Self-reflections of an activist

GET UP! STAND UP! by Mark Heywood (Tafelberg)

Executive director of Section 27 Mark Heywood has written a memoir, subtitled Personal Journeys towards Social Justice. He begins as he means to go on, associating love, the arts and social justice. He writes of “the great beauty of living” and goes on to engage — in his book and in his life — with the fact that inequality means that “far too many people cannot benefit from all we have accumulated and all we know”. So the main title, Get Up! Stand Up! — with the next line of the song,“Stand up for your rights!”, resonating in the head of anyone who knows Bob Marley — is both lovely and apt.

The beginning is a little surreal, if familiar to those of us who live in previously colonised countries. His father worked for Barclays Bank and was posted to Nigeria, Ghana and Botswana, so Heywood was an expat child in Africa. At the age of seven he was posted home to a good school to get an extremely privileged education, which was capped by reading English literature at Balliol, Oxford.

He is dismayed by this. But these served as useful training and he soon rebelled against the mindset that underlies this way of life. As a 16-year-old, he spent a month working at the Rand Daily Mail. This started his love affair with South Africa and activism. And while still a student at Oxford he joined Militant Workers’ Tendency (MWT), a Trotskyite offshoot of the Labour Party. Through this he met South Africans Zackie Achmat, Linda Ensor and Martin Legassick.

In England, he lived in bleak working-class conditions and produced and distributed a newspaper, Inqaba ya Sebenzi, to South African workers. He decided to “sign on to the dole, feigning unemployment so as to have a few pounds to eat, drink, pay rent and advance the socialist revolution in South Africa and globally”.

In 1989, the MWT sent him to South Africa where he continued to work for the movement, training people for work on Marxist newspapers. His cover activity was to register for an MA in African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, before camping on the outskirts of Grahamstown while reading at the Cory Library and going to Lovedale, where he “once again found literature and social justice bound to each other”.

After 1994, the comrades in the MWT in South Africa began to look for other work. Heywood started working for the Aids Law Project in 1997. His delineation of the HIV epidemic, which became an Aids epidemic in 2001 in South Africa, is usefully clear on the science, the research and the various stages of treatment. By then 70 000 children a year were HIV positive and the Treatment Action Campaign, started by Achmat and Heywood, inter alia, campaigned to compel the government to provide Nevirapine to HIV pregnant women to prevent transmission of the virus to their babies.

The paediatricians who started the Save Our Babies campaign were Haroun Saloojee, Ashraf Coovadia and Peter Cooper. Throughout the book, Heywood is keen for others who worked in these various life-saving campaigns to be acknowledged and remembered.

By 2016, 17-million people, most of them in Africa, were on antiretrovirals. Heywood observes that, though their work “expanded the rights of people in the age of neoliberalism”, there are still many new infections, many of which go untreated.

He questions the efficacy of activism, considers the falling-outs between activists, including his own with Barbara Hogan and Achmat. He reflects on the “debilitating distrust” between different kinds of socialists, roughly categorised as those who go in for complex arguments about neoliberalism and colonialism, and those who take a more pragmatic approach to achievable goals relating to health, education and water.

And he examines the word “recession” when it refers not to an economic setback but to a decline in political commitment.

After brief descriptions of work in progress in Section 27, relating to textbooks and school toilets, inter alia, Heywood goes on to look at the #Save South Africa campaign, which seeks to “reconstitute civil society as a political power in South Africa”.

This engaging memoir is more a meditation than plain history and the reader will find much to think about. 

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