LIONEL MORRISON: Man of many talents and wise words

2016-11-20 07:44
Lionel Morrison and the book his family compiled for his 80th birthday.

Lionel Morrison and the book his family compiled for his 80th birthday.

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On his 80th birthday, Lionel Morrison’s family gave him a surprise – a book containing nearly 150 tributes to him. The contributors were people from South Africa, the country of his birth; the UK, his adopted home; and from all the countries where Lionel had served in various capacities, largely as a respected journalist and journalism trade unionist: Ghana, Zambia, Indonesia, China, etc.

The cover of the book has a portrait of Lionel that captures the spirit of the man – he’s wearing a hat, sprouting a bit of stubble on his chin, and he’s smiling broadly, the laugh lines around his eyes prominent.

A few days after his 81st birthday, he died after a long illness. He will be cremated in London on November 19 and his ashes will be brought back home to South Africa.

Lionel happily left this world knowing what the people around him thought of him – his family and friends, his colleagues in journalism, his comrades in the liberation struggle straddling the ideological divides. He was loved and admired by people such as Justice Albie Sachs, formerly of our Constitutional Court, and journalist Terry Bell, who is no longer a welcome figure in some political circles in this country.

After he died, tributes poured in – from his childhood friends, including Arthur Magerman, and from more recent friends such as Mathatha Tsedu, who met him after he had been in exile for years.

I got to know Lionel when the apartheid government finally relented and allowed me to travel abroad. I was sent by the Media Workers’ Association of SA to a trade union conference and Lionel immediately took me under his wing. He and his family – his wife Liz, and sons Sipho and Dumisa – threw open their doors in London and they chaperoned me around the city.

A few months later, they did the same for my family as we stopped in London for a few days on our way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

This generosity is what I remember most about Lionel and his family.

As we got to know each other, I discovered that he had worked for the Jim Bailey publications, the Golden City Post and Drum, which I also worked for after he had gone into exile. I found out that he was the youngest accused in the 1966 Treason Trial. I also discovered that he had transitioned from the SA Coloured People’s Organisation to the ANC in exile, and then became a Pan Africanist Congress representative in China.

When he was in China, he founded and ran the Afro-Asian Journalists’ Association, which had members in Ghana, Indonesia, China and Zambia.

He became the first black president of the National Union of Journalists in Britain and was among the first three black journalists in Fleet Street. And, for a long time, he was head of its back caucus and fought for a place for black journalists in Britain.

He also taught journalism at a number of colleges in London and I was privileged to attend some of his lectures. He was a born teacher.

It was in these capacities that he persuaded the National Union of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and International Federation of Trade Unions to adopt the Media Workers’ Association of SA as their special project.

Lionel was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to journalism, and former president Kgalema Motlanthe awarded him with the Order of Ikhamanga in silver “for excellent achievement in journalism and contributing to the ideals of a just and democratic South Africa”.

Lionel and his wife, Liz, were a perfect match. She was a social worker, helping the marginalised, and he worked in the British Commission for Racial Equality.

Lionel truly was a citizen of the world. His passing leaves a huge gap that, hopefully, others will fill.

Joe Thloloe is director in the Press Council

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