A family’s sacrifice for SA’s freedom
THE flat in the North London suburb of Muswell Hill, 36 Woodlands Gardens, had been home to the September family since the 1960s.
Reg September held in his hand a letter he had read and reread, pausing as the memories scattered his thoughts over the distance of time and place.
Reg had been imprisoned for five months during the 1960 State of Emergency. He was banned after his release and a year later the state ordered him to resign as secretary of the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC).
In 1962 he had been arrested and charged for attending a CPC meeting. While Reg had been out on bail, the underground leadership of the SACP instructed him to leave the country.
His last hiding place in Cape Town before leaving in March was the Zeekoevlei home of David McAdam of the Cape Town Boys Choir. After his first night in the house he was woken early by the raucous sounds of birds. From Edgar Maurice, a childhood friend who visited later in the day, he learnt his neighbours in the area included flamingos, pelicans and cormorants.
Edgar had brought a portable radio, a valued gift which allowed Reg, while in hiding, to be in touch with the world.
His route from Cape Town to Johannesburg began at Bellville station. He was met by Kathy Kathrada in a town outside Johannesburg.
“I was put up at Kathy’s place,” was Reg’s sparse recall. “Unfortunately he was arrested one night and I was moved to Durban. Apparently the comrades there had contacts on a certain ship going to Dar es Salaam. But it was discovered the authorities were keeping an eye on the ship.
“Apparently they had traced it back to Barney (Desai), who had travelled on the same ship previously.”
Reg eventually found his way to Swaziland, where he was joined in October 1963 by his wife, Hetty. Their children, Mark, 3, and Peter, 1, remained behind in Heathfield with Hetty’s mother. They joined their parents in London in 1965.
The light-blue aerogram letter Reg held in his hand was dated 30 December 1970 and was from Nicholas September, Reg’s father. It was a response to a letter from Reg and in his reply the old man’s longing is simply expressed: “I wept in gladness after so many years”.
The writer’s large, uneven script fills the page and spells out the thoughts and spirit of a man at peace with his lot in life.
But it is not so with his son’s political choices. Reg and Hetty are cautioned to “both think seriously” about what they were doing. They are encouraged to forgive “and forget the past”.
The letter was the last communication between Reg and his dad, who passed away on 20 February 1971. He had been a keen fisherman and life president of the Coastal Angling Club and “the oldest registered angler” of the Western Province Anglers’ Association.
Reading the letter, Reg, the 47-year old chief representative of the ANC with oversight of the UK and Western Europe, learnt his older siblings Gwen and Cecil had died and two of his nephews had emigrated: “Small Cecil gone to Australia. Edman gone to Canada.” His sister Jessie would die in the same decade.
By the time Reg returned home, two decades later, none of his immediate family was alive to welcome him and reacquaint him with the familiar things in life that had continued despite his absence.
Reg had last seen his father in the months before he left for exile. Theirs was a tacit acknowledgement to focus on the present and not to ponder the reasons for the long spells of absence and sudden, unexpected visits. Conversations were mostly about fishing or cricket; the health and wellbeing of Reg’s siblings. The walk from the front door to the street was marked by comments on the state of the garden.
Thoughts of those whom he loved and had surrendered to death would have been on the mind of Reginald September when he cast his first vote for a New South Africa in 1994.