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Teacher and Comrade: Richard Dudley and the Fight for Democracy in South Africa

reviewed by Allison Drew - October 16, 2008

coverTitle: Teacher and Comrade: Richard Dudley and the Fight for Democracy in South Africa
Author(s): Alan Wieder
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791474305, Pages: 192, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

Aptly titled, this engaging biography of influential South African teacher-activist Richard Dudley draws on extensive interviews of Cape Town teachers. Born in 1924, a year marking the intensification of white supremacy in South Africa, Dudley grew up in an ethnically mixed neighbourhood – “his childhood included ‘white and black and speckled’” (p. 35) − only to see such enclaves progressively wiped out as apartheid penetrated all aspects of South African society.

The South African state divided the population into arbitrary racial categories − African, Coloured, Indian and European. Classified as Coloured, Dudley spent his entire life in Cape Town and, remarkably, 46 years at Livingstone High School, first as a student, then as a teacher and acting principal. He became a driving force in the movement to use critical education to promote black empowerment and to fight apartheid. His importance lies in his impact on the intellectual and political formation of generations of Cape Town students and teachers and his efforts to promote education as a form of political activism in the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) and its affiliates. Dudley’s work as a teacher, argues Wieder, illuminates “the connection between human relationships and the struggle for democracy in South Africa throughout the twentieth century” (p. 17).

Dudley’s formal education began at St. Andrews Mission School, where his father was principal. A quick student, at nine he entered Livingstone High School, founded in 1926 as the second Cape Town high school open to Coloureds. The 1930s were marked by accelerating attacks on the meager political rights of Africans and by the spread of fascist organizations. Livingstone High became home to left-wing and anti-fascist teachers, whose presence profoundly shaped the school and the students, including Dudley.

In 1940 the fifteen-year-old Dudley entered the overwhelmingly white University of Cape Town (UCT). Despite a desire to study history and English, Dudley followed the advice of his Livingstone mentors and opted for science and math. In 1941 Dudley joined the radical New Era Fellowship, a forum for black students and intellectuals.

The war years brought intense political activity. Having curtailed African rights, the state began attacking Coloured rights. In 1943 the New Era Fellowship launched a protest movement known as the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department (Anti-CAD) movement. That same year the Anti-CAD and the All-African Convention launched the NEUM, or Unity Movement. This was based on a minimum program of democratic rights to be achieved through non-collaboration.

Wieder presents non-collaboration in terms of Frantz Fanon’s discussion of colonized people who internalize the ideology of their colonizers. But in South Africa non-collaboration had a very distinctive definition: the refusal to work within the state’s racist structures and to operate the racial machinery oppressing black South Africans. Non-collaboration assumed that laws could only be enforced through the consent of the people and that without such consent they could not be implemented.

Black teachers were often first generation intellectuals from working class families – organic intellectuals. Trotskyists in the Unity Movement believed that these teachers could serve as a political vanguard, explaining non-collaboration to the small black urban proletariat and vast rural population. In 1943 Unity Movement leader Ben Kies expounded the thesis of “teachers as a vanguard.”

Dudley graduated from UCT in 1944, just as this thesis was gaining influence. He began teaching at Livingstone High the next year, joining the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), a Coloured professional association affiliated with the Unity Movement. Under the influence of TLSA activists, Livingstone High exemplified the “teachers as a vanguard” approach. Dudley’s teaching philosophy can best be understood through his words to his students:

The government … wants the boys in the class here to go and work on the farms. My job is to keep them off the farms. They want the girls here to go and work in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen. I want to keep them out of the kitchen. I think that you’re worth far more and you’ve got a contribution to make….I don’t care what they have prescribed for you outside: at Livingstone we don’t do what they prescribe. We do the things that we are supposed to do. (p. 75)

Although intellectually compelling, the “teachers as vanguard” thesis was limited when it came to mass action. Following its 1948 election, the National Party began introducing racial segregation on Cape Town trains. The attempt to build a united front to oppose train apartheid collapsed. The Unity Movement bore a large responsibility: its leaders refused to support the mass boarding of trains to protest train apartheid, claiming that the people were not prepared. While eschewing mass action with other organizations, though, Dudley and other teacher-activists later led student sit-ins against train apartheid.

Where Dudley and his comrades excelled was in the struggle against cultural apartheid, and the 1950s was a high point for them. In 1952 the government organized the Jan van Riebeeck Festival commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of Dutch settlement. Teacher-activists from the TLSA and the Cape African Teachers’ Association produced pamphlets and organized a student boycott of the festival in Coloured and African townships. Teacher-activists launched a network of educational fellowships throughout the Cape Peninsula and in Port Elizabeth and Kimberley, and Unity Movement intellectuals like Hosea Jaffe, Dora Taylor and W. P. van Schoor produced a body of literature that marked the first major radical challenge to the prevailing liberal paradigm of South African history.

But the limitations of relying primarily on teacher-activists soon became clear. Teachers comprised less than one percent of the total 1946 population; by the late 1940s this stratum had crystallized out of the working class into a section of the middle class. Teaching was one of the few opportunities open to educated Coloureds, and teachers earned a high income relative to other Coloured occupational groups. As they embraced middle-class respectability, they inevitably refrained from mass action.

In the Western Cape, the Unity Movement’s teacher base protected it from internal pressure for change. Its African affiliate, the All-African Convention, based in the impoverished Eastern Cape, could not escape such pressure. In 1958 the Unity Movement finally split under pressure from activists tired of seeing their organizations overshadowed by the African National Congress. Wieder presents two perspectives on this episode, those of Dudley and his Livingstone colleague Allie Fataar. But any deeper understanding of the split requires an examination of the social bases of the various Unity Movement affiliates and an assessment of their use of ideology.

State repression intensified in the 1960s. Livingstone teachers were banned, banished, imprisoned or forced to flee. Nonetheless, under Dudley’s leadership Livingstone maneuvered with skill as apartheid penetrated ever more into the educational sector. The school creed, published in 1967, called passionately for “Equal respect for all people regardless of colour, creed or nation and an equal hatred for the beliefs that bring people of other colours or creed or nation into contempt” (p. 99). The school organized exchanges with white and African schools and resisted the state’s effort to impose Afrikaans as a language of instruction – an issue that would mobilize the 1976 Soweto uprising. Meanwhile, forced removals continued apace. Both Dudley’s parents and Dudley himself were forced to sell their homes.

Influenced by black consciousness, in the 1970s students and even schoolchildren became highly politicized. Livingstone students and graduates were increasingly critical of the Unity Movement’s skepticism of mass action. By the mid-1980s many students, impatient for change, called for “Liberation before education.” To this Dudley and others responded, “Education for liberation,” arguing that students should stay in school to engage in critical learning. As Wieder writes, Livingstone’s “dilemma…was joining academic excellence with reasoned political awareness at a time when the public mantra was action and activism” (p. 112). In Dudley’s view, “the struggle for education was…part and parcel of the struggle for liberation….you cannot create a revolution with ignorant people. You can have a revolt. You can have a rebellion, but you cannot have a revolution without education” (pp. 136-7).

Dudley’s logic may be flawless, but his argument assumes that education and action are mutually exclusive. By the late 1980s the Unity Movement had marginalized itself from mass action. Dudley and his comrades argued that they would not work with collaborationist organizations. But they were misusing their own concept of non-collaboration, which had been intended for the state’s racial institutions, not for mass alliances of those resisting state oppression.

Regardless of the apartheid government’s hopes to dominate the negotiations, that they took place at all was itself a significant concession on the government’s part. The outcome was not pre-ordained. The question is: has democracy benefited the people? The answer was simply and eloquently articulated by the many, many black South Africans who phoned radio talk show host Tim Modise on election-day 1994: “Now we have our dignity back.” That Unity Movement intellectuals, so renowned in the country for their brilliance, chose to remain on the margins during the transition to democracy is a great loss for post-apartheid society. Wieder’s book effectively illuminates these tensions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 16, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15414, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:36:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Allison Drew
    University of York, UK
    E-mail Author
    ALLISON DREW teaches at the University of York, UK. She has published South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History, 2 vols. (1996-97), Discordant Comrades: Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left (2000, 2002) and Between Empire and Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873-1936, (2007). She is working on a comparative study of Communism and nationalism in twentieth-century South Africa and Algeria.
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