Obituary: David Kitson principled communist and freedom fighter

FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011

The great South African communist and fighter against apartheid David Kitson has died in Johannesburg aged 91.

A senior member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the 1960s, he became a commissar of the national high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, after the arrest of the ‘Rivonia Eight’ ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, in 1963.

David Kitson was arrested in 1964 and, with four others, was charged with sabotage and being a member of the high command of MK, and jailed for 20 years. His wife Norma was detained a month later.

Norma Kitson subsequently was forced into exile in London and with the Revolutionary Communist Group formed City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, which in 1982 held a non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy over deteriorating conditions faced by David and his fellow prisoners, who were being held on Death Row in Pretoria Central Prison. After 86 days, the prisoners were moved to better conditions, and this victory was the impetus later for the four-year Non-Stop Picket against apartheid and for the release of all South African political prisoners maintained by City AA outside the South African Embassy from 1986 until Mandela’s release in 1990.

City AA, committed to opposing the racism of the British state as well as the apartheid system in South Africa, and to support for all organisations fighting for national liberation in South Africa, found itself bitterly opposed by the ANC/SACP exile establishment in London which wanted to channel all protest through the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), which it controlled.

When David was released in 1984 and joined Norma and their children Steven and Amandla in London, he found himself caught up in the vicious efforts of the ANC/SACP to politically isolate Norma, City AA and the RCG.

Despite the fact that David was the most senior MK leader and longest-serving political prisoner at the time to be released from South Africa, at the AAM AGM in 1984, a few months after his release, a significant proportion of the movement’s leadership refused to join in a standing ovation when he stood to speak, or even applaud him, and he was denied a seat on the AAM National Committee. Having fought against the apartheid state, David now found himself having to struggle against the opportunism of the movement in Britain. When he refused, as he put it, to ‘jump through hoops’, he and Norma were suspended from the ANC. With the collusion of erstwhile communist Ken Gill, leader of David’s union TASS, David was told he would be reinstated as an ANC member and get funding to take up a promised emeritus post at Ruskin College, Oxford, only if he publicly denounced his wife and City AA. Always one to take a principled stand, David rejected this poisonous blackmail and, as a result, found himself without a job or source of income.

In an obituary in the South African Sunday Times, Chris Barron writes of the attempts to isolate David politically:

‘One view is that his return to London after his imprisonment constituted an embarrassment and a reproach to members of the SACP, including Joe Slovo, who had fled SA in 1963 in defiance of a central committee directive that they should stay. Kitson obeyed the directive and paid heavily for it. He and Slovo had ideological differences, and it has been argued that Slovo had much to lose if Kitson was restored to his old seniority in the movement.’

As David said at his trial: ‘There came a point where I could choose to run or I could choose to stand. And so I stood.’

Significantly, the head of the ANC in London, who informed David, by post, of his suspension and who was a key player in the political attacks on City AA, was Solly Smith, later unmasked as a South African police spy along with other prominent London members.

While in London, David maintained comradely relations with the RCG and spoke at a number of our public meetings. After returning to live in Harare in the 1990s, he wrote regularly for FRFI on the situation in Zimbabwe. He moved back to South Africa after Norma’s death in 2002. Steven Kitson died in 1997.

FRFI salutes David’s unwavering courage and communist principles and we extend our sympathy to his comrades and family.

 

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