Letter from Hobeni, 22nd Sept. 2014

Indian Ocean at Mbanyana

One of the great things about internet access is that you can take part in campaigns, such as the current one about the Exhibit B event at the Barbican, from a great distance.   For those of you who do not know, Exhibit B is a conceptual art event – the concept being that black actors should be kept semi-naked, in a confined space and chained, rather like what the apartheid police did to Steve Biko as they were brutally murdering him.   Brett Bailey, a white South African artist, argues that his purpose is to make people confront racism.   Others say that it objectifies and demeans black people.   It has certainly stirred a debate, if not necessarily in the ways that the artist intended.

My experience of the last two months is that white racism in South Africa has to be challenged.   From what I have seen, voyeuristic interpretations of black people within a racist society are definitely not the way in which it should be done.   The first thing that is obvious about mixing with the white community in Hobeni is that they are deeply grieved.   They feel that they are misunderstood, and that they were forced into compromise 20 years ago by international pressure (sanctions did work) by people who did not understand their situation.

One indication of this was someone singing “Asimbonanga”, a tribute to Mandela which was sung at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.   I said “Oh, Johnny Clegg’s Savuka” and got the immediate response “A song of the enemy and it still is”.   I froze, and really did not know what to say.

But even worse was in the local bar.   A toddler was playing on the floor and someone said “That kid’s got a touch of the tar brush”.   I had not heard that phrase since I was a teenager in Ilford 50 years or so ago and to be specific the phrase I heard then was “a dash of the yid and a touch of the tar brush”.   I had to explain to an American researcher what it meant.   It was the phrase that persuaded me to join the Redbridge Community Relations Council and to help to set up the Redbridge Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (RCARAF).

On this occasion, the problem was easy to solve.   I played with the child.   I pulled faces at her and she laughed, and then she pulled faces at me.   And soon the whole bar was laughing at the two of us pulling faces at each other, and somehow her colour was no longer an issue, except in the mind of the racist who had raised the matter in the first place.   Well, I am sure that it was, but hopefully the people in the bar had learnt that this was a child, and that children should be enjoyed.   This is how you challenge racism.   Not by setting up constructs of exploitation, but simply by rejoicing in our common humanity.   I am so happy that I was able to do something so simple


Letter from Hobeni, 18th September 2014

Abdul MInty, TRevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu and Adelaide Tambo, Nelson Mandela Freedom March 1988

I have just seen a video of a tribute concert to Desmond Tutu that took place in Cape Town a few years ago.   It was magnificent.   Sibongile Khumalo sang “Amazing Grace”.   There was a beautiful rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Suzanne Murphy.   That song is special to anyone who was at the Mandela Concert in 1990 because the crowd started to sing it as he walked on the stage and Ben E. King sang “Stand by me”.   But the moment that was really special for me was when Joe Mogotsi came on the stage to sing “Shosholoza”.   Joe Mogotsi, I should explain, was one of the singers with the celebrated Manhattan Brothers, who brought the joy of their music with them wherever they went.

In April 1994, Joe and I were sitting in the plane next to each other flying to South Africa as part of the ANC team to assist in the election.   The two of us knew that we were going to take part in an historic election, and that the task of teaching people to vote was going to be enormous.   We knew that this election would give back their dignity to those who had been disenfranchised and treated as inferior in every way by the apartheid state.

What we did not know was how dangerous it was going to be.   Johannesburg was an armed camp.   There was barbed wire everywhere.   Armed police were on the streets in force.   This did not instil confidence.   Some police had swastikas on their helmets.   But we all got on with our tasks.   I went to the ANC Office, and handed over the money order that I had hidden inside my sock.   It was for a considerable amount, and I had no intention of letting immigration officials take it off me.   I was then assigned to the ANC Regional Office in Jeppe Street, on the grounds that it was less likely to be a target and I would be safer.

On the Sunday morning before the election, as people were heading to church, a car bomb exploded outside the office.   Nine people were killed, including Susan Keane who was decapitated by a falling sheet of plate glass.   It is often forgotten now that those were the conditions in which we were working, and that people were risking their lives by turning out to vote.

On the plane, Joe and I were excited.   We knew that the ANC would win the vote.   That, however, was only the first task.   The second was to deliver a better life for all.   20 years later, much has been achieved, but there is still much to be done   International solidarity, as ever, is one of the keys to delivering that change.   That is our task.    That is the task of ACTSA, to work for the delivery of a better life for all in South Africa.

An inappropriate remark

Mandela in George Square, 9th October 1003

Alex Salmond has compared the queue of people registering to vote for next week’s Scottish referendum, with the queue of people waiting to vote in South Africa on 27th April 1994.   This is just crass.   No-one in Scotland today has been denied the right to vote by government legislation.   No-one has had their right to vote removed by the government.   No-one in the campaign to secure this referendum has been subject to house arrest, imprisonment, torture, death in detention, exile or has been murdered.   There have been no massacres such as Sharpeville in 1960 or Soweto in 1976, or the many others during the 1980s and early 1990s.

When the people of South Africa queued to vote in 1994, they had endured years of suffering and deprivation of their rights.  They were discriminated against in law because of the colour of their skin, in a way that affected every aspect of their lives.

I was in South Africa in 1994, working at the ANC Office in Johannesburg, helping to turn out that vote, helping to ensure that the people in those queues voted for the first time in their lives, giving them their dignity.   A few days before the election, there was a car-bomb outside the ANC Office, and nine people were killed.

There is no comparison between South Africa in 1994 and Scotland this year.   None at all.

Letter from Hobeni, 12th September 2014

My desk in the library

On 12th September 1977, Steve Biko was brutally murdered by the apartheid Security Police.   Jimmy Kruger, the then South African Minister of Justice, lied publicly about what had happened, claiming that Biko had died because he had gone on hunger strike.   Donald Woods made sure, through his journalistic expose of the murder, that the whole world knew that Kruger was an accomplice in this crime.   That is why Donald Woods and his family had to flee South Africa at the end of that year.

When the family arrived in London, Donald Woods set about getting his books, “Biko” and “Asking for Trouble: the Autobiography of a banned Journalist” published across the world.   This story, of course, became the basis for Richard Attenborough’s film, “Cry Freedom”.   And there can be no doubt that the world was incensed by the story that Donald Woods revealed through his journalism, his books, his talks and the film.   They all played a significant role in the campaign for sanctions against apartheid, especially in the United States.

It is because Jimmy Kruger anticipated this kind of reaction that he lied in his back teeth about what happened.   He even denied that his response to Biko’s death “Dit laat my koud” (“It leaves me cold”) was not true although he said it at a public event.   When challenged on this he claimed that he had been mistranslated.

Donald’s uncovering of the lies being told by the apartheid regime about how Steve Biko died caused a wave of outrage to spread throughout the world.   And it had an immediate effect.   Hilda Bernstein, a South African exile, wrote a short pamphlet, “No 46: Steve Biko” which was published by the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa almost immediately.   Jon Blair, another South African, and Norman Fenton wrote a play “The Biko Inquest” which was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company across the UK.

12th September is a significant anniversary.   Steve Biko’s significance can be found in what he wrote, in the people that he helped to galvanise into action, and in the continuing outrage that the manner of his death unleashed.   South Africa, indeed no country, can afford to lose leaders of that calibre, and that loss is to be mourned.   12th September is a stepping stone on the road to the destruction of apartheid, and the sacrifice should always be remembered.

David Kenvyn


Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

Letter from Hobeni

Donald Woods Foundation,Hobeni 008

One of the pleasures of cataloguing someone else’s book collection is that you get access to books that you have not been able to read before, usually because you did not have the time to do so. In the case of Hilda Bernstein’s “The Rift” it was because I was never able to find a copy in the UK. And remember that I worked in a library, so I had far better access to newly-published books than most people.
“The Rift” is about the South African exiled community, and how they coped with the experience of exile. The book consists of 105 interviews, and the exiled community is divided between the adults who went into exile, and the children who had no choice in the matter. About a third of the people interviewed were or are known to me. Their accounts of their escapes are fascinating, although some are quite harrowing because they were not able to escape immediately, and were arrested and tortured. It is especially the accounts of the children escaping after the Soweto uprising that are deeply moving. Many of them just walked to the nearest border, whether it was Lesotho, Botswana or Swaziland, with no idea of the reception that they would be given by the governments of those countries, or how they were going to survive once they had escaped from South Africa.
There are stories about the building of the ANC complex at Mazimbu in Tanzania, and all the difficulties that people had to deal with on first arriving there because they had to build in from scratch. But the most interesting stories for me are about how people related to their host communities, especially in the UK.
One of the problems for the children who were brought into exile by their parents is that, even when they had become adults, they were always introduced as the child of so-and-so. They were not allowed to develop their own identities. I did this on at least one occasion when I introduced Gillian Slovo as “the daughter of Ruth First, who was murdered by a parcel bomb”. But I had a good excuse on that occasion. It was a library event and she was promoting her book “Every Secret Thing”, which is about her family. I can only hope that on other occasions I was sensitive to people’s need to be their own person.
But what is most striking is that many of these people have gone home, and are helping to build the new South Africa. I have that evidence around me every day at Hobeni. And we owe it to these people, as our friends, to help them in every way that we can. It is easy to make contact again, if we have lost touch, through social networking and then we can find out how we can be of help. This year is the 20th anniversary of freedom in South Africa. So, with ACTSA, build on that freedom, and transform people’s lives.