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.


Some Photographs of Hobeni

The house and Hobeni village Donald Woods Foundation LibraryThe beach at Hobeni The river near Hobeni

The garden at the Donald Woods Foundation, Hobeni, againMy desk in the libraryT

Top left: The Donald Woods Foundation and Hobeni Village

Top right: The Donald Woods Foundation Library

Middle left: The Indian Ocean at The Haven, Hobeni.

Middle right: The Mbashe River at its estuary

Bottom left: The gardens at the Donald Woods Foundation.

Bottom right: My desk in the library.

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.

Letter from Hobeni, 9th August 2014

Donald Woods Foundation,Hobeni 008

I am here in Hobeni volunteering as a librarian at the Donald Woods Foundation Library and Archive. Donald was the journalist who exposed the murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid security police in 1977 and, following attacks upon his family, was forced to flee South Africa and came into exile in the UK with his wife, Wendy, and his five children – Jane, Dillon, Duncan, Gavin and Mary.

The Donald Woods Foundation HQ is in Hobeni because it is where Donald was born. It is on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean in the Transkei. To get there, you turn off the highway from East London to Mthatha at Bashee Bridge and drive down dirt roads, interspersed with sections of tarmac, for a considerable distance. The drive is through the Amathola Hills, and the scenery is absolutely stunning. Hobeni is on the section of the Indian Ocean called the Wild Coast which I first visited with a party from ACTSA Scotland 10 years ago. It is an area that has considerable tourist potential, with very good hotels along the coastal walk route. And the coastal walk is a relatively easy one. It is getting to the hotels along the dirt roads that is the challenge, but that only adds to the adventure. And if you are relatively fit, it is something that you can do without any real difficulty.

The other thing that I have noticed about the area is that there seems to be a considerable amount of new housing. I have been told that there is a plan to build 15,000 new houses in this part of the Eastern Cape, and that so far 1,500 have been built. I do not know, for sure, what the completion date is for this plan, but I think that the target is the end of this year, which will be a considerable challenge as they have only achieved 10% so far.

So how is the library progressing? Well, I arrived one day before the books and papers got here. This gave me time to get the library and archives catalogue databases set up, including testing that they actually work. 28 boxes of books and papers arrived here last Tuesday, and so far I have catalogued and classified 281 books, and 261 newspaper articles. It is clearly going a long time.

I was woken this morning by a hawk calling overhead. That’s Hobeni for you.

Letter from Hobeni

Donald Woods Foundation,Hobeni 005I have been busy since arriving here at Hobeni. The library now physically resembles a library. All the books are catalogued and classified, and are on the shelves. As with most libraries, I have divided the books into fiction and non-fiction. The fiction, as always, is shelved in alphabetical order of author’s surnames, and the non-fiction is ordered in a very simplified form of Dewey Decimal Classification. There are approximately 1,100 books in the library.
I have now begun to look at the paperwork. There are thousands of articles either by or about Donald Woods and his friendship with Steve Biko, who was murdered by the South African security police in a particularly brutal manner. I have just come to the press reports on the film “Cry Freedom” about the two men. I had forgotten that Sir Richard Attenborough was verbally abused by Margaret Thatcher at an event that they both attended, and that some right-wing Tories asked that he be stripped of his knighthood. It is finding material like that which makes me realise that what I am doing is worthwhile. It is a small detail, but it is a part of history.
Hobeni itself is on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean, and it is very beautiful. We have a lemon tree in the garden, on which the fruit is currently ripening. One of the Australian volunteers, a doctor, generally gets a braai [a barbecue] going at night, and we sit there by the warmth of a fire in the middle of a South African winter. That has stopped over the last day or so, because there is a gale blowing in from the Antarctic, bringing the cold and the rain. It is a bit like being in Glasgow. Apart from the lemons, and I am sure the is not doing them any good. It is, however, the last throes of winter.
Hobeni is also in the middle of nowhere. The nearest shops are 40 kilometres away over dirt roads. That is a 50-60 mile round trip. There is a hotel on the Indian Ocean in Hobeni on the Wild Coast. The road makes getting there quite an adventure. There is also a school and a hospital/health clinic, but that is it.
There really is not anything else to tell you. I am enjoying myself enormously. It is a privilege to be working on the books and papers of a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle like Donald Woods.

A review of Ben Turok’s new book

Ben Turok: With My Head above the Parapet
A review by David Kenvyn

Anyone who knows Ben Turok would expect his book, reflecting on the 20 years since the end of apartheid to be perceptive, witty, acerbic and honest to the point of brutality. Which it is. And which is why it is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand present day South Africa.
.Ben has spent the last 20 years as a Member of the South African Parliament, representing the African National Congress. He was a Treason Trialist in the 1950s, then a political prisoner and fled the country to spend years in exile in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and the UK. He has without question dedicated his life to the liberation of his country, and this is what makes this book so interesting.
In the six chapters of this book, Turok analyses the Mandela presidency, the Mbeki years, the rise of Jacob Zuma, his own work as an MP and an activist, the “malaise” that he considers to be affecting the ANC, and the way forward.
Turok argues that one of the failures of the Mandela presidency was the delivery of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and its replacement by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR). The abandonment of the RDP was, Turok argues, the time when that ANC deserted radical economic strategies for the orthodoxies supported by the IMF and the World Bank. Turok regards this as detrimental to the transformation of the economy for the benefit of the majority of South Africans. He argues that Black Economic Empowerment should not just apply to the few, and he is clear that “trickle down” does not work.
Turok is also concerned about the lack of capacity of the ANC to deliver political education. He has made considerable efforts to run programmes in the Parliament to enable MPs to come to understand the political and economic environment in which they operate, but he is concerned that this has not been delivered at branch level. One of the areas of difficulty that he cites is the failure of the ANC to publish political education leaflets for their members. He feels that this is a key area in which the ANC is failing its members to the detriment of future political activity.
He is also concerned about the levels of corruption that appear to be affecting the ANC in government at every level. It appears to me that this is an area in which we British have to be very careful before leaping to judgements. We have a hereditary head of state, a government that is chosen from four or five fee-paying schools (incidentally, these schools claim charitable status and we subsidise the parents heavily) and two universities, land ownership concentrated into the hands of the descendants of thieves, brigands and murderers, or people who obtained ownership by bribery and corruption, or by sleeping with Charles II. It seems to me that we are in no position to condemn other countries as corrupt, when it is so endemic in our political system that wed do not even consider the possibility that it is so. Turok, however, is right to be concerned about the situation because this means that something can be done to address the problem before corruption takes root. And, as the chair of the parliamentary committee on ethics and standards, Turok has led the charge, taking successful action against a number of ministers and officials.
Turok is also clearly not enamoured on the current administration. He particularly dislikes the demagoguery and populism which is Jacob Zuma’s style at mass meetings. He is critical of the singing of inflammatory liberation songs such as “Umshini Wam” which has become a trademark of Zuma speeches. He is also dismissive of what he describes as the opportunism of Julius Malema.
This, however, is nothing to the criticism that he launched publicly against The Protection of State Information Bill, which he describes as “unnecessary” and “overkill”. Turok did not vote for the bill and as a consequence received a document from the ANC charging him with “counter-revolutionary conduct”. Unsurprisingly, Turok found this offensive and he says that it was only the intervention of Pallo Jordan that persuaded him to respond in an appropriate manner. He was eventually brought before an ANC disciplinary committee, chaired by Derek Hanekom, and the charges were dismissed.
All this sounds as if Turok only has criticism for the ANC record as government. This is not the case. He is justifiably proud of what has been achieved in terms of service delivery, such as housing, access to clean water, education and a host of other areas. He argues however that there is still much to be done to deliver the second phase of transition – a change in the balance of economic power – following the success of the struggle for national liberation. This requires a radical shift in priorities for the economic management of the country, and Turok is very aware of that. He does not believe that this can be achieved by the waving of some kind of magic wand. Turok believes that the transformation of the economy is a long-haul objective.
One of the things that I am aware of is that, in such a short review, it is more that possible to distort the subtleties and intricacies of the arguments that Turok puts forward. The need to simplify can mislead. That is why I would urge people to try and read this book themselves.
There is, of course, one problem with this. The book is published by Jacana Media in Cape Town and I have no evidence that it is available in the UK. The marginalisation of African publishing is, of course, another matter.

Letter from Hobeni, South Africa

Elliotdale Technical and Commercial Senior Secondary School is one of the schools that serve the Hobeni area. It was started in 1997 as the result of a community meeting, convened by the local chiefs and the Bomvana Chamber of Commerce. The school faces challenges, one of which is the lack of flushing toilets for the 800+ pupils. There is no school library, a lack of computer equipment and a shortage of teaching and non-teaching staff. The headmaster said that the average class size was 100. Despite all this, the school has a consistently increasing examination pass rate.

There is a high rate of pregnancy amongst the female pupils, which has dropped recently. There is also a high rate of dropouts from school because of pregnancies and because of insufficient transport. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the pupils’ parents are predominantly illiterate, which limits their ability to contribute to the education of their children. The apartheid state did not educate the parents because their role was to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. It was not considered necessary to educate them.
Elliotdale is a typical school. Many of its problems are beyond our ability to help. But there is one thing that we can do something about. It has no library. There is a room for a library, but no books to put on the shelves. We can help to ensure that, through the ACTSA Scotland Book Appeal (www.actsascotland.org.uk) that these books are delivered. At Elliotdale, they are looking in particular for books on mathematics and the sciences, but books on any subject will be a help. Books that assist the pupils in learning English are vital. The pupils do not get much opportunity to practice their English, and are therefore lacking in confidence in the use of this language, which affects their ability to learn as there are virtually no textbooks on any subject available in Xhosa. This is especially the case in mathematics and science, and, of course, English.

The transformation of a society takes a long time and depends on the ability to educate its children. If they cannot understand the language of instruction, they cannot learn. To understand the language of education, they need to have books so that they can learn to be comfortable in their schooling. Send books.