Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Belief in ubuntu drove Mandela - and my mum

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My mum, Cherry Hill, was a leader of the Black Sash white women's resistance movement. This newspaper picture shows her protesting alone in Durban.
My mum, Cherry Hill, was a leader of the Black Sash white women's resistance movement. This newspaper picture shows her protesting alone in Durban.

I feel as though I am saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela not just for me, but for my mother, Cherry Hill, who died last year.

When going through her things, I came across a yellowing newspaper clipping from the Natal Mercury dated Friday, January 31, 1975; my mum is a lone Black Sash protester standing on Field St in Durban in the pouring rain holding a large white placard saying, "Detainees, what have they done?" while disinterested (white) rush-hour commuters shuffle past without giving her a glance.

My mum was chairman of the Natal branch of the Black Sash, a non-violent white women's resistance movement. I was very young at the time - the early 1970s - but my older brother Nick remembers: "An abiding memory is sitting on the floor of our lounge in South Africa helping mum, Eleanor Mathews, Mary Grice, Carol Lamb and others to make placards with slogans such as 'one man one vote' and 'no detention without trial'.

"They would go and stand in the centre of Durban holding these placards and not speaking. If they had stood together this would have constituted a "gathering" and they would have been arrested. This all seemed exciting on one hand but embarrassing when mentioned to my school friends on the other. Today I am so proud of her leadership and courage."

As Nick says, not only was it dangerous to attract the attention of the brutal South African security police, as they did, but it meant challenging family, friends and the rest of comfortable white society.

But mum's activism wasn't limited to political protest. Much more of her effort went into many very practical projects to break down the apartheid system in small and effective ways.

There was the Emolweni feeding scheme - each week, mum and helpers would deliver school lunches to African schoolchildren in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Mum also set up classes to teach black servants living in servants quarters in white suburbs to read and write. Lillian, our black maid, was relatively educated and the star teacher. Nick: "I recall one Sunday afternoon when a handful of senior students from black and white schools were invited to our home in Kloof for a brai (BBQ) and to share their experiences with each other. This required some skilful organisation so as not to place anyone at risk from the authorities."

My mum and dad both came from working-class families who were not university-educated or liberal, yet both of them, in the 1950s, became aware apartheid was wrong and they taught us as children about Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress, Sharpeville - and of course, Nelson Mandela.

My parents were unconventional in other ways. From 1955 to 1961, my mum supported my dad so he could attend medical school. There were no student loans and my parents were supporting their own elderly parents as well.

Dad worked in a black hospital and learned to speak enough Zulu that he could communicate with his patients.

In July 1975, my family emigrated to New Zealand; my parents wanted us to have a more normal life. We became New Zealand citizens and in 1981, we all protested against the Springbok Tour.

The eventual liberation of Nelson Mandela and free elections in South Africa were a profound vindication for mum; she never believed she would witness peaceful change in her lifetime.

But if you had met her she would not have struck you as a bolshie protester. My mum's quiet, patient and self-effacing manner masked her toughness and resilience of character.

Mum lived in a humble way with very little interest in material possessions. My parents drove an old Ford Cortina which had plants growing out of the roof. People were what mattered, not things.

When she was in her 60s, mum got a chance to go to university. She did a law degree and an LLM at Otago University.

As I am writing this, I have her bound masters thesis in international law "Transitional Justice in South Africa", sitting next to me. In it, she writes about the concept of Ubuntu, an African term that describes the finer qualities of being human and maintains that every person, as a member of the human race, automatically shares a common humanity.

Amandla Mandela. Amandla Mum.

- NZ Herald

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