Setting a standard for civic activism

2012-07-25 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Swimming with Cobras

Rosemary Smith

Modjaji

THE last few years have seen an outpouring of struggle biographies, some of them embarrassingly self-serving. Missing from the shelves have been the accounts of very ordinary people who, faced by extraordinary circumstances, were challenged to lead lives they had scarcely imagined.

Rosemary Smith, who had grown up in Britain and ­married a South African academic, was living in Grahamstown in the mid-sixties, ­somewhat homesick and unsure of her place in a bizarre society.

She found it through the Black Sash, and involvement in various welfare organisations. A hothouse existence of endless meetings and activism, ranging from monitoring and placard demonstrations to feeding schemes, created a camaraderie born out of commitment that was a defining point for her and many others.

The accuracy and quality of the information collected along the way played no small part in the demise of apartheid, and eventual liberation.

Grahamstown had its own distinctive characteristics, shaped by geography, economy and local political history. But the constant tension, security-branch harassment, the informers. friends in detention and uncertainty about how it would all end, were common experience throughout South Africa.

Writing with a commendable degree of introspection, Smith captures the atmosphere of left-wing politics in the seventies and eighties in a highly readable way. She is candid about the perils of working with eighties’ radical activists. And she is able to laugh at herself. Years later she asked a daughter if her mother’s activism had been a problem. and was told that it had been a relief to her family.

This is not just a matter of history. It is a monument to the courage displayed by people of conscience, mainly women in the case of this ­account, which set a standard for civic activism. It leaves the reader wondering if the next generation would be up to the challenge of a similar situation in the future.

 

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