I remember WUS

I remember my first contact with WUS in Geneva in 1969. I was the Acting President of the National Union of South African Students and had attended the World Assembly of Youth in Liege and visited Scandinavia and London. Geneva was the last stop before I went back home. 

I remember that this was a difficult time with WUS and IUEF at loggerheads over support for projects in South Africa. After meetings with both organisations, who were not talking to each other, I suggested and we agreed that they would support different projects. 

I remember coming back to Geneva at the end of 1971 to seek funding for the Open School, a new project I’d started to bring black and white students together. Later this project was taken over by Colin Smuts and was closely involved with students from SOWETO, with some of the leaders hiding out in its offices. 

I remember meeting Richard Taylor when he visited South Africa in 1977. WUS was supporting People’s College, an educational supplement to Weekend World, the largest paper aimed at a black readership, which was read by over 3 million people.  

I remember that when Richard left our offices, there were are least six security police positioned at various points in the street ready to follow him wherever he went next. Of course they must have known his destination, but intimidation was the name of the game. 

I remember being served with a banning order at an international conference on education held at Wits University in May 1978. The World, its editor and my colleague Dave Adler and many others were also banned or detained.  

I remember deciding to leave South Africa on an exit permit and go into exile in 1979. We left the last day that Maryke, my wife who was 34 weeks pregnant, was allowed to travel.  

I remember arriving in London on 6 March 1979. Tad Mitsui, then Africa Secretary at WUSI, was there to meet us. Apart from checking that we were okay, he told me that he was leaving WUS and asked if I’d be interested in applying for the post. I said that attractive as it was, it wasn’t the right time. 

I remember Richard Taylor phoning me a few weeks later to say that the person they’d appointed had decided not to take up the position and he wondered if I’d be interested. I was having difficulty deciding what to do, so it seemed, on the second time of asking, to be worth a shot. 

I vaguely remember the interview in the WUS offices in north London, but more my surprise when I was offered the job, which I accepted with alacrity. 

I remember visiting Geneva in June. But before I got there I had a problem:  I’d left South Africa on an exit permit which allowed me to depart but stated that I would be charged with leaving illegally if I returned. I entered the UK with a letter from the UK Home Office stating that I had been cleared to enter, but now I had no other travel document. So I had to go the Home Office in Croydon, south of London, to get one, and it was only then that I realised that I was entitled to a refugee convention travel document, which was issued within a week. Things were certainly different in 1979. 

Armed with my Refugee Convention Travel document I headed for Chemin des Iris.  I was warmly welcomed by all the staff and was struck by the range of nationalities of my new colleagues: English, Swiss, Sri Lankan, Chilean, Guatemalan not to mention my Japanese Canadian predecessor Tad Mitsui who was going to be a hard act to follow. Over a couple of days he took me through all the projects, procedures and donors. I hoped I’d remember half of it. 

I remember setting off for Geneva a few weeks later in our Volkswagen Golf packed with our possessions. I’d never driven in Europe or on the right hand side of the road. I’d also agreed to pick up Richard at the airport in Paris where he had been attending a meeting. So it goes when you’re young. 

I remember finding Richard without a problem and setting off for Geneva in the late afternoon. Somehow we got lost crossing the Jura and ended up drinking coffee and eating croissants at a transport café outside a small town in France 100km south of Geneva at around 6am. We decided not to join the truck drivers in a quick shot of cognac. 

I remember arriving in Ferney Voltaire where I was billeted in the local Novotel while waiting for Maryke to arrive with our infant son Gregory, who had been born in April. We found accommodation a couple of weeks later in a woman’s residence where rooms were let out for the summer vacation. 

I remember having to go through a lot of bureaucratic procedures to register with the authorities including being tested for TB. 

I remember the legendary Lo, who had been with WUS for fifty years, using her contacts to find us a wonderful apartment across the road from the villa a couple of months later. Libby Visinand helped with various things, though she made it clear that we’d have to get ourselves organised. Tough love! 

I remember that Geneva and the WUS office felt distinctly old fashioned. For about the first year I was there we were still paid in cash, going down the corridor to collect our envelopes with the money and payslips. Maryke paid the rent in cash; the postwoman knocked on the door once a month to pay her the child benefit in cash; and the supermarket would only accept payment in cash. And there were the rules prohibiting having a bath after ten o’clock and not making a noise at any time.  

Members of the International Executive and Secretariat meeting at 5 Chémin des Iris Geneva in 1979

I remember that it felt wonderful both to be part of an international organisation with colleagues from so many different places, and to work to support a range of organisations and students in South Africa, and students in Zimbabwe and Namibia as well as many in exile in a wide range of countries.  

I remember visiting Southern Africa a few months later to meet with the WUS Committees. Because I couldn’t land in South Africa I flew from London to Lusaka and then on to Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana without touching down. Over the next couple of years this was to be a familiar routine and I scheduled meetings in Gaborone with people from the organisations we supported in South Africa and with others with new programmes.  

I remember meeting Stan Mudenge, a Zimbabwean exile in Lesotho who’d been WUS International President from 1978-80. A strong supporter of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, he was politely hostile to me. Later he was the UN Ambassador and then Foreign Minister in the increasingly dictatorial Mugabe regime. 

I remember meeting John Daniel, a friend and former President of NUSAS who ran the WUS refugee scholarship programme in Swaziland. He warned me that Craig Williamson was a spy, confirming similar warnings I’d had from other old NUSAS friends in the UK. Richard and Tad were keen for us to  maintain the good contact with Craig, but I was cautious and only met with him once a few weeks before he was exposed. At that meeting I said that WUS was committed to working openly with organisations in South Africa and that IUEF could handle programmes underground and with the liberation movements abroad. 

I remember sitting on a plane en route home from a trip to Kenya and Rwanda in early 1980. We stopped to pick up passengers in Kampala and someone left a copy of a Kenyan paper on the seat next to me. On the front page there was a story, just a paragraph long, about a South African spy having been exposed in Geneva. No details, but it had to be Williamson. By the time I got back to Geneva after a stopover in London for a day, the Williamson story was all over the papers. 

I remember that there was obviously some concern amongst the donors, particularly the Scandinavians, that I might also be a spy, and at least one suggested to Richard that I should be dismissed. Without telling me about it Richard refused and a month later accompanied me on the annual visit to the donors.  

I remember that things settled down after that. I kept a low profile and carried on with the administration of the programmes. Talks began with the Scandinavians about our taking over the IUEF scholarship programmes for African and Latin American students. When it happened, it vastly expanded WUSI’s programmes and finances. 

I remember working with Gail Hunter and some consultants to develop a system for managing the programme. She was far more competent than me. 

I remember going to the 1980 WUS Assembly in Managua, an extraordinary event in the newly liberated country. Dominated by the Latin American committees there was a feeling that despite the advent of Reagan and Thatcher things were changing, symbolised by Zimbabwe and Nicaragua. But there was tension and the election of Klavs Wulff, a Dane, as General Secretary was bitterly opposed by the Latin Americans and was at the root of many subsequent problems.  

I remember that beyond the Assembly four of us played tennis one afternoon. We lost hopelessly which was hardly surprising as my racket was slightly warped and Ray Weedon on the other side had played in the Davis Cup and at Wimbledon.  

I remember that I had to go with two African delegates to get American visas for their return journeys. They’d been allowed through on their way in, but had been told that they needed visas to return or the Nicaraguan airline wouldn’t carry them. The visa for the Swazi delegate was no problem but, we were told, the Zimbabwean, Time, would have to wait a month. That was pretty well impossible, so we went to catch the plane and I managed to persuade them to let him on the plane. In the queue in Miami I stood behind him and, when his turn came, there was a long discussion. Eventually he was allowed through accompanied by a police officer. Time was a large man who’d played rugby and hockey for Zambia while in exile. The police officer was a small woman, about 1.6m tall. What, I wondered, would have happened if he made a break for it?  

I remember that there were considerable changes after Klavs took over. With his background in WUS Denmark and six years in Lesotho, he was far more interventionist in the programmes, particularly in Africa and in relations with donors, particularly in negotiating the transfer of the IUEF programme.  But he left the internal programmes to me and made sure that I was kept informed and we got along very well travelling together in Africa and Europe. 

I remember that in early spring 1982, Klavs returned from a visit to Canada where he met Henry Muradzikwa, a Zimbabwean member of the Executive Committee. Both Henry, supported by the other African representatives, and Janis Kazaks from CIDA were insistent that Klavs should ask me to leave before the 1982 Assembly in Harare. 

I remember meeting with Klavs for a coffee after lunch in the garden of the café behind the villa. He explained the problem and asked if I would leave before the Assembly rather than staying on to the end of my contract. I was shocked but eventually said that I would only make a decision if we could meet with the African representatives. 

I remember that we met for two days going round and round the issue. Eventually I’d had enough and asked whether this was really just an issue of race. They agreed that it was and it was clear that we could never get past that. So I agreed to resign and leave by the end of June. 

I remember that Klavs did three important things in recognition of what had happened. First he asked me to attend the Assembly and contribute to a workshop which was being held. Second he organised a wonderful farewell party in the garden at the villa at which I was given two Crueset pots which I use to this day, a reminder of what was a highlight of my work in education, human rights and development. Finally, as these things happen, Klavs asked me to join Ian Wright, the former President to conduct a survey in January 1983 of education in the Maldives for a potential new project. A real hardship to end my involvement in WUSI. 

I remember many of the people I worked with in Geneva and have kept up friendships with quite a few and am in contact with others. It was a real lucky break that took me to Geneva and it remains a high spot in my career and life. 

With apologies to Denis Hirson, George Perec and Joe Brainard

WUS International Secretariat : Simon, Marco, Clive in Columbo 1980
Author profile
Clive Nettleton

Originally from South Africa, Clive Nettleton was the vice president of the National Union of South African Students in 1969. In 1972 he founded the Open School with support from WUS, which also supported his next programme People’s College, an educational supplement written by SACHED for Weekend, a paper with three million black readers. In 1978, the paper was banned and Clive was also banned. In March 1979 Clive left for Britain as a refugee and became Africa Secretary at the WUS International Secretariat in July of that year. After leaving Geneva in 1982 Clive worked as Head of Information for the British Refugee Council. He was Director of Health Unlimited which supported long term programmes in areas affected by conflict for 15 years from 1990 and then spent a year as an Honorary Research Fellow at the London School of Tropical Medicine contributing to papers for “The Lancet” and compiling a report on the Social Determinants of Health of Indigenous People for WHO. Finally, he was the Director for Book Aid International until retiring in 2013. In both South Africa and the UK, he has served on the boards of a range of NGOs and in the UK was a school governor for nine years.