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Revisiting the struggle against apartheid
A Lynn

Marion Grammer acknowledges the significant contribution made to the liberation struggle by the teachers, writers and intellectuals behind the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), the first organisation in South Africa to adopt the principle of non-racialism, which debunked the myths about African ‘inferiority’ and administered ‘an antidote to the poisonous indoctrination of apartheid. It was ‘the politics of anti-imperialism and non-racialism learned from the Unity Movement’, says Grammer, that ‘provided the impetus that sent young people marching and protesting and fighting for democracy in the 1970s and 80s’.

The distortion of history by omission has occurred throughout the ages and nowhere has it been more evident than in the rewriting of South Africa’s recent post-apartheid history in school textbooks. During the Apartheid years, and even before, when the history taught in our schools was the version forced on us by our oppressors, there were those teachers – teachers in the true sense of the word – who took a world view of our human heritage in order to debunk the myths about African ‘inferiority’ and to administer an antidote to the poisonous indoctrination in our society.

These intellectuals and writers in the liberation movement were actively involved in the struggles in the educational and sporting arenas. However, in some supposedly reputable accounts of the history of South Africa’s recent past, reference to these movements are either suppressed completely or treated cursorily by academics and historians, who are either unaware of, or who have chosen to ignore the considerable contribution of bands of teachers in the schools of the oppressed from the mid-forties onwards in promoting non-racialism in the schools.

In school history textbooks for example, reference is made to the Freedom Charter of the ANC, by implication the first (and only?) programme of the liberation movement in South Africa. There is no mention of the Ten-Point Programme of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), which preceded the Freedom Charter by twelve years (see later). It was the NEUM that in 1943 took the revolutionary step, in the South African context, of adopting the principle of non-racialism, which rejected the idea of the existence of different human races. Non-racialism also became the guiding principle of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA) and the Cape African Teachers’ Association.

History-teaching in the ‘schools of the struggle’, i.e. in academic institutions, in organisations, in the trade unions, in educational fellowships, in sports organisations, had to counter the myths underlying the poisonous racist policies at that time. These people, often at great personal cost, knew that only by knowing and understanding our true history could we acquire new meaning in the liberation struggle. One of the tasks of the liberation movement was to show that the concept of western civilisation was a fallacy, as Ben Kies’ seminal ‘The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation’ so effectively illustrated. In this lecture (1953), Ben Kies also ‘exposes and demolishes the myth of race.’ (Livingstone Mqotsi: An Archaism and a Divisive Myth).


Ben Kies was one of the founders of the New Era Fellowship (NEF), which was formed in 1937 as a sophisticated socialist debating society where issues of imperialism and capitalism were connected to inequality and racism. It became the single most influential training ground for students and workers at the time. Goolam Gool was the chairman, Ben Kies the vice-chairman. The NEF viewed itself as both highly academic and political, and the general theme was solidarity of all oppressed non-Europeans throughout the world, not just South Africa.

Kies was also a founder of the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department (Anti-CAD) movement and the NEUM. He obtained a BA and MA degrees from the University of Cape Town, then taught for many years at Trafalgar High School. He edited The Education Journal, mouthpiece of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA). When he was fired from his teaching post in 1956 because of his political views and activities, he studied law and as a barrister became one of the best known human rights lawyers in South Africa. He was a man of formidable intellect and his influence was profound in these movements.

It was at the NEF that Richard Dudley, in 1941, and many others then and later, began their political awakening, influenced by speakers such as Goolam Gool, Jane Gool, Isaac Tabata and Allie Fataar. At the age of 20, Richard Dudley emerged from the University of Cape Town with a BSc, MSc and a teacher’s diploma. He taught at Livingstone High School for 39 years and his influence on countless students as a highly respected educator during that time is legendary. Banned in the early 1960s and prohibited from participating in political activities, in grudging recognition of his superb teaching abilities, he was never banned from the classroom.

During this period Isaac Tabata published ‘Education for Barbarism’ (Tabata, 1959) and Edgar Maurice wrote ‘The Colour Bar in Education’. (Maurice, 1957). Tabata’s central intellectual argument was the concept of the ‘slave mentality’. He wrote in 1947 that ‘the deception of the people is a strong weapon in the hands of those who govern, and men have to liberate their minds (his emphasis) and see through these deceptions before they can launch a determined struggle for liberation.’ (Tabata Papers – cited in ‘Education, Politics and Organisation’, Chisholm, Linda)


This organisation was also started in 1943, to counteract the government’s setting up of the Coloured Affairs Department. A conference of ‘Coloured’ organisations, including political bodies, sports clubs, community organisations, church groups and others, was convened. There were representatives from the TLSA, the NEF, the APO (African Peoples’ Organisation) etc.

The conference agreed on strategies to combat the Coloured Affairs Department. This department was a further means of segregating ‘Coloureds’, just as they had done to Africans, with legislation and the initiation of the Natives Representative Council. Frank Grammer, a senior Livingstone teacher was a leading member and organiser of the Anti-CAD. So too was Helen Kies, a teacher at Harold Cressy High School and a prominent member of the TLSA. She later became and still is, the editor of the Education Journal whose motto is: ‘Let us live for our children’.


From the Anti-CAD and the All African Convention in 1943 was born the NEUM, which totally transformed the political terrain. Probably for the first time it gave the continent of Africa an organisation with a clear political programme. The Ten-Point Programme encapsulated the minimum demands for participation in a democratic society. It included among others: The full franchise; free education at the age of sixteen; freedom of speech, press and movement; the right to own land; penal reform and the rights of workers to organise themselves. Non-collaboration – the refusal to participate in or work the instruments of their own oppression, became a cardinal feature of the movement.

By 1963 the state had stifled political organisation and silenced political work. A decade of political repression ensued and the unity Movement suffered from bannings, detention and other forms of harassment. A sustained assault was also mounted on teachers, but the grassroots struggle continued.

It has been argued that these organisations by 1976 had largely become irrelevant because of their rigid and dogmatic adherence to the principles of non-collaboration and non-racialism. That they had alienated themselves from large swathes of young people in the townships because of their unwillingness to engage in a more active way with the oppressors. That they were too elitist and highbrow for the ‘common’ man and woman.

However, there can be no doubt that the men and women of the liberation movement devoted their lives to opposing racialism and collaboration with their oppressors. They had a profound effect for more than three decades on the lives of many people during some of the darkest periods of South Africa’s history. They taught, above all, critical thinking, a refutation of the idea of white superiority and that there was just one race, the human race. There were accusations that they were too narrowly based, that they should have moved beyond education and ideas. Their uncompromising adherence to their principles brought criticism from some quarters; accusations that they only nurtured the best and the brightest, but this is a narrow view. There were many who did not go on to become active politically during the struggle, but who still felt that their lives had been profoundly changed by their contact with these teachers.

In spite of their emphasis on education for democracy rather than liberation before education, the politics of anti-imperialism and non-racialism learned from the Unity Movement provided the impetus that sent young people marching and protesting and fighting for democracy in the 1970s and 80s.


In 1984, Richard Dudley resigned from teaching and became president of the New Unity Movement (NUM), to intensify the struggle for non-racialism and non-collaboration. He did not let up after the negotiations of the early 1990s that led to the end of apartheid and the first democratic election of 1994. In 1993, Dudley’s one-time Unity Movement comrade, Dullah Omar (who became the Justice Minister in the ANC government) sent an emissary to sound him out about becoming the minister of Education, but he declined, citing, once again, non-collaboration, and his belief that the ANC historically did not represent or fight for a classless society.

He and his comrades did not support the discussions that began in 1985 between the ANC, National Party, Anglo American Corporation and selected members of the West. Within the boundaries of NUM’s anti-imperialist worldview, the only possible outcome of such talks was a capitalist country that adhered to the edicts of imperialism through the dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Rightly or wrongly, Dudley and many of his comrades did not vote. They saw the African National Congress (ANC) government as selling out the progressive principles of the 1955 Freedom Charter.

In 1998 he was invited to lunch with President Nelson Mandela who hoped he might be willing to help persuade ‘coloured’ voters to vote for the ANC rather than for the National Party, their erstwhile oppressors. This is what he had to say to Mandela:

‘Now look, in the first place I am not a coloured person. I said that other people have classified me as that but I am not a coloured person. I am not a coloured leader. I said that I had for the past fifty years been associated with a political movement that does not accept these classifications, and has consistently fought to unify the people in this country and to establish a South Africa where such things are completely irrelevant … I said to him that I will never, never surrender the political position that I have been supporting for the past fifty years. I will never want people to vote as coloured persons … He (Mandela) said that he understood readily what I was telling him, and he was satisfied that I had spoken candidly in regard to this.’

(R.O. Dudley interview, 2003 cited in Wieder, Alan, ‘Teacher and comrade: Richard Dudley and the Fight for Democracy in South Africa’)


South Africa is described as a non-racial democracy, yet the concept of different ‘races’ is still widely accepted. Teachers are required to racially classify themselves and their pupils, according to their ‘perceptions’ of themselves! The ANC bases all policies on the firm belief that the South African population comprises four distinct ‘racial’ groups.

A quote from the writings of Ben Kies might be a fitting end. He wrote: ‘The deception of the people is an art of government which has been practiced by every ruling class since the dawn of society. Oppressors have used whips and chains; they have used torture, bullets and prisons. But their most important weapon has been the enslavement of the mind.’ (B.M. Kies: ‘Background of Segregation’) (Cited in ‘The Education Journal: July-September 2007’)


* Marion Grammer was born in Cape Town, South Africa. She is an accountant and works for a Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Sydney, Australia.  She writes fiction and occasional social commentary.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


Chisholm, Linda (1991) – Education, Politics and Organisation: The Educational Traditions and Legacies of the Non-European Unity Movement, 1943-1986 Transformation 15
Rassool, Joe (1997) – Notes on the History of the Non-European Unity Movement in South Africa and the role of Hosea Jaffe (Article)
Wieder, Allan (2008) – Teacher and Comrade: Richard Dudley and the Fight for Democracy in South Africa State University of New York Press
Education Journal: April - May 2003 (p. 8)
Education Journal: July - September 2006 (p.8)
Education Journal: April - June 2007 (p.5)
Education Journal:July - September 2007 (pp. 3,4,13)