privilege of knowing him.

Michael Lapsley: Redeeming the Past

When you lose both hands, an eye, and part of your ability to hear in a letter bomb attack by an agent of the apartheid state, it would be reasonable to assume that you would find it difficult to forgive the people who were responsible for the attack.

Michael Lapsley did not respond in that way.   This is what makes him both remarkable and at the same time deeply human.   To understand what happened, it is necessary to know his story, and that is what this book sets out to do.

He was born in New Zealand, and at a very young age he realised that he had a vocation for the priesthood.   At 17, he went to an Anglican Seminary in Australia and it was there that he was ordained and became a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission   His order sent him to South Africa in 1973, when he was only 24 years of age.   This was the furthest he had ever been from his native New Zealand, and he knew that it was going to be a challenging experience.   What he did not know was how challenging it would be.

[I am of the same age as Michael Lapsley.   At 24 I was actively involved in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, but I was safe.   Events were to show that he was not.   He soon became a target of the apartheid state.]

Michael Lapsley soon found himself involved in two kinds of conflict.   There was the conflict with the apartheid state, which his conscience demanded of him more or less as soon as he set foot in the country.   Then there was the conflict with the members of his own order who wished that he would keep quiet   The only thing that I can find to be said in their defence was that coming into conflict with the apartheid state meant that he was not safe.   The truth is probably closer to their finding his commitment to principle embarrassing.   This was no different to the way in which other Anglican clergy in South Africa were treated if they opposed apartheid.   Trevor Huddleston was called home by his order because Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was embarrassed by his open opposition to the National Party government.

Michael soon found himself forced out of South Africa by the government, and he continued his ministry in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe.   It was in Lesotho that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and so attracted the absolute loathing of the apartheid state.   It was this that made him a target.

The ANC was unbanned in February 1990.   The bomb attack on Michael Lapsley took place in April 1990.   It was one of the first signs that the apartheid regime did not intend to go quietly and, in the subsequent four years of negotiations, something like 10,000 people were killed.

For Michael Lapsley this was a new beginning.   He had to learn how to live without his hands.   We take them for granted when we do simple things like go to the toilet, wash, eat, write, shake hands.   All this had to be learned again.   And for a priest there is the whole process of celebrating the Eucharist – making the sign of the cross, elevating the host and distributing the wafers – without hands.   There was the interminable surgery, the physiotherapy, the adapting to life.   It was the discovery of simple things like door handles could be opened but doorknobs could not.

But most of all there was the way in which Michael Lapsley chose to deal with the psychological damage.   He chose not to hate.    He chose to forgive.   Most of the book is about that process of forgiveness, and especially about his new ministry of the healing of memories.   He now spends his life bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk through their brokenness, and to recognise that they are all damaged.   He uses the visibility of his own brokenness to facilitate the process, whether it is in Southern Africa, Rwanda, Latin America or, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.   In  all these places his compassion has made a considerable difference.

Michael Lapsley does however recognise his own needs and limitations.   Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order, who probably ordered Michael Lapsley’s bombing and the murders of many others, has had a Road to Damascus experience.   He now recognises that what the apartheid state did to preserve its power was wrong, and has apologised for that.   But he is claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what was happening on his watch, and that he was not responsible for it.   [It could be argued that not being in control of his own department means that he was responsible].   Michael Lapsley wants people like this to go much further than they have and to face up to the consequences of what they ordered or let happen.

What we have in this book is an astonishing account of what one person can do if that person sets his or her mind to it.   He says that he is not a saint.   He says that he is very human.   But he has taken the option of not taking the path of hatred.   He has recognised that hatred does not hurt anyone other than himself.   He is trying, through his work at the Centre for the Healing of Memories, to get people to make themselves better, to heal themselves of whatever trauma they have been through.

He is a remarkable man.   His is an astonishing story.   This is a necessary book.


Indres Naidoo: communist, anti-apartheid campaigner, friend.

Nelson Mandela Freedom March, Glasgow, 12th June 1988

Indres Naidoo was special.   People will be able to gather that from all the obituaries that they have seen and read.   His commitment to the struggle against apartheid was unquestionable.   He gave his life to that struggle, and made great sacrifices in the process.

He is known in the UK because of his book, about imprisonment on Robben Island, called “Island in Chains”.   It is a deeply moving book, revealing the daily humiliations suffered by the prisoners and how, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and the others, they slowly but surely subverted the prison system, forcing their warders to respect them.

It was also a book that gave members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, throughout the world, an insight into the struggle which was far beyond our experience, as we had not been arrested and imprisoned in a South African gaol.   It also revealed to us something about the experience of being black in apartheid South Africa which most of us, because we were white, found difficult to understand.   In many ways, it was for us a seminal book.   It was always on our book stalls and our recommended reading lists.   It was a book that helped to mobilise thousands against apartheid.   It was a book that helped to change the world.

But for some of us in the UK, Indres was more than an inspirational writer.  He was seconded by the ANC from their East German Office to the Nelson Mandela Freedom March in 1988.   This was the march organised by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1988 to celebrate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela, and to demand the release of all South African and Namibian political prisoners.   It also called for the independence of Namibia, the imposition of sanctions against apartheid and the end of the apartheid system.

For those of us who joined this march from Glasgow to London, it was a privilege to march alongside Indres Naidoo.   He was inspirational.   His dedication to the struggle was infectious.   His good humour helped to keep us on our feet, literally so, on some occasions.

The march was long and tiring.   Even those of us who had, sensibly, trained to walk several hundred miles found it so.   People injured their ankles, calves, knees or thighs, in some cases permanently.   It was usually Indres who led us off each morning with the cry of “Amandla Awethu” [Power to the People], and kept us going by telling stories to whoever was marching within earshot alongside him.

I do not wish to over-emphasise the importance of the Nelson Mandela Freedom March.   That will be for others to judge in years to come.   It was, however, part of a campaign that helped to mobilise millions in the UK in the struggle against apartheid.   Indres made his special contribution to that mobilisation by the way that he worked to encourage the marchers on a daily basis.   That is a contribution that should not be forgotten.

Indres’ political commitment derived from his lifelong membership of the South African Communist Party.   It was this, coupled with his anger about apartheid, that gave him the willingness and commitment to enter the struggle.   It was this that kept him involved despite everything that the apartheid state threw against him.

Indres Naidoo was a remarkable man.   I am proud to have known him, and to have worked alongside him in the struggle against apartheid.

Hamba Kahle, Indres.   Hamba Kahle!!!

Nelson Mandela International Day, Glasgow 2015

Mandela and Brian Filling (2nd photo), 9th October 1993 Mandela at City Chambers, Glasgow, 9th October 1993 Mandela in George Square, 9th October 1003 Mandela, Mara Louw and Brian Filling, 9th October 1993 Mandela, saluting the crowd, George Square, 9th October 199318th July, which is Nelson Mandela International Day, has become special in Glasgow. His birthday was designated by the United Nations in 2009 as a day to celebrate his dedication to public service, giving 67 years of his life to that cause. The United Nations asked people to dedicate 67 minutes of the day to volunteering in their communities, as a tribute to the man.

Nelson Mandela International Day is special in Glasgow because of the long connection that the city has had with the man. In 1981, Glasgow was the first city in the world to make Nelson Mandela a Freeman of the City. And this was when he was still in prison. The Lord Provost of Glasgow organised a petition of 5,000 mayors throughout the world to the United Nations calling for the release of Mandela. Glasgow renamed the street in which the apartheid consulate was based Nelson Mandela Place. The consulate refused to use the name and eventually had to close – the only apartheid diplomatic building in the whole world to do so. In 1988, the Nelson Mandela Freedom March set off from Glasgow to London. And, of course, in 1993 Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedoms of nine cities and boroughs in the UK. George Square was crammed with people, and when Marah Louw sang, Nelson Mandela got up and danced with her, in a magical moment that no-one who was there will ever forget.

As in every year since its inauguration, people in Glasgow rose magnificently to the task of doing something special on Nelson Mandela International Day. ACTSA scotland decided that they would send a container of 50,000 children’s books from City Chambers, George Square, Glasgow on the day. This, of course, meant that the books had to be donated, collected, sorted and packed before they could be loaded onto the container. Collection points were set up in the Mitchell Library, and 5 other libraries in Glasgow. The STUC acted as a collection point. Episcopal Churches (that is, the Anglican Communion) in the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway collected books, and got them to one of the collection points. By the time that the day came, volunteers had packed the books into thousands of boxes, ready to be loaded onto the container. The basement of Hillhead Library was the storage point.

At 10.00am on 18th July, the volunteers assembled in the car park of Hillhead Library. Some of us went down to the basement and started loading the boxes onto trolleys to be taken to the bottom of the stairs. From there, a human chain moved the books, like pass the parcel, up the stairs, across the car park and onto the container. John Nelson, our organiser, was interviewed by STV. The basement was emptied, the container filled and it set off for George Square for the official send off.

In George Square, Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner sent the container on its way to the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. We then went into City Chambers to hear speeches from Glasgow City Council, the STUC, the High Commissioner and South Africa’s Honorary Consul in Scotland. The music was supplied by Charlie and the Batchelors Jazz Band. Magnus Walker, a young Glaswegian baritone, ended the event by singing the South African National Anthem.

2018 will be the centenary of Mandela’s birth. Perhaps we should all start thinking about how we are going to celebrate.