The life of a revolutionary for freedom

2012-05-19 13:19

Bettie du Toit has more than earned national honour for her contribution to a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic SA

Bettie du Toit was and remains the closest female friend I have had.

To see Bettie recognised with the honour she earned over and over, time and again, in her feisty courage of action against apartheid, has been elation for me.

The 2012 Award of the Order of Luthuli in Silver was bestowed to her under a name with which I was not familiar.

“Elizabeth Sophia Honman (Bettie du Toit)” was given the award to honour “her excellent contribution to the struggle for workers’ rights and the realisation of a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic South Africa”.

But the years honoured were those when different identities were assumed to be able to function as a real human being; she was politically active in defiance of inhuman laws.

Apartheid made lies not only innocent, but necessary.

You hadn’t seen so and so. He or she was not in your house after escaping a Special Branch raid on the night of such and such. Perhaps the lively, loving person I knew was also a nom de guerre.

It reflects in my lie when she was detained and I (myself in danger) learnt that only family members were granted visits. I said: “I am her sister”.

How was it we didn’t have the same name?

That didn’t need a second’s hesitation: “Well, of course! We’re both married.”

My political education was second hand in comparison with hers and that of Reinhold Cassirer, my husband, who had been interrogated for hours by the Nazis in Germany when he was a student.

That much, at least, he shared with her experience, but for both of us, our face-to-face, fist-to-fist reality of apartheid politics and practice came from the intimate presence of Bettie in our lives.

She was an Afrikaner, doubly outlawed: as a traitor to Afrikanerdom and the white “race”, and as a communist allied to the African National Congress, an enemy of South Africa.

Opposition was a normal way of life, with all its consequences of abnormality in the period.

Her years as a trade unionist, notably with textile industry workers, were past.

I don’t recall under what freedom rubric she, as a banned person, took part, marching among black men and women against the oppression that stunted their lives, but I do remember photographs of her in the great march of women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, rejecting the law of passes for women.

While totally dedicated to and absorbed in all this, she was a lively woman who loved dancing.

We saw in a new year together at our house, with Reinhold an enthusiastic party host dancing pata-pata with Bettie.

She was in the struggle as a South African who, with courage and conviction, completely rejected all the edicts of apartheid as though they didn’t exist – for her and for others.

She lived with a black lover in a predominantly Afrikaner suburb of Johannesburg. Just the necessary lie, again, in the circumstance: he was to be seen only on weekends, mowing her lawn, the itinerant gardener.

How the four of us laughed about this.

He was a well-known ANC man in uncertain family circumstances – she was ready to take care of him, even if she couldn’t as a banned person adopt his children if anything fatal happened to him.

Her practicality in love for children (she had none of her own) extended to ours; they were excited, not caring for our absence when Bettie moved into our house while we were away.

From detention in The Fort she was imprisoned in Pretoria Central. I visited her.

Then one day I received a call to say that my sister was to be released. I needed to fetch her that afternoon at the appointed time.

My small son insisted on coming with me to welcome her joyously among the prisoners. We were wildly greeted by others like ourselves as they appeared.

Half-freed – at least from prison walls – Bettie, now searching for something new, took on a Kupugani feeding scheme, spending every day at the distribution shop in Soweto.

But her other activities made her situation increasingly dangerous.

She was inevitably going to find herself in some treason trial and in prison, this time convicted. (And for how many years?) She finally agreed to leave the country, but not the continent.

With the collusion of our mutual Indian friends, she left, her dark-haired beauty suitable for wearing a sari on a supposed family visit, and got as far as one of our neighbouring countries where other comrades waited for places on planes to take them farther, to the safety of exile.

Bettie was left behind.

Stranded, she eventually reached Ghana and there was able to take up her old profession in a trade union.
She responded warmly to the country, and the people of Accra to her.

She indulged her passion for swimming in the sea as some compensation for being away from home.

But the sea was polluted. She contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, which results in blindness if not treated correctly.

The basic treatment is that the eyes must be constantly flushed with sterile water.

The American hospital in Ghana left her eyes closed, dry. She went blind through neglect.

With appalled friends in England, I was enabled to have her entry to Britain accepted on medical grounds despite her status of illegal exit, but no return to South Africa was yet possible.

She spent a long period in an ophthalmic hospital. She was given the best treatment, but never regained her sight.

Reinhold had contacts who arranged for her to have a London flat, where she lived and amazingly managed to care for herself with the help of Freda Levson (in whose Johannesburg house Nelson Mandela once hid), who then lived in England.

I visited Betty several times, marvelling at the determination.

She managed to cook for herself and even walk the route in her mind to a local shop to buy supplies, expecting in a never-abandoned faith in human nature that someone would kindly carry the plastic bag home for her.

She tackled Braille, and then volunteered and passed on her skill to other blind people.

She had her CDs and the radio to keep her well informed about what was evolving in our country.
But as she grew frail, she longed to come back.

I was able, through the free counsel of trial defence lawyers, to obtain her permit to return to South Africa on grounds of old age and a serious state of ill health.

She had the idea that in Cape Town she’d have old comrades around her, but this hope didn’t work out and she came back to live in an old-age home in Johannesburg.

She spent Saturdays or Sundays at home with us, in our house nearby. There was not much camaraderie evinced among comrades of the struggle here, either.

This is not for anyone, let alone myself, to judge: the “normal life” was not easy to create on return from all forms of exile at home and abroad.

Bettie met death without any religious beliefs of another life, as she had taken on, and lived to the full deprivation and danger, the life of a revolutionary for freedom.

National honour now – and I know her last words to us in acceptance would have been, “A luta continua!” for all she believed in for South Africa.

» Gordimer is a Nobel prize-winning author

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