Still feisty after all these years

2011-01-21 00:00

AJOURNALIST once wrote that if there is a battle to be fought, Norman Middleton will never be far from the front line. Today the World War 2 veteran, trade unionist, sports administrator and politician celebrates his 90th birthday. Middleton, a former Pietermaritzburg resident who now lives in Cape Town, was in the city recently visiting his two children who still live here. Fit and feisty, he continues to hold strong views on just about every subject, and he has a remarkably good memory.

As Middleton reflects on the four score and 10 years of his life, a man emerges whose story is an indelible part of South Africa’s history.

He was born in Sophiatown and moved to Pietermaritzburg when he was 10 years old. His father, William Charles Middleton, was a Scot from Aberdeen. His mother, Dorothy Mzimela, grew up in Greytown, trained as a teacher and taught in Johannesburg.

Middleton’s parents married legally the year they came to Pietermaritzburg.

“My father was a stonemason and we came to Natal because there was masonry work here. One of the first projects he was involved with was rebuilding the city hall which had been destroyed by a fire. He also did the rockery at Alexandra Park and I believe his name is written somewhere on the stonework at the entrance of the park, near the swimming pool,” said Middleton.

His mother got a teaching job in Greytown and only came home on weekends, so he was sent to St Francis College, a boarding school run by the brothers at Mariannhill Monastery. Middleton said that at that time the school was allowed to accept black, Indian and coloured students.

He had an older sister who married a white man during the war and left South Africa.

Middleton finished his schooling at Ohlange, a private school in Durban run by ANC founder John Dube, and while he was at the school he lived with the Dube family. He recalls that his family house was in Pentrich and during the holidays he would get piece work at Eddels Shoe Factory.

In 1940, he was working at Eddels which was on short time because of the war when, as often happens, a chance encounter changed his life completely. Middleton vividly remembers the details. He and two friends went to the Grand Cinema which was in Commercial Road (Albert Luthuli Street). There were 10 seats that were reserved for “non-whites”. “We arrived too late and all the seats were taken. We were sitting on the kerb near the city hall deciding what we were going to do next, when we saw these soldiers recruiting for the army. We asked them what it cost to join. They said nothing and just told us, ‘you’ll get paid’. We thought we were signing up for jobs and did not even bother to tell our parents. Two weeks later the army arrived to pick me up at my house.”

He was taken to the station where “I met my friends and we were issued with uniforms and put on a train heading for Kimberley. When we tried to protest as we hadn’t told our parents, the army said it would inform our families.

“I only understood how upset our parents were when I got this stinking letter from my father who was furious over my actions,” he recalls.

Middleton’s war experience and the friendships he formed laid the foundation for his activism in later years. He remembers that this was the first time he came face to face with racism. At the same time, while he was in Egypt and in Europe, he encountered other armies in which blacks were fully integrated and his eyes were opened to a world where divisions according to race did not exist. His unit was shipped off to Egypt and his camp was in a town near Cairo. “Even there we South Africans, in the middle of a war zone, were separated according to our races. The whites were in one camp and the blacks in another. We stayed there for three months. Our tasks, the rations and privileges we received were clearly delineated according to race.”

After getting lost in a sandstorm he was part of a group that was shipped off to Italy where he worked in prisoner-of-war camps.

Landing in Durban after the war, he received his discharge papers and along with the other black soldiers was issued his bicycle and a big brown army coat. Years later Middleton gave the coat to Black Consciousness leader the late Henry Isaacs when he helped him escape into exile via Lesotho.

He returned to work in Eddels and became an active member of the Leather Workers’ Union, eventually becoming vice-chairperson of the union. He was one of the leaders in the 1960 leather workers’ strike, described as an event that brought Pietermaritzburg to a standstill.

Meanwhile, the friendships he formed in the army remained and along with some of his fellow soldiers he was one of the founding members of the Coloured Labour Party which was formed in 1950. Later, he was employed by Fosatu — the predecessor to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). He still has the letter from former minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin, who was secretary-general of the organisation then, dismissing him from his job because he continued to maintain a political profile. According to Middleton, he was told he had too high a political profile and that Fosatu was still building its unions and wanted to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues. He went on with other unionists to form the Natal Council of Trade Unions, which went on to link up with the Inkatha Freedom Party.

If Middleton’s trade-union activities were unusual, this did not match the controversy that dogged his role as a sports administrator. Today he is recognised as one of the leaders of non-racial sport in South Africa; however, he travelled a rocky road in this terrain. He became the president of the South African Council of Sport (Sacos) and the president of the South African Soccer Federation. However, there was unhappiness over his membership of the Coloured Representative Council (CRC). He resigned from Sacos and ended up being pushed out of the federation. Years later Middleton also resigned from the Labour Party when then leader of the party, the Reverend Abel Hendrickse, took the party into the Tricameral System. Middleton felt that this was done without consultation. His political stance was never one of total co-operation with the state but to fight the system from within to bring about its demise.

Today his work in Sacos and the Soccer Federation is lauded and he is seen as one of a band of dedicated sports administrators who worked tirelessly to promote non-racial sport and who kept sport going in black communities by running a tight administrative ship and all of this on a voluntary basis. Out of all his life’s choices, Middleton was most harassed over his work in Sacos and the Federation. In 1974, he was to attend a Fifa meeting in Frankfurt to present his federation’s case for the expulsion of the South African White Football Association (Fasa) from the international football body. The government told him he could get a passport but only if he would give a written undertaking not to do anything to prevent South African sportsmen from taking part in international sport. He refused to accept a passport with strings attached, only receiving one in 1982. His late wife, Natalie, and their four children also paid the price with constant threats and harassment by the security police.

Middleton went on to become a member of Parliament after South Africa’s first democratic elections. He was 78 at the time.

Today he looks back at his life with no regrets for the choices he made. He is particularly pleased that he has reached the age of 90 with no skeletons in his cupboard. “I meet people today who say you could have been rich, but at heart that was not what I wanted or who I was. The richness of my life was being a community activist.”

Middleton is not happy with the materialism that exists in today’s world with the loss of volunteerism and sports administrators who earn fat pay cheques and are out of touch with the reality on the ground.

He still accepts invitations occasionally to address gatherings and was recently honoured in several forums for his contribution to non-racial sport.

Surprisingly, of all that has happened in his life, at this stage his most cherished memory is that of his parents and the values they instilled in him. His mother died in 1939, but his father went on to live to the age of 92. “Sometimes I think that, like my old man I fought the good fight and like him I will have two more years left in my life,” says Middleton.

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