- Created: Friday, 15 May 2009 09:47
- Written by Carol Brickley
FRFI 168 August / September 2002
8 August 1933-12 June 2002
Our dearest possession is life. It is given to us but once. And we must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live, that dying we might say: all my life all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the Liberation of Humankind. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered
This was the opening of Norma Kitson’s book Where Sixpence Lives.1 It accurately portrays her philosophy of life: the philosophy of a revolutionary who had unremitting energy to change the world.
She was born Norma Cranko to a large Jewish bourgeois family in Durban, South Africa. Norma did not fit any mould. She soon rebelled against stifling post-war family life. (‘Girls! Never allow perfume to touch your pearls. It makes them porous.’ Norma’s mother’s advice to her daughters.) At the age of 15 she ran away to be near her sister and ended up working as a secretary at a gold mine in the Orange Free State. Apartheid had been introduced following the Second World War – ostensibly it was ‘separate development’, in reality it was the brutal oppression and dispossession of black people. Influenced by her non-conformist father (divorced from her mother), appalled by the narrowness of Boer existence and by the treatment of black miners, Norma left for Johannesburg after eighteen months. She was determined to meet other ‘progressives’. She soon joined the campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws led by the ANC. On 26 June 1952 she prepared herself to go to gaol (carrying extra underwear in her handbag). She did not know where to go so she sat on a bench marked NIE BLANKES – NON WHITES in Joubert Park, waiting to be arrested. Several hours later, ignored by everyone, she went home.
After this hesitant start Norma rapidly became involved. She joined the Congress of Democrats when it was formed in October 1953 – this was the ‘white’ wing of the Congress movement: the others were the African National Congress for black people; the South African Indian Congress and the Coloured People’s Organisation. The racist laws in South Africa made this separation necessary. She was active in Sophiatown in 1953 resisting the removal of the black township to make way for white residents. She began to teach typing at the Congress offices on Saturday mornings. In June 1955 she attended the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Johannesburg. It was a convention of different races called together to vote on the Freedom Charter. This was the programme to which Norma dedicated her life.
A month later Norma became a Congress delegate at the Warsaw Youth Festival organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It was in London, on the way to Poland, that Norma met David Kitson. When she returned to London after the Festival their relationship deepened and they married. They spent the next few years working with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in Hornsey, where David was a member. Ultimately they decided to return to South Africa in June 1959, with their first child Steven, ready to renew their involvement in the liberation struggle.
South Africa was in turmoil. On 21 March 1960 the Pan Africanist Congress opened its campaign of defiance against the pass laws. Across the country thousands of black people marched on police stations demonstrating against the iniquitous laws which regulated labour. At Sharpeville, 69 black people were shot in the back and killed. Across the country thousands were arrested. In the subsequent crackdown, both the PAC and ANC were banned. The underground struggle began.
For Norma and David the choices were clear. Norma joined the South African Communist Party and David, already an underground member of the SACP, joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC. Both were clear that the apartheid regime had closed down all avenues for open campaigning; a liberation war was necessary.
In 1963, one year after the birth of their daughter Amandla, the leadership of the movement was arrested at Rivonia. Brought to trial, eight of them (Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Mhlaba, Motsoaledi, Mlangeni, Kathrada and Goldberg) were sentenced to life imprisonment. This meant life: there was no remission or parole. A replacement leadership had to step into their shoes, and with Norma’s agreement and support, David became a member of the National High Command of MK. Within a year, in June 1964, David was arrested and tortured under the 90-day law which allowed detention without trial. A month later Norma was held under the same laws. She was released after 28 days and immediately hospitalised for ten days. David was charged and brought to trial with four others in December 1964. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years.
Norma now felt isolated. She and the children were harassed by security police and the terms of imprisonment were harsh: visits to political prisoners were allowed every six months, speaking through a perforated grill, unable to touch and barely able to speak. After two years of isolation and harassment, Norma decided that she would leave South Africa on an exit permit (she was denied a passport), taking the children to London.
In the first years in London Norma concentrated on getting work and raising the children. She wanted to continue to visit South Africa to see David so she kept away from politics. But on her visits to South Africa she was again harassed by the security police. On one occasion she was ‘arrested’ again and hung out of a high window at the police headquarters. They threatened to hurt the children if she didn’t become a police spy. Terrified, she vowed not to return under apartheid.
Back in London she recontacted the ANC and started the campaign, involving David’s trade union TASS (later MSF, now Amicus), to free David. For Norma this was a means to raise the question of apartheid; David was inseparable from the struggle. But it was during this period in exile that Norma was to learn that there were many in the solidarity movement who did not share her commitment. Norma never did anything without meaning it. For her, a campaign to free the prisoners meant devoting your time and effort by whatever means necessary, involving as many people as possible. She was horrified by empty rituals, by routinism, by excuses. The Callaghan Labour government of the time was happily trading and collaborating with the apartheid regime while they talked about opposition to racism. Norma described meetings at the Foreign Office with Dr Death (David Owen) who urged her to be ‘patient’, while in reality the British sat on their hands and did nothing for the prisoners. Britain’s imperialist interests were too important.
These interests were also dear to the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the exiled ANC itself. Norma had by now dubbed them ‘the chevra’: a ‘burial society’ which tried to smother anything that moved. This was the same political trend which throughout history has tried to sabotage the struggles of the working class and oppressed people: social democracy. Their principal energies are devoted to preventing opposition to imperialism – the source of their privileges. In Britain its chief manifestation is the Labour Party; around it is a flock of opportunists who want to block effective the struggle or blunt its edge. Norma Kitson was about to come up against a practised bunch of treacherous liars.
On 6 January 1982, Steven, now a young man, was arrested during a visit to his father in prison. Norma immediately formed a campaign to free her son, terrified from her own experience of what would happen to him. I was, by this time, working with Norma and we tried to involve everyone we knew, including MPs and trade unionists to free Steven. In a matter of days we had formed a formidable group, centred on Norma’s business, Red Lion Setters, campaigning for his release, holding pickets outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square. On 12 January he was released: ‘squeezed like a pip from a lemon’, as David Kitson aptly described it in his next letter to Norma. Shortly after phoning London to announce Steven’s release, Norma’s sister, Joan (Alison), who had arranged everything and who had been one of David’s constant visitors, was murdered in her flat in Johannesburg. The murderers were never caught: they were never looked for.
Out of the Free Steven Kitson Campaign we formed City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, determined to continue the fight. Ken Gill2, then head of TASS (David’s union) and a CPGB member, advised us to discontinue our activities and leave it to the TASS campaign. But Joan’s murder and Steven’s detention had a profound effect on Norma. She was determined to ensure David Kitson’s safety and health and at the same time to confront the apartheid regime. For years she had been pressuring the Foreign Office about the conditions the white political prisoners faced in Pretoria: they were kept on death row, in cold, damp conditions, in the absence of a proper long-term section.
In May 1982, when it became clear that the Foreign Office was just stringing her along and TASS was not prepared to take any action, City AA started the first non-stop picket calling for the removal of the prisoners from death row to better conditions. Now the worms came out of the woodwork; now the rats emerged from the sewers and sniffed the air. ‘Surely’, they said, ‘it is wrong to hold a picket for white prisoners, when black prisoners’ conditions are so much worse’. Happy to do absolutely nothing effective for either black or white prisoners, they were immediately full of energy to attack Norma and the picket. Nevertheless everyone came to support the picket, hundreds of young people, black and white, trade unionists, pop stars, lawyers, MPs; everyone except the ANC, the AAM and the TASS ‘campaign’ for David Kitson. The picket lasted 86 days, campaigning throughout for all the prisoners, and at the end the prisoners in Pretoria were moved. This was a real victory.
City AA went from strength to strength, holding pickets of the embassy every week. It developed its own rules for organising pickets and demonstrations; its members became experts on how to run a political campaign. We were educated in the history and reality of the liberation struggle; current events in South Africa inspired our campaigns. When members were arrested, they were defended in uncompromising fashion. City AA members became non-sectarians, supporting all sections of the liberation struggle, happy to welcome anyone to pickets and demonstrations regardless of creed, culture, religion or politics as long as they opposed apartheid. City AA was fundamentally democratic, not because this was imposed by anyone or any group, but because democracy was the best way to encourage others to join the struggle and stay involved. Anyone involved had speaking rights on the picket; all organisations could sell and distribute their literature. The methods of organisation flowed from a simple commitment to be effective in the struggle against apartheid. And it was Norma Kitson who taught us that commitment.
The activities of the chevra and the cohorts of Labour fakers in the AAM did not cease: they hated City AA’s success. When David Kitson was released in 1984 after 19 years and 5 months in prison, they tried to force him to attack City AA, Norma and his children. He refused and the weasel Ken Gill made sure TASS/MSF withdrew funding from his teaching post at Ruskin College – his only income. The London ANC and the AAM leadership spread rumours: anything to undermine City AA. They hired Denis Herbstein to write an article in The Times lying about City AA, the RCG and the Kitsons to prevent their election to the AAM National Committee. (Herbstein was so keen to be of service that he repeated it in Norma’s obituary in The Guardian on 12 July 2002). They said City AA should work and recruit its members only in the City of London (one square mile), and when we refused they expelled us. Norma and David were suspended from the ANC (a suspension lifted by Nelson Mandela when he was released from gaol).
But City AA had become a life force which the AAM could not kill and the chevra could not bury. In 1986 we started a non-stop picket outside the South African embassy for the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners. It continued until Mandela was released in 1990, almost four years later. Norma and David stuck firmly to their principles. They moved to Zimbabwe to be nearer the struggle, and from there Norma continued to be politically active in every way she could until her death.
Norma’s influence is not past history. It is living experience for anyone involved in campaigning against imperialism, for liberation. It is an experience which is as important now as it was 20 years ago. Anyone leading a picket, a boycott, a demonstration, a campaign should know about Norma Kitson. Her life force will continue in everyone who is committed to fight for the liberation of humankind.
Hamba Gahle Norma Kitson
1 Where Sixpence Lives, Norma Kitson, Chatto & Windus 1986, is Norma’s account of her life up to the start of the Non-Stop Picket, April 1986.
2 Ken Gill continues his political chicanery as Chair of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.
Steven Kitson, Norma and David’s son, died tragically young on 12 November 1997. Norma is survived by David Kitson and their daughter Amandla.