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Human Rights and Amnesty International

15 May 2008

Since we’re blogging on human rights today, I thought I’d have s second bite of the cherry. My first post, below, was fairly abstract and theological. This one is more personal and anecdotal.

In 1972 I was banned by Petrus Cornelius Pelser, Minister of Justice. The banning order was a standard form, with names and the odd variation typed in. Like many others, I was prohibited from absenting myself from the magisterial district of Durban, or entering various places such as educational institutions, factories, or buildings that housed certain kinds of organisations, such as trade unions, political parties and the like. I was also prohibited from attending any political gatherings, educational gatherings or social gatherings (that is, gatherings at which the persions present also have social intercourse with one another). Hundreds of people were banned, and the Minister of Justice had no obligation to explain to anyone why he banned peoiple, other than what was stated in the order, that he was satisfied that I engaged in activities that furthered or were calculated to further any of the objects of communism as defined in the Suppression of Communism Act (Act 44 of 1950). The banning order did not depend on the nature of the activities; it depended purely on the satisfaction of the Minister. “The Minister in his wisdom sees fit,” was the standard answer to questions about why anyone was banned, or detained without trial.

At the time I was banned my main activity was charging around the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea of theological education by extension to the Anglican Church. This was the kind of activity that the Minister was satisfied would “further, or was calculated to further any of the objects of communism”. Because I was moving around so much, I had no home, since I had been deported from Namibia six months previously. I would spend a week on one place, a couple of days at another. If I lived anywhere, it was with my cousin in Pietermaritzburg, whose husband was banned. I did not stay in Durban at all. One of the things banned people are not allowed to do is communicate with each other, which is difficult when they are living in the same house. So I had to leave and go to Durban, where I had no place to stay.

I was taken in by a Congregational minister and his family, and stayed with them for a year. And at the end of that year, 1972, I began to get Christmas cards from people in Europe. A couple came, and it seemed that they had adopted me as their political prisoner. They came at the instigation of Amnesty International. At first there were one or two a day, but then the number increased, to five or ten a day, then they were coming by twenties and thirties. At first I tried to keep a record of the names and addresses of those who sent them, and tried to write and thank them, but eventually it became too much. I would have to send a duplicated letter, but that was one of the other things one was prohibited from doing if one was banned. I kept a record of the names and addresses of the first 400, but after that gave up.

Amnesty Birds

The one with the birds was the commonest, and there were several hundred of them. That one had written inside

In the hope that this card will help you a little to endure your prisonship I send you this.
N. Roos, Uilenstede 180, Amsterdam, Holland

Some were from children, and some of them were hand drawn. Some were from little old ladies, as i imagine the one that came with pressed flowers, “Gathered with love and pressed with care we share these flowers with you”, from Lucy Hill and Alice Milledge of 21 Wish Road, Hove, Sussex, England.

Some had been done by a school class, or a Sunday School class, or by a church. I wondered what the Security Police, checking on the mail, would have made of it all. Some had nothing written in them and were just signed, and some not even signed. Perhaps the teacher had handed them out to the kids and just told them to send them. Others, like the ones I’ve mentioned, came with encouraging messages, and those were the ones I tried to reply to. One little girl sent a picture of herself, playing her guitar.

Amnesty CardOne thing became very clear — that in Europe especially Amnesty International had an extensive support network in civil society, especially among churches and similar groups. They were able to mobilise large numbers of people to send these cards, and I’m sure they did something similar for people in other countries around the world. And these people would not have done such things if they were not concerned about human rights.

Some years before this I was studying in Britain, and my cousin’s husband (they weren’t married then) wrote to say that a friend of ours, Selby Msimang, was being charged with breaking his banning order by preaching in church.[1] He was an old man in his 80s, and a local preacher in the Methodist Church. I wrote a letter to the local newspaper about this, and as few hours after it was published the BBC radio were knocking at the college door to interview me. A friend who was a member of the Christian Committee of 100 (an anti-war group) got me to go to London and tell all kinds of people what was going on, and soon they were all lobbying church leaders and MPs and all those people were writing to the South African government and the charge was dropped. When I went to London I went to the offices of Amnesty International and looked at their records of some political prisoners in South Africa, ones that I knew, and I was impressed with how up-to-date they were. They not only had a support network, they had an information network as well.

In my previous post I quoted Archbishop Anastasios of Albania as saying that at the core of Christian concern with human rights is love, and the right of everyone to love and be loved. And I still have the flowers that Lucy Hill and Alice Milledge gathered with love and pressed with care as a tangible sign that there is still love in the world.


[1] For more information about banning orders, and a picture of Selby Msimang and some others who were
banned, see my page on the banned wagon.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 May 2008 9:49 am

    Amazing personal story. Thanks. Our household is seeking to keep contact with church leaders in Zimbabwe right now, in their difficult circumstances.


  1. Human Rights and Christian faith « Khanya
  2. Christianization and Humanization and our task in Zimbabwe « my contemplations

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