Saturday, 3rd May 2003 in St Davids Hall, Cardiff
Citation for Honorary Doctor of The Open University delivered by Peter Barnes from the University’s Centre for Childhood
Pro Vice-Chancellor, members of senate, graduates, guests.
Beverley Naidoo devotes her time to writing, lecturing and visiting schools, spurred on by anger at injustice and, in particular, its effects on children. The origins of that passion and resolve reside in her own experience.
She was born and grew up in Johannesburg. Her childhood was typical of that of white children in the 1950s. At her convent school the only black people she saw occupied servant roles, as did ‘Mary’ the nanny and cook who looked after her needs at home. This constituted normality.
Beverley Naidoo’s wider education began at the University of Witwatersrand where she came into close contact with black students for the first time. She became active in the protest movement against apartheid. After graduation, work for a food distribution organization took her into Soweto where she saw the effects of apartheid at first hand. In 1964, at the age of 21, she was arrested and detained without trial under the notorious 90 Days Law.
Once free, she decided to move to England and enrolled on a PGCE course at the University of York. Through her early experiences teaching marginalised teenagers in London she came to understand the power of good literature to engage those whom the education system had largely rejected. She joined the ILEA educational psychology service where her work included helping individual children to record their own stories and poems. However, she was struck by the offensive misrepresentation in books for children of life in South Africa, and she determined to write one that would engage with the reality. The result was Journey to Jo’burg, a powerful tale of two black children’s three hundred kilometre trek to find their mother who works as a maid for a white family in the city – much like ‘Mary’ had in Beverley’s own childhood. Their journey illustrates the grim truths of apartheid – the pass laws, bantustans, racism and the breakdown of family life. One measure of the power of Journey to Jo’burg is that it was banned in South Africa until 1991.
Other books followed. No Turning Back is about the world of children who live on the streets of Johannesburg. It is based on Beverley Naidoo’s research with the young people themselves in order to gain a sense of their different lives, experiences and views. In The Other Side of Truth the setting changes to Nigeria and London, but the central theme remains the abuse of human rights. This book won the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 2000.
In a contribution to the new Open University course Childhood, Beverley Naidoo sums up her purpose in the following words: ‘I’m endeavouring to plant seeds in young people’s minds and hoping that they will bear fruit in time. And that those readers will go on journeys of their own, taking what they have experienced within my novels and stories and that they will have some meaning to them as they make their own journeys.’ The Open University is pleased to accompany Beverley Naidoo and her large readership on that journey.
Pro Vice-Chancellor, by the authority of Senate I present to you for the honorary degree of Doctor of the University, Beverley Naidoo.