Setting a standard for civic activism

2012-07-25 00:00


Swimming with Cobras

Rosemary Smith


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.


Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.