Book extract: Foot Soldier for Freedom by Rica Hodgson

Veteran anti-apartheid activist Rica Hodgson (91) will be on stage with fellow freedom fighters Hugh Lewin and Ronnie Kasrils in “Memory is the Weapon”, a session about how memoirs reflect the convergence of the personal and the political. Hodgson’s memoir, Foot Soldier for Freedom: A life in South Africa’s liberation movement (Picador Africa, 2010), offers a long view of Jo’burg, perhaps most poignantly in the final chapter, “Home at Last”.

This is an extract.

Indeed, events moved rapidly from then on. In September, Spencer and Claudia were summoned to Johannesburg by Henry Makgothi, with instructions to investigate a project in the former Eastern Transvaal. And by November [1990], I was finally back home again. I was now 70 years old and had been away for 27 years. But I had never really left home. I had always been together with my comrades, who were determined that exile was just a passing phase and that it was only a matter of time before we would take power.

Together with Spencer, I returned to Johannesburg. We waited in separate aisles at Jan Smuts Airport to go through immigration. It was clear that the young Afrikaans official had me on some sort of list, because she became quite flustered when I presented my British passport.

She checked, checked again, had a long hard look at me and eventually let me through. Home at last!

As I made my way through Johannesburg for the first time in 27 years, I remembered all the streets in their order, from town through Hillbrow to Berea and then on to Lily’s flat in Parktown. Soon after, Tanya arrived to begin her studies. It was exciting to be able finally to share my home town with my granddaughter — the sights, sounds and vibes of Jo’burg; some old, some new. I showed her the City Hall steps, which she had been dying to see after all the stories she had grown up with. We relished the new trendy atmosphere of Yeoville, and I showed her some of the many houses where I had grown up — in Yeoville and Observatory.

Tanya was amazed at the way her grandmother, famous for getting lost, could name the streets in their order. And I could only explain by saying that this was after all my home town.

It wasn’t difficult to readjust to life in South Africa — I was so excited by everything. When I had left in 1963, there were no highways. I remember those long drives to Pretoria — in fact there had been hardly anything between Jo’burg and Pretoria then. Now, there’s hardly a spot with nothing, hardly anywhere where there isn’t building going on. I had to learn my way around these new developments, and I did get lost on a few of those highways. Like all returning exiles, I reconnected with family – and with surviving comrades I had known and not seen since my departure. I visited the ANC offices and linked up also with other returning exiles. Most from my generation, including my two sisters and my ‘adopted’ brother, had since died.

There was a mood of sweeping change and high hope at the time. It was very exciting. I soon found an apartment that I loved in Berea and purchased it for a price that wouldn’t get you half a garage in London at the time. It was three or four blocks from the building in which we had been house arrested before leaving for Bechuanaland. When I first moved in, there was not a black, brown or yellow face to be seen in the building, but already black people had started moving from the townships to downtown Johannesburg and Hillbrow and were soon to seek living spaces in Berea, Yeoville and Bellevue.


Chaired by M&G editor Nic Dawes, “Memory is the Weapon” will be in the Main Theatre of the Market Theatre on Sunday 4 September from 9.30 to 11 am.

The Mail & Guardian Johannesburg Literary Festival hopes to be bigger and better this September. To mark the city’s 125th birthday the festival will focus on Jo’burg as both an African city and a world city. Visit our special report here.



Book your place at the festival here.

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