He stood up when it counted

2013-10-14 00:00

PROFESSOR Colin Gardner who died last week, may have been a larger-than-life figure in Pietermaritzburg, but he was also known nationally and internationally.

This was because very early in his life he made a conscious decision to be an active citizen. As a result, he wore many hats, and served many organisations so that his words and actions resonated in far wider circles.

While others saw the measure of the man, Gardner remained genuinely modest about his contribution to South African society. He once described what he did as “areas of quiet activity”. Yet, there was nothing insignificant about Gard- ner’s actions. He stood up when it counted in the face of great opposition and often in dangerous situations. He supported causes that were not popular, but they were always in the name of social justice and in support of the poor, the dispossessed and voiceless.

Gardner wrote about his conscious decision to become an activist in a paper for a history conference, which he titled “Opposing Apartheid; An academic’s odyssey 1957 to 1990”. He said that after taking degrees at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, he spent the years mid-1955 to mid-57 at Oxford University in England. “People there asked why I wanted to return to a country which was likely to prove a political and social nightmare, but I had always felt that South Africa was where I belonged, that the great South African political problem was partly mine.”

He went on to say that he had decided that, if he returned to South Africa, he must devote part of his energies to one or two of the movements involved in opposition to apartheid. “The battle would have to be, for me, on at least two fronts: both within the university and outside the university.”

His former colleague and friend, Christopher Merrett, saw Gardner as representing a generation who showed that institutions of higher learning had a social responsibility to question and challenge what was going on in society.

This is why Gardner’s commitment to the struggle was never static. As conditions changed, he was able to see the broader implications, and for him, what needed to be done. When apartheid repression grew, instead of stepping back into the safety of his university ivory tower, he became even more of an activist. He showed the courage of his convictions by getting involved in issues such as forced removals and by leading the Detainees’ Support Committee. This was during a period when apartheid repression was at its worst.

Gardner could never have done all of this without the support of his wife Mary. Together they made a formidable team. They opened their house to refugees and visited families in Imbali and Edendale when Pietermaritzburg was wracked by political violence in the early 1990s. In fact it was people like the Gardners who kept the spirit of non-racialism alive; they had close friends from across the racial divide.

He became a committed ANC member and drew flak for his spirited defence of the party in columns in The Witness. He felt that there was insufficient understanding or appreciation, especially among privileged communities, of the complexity of the transition from apartheid to democracy. He conceded that a lot had gone wrong, but said that a lot more was done right. Yet he was not blind to the failings of the party and in later years was concerned about the creeping infringements on democracy by such issues as the introduction of the so-called secrecy bill.

In an interview Gardner once said that at heart he considered himself a liberal, despite criticism of the label and all it implied. He told journalist Margaret von Klemperer that there were different views of what liberal meant; for him it was the values as prescribed in the South African Constitution: a commitment to civil liberties, democracy, non-racialism and non-sexism.

However, what gave Gardner his uniqueness were his powerful oratory skills and his sharp sense of humour. He will be remembered for his eloquence, his thoughtful prose and his quick-witted responses. No doubt, in the week ahead, as his friends and family celebrate a life well lived, each will have a classic Gard­ner anecdote to tell.

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