Chris Rawlins: TIG general secretary: a biography

I was educated at Diocesan College (Bishops), the pre-eminent private school in Cape Town founded by the first Anglican archbishop in 1849.

During my last two years I taught basic education to African adults who travelled long distances at night striving for the education of which they had been deprived as children.

In my final year in 1958 I was one of three in my class conscripted for military service under the ballot system.

After I left school I continued teaching adult education at night school through the active involvement of my mother in a women’s movement called the Black Sash which was formed in 1955 to protest against the removal of people of colour from the common voters roll as had been entrenched in the Union Act of 1910. The Black Sash expanded into a public protest organisation against all discriminatory legislation, and in particular assisted urban Africans faced with a maze of restrictive legislation. I worked closely with my mother in disseminating information about the appalling death rate of rural African children from malnutrition diseases and in 1960 we became actively campaigning founder members of the non-racial Progressive Party, a tiny group of MPs that had broken away from the Opposition party of Jan Smuts which, in Peter Ritner’s words in The Death of Africa, ‘thought they couldn’t stand for the truth and win so they tried standing for the lie and lost anyway’.

By late 1960 I was a supporter of the African National Congress led by Chief Albert Luthuli and in 1961, against the advice of my father and the senior partners of Syfrets, the large accountancy firm I worked for, I cancelled my articles of accountancy and emigrated to the UK to avoid call-up to the apartheid military. I was compelled to renounce my SA citizenship. The alternative was to spend my youthful years in prison.

In the UK I worked for a firm of 5,000 people in the provincial city of Bristol while studying at night and at every opportunity in my social and employment relationships and in letters to journalists I argued the case for economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in line with the policy of the ANC.

Every time a British person asked me what was going to happen in SA, would there be a bloodbath, I replied that there was already a bloodbath as 50,000 rural African children under age 5 were dying annually from malnutrition diseases like kwashiorkor.

In 1967, homesick and isolated from my closest family, I returned to South Africa on an English passport and, while not informing the apartheid state of my ‘illegal’ status, I graduated at the University of Natal with Bachelor and Honours degrees in Social Science in 1972, having the privilege of lecturers like Fatima Meer, the close friend and biographer of Nelson and Winnie Mandela and outstanding sociologists like Hamish Dickie-Clark and Dunbar Moodie. During my second year of sociology I obtained a certificate of merit which was the first in the faculty for 5 years. I then spent 5 years as a research fellow with the Centre for Applied Social Sciences at the university collaborating with Lawrence Schlemmer in producing reports on poverty, morale and motivation among rural African employees which communicated to their employers the harsh reality of their lives. During my fieldwork in remote rural areas I worked closely with two men who had spent 10 years on Robben Island, Judson Khuzwayo and Shadrack Maphumulo. Both men later died in exile, Judson while chief ANC representative in Zimbabwe and Shadrack shot in the back by SA state assassins in front of his children in Swaziland while attempting one final desperate bid for freedom.

While they were being tortured and held in solitary confinement after arrest at the university they were questioned about me, and later confirmed to me that I was being closely watched by the so-called security branch because of my contacts and regular visits to the Black townships. In September 1977 on the day the news broke of the death of Steve Biko my mother staged a solitary placard protest in the crowded foyer of an all white theatre in Cape Town, her Black Sash friends lacking the personal courage to join her. In January 1978 one of my tutors, banned and house arrested activist and academic, Rick Turner, was assassinated in front of his children, his wife Fozia being part of our university group.

Although I had by then established an academic career I could not receive funding for doctoral study without reversing my decision of conscience and later that year I returned to the UK.

Back in the ‘no such thing as society’ Britain of Thatcher I was unable to accept a place at the LSE because of lack of funding and after lengthy periods of voluntary social work I resumed my original accountancy profession. Having previously completed the Intermediate of the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants, I became a member of the Association of Accounting Technicians in 1986, after a year of full-time study at Filton Technical College in Bristol. I spent 18 months as finance officer with Community Service Volunteers in London and then 5 years as a management accountant with the largest NHS hospital in the West of England. Supporting the left wing of the Labour Party led by Tony Benn campaigning for greater democracy in the UK’s class society, I publicly marched and protested against Britain’s  continuing colonial wars in Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq etc. I participated in fund-raising walks against apartheid, in academic debates at Bristol University and in trade union meetings and protest marches while working as a management accountant at Southmead Hospital, continuously arguing for international sanctions. In 1990 I resumed contact with my friend Dumisani Nduli from Natal University by then an ANC representative in London and made monthly financial contributions to the ANC. From 1992 I was chairman of my local Labour party branch in Bristol West, arguing vociferously against the election of Tony Blair. In 1994, with ANC help, I regained my South African citizenship which I had lost when leaving the country to avoid military service, voted in London, and later that year returned to South Africa at a time when hundreds of thousands of whites began leaving.

Since 2002 I have assisted Anthony Brink as general secretary of the Treatment Information Group. My hobbies are genealogical research and ballroom dancing.