The 70s were a time of growing political and social upheaval, with the younger generation of black South Africans increasingly articulating their dissatisfaction with a system that afforded them neither voice nor education nor opportunity.
The Soweto riots of 1976 marked a turning point, and not surprisingly the Trust’s focus on education sharpened. It continued to exhibit immediate responses to the needs of individuals – from funding passport fees, to covering a family’s local expenses while the breadwinner took up a scholarship abroad, to covering costs of a spouse – sometimes the entire family – to join the recipient.
In 1971, the Trust approached some 900 high schools across all race groups, offering a one year scholarship abroad for a graduate male teacher – the minutes record enthusiastic reference to “brilliant young men”; the addendum “with possible assistance for wife”, was in fairness another indicator of the Trust’s espousal of reality. Surprisingly, they only received 148 applications, many of which were late, and the scholarship was not awarded. The sabbatical leave scheme, known as the Overseas Advanced Study Grant, targeting professors and senior lecturers was more successful, and continues today. The long established bursary programme enabling black children to attend independent white schools continued unabated; support for mental health services was introduced, and a variety of organisations in Rhodesia received funding, among them the United College of Education, the Tribal Trust Research and the University of Rhodesia Medical Faculty.
The Trustees’ compassion and freedom to act was evident in the story of a family living in Port Elizabeth experiencing the horrors and absurdity of apartheid legislation. In 1970, a man wrote directly to Mr. H.F. Oppenheimer describing how he and his wife married in 1940 as ‘white’ and are proud parents of 10 healthy children then aged 7 to 29. In his words, “…we have all been living as white, working as white, my children attended white schools, we attended white churches. I served in the South African Air Force during World War ll, we attended white functions and cinemas and are still generally accepted as white.” On the introduction of obligatory ID cards, they were supplied with cards that classified them as coloured. Overnight, their lives were changed. “Everything became so confusing” he says. While the various employers were sympathetic, the schoolgoing children had to move to different schools and the family began to experience social ostracism. Two legal applications to change the classification failed and “In utter confusion and frustration we decided to leave our beloved country and settle in Australia.” He and his eldest daughters resigned their jobs and, unable to travel under the Assisted Passage Scheme, pension funds were cashed in to pay for the family’s tickets. Delays in traveling incurred unexpected costs; their lawyers handling the reclassification sued for non-payment and the family “…find ourselves in an intolerable position.” No doubt a position shared by many other families at the time, it was nevertheless brought before the Trust, leading Sir Keith Acutt to comment: “…in contrast to its standard formal grants, the Trust should occasionally risk assistance for the sake of goodwill and the relief of human suffering.” Two months later, the family received funding for their tickets and headed out to a new life. The grateful father wrote: “Please allow me to tell you that this good news has brought untold happiness to my entire family and myself, as appropriately enough we received this wonderful letter on Family Day …without your generosity our departure to Australia would have been impossible.” He goes on to request a signed picture of Mr. Oppenheimer “…I would very much like this to hang in my home in Australia in lasting memory of a real and trusted gentleman…”; and then in November 1971, the final missive, “…through whose assistance we are now living a life whereby we enjoy our freedom and live as human beings without fear and dread as to what will happen next.”
Resolutely non partisan, despite its liberal leanings, the Trust records its support for the young P.T.C. (Pietie) du Plessis. Described as “a very promising politician”, he went on to hold several Cabinet portfolios in the Nationalist Government, among them Minister of Manpower, before falling from grace in 1993. By way of contrast, funding was also given to Raymond Suttner for his PhD studies in Leiden. Well known for his role in the anti-apartheid struggle and first democratic ANC Government, and now Professor and Head: Walter and Albertina Sisulu Knowledge and Heritage Unit, UNISA School for Graduate Studies, Suttner recalls: “… as I remember I only used the money for two years and ended up not going to Leiden but first to Oxford and then to London University where I did intense research which led to a great deal of subsequent publication. So it was an investment rather than a completed product, but I draw on that investment to this day and have various books as well as a PhD out of that and later experiences. Unfortunately, therefore, mine does not fit your picture of an ideal type of user of such grants, though I am very indebted to the Trust for giving the funds.” Suttner’s most recent book, ‘The ANC Underground’, was published in August 2008.
In 1974, the Trust partially funded an innovative colloquium of politicians, sociologists, educators, trades unionists, traditional leaders, civic leaders, Head of the Federated African Chambers of Commerce, historians, poets and religious leaders (Adam Small, David Welsh, Alan Hendrikse, Cassim Saloojee and Sam Motsuenyane among them) to discuss, among other things, measures to eliminate racial discrimination in South Africa, and how to reduce and address areas of inter-racial and inter-group friction in South Africa. Some success was recorded as there was complete unanimity among those attending but whether or not its influence extended beyond the colloquium is not easily demonstrable. Despite initiatives like this, the lack of support available to dedicated professionals in the educational field to improve their skills, coupled with blind bureaucracy, was astonishing. In 1974 Godfrey Radebe, Principal of Isibonelo High School in Kwa Mashu and President of the African Teachers Union, requested help. Although he had 10 years’ service in the Natal Provincial Administration, existing policy did not allow for any accumulated leave. He had been accepted as a participant in a two-month Leader Exchange Programme in the USA (US-SA Leader Exchange) but was told, despite his standing and the value of this opportunity for all, he would have to take unpaid leave if he wished to take part. Given his financial obligations – home and children – he could not survive without any income for 2 months. Within 2 weeks of his application, he had the necessary funds to make up for lost income. Writing from Connecticut in April 1974, he says: “I write to say how grateful I am for the gesture. … You are making it possible for my family and I to live … Pardon me for taking your time, but I could write on, and on. It is heartening to know that I shall arrive in South Africa not only wiser but richer through the kindness of the EOMT.” It appears that Natal Provincial Administration policy on leave did eventually change.
The Trust’s support for the arts never flagged, whether or not the subject or the recipient was controversial. Richard Rive was given a travel and subsistence grant to take up a scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1971, to complete research on Oliver Schreiner for his BLitt or DPhil in English literature: “I hope that with your assistance it will be possible for me not only to complete my course, but to make it possible for me to carry back whatever knowledge I have accumulated to people in South Africa”, wrote Rive, who spent the year travelling between South Africa and Oxford, bringing back Schreiner material. In 1974, he converted to a DPhil, saying: “I wish to thank your Trust for the financial ssistance it gave me while I was at Oxford working on my thesis on Olive Schreiner. I have been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and this would have been almost impossible were it not for the assistance I had received from your organisation.”
In 1972 another writer, Sydney (Sipho) Sepamla was supported to attend drama school in the United Kingdom. Khabi Mngoma, then principal of the African Music & Drama Association (AMDA) at Dorkay House in Johannesburg, wrote: “…any assistance to enable him to improve his skills as actor, producer or writer, would be of great help not only to himself, but also to African development in theatre.” Sepamla moved from teacher of mathematics and English, to publicist for a radio station, to public relations officer, to salesman “…I have found selling distasteful”, and was determined in his ambition to write and work in the theatre. He commented: “…my own contention relating to poor standards in black theatre locally. I believe, and I believe so very fervently, that it is with such trips as I’m about to undertake that our position can improve. Groping in the dark means we shall always be some 20 years behind current trends. … I am very clear in my mind that I go only to return. There is no way I can emphasise this point. I have a duty to perform locally.”
The Trust later gave bridging funding to AMDA, and offered bursaries to its students. Icon and role model, founder of the Federated Union of Black Artists, Sepamla was awarded the Thomas Pringle Award in 1997 and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his writing. In 1975 with some foresight, Professor Pali Mohanoe, Head of the Department of Didactics at UNISA, received support to conduct his Doctor of Education studies on ‘Socio pedagogical perspectives in the education of the black adolescent’. He wrote: “I am interested in this area of educational study because of its importance at the present time. Indications are that the social milieu in which black pupils are reared is making a significant impact on their education. The high drop-out rate and the not infrequent upheavals at secondary schools in particular are but some of the problems that find their causes in the black pupil’s social background.” In early 1977, following the student riots the previous year, the Professor confirmed he would need to update his study. There were many others, all individuals whose names now are well known, whether as drivers of change, senior academics or captains of industry – an impressive roll call. In 1971 the Trust showed its usual flexibility, supporting the family of Jakes Gerwel while he studied abroad: Professor Gerwel now heads up the Nelson Mandela Foundation and is himself in a position to dispense largesse to those in need. Julian Sonn, currently Professor: Executive Leadership and Diversity at the University of Stellenbosch and Director of Village Leadership Consulting, was in 1975 assisted with his final years of study for his PhD in Social Psychology at New York University, which focused on ‘Cross Cultural Studies and Dehumanisation’. He attracted unreserved recommendation from one Professor of Psychology at New York University, who wrote: “Mr. Sonn’s promise as a researcher and teacher is truly outstanding. Certainly he is among the most talented and promising students I have encountered in over 20 years of teaching.” Vincent Maphai, as a young student at UNISA was first assisted with postgraduate study in Belgium and by 1983 he had secured his doctorate in ‘Moral and Legal Philosophy’ outlining the relationship between morals and the law. A Professor of Philosophy at Wits, where he then worked, said of him “he has thus far distinguished himself as our most popular lecturer”, and Maphai himself erroneously predicted “…I think I am irrevocably committed to an academic life…”. The Trust again entered his life, adding to a British Council grant to work at Oxford, and then in 1988 assisted with his travel costs for doctoral studies at Harvard. Maphai is indeed a philosopher businessman, and is currently Chairman of BHP Billiton.
Oscar Dhlomo, in 1976, was an educator, school teacher, university lecturer and author of history textbooks for African schools. This young professional had an established reputation at the University of Zululand, and wrote: “Among other community roles, I am secretary of the Natal Workshop for African Advancement whose function is to look into the needs of underprivileged members of the African community and to help them help themselves.” He was also a member of the Education Commission of the Federation of Black Women of South Africa, charged with the responsibility of “investigating the African educational system with a view to bringing it to the level of the educational system of our white fellow citizens.” He requested funding to support doctoral research across developing countries of Africa, such as Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zaire, and developed countries such as Britain and the USA. “Besides the fact that this study is academically necessary, I am of the opinion that it will also be of great benefit to the educational authorities of KwaZulu when they reorganise teacher education in KwaZulu schools. When it is considered that this proposed study will focus on issues like the selection of candidates for teacher training, quality as against quantity in teacher training, staffing of teacher training colleges, curriculum, teaching practice during training and in-service training, it could be said that the study will indeed be of great benefit to KwaZulu education. …it is generally accepted that academics (in the Department of Didactics, University of Zululand, where I am employed) should take the lead in planning courses for teacher education to make up for the shortcomings of the previous system of Bantu Education.” Clearly a man ahead of his time, he received a Travelling Fellowship to visit the United Kingdom and African countries. He later became MEC for Education in KwaZulu Natal.
The concern with autonomy and self-help as a driver for self-respect and growth, played out in an entirely different arena later in the 70s, through the Ithuseng Community Health Project. A letter supporting the request for funding reads: “the Trust should support such a valiant and reliable person.” The writer speaks of the young and indomitable Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, consigned by a banning order to Lenyenye in the district of Naphumo, near Tzaneen, who refused to give up. She reflects: “One of the interesting things is how we banished fear from our approach to involvement with the struggle at the time. When you have people close to you killed as brutally as happened, you lose your fear; if you are no longer afraid to die, you are free.”
Confronted by a cycle of poverty, ignorance and disease, Dr. Ramphele established Ithuseng to engender a spirit of self-reliance by addressing needs in ways that allowed the community themselves to take part in managing their own health, education, farming and the development of small business. She acknowledges that the Trust’s support enabled Ithuseng to start up – “It was groundbreaking, unusual and reflected a very forward- looking view, in that the ideas of the then government were not necessarily reflective of the future of SA. For people like me – ‘political outcasts’ – we were seen by the Trust as change agents for a future that none could predict. This was an important vote of confidence in that dark hour.” This triggered further funding, from Christian Aid in America, the South African Council of Churches and, eventually, others from the private sector. Today, Ithuseng is still standing and remains an important centre for lifestyle educational interventions: loveLife uses the youth centre as the node for their services in the region, and has established a model of how to run an effective rural health centre. In her view, “This is a good example of institution building that moves beyond the individual – the institution has survived. It has set an example of how one intervenes in the education and lives of poor people whose problems are complex – there is no second chance if you are poor – encouraging them to take ownership. This is not patronage.”
This theme was reiterated in 1979, when Ruth Pityana, then Nursing College Principal at the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, motivated for funding for a trip to attend the 10th International Conference on Health Education in London. Emphasising the need for people to take charge of their own lives, she wrote: “More and more people need to be trained to meet the present day needs for health services where the community must also be involved. I know that I, as well as the (health) service, will benefit from the experience I will gain from the conference and the hours thereafter.” She was successful with her request, but it is an interesting footnote to history to observe that her application, sent in through the SAIRR, had come from the Administrative Officer in the Department of Plural Relations and Development – Staff Section. This visionary and dedicated woman’s son, Barney Pityana, emulated his mother’s drive and became Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UNISA.
Always impossible to predict history, tragedy lay in store for one grant recipient, Wellington Tshabizane. In 1977, the Trust granted this talented young man a bursary to study at Oxford. It is, as they say, a small world and here stories and people interconnect. Robert Birley had taught Tshabizane at Orlando High and, says John Kane Berman of SAIRR, regarded Tshabizane as one of the sharpest mathematical brains he had come across. Birley asked Kane Berman, also studying at Oxford, to look up his fellow South African, then a resident at Wadham College. Recalls Kane Berman, “He played top level bridge in the UK, and we used to play two-handed bridge together. The (South African) government of the time had actually refused him a passport and Sir Robert Birley intervened: the British Embassy leaned on the South African Embassy in Pretoria. Wellington got a passport. He had refused to leave on what was normally issued – an exit permit – as he did not want to leave his ageing mother. He switched from his original course to engineering – perhaps expecting that what he would learn in engineering would be politically more useful. He came back and worked for De Beers in Botswana for a while. Then he was arrested and within 24 hours was dead.”
Wellington Tshabizane was implicated in the Carlton Centre bombing, arrested and died while in detention. Wadham College established an award in his memory, for young African writers. In a letter dated 15th September 1975 Bill Wilson, one of the founding Trustees wrote: “I think that the Trust has gone roughly in the direction Harry (Oppenheimer) as founder wanted it to go … I think, having approved the general direction, he does not want to tie the Trust down too rigidly, or to restrict its flexibility in responding sensitively to special or urgent applications from either institutions or individuals.”
It is clear that the Trust viewed its support of individuals particularly as an investment, and while no obligation was placed on anyone, nor inferred, it encouraged recipients to achieve what they set out to do. Nor did the Trustees balk at offering sustained funding for study – in one memorable, but never repeated instance, supporting an undergraduate over 15 years during which he tried out a variety of career choices!