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David Kitson

 

Born Ian David Kitson on 25th August 1919, he studied mechanical engineering at Howard College, Durban, graduating in 1942. Kitson served as a sapper with the South African army on foreign tours of duty in north Africa. After the war he moved to London – where his Jewish father had been born – working for de Havilland Aircraft as a draughtsman. He was active in the engineering union DATA (later TASS) and was Hornsey branch secretary of the British Communist Party.

 

TASS sponsored him so that he could study for two years at Ruskin College, Oxford. Afterwards, when working at British Oxygen, he was offered promotion on condition he end his union activities. He refused and was sacked.

 

He was married to Norma Cranko, a South African Jewish woman who was also active in the Communist Party. They returned to South Africa in 1959, ostensibly to introduce their son, Steven, to his grandparents. Within months, the police fired on unarmed protesters at Sharpeville, killing 69. There was now no thought of returning to Britain. The Communist Party and the ANC were driven underground. When the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, or Spear of the Nation), launched its sabotage campaign in December 1961, Kitson became a bomb-instructor for it.

 

When virtually the entire leadership of MK was arrested at Rivonia, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and several leading Communists had fled the country, the lower ranks were catapulted in to replace them. Kitson was now one of four members of a high command directing the revolutionary struggle. Arrest was inevitable and, whilst not subjected to intense physical torture, Kitson suffered intense interrogation. Holding out for 131 days, he gave away nothing of importance, even managing to withhold his membership of the high command. His lawyers thought hanging was a distinct possibility, so the 20-year sentence (for sabotage and membership of the Communist Party) came almost as a relief, even if there was no prospect of remission for good behaviour. Pretoria local prison housed the white "politicals", and their treatment was nothing like that meted out to black prisoners on Robben Island. But there were bullying warders and a vindictive minister of justice stopped their studies for three years.

 

Even so, Kitson acquired arts and science degrees (in mathematics), and was even allowed to study Russian, before the authorities cottoned on. He remained a hardliner, not overly keen on the "liberal nonsense" spouted by his student neighbours likewise jailed for sabotage. He was philosophical about his plight, regarding himself as "a casualty of the conflict", and he made no objection when Norma divorced him, moved to Britain, and married fellow South African, Sidney Cherfas. However, when their son Steven visited from London and was arrested, allegedly for sketching the prison, Kitson's equanimity was tested.

 

Norma later divorced Sidney, amicably, and remarried David when he was released from prison. Arriving in London, Kitson found himself in a political cauldron. Norma had founded the City of London anti-apartheid group, which involved a range of exotic political animals. Its non-stop protests on the pavement outside South Africa's Trafalgar Square embassy utilised a confrontational style that was not approved by the Anti-Apartheid Movement's national leadership. Since they would not accept the discipline of the movement, the couple were suspended from the ANC, a speaking tour of Britain was cancelled, and TASS saw that an offer of a lectureship in mathematical statistics at Ruskin College was withdrawn. David and Norma moved to Zimbabwe, although, in time, at the behest of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, the couple were reinstated by the ANC and became honoured as "veterans of the struggle".

 

After Norma died in 2002, Kitson returned to Johannesburg, where he himself died on 9th November 2010 aged 91.  

 

Source: Guardian 17th January 2011