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An expatriate interlude of a young academic in apartheid South Africa

By John Lea - posted Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Six years teaching at a South African university before the watershed of the Soweto riots in 1976 conditioned my outlook on life in several ways, not the least being the realisation that there is an ability in individuals to change the course of history. Life for some of these special people ended briefly and in violence but others were spared to experience the outcomes for which they were searching. Meeting two such men while on a student visit to Johannesburg in 1962 led me to go back and teach at the same university a few years later.

It is 50 years ago since I landed at what was then Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg on a student-organised charter flight. I was one of some 80 Cambridge University undergraduates who had been offered the opportunity to work for a few months in the country by way of an introduction to South Africa. In my case I had an academic purpose too and had arranged to collect data for a minor thesis on the citrus industry. Part of the deal was that we would be offered initial and temporary accommodation by a South African host but I had no idea who this would be, nor of the special significance of this visit for my own career.

On arrival we were met at the airport by the President and local committee of the South African Union of Students who ushered us into a room where we were given several powerful and disturbing addresses about political and social conditions and the limited boundaries of academic freedom. My first thoughts were that the content of what we were being told was much as I expected but the fact that it was possible to say so in public was a revelation. Two of us were then taken to a large and rather old house in Parktown, a leafy suburb adjoining the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand. It had seen better days, having once been favored as a grand neighborhood during the mining boom of the 1920s but was now threatened with redevelopment.


Our host was Dr Robin Farquharson (1930-73), a brilliant and eccentric South African academic whose Oxford DPhil thesis exploring the sincerity of voters led toa highly regarded book on the theory of voting and the establishment of something called the Farquharson-Dummett conjecture. We knew nothing of this of course, nor of Robin’s close connections with South African political activists, or that he was suffering from severe mental illness, or that Nelson Mandela would be arrested in Johannesburg within a couple of months.

It was nevertheless confronting in itself to hear that we were to be introduced that evening over dinner to an activist friend and university student by the name of Denis Brutus (1924-2009). Denis came from a mixed race background that was labeled “colored” in apartheid terminology and had been a university English lecturer for many years. He was currently studying law at the University of the Witwatersrand and was Secretary General of the newly formed South African Sports Association, a body formed to promote the interests of all sportspeople regardless of ethic identity.

Shortly before we arrived Denis had written to the head of the International Olympic Committee requesting that the South African Olympic organisation be expelled. Naturally this did not endear him to the South African government. Although Denis was not “banned” until the following year he told us that he was watched constantly by the security police and that they were probably outside the house now. He advised us to be careful, as our names would likely have been listed. 

We were apprehensive that our dramatic introduction might end up in speedy deportation unless we found somewhere less controversial to stay. This realisation was soon confirmed the following day when Robin asked me to accompany him in a van to the offices of a lawyer friend in the city whose furniture he wished to remove. I was happy to do so and waited in the van while Robin went inside. After some minutes there was a bang on the door and a black uniformed traffic policeman asked me in Afrikaans what the hell I was doing (I’m sure it meant something like that). I replied that I was waiting for the driver who was coming back shortly. This did not satisfy the law and I was unceremoniously hauled out of the van and threatened with various penalties. 

At this point a plainclothes man intervened and told the policeman to go away (I assumed this is what he said in Afrikaans). Extraordinarily, this is just what occurred and I remained in the van until summoned to go inside and help in the removal. It then became obvious that the security police had exerted their influence to prevent collateral damage surrounding me from interfering in their own investigations. What I didn’t know was that the lawyer whose offices we had visited was also under police observation.

We subsequently left Robin’s house later that week and I heard nothing more of him until opening a newspaper in 1973 where I read that he had been murdered in an east London squat. He had taken up a research fellowship at Cambridge in 1964 and was stripped of his South African passport. He ended up homeless and living on the street in London in the 1960s where he wrote a counter-culture book called “Drop Out” in 1968. He was someone without fear who didn’t mind what others thought of him.


Denis on the other hand was to lead a long and full life, most of which was as an academic in the United States, before returning to South Africa at the end of the apartheid era. However, the manner in which he escaped and then fell into the clutches of the security police was much closer to the experience of many activists at the time. After his banning in 1963 and the inability to continue his studies or work he tried to escape to Mozambique via Swaziland only to be held by the Portuguese secret police and returned to South Africa. There he was shot in the back while trying to escape police custody before being jailed on Robben Island for 18 months in a cell next to Nelson Mandela. He was subsequently deported to England on a Rhodesian passport in 1966. 

The letters written to his wife while in prison were published as “Letters to Martha” in 1968. His crowning achievement had been to see South Africa banned from participation in the Olympic Games. He returned to Cape Town in 1991.

A couple of things stand out in my recall of this expatriate interlude. One is the fact that both Farquharson and Brutus managed to leave behind published work that remains as a testament to their activities and beliefs even though neither of them probably thought this particularly important at the time. How many famous (and infamous) people have done the same! Secondly, when I returned Australia in the mid-1970s it seemed, initially, an indulgent society where political events, even the Whitlam dismissal in 1975, appeared quite capable of peaceful resolution. Though far from perfect it was a country where most of the basic freedoms were in place. But in my case there came a desire to work with things I perceived as essentially Australian and not those things I could readily replicate in London or New York. This in turn meant a search for funding to undertake research in Northern Australia and the Pacific, not a simple task for someone yet to prove he was up to the task.

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About the Author

Dr John Lea, who visited the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in February 2008, is an Hon associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. He is the author of several books on the development of island states in the Pacific and has acted as consultant to the World Bank, UN agencies and AusAID.

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