Home and Away – Billy Modise

2012-02-04 12:30

In 1960 ANC veteran Billy Modise needed change.

During his final year at Fort Hare University in Alice, the apartheid government introduced the University Extension Bill, which legalised tertiary segregation, forcing students of different races to go to separate universities.

When his best efforts to protest against the bill came to nought, the Bloemfontein-born Modise accepted a scholarship to Lund University
in Sweden.

Today Sweden is known as one of the most progressive countries on earth, but that was not how Modise experienced it in the 1960s.

“Kids would run after me in the street, touch me and check their hands to see if the black came off. At one meeting, I suddenly felt the breaths of people as they came closer and put their fingers in my hair. They wanted to feel what crinkly hair felt like,” he recalls from his house in Lynnwood, Pretoria.

Modise became the ANC’s chief representative in Stockholm, a position he held until the ANC was unbanned in 1990.

The 30 years outside South Africa opened the world to him.

“I thought apartheid was the most important thing in the world, and then you heard about the struggles in other countries. You saw your problems in an international sphere.

“We learnt diplomacy. You couldn’t address a prime minister with revolutionary language. You had to speak normally but convey revolutionary ideas.”

After being back in South Africa for five years, Modise was appointed South Africa’s high commissioner to Canada. He ended his career as the chief of state protocol.

Exile, says Modise, taught him that life was not just black and white.

“I learnt to trust whites. I realised that you can’t say one group is good and the other is the devil. Good people can be black or white.

You can find devils in blacks and whites. And after being in exile, I knew them both.”

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