Wilson book launch recalls his fiery heart, icy mind

Image: Pippa Green welcoming attendees to the book launch and introducing the panelists. Credit: Kim Ingle.

In the late European summer of 1989, SALDRU founder, Francis Wilson attended a meeting in Switzerland convened by the United States House subcommittee on Africa. Chaired by Congressman Howard Wolpe, it had been responsible for pushing through tough sanctions against apartheid South Africa in 1986.

Together with Moeletsi Mbeki, then in exile, Wilson was one of two South Africans who attended the meeting as “resource people”. Delegates to the meeting included Wolpe, along with other chairs of Congressional committees, and representatives from France, Japan, and Germany, as well as the USSR deputy foreign minister, Anatoly Adamashin. Neil van Heerden, the most senior Foreign Affairs official in the South African government, was also there.

By then the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) had been in force for nearly three years. United States president Ronald Reagan had tried to veto the legislation, but Congress and Senate had overridden the veto with a two-thirds majority. It was one of the toughest and most consequential laws against apartheid South Africa in the world.

Now, Wolpe had convened a meeting to discuss the international consequences for South Africa if apartheid continued. As Mbeki recalls it, the message that the meeting wanted Neil van Heerden to take back to the newly inaugurated South African president FW de Klerk was that if there was another “single massacre of unarmed black protestors”, the other Western countries represented there – Japan, France, and Germany – would apply similarly tough sanctions.

As it happened, neither Wilson nor Mbeki were called on to speak publicly – and it took a few days before van Heerden came to greet them. But they did give information, when required, to diplomats and government representatives.

It was a tribute to the reputation that Wilson had established as an economist and social justice activist, as well as to his constant invocation that “facts matter”.

Mbeki, chair of KMM publishers, which published Wilson’s collected works, Black, White and Gold, recounted the story about the Swiss meeting at the launch of the book, which SALDRU hosted in early July.

Also on the programme was renowned human rights lawyer and Wilson’s old friend, Advocate Geoff Budlender. Budlender, who, like Wilson, grew up in the Eastern Cape, also developed a network of close contacts among the leaders of the black consciousness movement, which became a target of savage repression by the apartheid government. Among them were Barney Pityana and Steve Biko, who was murdered by police in detention in 1977.

Budlender recalled Wilson’s legacy of vigorous and active opposition to the system of migrant labour and pass laws, which effectively underpinned the apartheid regime. He had supported Wilson, who had undertaken a 1200 km walk of “penitence” in 1972 with his brother Dr Tim Wilson and the late Anglican bishop David Russel, from Grahamstown to Cape Town to highlight the plight of migrant workers.

“Francis immersed himself in migrant labour not just through study, but also through the lived experience,” Budlender had reminded mourners at Wilson’s funeral. “He went down mines, he struggled for Crossroads (the large informal settlement outside Cape Town). In Francis’ phrase, he got mud on his boots.”

Just as Wilson used his economist skills to expose the dehumanizing system of migrant labour and persecution of Africans under the pass laws (in 1977, for instance, more than half a million people were arrested for being in urban areas ‘illegally’), so too did Budlender use his legal skills to oppose social and economic injustice. It was Budlender who, on behalf of the Legal Resource Centre, represented Meholo Tom Rikhoto in 1983, in a case that effectively abolished the fiction that pass laws rested on – that a forced return to the “homelands” every Christmas meant a broken service contract and hence ineligibility to live in the cities with their families.

At the book launch Mbeki drew attention to the role Wilson had played in “educating the country” about the legacy of British colonialism – specifically that of extracting raw commodities, exporting them, and building an economy on that – the “resource curse”, as he called it. “The other legacy he educated us on is the competition between Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism,” he said. These legacies were still “biting us.”

Wilson’s book is a collection of his work stretching from settler agriculture in the 19th century to a 2020 article appealing for a Sovereign Wealth Fund based on mining profits to redress impoverishment caused by migrant labour and mining. It is a work that epitomizes his favourite quote (from an unnamed Russian revolutionary) that what is needed in the struggle for justice is “hearts on fire, heads on ice.”

The launch was attended by a wide range of people, including his SALDRU colleagues, his wife, Lindy and children Jessica and Tanya, the church group with whom he attended Friday morning mass at St George’s’ Cathedral, and former leaders of the Black Sash who had campaigned against the pass laws.

Image: The cover of Black, White and Gold. Credit: KMM Publishers