Letter from Cape Town, 19th November 2014


Mandela's cell, Robben Island

I am having a week’s holiday in Cape Town.   On the day I arrived, the South African Parliament descended into chaos.   This was entirely coincidental.   It was obvious that the vote on the Nkandla report in the Parliament would be controversial.   It was entirely predictable that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would use the occasion to make a vocal protest.   It should not have been difficult to have planned the response.   The Speaker should have suspended the sitting, called all the party whips to her office and found a way of taking parliamentary business forward with the consent of as many of the parties as possible.   She did not do this.   The police were called into the Parliament in a scene reminiscent of Pride’ Purge.   And no-one is admitting responsibility for doing this.

None of this is anything to do with solidarity work.   We are in the fortunate position of being able to continue with our people to people solidarity work, and we do not have to deal with the distasteful scene in Parliament or the chaos currently taking place in COSATU.   These things are not within our remit.

What is within our remit is some of the very practical things.   We are in a position to ensure that school and public libraries, and especially those in the remote and desperately poor rural areas, have enough books on their shelves.   Community HEART (www.community-heart.org) has done sterling work in this area, sending some 3,000,000 books over the last 20 years, but more books are needed.   There are still school libraries in places like Elliotdale that do not have a single book on the shelves.

We are in a position to lobby against funding being withdrawn from organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign (www.tac.org.za), so that they can continue their work around HIV and AIDs.   We are in a position to help the Donald Woods Foundation (www.donaldwoodsfoundation.org), the Health Train of Hope (www.trainofhope.org) and similar organisations in delivering health programmes to the rural poor.

We are in a position to help organisations like the Kronendal Music Academy of Hout Bay (www.kmahoutbay.org), the Msanzi Youth Choir of Soweto (www.mychoir.co.za) and others that encourage young people to develop their musical skills.

We can do all these kinds of things and so much more by giving financial support and by giving support in kind.   The financial support, of course, includes encouraging others much richer than ourselves to make donations.   I have learned over the last few months that Donald Woods was an expert at this, and he did not worry about making approaches to the rich and powerful.   He reasoned that the worst they could do was say “No”.   And the benefits, if they said “yes” would be enormous.

So, with Christmas approaching, identify your local celebrities and send them a begging letter asking them to support the cause in Southern Africa of your choice.   And don’t forget that you should include ACTSA as one of your beneficiaries.


Table Mountain from the Marina, Cape Town


Letter from Hobeni, 12th November 2014


A view of the garden at HobeniThe garden at the Donald Woods Foundation, Hobeni, again

Dillon Woods is clearly a man who believes in the future.   He has spent the last few days planting trees at Hobeni.   Only someone who has an absolute faith in the future plants trees, especially trees that will not mature in the lifetime of the person planting them.   Some of the scenes yesterday were very odd.   A tree walked past the library window which is on the first floor.   Either it was Birnam Wood on its way to Dunsinane, or it was Treebeard the Ent.

The planting of metaphorical trees by the Donald Woods Foundation is a very important part of its work.

First, there is the tree of health.   The Foundation is running a programme called “Health in Every Hut” on behalf of the government.   Community workers are travelling to every house and homestead in the region, identifying people who need treatment for diseases such as diabetes and HIV, and helping them to get such treatment.   The scheme also deals with mother and baby healthcare issues.   The Foundation is helping to ensure that a preventive health scheme is available in this area of the Eastern Cape.

We are also working on the tree of education to ensure that the doors of learning and culture are open to all.   The library is now almost ready for public use.   There are over 1,000 books and 4,000 documents available in the library.   An appeal is going out for children’s books, books in Xhosa and books on the history of South Africa in general and Xhosa history in particular.   The library will be a resource for the local community here in Bomvanaland and beyond to assist with literacy campaigns and education in general.   And this resource will be available to generation upon generation.

Another tree being built is the tree of the economy.   The foundation is running a scheme to inoculate livestock against disease.   The local farmers are delighted with this because it creates a huge improvement in their livestock, and that is of benefit to the whole community.

There are many other ways in which the Donald Woods Foundation is helping to improve the lives of people in the Transkei – too many to detail.   In these ways the Foundation is helping to nourish that tree of liberty that was planted in South Africa twenty years ago, on 27th April 1994.

And, as Burns put it:-

“Wi’ plenty o sic trees, I trow,

The world would live in peace, man;

The sword would help to mak a plough,

The din o war would cease, man.

Like brethren in a common cause,

We’d on each other smile, man

And equal rights and equal laws,

Wad gladden every isle, man”.

Donald and Wendy Woods would be so proud of what is being achieved.

Letter from Hobeni, 6th November 2014

My desk in the libraryMandela in George Square, 9th October 1003

A young South African, possibly young enough to have been a “born free” after the 1994 elections, asked me if I thought the struggle was over.   My unhesitating reply was “No”.   So, I had to explain.

It seems to me that the struggle has got to a second stage. I first read about this in the question raised by Agostinho Neto, the first President of Angola.   He asked “What would be the point of all this struggle, if all that we achieve is that our masters have black faces?”   And it was certainly the case that, during the 1980s, people were arguing for the two-stage struggle.   The first stage was the achievement of national liberation, and the second was the achievement of economic empowerment.

The first has been achieved, but on the second there is a long way to go.   It strikes me that it is essential in any society for people to have decent housing, enough food, access to education and medical care, clean water and a host of other things that we in the west simply take for granted.   People, in my view, are entitled to a lot more than this but this is, very crudely, the essence of social democracy.   The state ensures the stability of the existing society by giving the majority of people a decent standard of living.

South Africa has made considerable progress in transforming people’s lives.   I shall never forget walking down a township street which had pavements and street lights.   On my previous visit, it did not.   And it was a lot safer.   But South Africa has a long way to go.   Living in a rural area has brought that home to me.   I am living in some comfort, if not the lap of luxury.   There is electricity here.   I do not have to walk to the stream to get water.   I have enough to eat.   I have a comfortable room, and access to a flush toilet.   In South African terms, I am rich.

And I want everyone to be rich like me.   In my view, the greatest challenge facing the South African government is this: How is this to be achieved?

One of the methods tried has been Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).   This kind of action worked for the Afrikaners in the 1950s.   Afrikaner economic empowerment was one of the bedrocks on which apartheid was built, and it worked because there were relatively few people to be empowered, and so many to be disadvantaged, to achieve success.   For BEE to be successful for the vast majority now, it would require massive state intervention, ensuring the censure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Perhaps we need to campaign, to challenge the current economic orthodoxies of these institutions and to insist that they take social responsibilities into account when drawing up the economic rules.   Actually, there is no “perhaps” about it.

And how did my young South African react to my answer.   He replied “I am glad you said that”.

Letter from Hobeni, 30th October 2014

Inidan Ocean and thorn tree

Ah! But this land is beautiful!

This is a story of petty and vindictive spite.   It is the story of someone who is so frightened of people knowing the truth that he regards telling the truth as incitement to rebellion.

On 21st November 1975, Donald Woods wrote an article called “A Message for the Teenagers” as part of his series of syndicated columns that appeared in the “Daily Dispatch” and several other South African newspapers.   It was a message to first time voters.    The coloured population of Cape Province, that is people who were designated by the racial classification laws as neither black nor white, had been given voting rights, and these were enshrined in the constitution of the Union of South Africa.   The apartheid government, elected in 1948, decided to remove these voting rights.

The Appeal Court upheld the right of the coloured population to vote despite the attempts of the apartheid government to remove them.   Donald Woods then went on to tell the shameful story of chicanery and gerrymandering in the South African Parliament, by which the constitution was amended and the coloured population of Cape Province was disenfranchised.   Woods compounded his offence by pointing out the ridiculousness of racial classification, as many of those most enthusiastic for such divisions were not as racially pure as they liked to profess.

Woods ends his article by advising teenagers to reply to apartheid politicians’ jeering that no-one in South Africa has been deprived of the vote, that the coloured community of Cape Province have been so deprived.   He does not use the phrase, but he advises them to speak truth to power.

This article prompted N. G. Hawson (an English-speaking man or woman) to write on 25th November 1975 to the Department of Justice as follows:-

“I enclose an article by the Editor in last Friday’s Daily Dispatch.   I find the paper revolting in the ultra liberal black ideas which it continually puts forth.   For this reason I do not buy it very often, except on a Friday for the advertisements.   I feel that the article “Amessage [sic] for the teenagers” is nothing less than incitement to rebellion, and that something should be done about it.   I presume that you have to be careful with a man of this type, but it would be very acceptable to many East Londoners if you could clip his wings in some way.”

Two years later, the Minister of Justice, Jimmy Kruger, did just that.   Donald Woods was subjected to a banning order.

What Hawson objected to was young people being told the truth about what was happening in South Africa and, of course, being encouraged to challenge lying by authority figures.   Hawson was deeply authoritarian, deeply reactionary and deeply unpleasant.

In my view, we need more journalists across the world, like Donald Woods, speaking truth to power, and if they incense the N. G. Hawsons of this world, so much the better.

Letter from Hobeni, 26th October 2014

Mandela, Mara Louw and Brian Filling, 9th October 1993Mandela in George Square, 9th October 1003

I have now completed one of the key tasks of my trip to South Africa.   Copies of the programme for Nelson Mandela International Day in Glasgow 2014 are now in the possession of the Mandela Museum at Qunu, near his birthplace at Mvezo in the Eastern Cape.   It was at Qunu where he grew up, herding the cattle of his guardian, Jongintaba, the regent of the Thembu boy king, Sabata Dalindyebo.   The museum is situated on a hill, looking across the river valley to the Amathola mountains, and the scenery is truly stunning.

I was able to join a delegation that was visiting the Donald Woods Foundation on the trip to the Museum.   We went to Mvezo on our way to the Museum, and then we drove past the Mandela house on our way to Qunu.   We also visited Jongintaba’s umzi or Great Place, and saw the rondavel in which Mandela lived as a teenager after his circumcision ceremony, and before he left for Johannesburg.   We met the Nkosi (Lord), the great-grandson of Jongintaba and his Makhulu (grandmother), the wife of Mandela’s cousin and Jongintaba’s son, Justice.   It was very moving to meet someone who had known Nelson Mandela as a boy, and who had played with him.

When we got to the Museum we were greeted by Xhosa traditional women singers and dancers, who sang songs of welcome for us, and danced waving their walking sticks in the air.   One of the women had a girl tied to her back in a shawl, which is the traditional method for carrying babies amongst the Xhosa.

I saw a photo-opportunity immediately, and asked the Museum staff if I could do the handover then and there, and if someone could translate what I was saying into Xhosa for the benefit of the singers and dancers.   And the Museum staff agreed without hesitation.

So I told everyone that we had celebrated Nelson Mandela International Day in Glasgow this year in style.   I said that we had been joined by his grand-daughter, Tukwini Mandela, by the Msanzi Youth Choir from Soweto, by the South African Commonwealth Games Team, by Hugh Masekela, by the South African High Commissioner and Government Ministers.   I said that we had a day-long celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela.   I said that I was delighted, on behalf of ACTSA Scotland, to hand over copies of the programme for the day’s events to the Mandela Museum.

And then I told them that I was going to salute Nelson Mandela in the manner traditional for anti-apartheid activists in the UK, and clenched my fist into the ANC Salute, and said “Amandla!” [Power!].   Voices from all around me replied “Ngawethu!” [to the people].   And then I was surrounded by women, in their traditional costumes, hugging me, and holding my hands.

I still know how to cause a riot.

Letter from Hobeni, 23rd October 2014

Xhosa men's danceXhosa women dancing

I have just had a very pleasant surprise.   I was sitting in the library with the doors open, forging through a pile of papers, when I heard a familiar voice saying “David?   David from London?    David from the Anti-Apartheid Movement?   What are you doing here?   Do you remember me?   I am Skin”.

The last time I saw Skin Sipoko was in Edinburgh in 2004 at the “10th anniversary of Freedom” festival.   And before that it was in a coach of ANC volunteers being taken to Wembley for the 1990 Mandela Concert.   Skin was at that time working with Dali Tambo in Arekopaneng, the ANC cultural unit.   He is now one of the drama tutors here at the Donald Woods Foundation in Hobeni.

He told me that he wanted his class to see “Cry Freedom” because it was important for them to understand who Donald Woods was and what he did in the struggle against apartheid.   But, Skin said, he did not know where he could get a DVD of the film.   I replied “We have three copies here, and we have a TV in the library”.

So we arranged for his class to come and see the film, and we gave an impromptu talk about the role of solidarity in the liberation struggle.   The film was longer than I remembered, which is odd because I watched it on the plane journey from Amsterdam to Nairobi on my way to South Africa, and that was only at the end of July.

But what is more important is that there is a group of young people who now know why Donald Woods is important, and they now know that he came from this village in the Transkei, that he was born in the house at the centre of the Donald Woods Foundation, and that he grew up speaking Xhosa and English.   And they know about his friendship with Steve Biko, and that when Biko was murdered it was Donald Woods who campaigned to expose what had happened.   And that he was banned, his family was attacked and that they were forced to flee the country to exile in London.

And now they will be able to tell their friends the story.   And young people here in Hobeni, in the Transkei, in the Eastern Cape will come to understand why the Donald Woods Foundation is here, and why it is working in this area.   And so the ripples of solidarity will spread as we stand side by side throughout our lives.

And all because I met an old comrade from Arekopaneng

Letter from Hobeni, 18th October 2014

Indian Ocean again

It is said that a nation that does not understand its history is doomed to repeat it.   In South Africa, or at least around Hobeni, part of this nation does not know its history, let alone understand it.

One person expressed astonishment that people are not allowed to buy tracts of land in Bomvanaland, which is the part of the Transkei where Hobeni is.   This person went on to add that it has always been the case, and is nothing to do with apartheid or colonialism. Well, yes and no.   Before the white settlers arrived in this area after 1820, the Bomvana, like all the Xhosa speaking peoples, did not have a concept of individual ownership, because the concept of Ubuntu concentrated everything into the hands of the community.   There is a Xhosa phrase which translates roughly as “I am who I am because I am part of a community”.   The British, finding the Bomvana harder to conquer than anyone else, conceded community land ownership as part of the settlement and that is still in place today.   Perhaps we should learn something from the Bomvana about the importance of community, instead of worshipping individualism.

Someone else, who is too young to remember apartheid, said “There is no work here.   Why don’t people up sticks and go to the city and find a job?”   So I had, patiently, to explain the effects of the pass laws and the Group Areas Act.   People did exactly what he was suggesting and they were arrested, imprisoned and returned to their Bantustan.   Whole communities were forcibly removed from areas designated “for whites only” and taken to places like Dimbaza, where no preparations had been made, where there was no clean water and where the children died of typhus and cholera in their hundreds.   You pass by Dimbaza on the way from East London to Hobeni.   Moreover, in the cities, there was no housing provision for people seeking work, which explains the growth of the informal settlements.

The most disturbing conversations, however, are with people who think that reimposing the death penalty is the solution to crime.   There is no understanding of the revulsion at this idea that some people feel because of the judicial murders under apartheid of people like Solomon Mahlangu, Benjamin Moloise, Clarence Payi and countless others.   There is no point in arguing that some of the most violent societies in the world have the death penalty and some of the least violent do not.   So when dealing with one particularly rabid white advocate of the death penalty, I said “So, you agree with Winnie Mandela”.   This presented him with a dilemma.   He either had to revise his opinion of the death penalty or he would find himself in agreement with Winnie.

I did not win the argument, but it was wonderful watching the shock on his face as the implications sank in.   I managed not to laugh out loud!