Honorary Consul Anne Page writes a personal tribute to the three late South African greats: Hugh Masekela, Prof Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile and Rica Hodgson.
By Anne Page, Honorary Consul for South Africa in the East of England
I am feeling blue at the death of Hugh Masekela, world-renowned musician, and personal friend. It is hard for those of us for whom the struggle years lasted longer than the born-free years have yet done. We are all into old age now, and meet too often at funerals.
Hugh’s death comes too soon after those, also this month, of Poet Laureate Professor William Kgositsile, and anti-apartheid champion Rica Hodgson. Hugh and Rica were specially connected to the UK, Hugh and Bra Willie to the United States.
All three of these distinguished South Africans began their lives of struggle at home. They moved into exile. They continued the struggle, but so differently. Each used their own platforms to alert the world to apartheid. Each was lucky enough to be able to return to the new South Africa, and continue contributing to the country’s development.
Hugh should need no introduction, even to young readers. His music continued to give joy to millions around the world until last year when illness attacked him irrevocably. It was here in Suffolk, East Anglia, that I last heard him perform, at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 18 months ago. I watched him, as ever, seduce an audience new to him, young and old, with his music, his wit, and his politics.
I heard him play several times with the London Symphony Orchestra and London youth choirs. I heard him do a marvellous charity gig for Johannesburg’s Trevor Huddleston Centre, in St James, Piccadilly. There he gave a trumpet to a young Londoner, and said he hoped it would bring him the same luck he had been blessed with when Trevor gave him his first trumpet.
Best of all, I heard him when he arrived late, delayed by planes, one evening at South Africa House. This was for the London tribute to Oliver Tambo. People had left, with the last few just chatting, far from the basement stage. I looked up and saw Hugh charge in and down the stairs all anxious because he was late. At once he saw the event was practically over. But, un-greeted, not even noticed, he rushed through to the empty hall, got up on the stage, and blew his heart out for Oliver.
Only last November, the Festival Hall was jammed to hear him together with another South African musical legend, Abdullah Ibrahim — but Hugh had to cancel. The illness had taken hold by then.
On January 11, Rica Hodgson died at 97.
She helped prepare the 1956 Congress of the People. She was also a leader at the women’s march against pass laws, that same year. In 1957, following the arrest of 156 leaders, she became fund-raiser and secretary of the Treason Trial Defence Fund and later, for the Johannesburg branch of the Defence and Aid Fund. In 1959, she was secretary for the musical production King Kong that sought to promote black jazz musicians and non-racial performances.
She was detained during the 1960 state of emergency. In 1962, she and her husband Jack were placed under house arrest. They left the country illegally in mid-1963 and from 1964 to 1981, Rica worked full-time for the Defence and Aid Fund in London, heading the Welfare Section, covertly channelling money for the defence of political prisoners and the support of their families. Rica was much involved with the development of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, established by the ANC in Tanzania after the Soweto Uprising. Eventually she returned home to become personal assistant to Rivonia trialist Walter Sisulu at the ANC’s headquarters.
Professor Keorapetse William Kgositsile, born 1938 and also known by his pen name Bra Willie, was a poet and political activist. He lived in exile in the United States from 1962 until 1975. Kgositsile was one of the first to bridge the gap between African poetry and Black poetry in the United States. He later went to live in Africa, was prominent in the arts and cultural work of the ANC in Zambia, and on returning home, was made Poet Laureate in 2006, successor to another distinguished UK- and American-based returnee from exile, Mazisi Kunene.
The lives of these great South Africans are recorded more fully elsewhere. All leave us a legacy of commitment to South Africa’s future, perhaps just now more clearly back on track. In this year of the Mandela Centenary, we must all continue their work.
About Anne Page
Anne Page is Honorary Consul for South Africa in the East of England. A graduate of the University of Cape Town, she returned to London in the early 1960s. Founding editor of Anti- Apartheid News, she worked with and came to know many political exiles. Her full story is recorded in the official archives of the Anti Apartheid Movement, link here.