Working with WUS in South Africa in the 60s and 70s

More than forty years have passed since I worked with WUS, but some flashes come to mind. 

I remember my first Wits/NUSAS related interactions with WUS when I met a UK based man at Anne Welsh’s house. She was running SACHED and I was responsible for SACHED affairs for the Wits local NUSAS Committee. I can’t recall the man’s name – but I do remember long black hair and the most exhausted face and voice I had ever heard. Next to him was a travelling bag which turned out to be filled with bank notes which he had successfully smuggled through customs. I can’t recall the currency, but it was lots and it was for SACHED students. This must have been in about 1962/3. 

I also clearly remember Richard Taylor’s visit in 1976. He came to visit Josie and me in our house. He had just returned from a visit to Durban where he amusingly related how he had gone on a beach-sand walk early in the morning. The only people on the beach were himself followed, at a distance, by four security police. He hoped that they had enjoyed the rather long walk which seems to have had them involved walking in (not on) the water at times. 

That evening we decided  to go out for supper with Richard, but Josie was adamant that she would not go if the security police sitting in a car outside our house were going to follow us and perhaps even sit near us in the restaurant. 

Because I knew they would do exactly that, I decided to invite them to join us for dinner. I went outside and invited them to join us and they agreed, if their superior in a car further up the road would give permission which he did. 

Here comes the real irony. One of the two we invited was black and the problem arose as to where we could legally eat!! We decided to go to the airport which was designated “international” and therefore “multiracial”. So, there we went, a convoy of three cars – to the airport, where Theo Derkx, Secretary of SACHED, joined us. 

At the table I sat between the two security men. On ordering – since they were our guests we invited them to order first. They each ordered a steak. When it came to my ordering I said something like ” if I’m sitting between two rumps what does that make me?” This set a light tone for the evening – they were much better at punning than me. However as the evening proceeded they began to loosen up and began admitting, for example, having studied recent pictures of Josie. So we returned to our usual standoff positions and went home. Josie was administering the Prison Education programme at the time and interacting with relatives of the prisoners. I think that was the basis of their interest 

As far as the funding for the Prison Education Scheme is concerned – I seem to remember that originally it was funded by Amnesty who sent money to the lawyer Ruth Haymen, who worked with Josie and me (my NUSAS Portfolio) until her banning. I can’t recall whether funding was taken over by WUS or IUEF, I seem to remember Josie and me reporting to both. I do recall however that Craig Williamson was on a committee handling it. 

Apropos- I recall Lars Gunnar, inter alia, for the results of a telegram (remember what those were?). SACHED received a telegram stating “the blonde from the Mountains will be visiting Swaziland” (very deep code I guess).  

So Theo and I went to Ephesus House in Swaziland and Lars was there – all blonde – with Uffe and Jette Hansen who were directing the refugee centre. Lars handed over a payment. I cannot recall whether it was cash or a cheque, but I do recall placing it under my foot, in a sock, in a shoe. 

We deliberately left for Johannesburg late in the evening – having told the office over the phone that we would be leaving the following day. When we arrived at the border it was clear that they were waiting for us because the clerk summoned three security men from a room alongside the counter. They began to search the car and found…… three books banned in South Africa and nothing else. Thank you Lars, we thought. 

Months later Theo and I were summoned to a appear in a court in Carolina, a small town in the Eastern Transvaal, where an itinerant magistrate was sitting. We were concerned that if Theo, a Dutch citizen, was found guilty he would forfeit his visa and be kicked out of the country. I would therefore plead guilty to all three counts. 

We managed to quash one count on a technicality- but were found guilty on the other two (I think the books dealt with the future of marriage). 

 The Magistrate’s sentence was immortal. “I agree with your lawyer that you will not do this again and accept that the books were not for immoral purposes. However because you will not do it again and you must be punished I find you guilty on two counts and fine you on three.” Anyway it was a merry drive back to Johannesburg 

On another occasion I met with Michel Gouault from WUS in Geneva in Malawi – because I had a limited Southern Africa passport which was subsequently taken away. We talked mainly about a residence WUS was building, but I did get some severe lectures about my paternalistic attitudes and that I didn’t emphasise sufficiently with the Quebecois. 

I recall visiting Geneva on a few occasions – but more time was spent with Alan Phillips in the UK. He was very polite and helpful schlepping me around to various funding agencies and academic institutions who were interested in SACHED’s work. He clearly thought I wasn’t presenting properly and spent many hours gently coaxing/coaching me on how to approach British people. I appreciated it. He also visited South Africa. 

The last interactions I had concerning WUS was the divorce with IUEF. There were attempts here to convince me to change allegiances and I can report that I remained a loyal WUS Supporter. 

I am aware that the above is anecdotal and not reflective of the “political and strategic elements. I have tried to recall my dealings with WUS when I was Vice President International Relations of NUSAS – but to no avail. 

Author profile
David Adler

David Adler was Vice-President, International Relations, of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) from 1962 into the late 1970s. As a pioneering educationalist in distance education, he together with Theo Derkx, cooperated closely with WUS during the Apartheid-era, especially on the SACHED projects including the Prison Education Scheme. He was also associated as chairperson or committee member of some 20 Anti-Apartheid NGOs some concerned with training the leadership of the Mass Democratic Movement and with preparing leadership for the future Democratic South Africa. He was “banned" in 1978 together with Clive Nettleton and other SACHED/Mass Democratic Movement comrades. In Post-Apartheid South Africa, he served as the Chairperson of SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority) and was Chairperson of the Audit Committee of the National Development Agency (NDA).