‘A vast, deep, lonely feeling’

2010-05-07 00:00

AN exhibition opening today in New York features a Zulu shield presented to Helen Keller, the world-famous activist for the deaf and blind, during her visit to South Africa in 1951.

The exhibition, Helen Keller: A Daring Adventure, mounted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), features items Keller received during the trip and on others made to various countries.

According to the AFB, Keller “lost her sight and hearing at 19 months and went on to become an equal-rights activist, world-renowned goodwill ambassador, an advocate for the blind and a socialist”.

Her remarkable story was told in the play The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, which was subsequently turned into the 1962 film starring Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, the teacher who enabled Keller to break out of her dark and silent world.

Keller was invited to South Africa by Arthur William Blaxall (see box) representing the South African National Council for the Blind and the National Council for the Deaf. Blaxall subsequently wrote up a record of her trip, Helen Keller — Under the Southern Cross, to which Keller contributed her own account, describing her visit as “unique among my travel experiences”.

Keller’s trip was intended to raise funds and awareness regarding the deaf and blind of all races in South Africa, and she was well aware that a country three years into apartheid since the National Party came to power in 1948 posed challenges for her.

“All my life I had acted upon the conviction that humanity must be one ... but how could I count with certainty on gratifying results in a country like South Africa, divided against itself?”

Keller was clearly apprehensive about what might lie ahead: “[A] spur to my courage was reading Gandhi’s autobiography and Gandhi at Work ... both in braille. Gandhi knew well the problems of South Africa and the sturdy philosophy and the fraternal love that infuses these extraordinarily inspiring books braced me for the peculiar difficulties I was to encounter.”

Keller, together with her friend and companion Polly Thomson, via whom she communicated, arrived in Cape Town aboard the Pretoria Castle on March 15, 1951. In Cape Town, Keller gave speeches and visited institutions working with the deaf and blind. A teacher who refused to attend a meeting between Keller and some school children when he found it was a case of whites first and nonwhites second, subsequently wrote her a letter observing that he believed this had been done without consulting her [it had]. Keller responded “how all my instincts cried against discrimination, and how fervently I prayed for a time when the various races of Africa would take an equal share in the welfare and happiness of the handicapped”.

During her journney, Keller was always alert to the separation of the races. “I observed that segregation was practised everywhere in schools and colleges. The one noble exception I came across was the admission of white and non-white to the University of the Witwatersrand, but I have since heard the same pertains at Cape Town University.”

From Cape Town she went to Grahamstown and then to East London where the “most exciting event for me” was the opening of a community centre at Duncan Village where the first item on the agenda was the singing of the “Bantu National Anthem” — Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika. From East London she flew by plane to Durban.

Shortly after her arrival on April 13, she was interviewed by a reporter from the Natal Mercury who described how Keller answered questions. “Miss Thomson conveyed the words to Miss Keller either by holding her hand and going through a sign language almost as rapid as ordinary speech; or by holding Miss Keller’s hand to her own mouth so that Miss Keller could ‘read’ the words as they were mouthed.”

She told the Mercury that her “impression [of South Africa] is very different from any impressions I have had of the many countries I have visited. It is mainly an impression of a vast, deep, lonely feeling in my heart that South Africa is enfolding me.”

Speaking at the Durban City Hall, Keller told the “story of her victory over blindess and deafness and speechlessness” which so enthralled the audience of 2 000 that at the end of the meeting, “hundreds thronged the foyer to shake her hand and some later ‘gatecrashed’ the Mayor’s private reception to be introduced”.

Fourteen-year-old Dawn Mansell was so inspired by Keller’s appeal for help for those like her that she had her mother take her home and collect her “expensive ‘walkie- talkie’ doll”. Returning to the city hall, she “presented her precious toy to Miss Keller in the hope that ‘it could be sold and the money used for the blind and deaf’.” Keller said: “It is the most touching gift I’ve ever had. The doll came right from the little girl’s heart.”

On April 19, Keller spoke at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall where, on her arrival, she was given a posy of flowers. According to The Natal Witness, “the blooms were specially selected so that Miss Keller could appreciate them to the full. When Miss Keller spoke later she continually buried her nose in the flowers: ‘A bird of paradise’, and then ‘a gardenia’ as she recognised each flower from its scent. ‘When I first entered Maritzburg, the one thing of which I was most aware was its fragrance, but I had no idea how rich and varied it was,’ she said.”

The next day Keller was at a garden party at Parkside given by the administrator of Natal, Dennis Shepstone, and in the afternoon she visited Inkosi Bhekizizwe Zondi in Sweetwaters, the grandfather of the current inkosi, Nsikayezwe Zondi. A permit for “entry on to land in Scheduled Native Areas”, in this case Zwartkop Location, was issued by the Chief Native Commissioner and was valid for two days, April 19 or April 20.

While she was in Pietermaritzburg, Keller also met Albert Mason, who had been blinded during World War 1, and was then Old Bill, head of Allan Wilson Shellhole.

From Pietermaritzburg, Keller was driven to Johannesburg: “It was the city I had imagined in reading Cry, the Beloved Country — young, hard-driving, unattractive, built, as it were, on gold.” However, Keller sensed “something mightier than greed or lust of power — a spirit that will ultimately transform it into a city of beauty, harmony and justice for its people of all races and faiths”.

Alan Paton, the author of Cry, the Beloved Country, would later read Keller’s account of her visit and provide the foreword to Blaxall’s book. It was during Keller’s visit to Alexandra township outside Johannesburg that she was presented with the Zulu shield displayed in the New York exhibition. It was given to her by the Service Committee of Alexandra Township and the citation says Keller was given the shield, along with two assegaais and a staff, “as a token of our deep gratitude for your expressed interest in the Non- European peoples of this country who live in silence and in darkness. In our tribal custom a shield, two assegaais and a staff is the equipment of a brave warrior and that is how we think of you.”

Earlier, on April 15 in Durban, Keller had been given another shield when she attended a dancing display at the Lever Brothers factory gardens. This shield, held by the AFB, is not the one on the exhibition.

Keller went on to visit Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Pretoria and Southern Rhodesia, with a short holiday in the Kruger National Park. She returned briefly to Johannesburg where, on May 18, Wits awarded her an honorary doctorate.

“It made me especially proud to receive this beautiful gesture because [Wits] has a splendid record of admitting students to its halls of learning, regardless of race and colour or nationality.”

Shortly afterwards, Keller flew to Cape Town, sailing for the United States aboard the African Endeavour on May 22.

During her visit to South Africa Keller visited 28 schools, addressed 48 meetings and receptions attended by about 50 000 people. At one meeting, Blaxall says she was given the Zulu name Nomvuselelo meaning “You have aroused the consciences of many”.

• Acknowledgements: Thanks to Helen Selsdon, archivist at the AFB’s information centre, who sent a detailed response to an e-mail inquiry about the Keller exhibition. The archive holds “four folders full of fascinating documentation surrounding Keller’s trip,” as well as correspondence between Blaxall and Keller.

Arthur Blaxalls Life of Service

A CLERGYMAN convicted of aiding the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the sixties, Arthur William Blaxall was born in 1891 in Britain. He came to South Africa in 1923 to work with the deaf, and in the thirties, headed the Athlone School for coloured blind children near Stellenbosch. In 1939, he opened the first workshop for blind Africans in South Africa — Ezenzeleni, in Roodepoort — where he served as superintendent until 1950. He became a pacifist, chairman of the South African branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and secretary of the South African Christian Council. He developed “an ever deepening sense of solidarity”, in his own words, with the African, coloured, and Indian struggle against apartheid. Trusted as a friend, he received money in the early sixties from exiled ANC and PAC leaders and passed it on to former political prisoners and their families who were in need. This led to his arrest in April 1963 and conviction under the Suppression of Communism Act. Already in his 70s and the subject of wide publicity, he spent a night and a day in prison before being paroled, and the rest of his sentence was suspended. He left soon afterwards for Britain, where he died in 1970. His autobiography, Suspended Sentence, was published in 1965.

The Arthur Blaxall School for the blind and partially sighted is in Royston Road, Pietermaritzburg

- ex www.sahistory.org.za

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