Tuesday, 23rd July 2002 at 2.30pm in the Turner Sims Concert Hall
Citation for Honorary Doctor of Letters
of the University of Southampton
delivered by Public Orator John C. Smith
My Lord and Chancellor
“Dear Beverley Naidoo My name is Chris Munro. I live in Milton on Route 7. I am writing to you because I read your book, Journey to Jo’Burg. It’s hard sometimes to understand life for people in South Africa when you are a white person in Vermont.”
A letter from a child, one of many from across the world, responding to Beverley’s story-telling, growing from the parched earth of her homeland under apartheid.
Beverley’s grandparents had been economic migrants from Europe. She was born and bred in South Africa, living in a small apartment in Johannesburg. Her father was a music publisher, her mother a theatre critic, fostering the arts which she enjoyed. She attended a convent school where blacks either did not exist or occupied servant roles like their cook-cum-nanny. Beverley knew her as ‘Mary’, not her real Tswana name, and was troubled when one day this kindly mothering woman received a telegram and collapsed. Two of her own three children, 300 kilometres away, had died from diphtheria, the disease against which Beverley had been vaccinated. Many years later, this incident inspired Journey to Jo’Burg, Beverley’s first book, banned in South Africa until 1991.
Racism and politics were taboo subjects at her school. On March 21st, 1960, the massacre at Sharpeville caused a flurry – the only time she ever saw the nuns running – but that was because they feared the blacks might attack their suburb. The matter was never discussed at home.
Olaudah Equiano wrote in the eighteenth century of his Ibo people:
“We are a nation of dancers, singers and poets.”
Beverley first met black students at the University of Witwatersrand, where a small number were ‘permitted’. She wondered at her blindness to apartheid, and found a role in the protest movement, attending meetings, printing posters, distributing literature. A visit to Soweto exposed her to the harsh poverty of township life, and the nature of white authority.
Her brother, a journalist, was first to be imprisoned before Beverley was arrested under the notorious 90 Days Law. She was not tortured. She was ‘too small a fish’, but she suffered the psychological pressure of an indefinite time in jail. Joining a hunger strike demanding to be charged or released, she was sent to another prison, in solitary confinement for eight weeks. From her cell she could glimpse black women lining up for their meals or exercise. She could hear their songs.
This nightmare ended when she was freed, though obviously still under surveillance. Moving to England was an expedient. Her family background assured her of a British passport even as a refugee, and Beverley enrolled at York, a new university whose ethos appealed to her. Against her earlier judgement she took an education module in her English course, and stayed on to complete her PGCE.
Her brother’s release from jail and arrival in England decided her to make a temporary home in this country, but meeting her future husband Nandha, another South African exile, made it definite. They would stay here.
Beverley discovered in her early teaching with disadvantaged teenagers in London that good literature had the power to reach and engage even children who were outsiders in their own school. Two years later she joined the ILEA educational psychology service. She could now help individual children, sometimes acting as a scribe, recording their stories and poems. The first children’s books about the black American experience reached the UK in the late ‘sixties. Authors for adults were starting to write for young people, questioning the accepted parameters of who literature was for.
Racism was a dominant topic in Beverley’s mind. She was shocked when her son first encountered it from a young friend aged four, and appalled by the dearth of books giving a balanced picture of life in South Africa. At the first meeting of an educational group of the British Defence and Aid Fund, she volunteered to write a story and was given a generous deadline of two months. Her children were now aged six and ten, so she got up at four o’clock in the morning to write for two hours before school. The story of Journey to Jo’Burg took shape.
Within eighteen months she was looking for a publisher. The responses were patronising: ‘a mismatch of themes’, ‘written too simply’. Fortunately Longmans, the educational publishers, took up the book and it was quickly into London schools. When Collins produced a new edition there was suddenly a surge of interest from readers of all ages. The book took on a continuing life. Beverley empathised strongly with her characters and a sequel emerged. The middle ‘eighties saw ethnic cleansing in South Africa on a massive scale. Homes were bulldozed and whole communities were uprooted to different ‘homelands’, forcibly re-shaping the country. In the new book, her characters were no longer observers. Chain of Fire put them in the front line.
Educational work still provided her living, and in 1985 Beverley had moved to Bournemouth, formulating a research project for a class in a predominantly white area, introducing literature which challenged their perceptions. She looked to this university for validation, and in Mike Benton and Peter Figueroa at the School of Education found two tutors in total sympathy. Although the children were a closed world apart from the issues she raised, Beverley felt she had sown seeds of change. Her connection with Southampton continued, but after allocating three years to study for a PhD her own writing was the imperative.
Visiting South Africa unannounced in 1991 allowed her to meet young people and to hear their reactions to Journey to Jo’Burg, no longer banned. Picture books for younger children were a new departure, but she was pondering the theme for a novel. Although political conditions in South Africa had improved after the release of Nelson Mandela, she was concerned for the street children, inheritors of the legacy of apartheid.
Now working part-time with the Dorset Schools’ Advisory Service, Beverley returned to South Africa in 1993, a year of enormous violence, when children walking to school passed corpses in the streets. Her journey informed her next novel, No Turning Back, and she had the courage to show her final draft to the young people who had inspired it. They vindicated her exploration of reality through fiction.
Feeling too pre-occupied with South Africa, Beverley opened a wider stage. She took up the situation of refugees in this country: ‘a litmus test of our humanity’. The detective work she so much enjoys led her to disturbing conclusions about the gulf between public policy and the experience on the ground.
The Other Side of Truth is the gripping story of two children escaping from Nigeria after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and coming to London with no money and no passports.
The novel won for Beverley in 2001 the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s literature, with predecessors including Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner. But there is no sense of resting on these laurels. She writes and talks eagerly and is now exploring theatre, with her first play soon to be staged.
Today a fox sleeps on the lawn of her peaceful home, an ocean and four decades away from the dust, the terror and the shooting at Sharpeville. But the long echoes of that gunfire reach us still. Beverley feeds a flame, not of a candle in the wind but a torch for freedom. Her themes are universal and her books have a marvellous power to involve children and adults alike in a tense narrative, to move us, and to affirm human dignity and hope. Like eleven-year old Dorothy in the Cayman Islands, we say to her ‘Dear Beverley, I hope you continue to fight to remove … all discrimination from our world.’
My Lord and Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Beverley Naidoo as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.