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Book Excerpt

‘Letters to my Mother – The Making of a Troublemaker’ by Kumi Naidoo

‘Letters to my Mother – The Making of a Troublemaker’ by Kumi Naidoo
'Letters to my Mother – The Making of a Troublemaker' by Kumi Naidoo book cover. Image: Jacana / Supplied

In this poignant new memoir, the human rights and environmental activist details his fight against the apartheid regime.

In his memoir, Kumi Naidoo shares how his mother’s death sparked the beginning of his political awakening as an anti-apartheid activist and how he turned grief and anger in action for a better South Africa. In this excerpt from Letters to my Mother – The Making of a Troublemaker, Naidoo relates how he became a South African Rhodes Scholar.


The only black candidate

By the time I was approaching the end of my studies at UDW, I was constantly trying to evade the police and had become very ‘hot’, so a couple of my professors suggested that I apply for scholarships overseas. I was quite ambivalent about this because I didn’t want to leave my comrades, but I was persuaded to apply, and much to my own surprise, I reached the final shortlist for the Rhodes Scholarship. I was the only Black candidate by this stage. I had to go to Cape Town for two days of interviews. This is how it went:

After we landed in Cape Town, I was taken to the hotel by taxi, which was in itself a unique luxury. I went into my hotel room and it was the craziest thing I had ever seen. I was staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel, which turned out to be one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. There was a bidet in the bathroom, but I had no idea what it was. I just remember turning the handle and water shooting all over the place. I felt very embarrassed because I was out of place. I was so inexperienced about the ways of the world of privilege. 

I called Brian Slinger to let him know I had safely arrived in Cape Town and he asked where I was staying. As soon as the words ‘Mount Nelson Hotel’ left my mouth, he immediately said, ‘No, don’t fuck around. Where exactly are you staying? We’ll come visit you.’ ‘No, I’m serious, I’m staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel.’ Brian lived nearby in Woodstock and he probably drove past the hotel daily, yet he was no regular there. It was not the sort of place a community activist would go. Eventually, Brian and one of his friends came to visit. They were impressed by the fully stocked mini-bar in the room and after I had told them I was allowed to help myself to anything I wanted, they started tucking in. Before long they had polished off much of the contents of the bar fridge. Brian and his friend were drinking the hard stuff, while I drank a few soft drinks, and soon the fridge was almost completely empty. I suddenly began to panic, thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, what if I have to pay?’ After they left, I checked the prices of what we had consumed – there was no way I could have paid that bill! I had virtually no money on me. Luckily, I did not have to pay for anything. 

On Friday evening, there was a dinner for all the candidates. I got to meet the other 11 on the list and saw that both the committee and the selection panel were overwhelmingly white, which made me think I was not going to be successful. Being the only black candidate there, everybody was particularly welcoming to me. I was kind of taken aback at how very anxious the other shortlisted candidates were. Saturday and Sunday consisted entirely of interviews, with each candidate having a two-hour slot. When it was my turn, I walked into the room to face the selection committee. 

The chair of the selection panel, Michael Corbett, who went on to become the first chief justice of a democratic South Africa, appointed by Nelson Mandela, asked me: ‘If you were made Minister of Education tomorrow, how would you solve the education crisis?’ I saw little reason to be too polite. I decided to be straight with them. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but that question is really naive because it assumes that the education crisis exists in isolation from the broader crisis, which is the absence of democracy and the dictatorial government that marginalises and excludes the majority of people. Even if you appoint a Minister of Education who has the brilliance of Einstein, the compassion of Gandhi and the militancy of Che Guevara all rolled into one, they would not be able to solve the education crisis because it does not exist in isolation from the broader crisis.’ 

Elizabeth Mokotong, the only African person on the panel and one of the few women, asked me, ‘Well, why do you think you are the only black candidate?’ ‘I don’t know for sure, but I didn’t even know about this scholarship until very recently. My lecturers are the only reason that I know about any of this. I also believe that a scholarship named after Cecil John Rhodes might cause some hesitancy.’ I did not confess that all I really knew about Oxford was the Oxford Dictionary and Oxford Maths Sets. 

At lunchtime, as I got to know the other candidates I realised that I hadn’t done too badly to make it this far. Most had known about the Rhodes scholarship since high school. They had all achieved the best grades throughout their school and university lives. After the final interviews on Sunday, one of the panel, Edwin Cameron (a wonderful man, who went on to become an HIV/ AIDS activist, and later, a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa), asked all the candidates where we would be that evening and gave me a number to call. 

That evening Brian Slinger came to pick me up from the hotel to stay at his place. We ended up going to a place in Rondebosch with live music, and Brian took to the stage to sing ‘New York, New York’. I felt very grown up sitting with the Cape Town activists, who were older than me and were treating me with so much respect, warmth and generosity. At that point, I was happy to just be there with these friends; I did not care whether I got the Rhodes scholarship or not. 

At some point in the evening I tried to call Edwin Cameron as advised, but I couldn’t reach him, so I left a message letting him know where I was and the phone number of the bar we were in. As I waited, the guys were drinking and having a good time, but they were still focused on the phone call for the results. After a few hours Edwin finally called to give me the news. ‘Koo-ma-ran, I have good news for you. You have been successful. You are one of the four South African Rhodes Scholars for this year.’ I was so shocked I nearly dropped the phone. ‘Are you sure? You’re not kidding me?’ Edwin laughed loudly. ‘Koo-ma-ran, I would not kid about such a thing. Congratulations. I understand it might be a bit of a shock, but you did really well and the panel was unanimous in selecting you.’ 

Later on I shared the news with Brian and the other comrades. As soon as it registered with them, there was shouting, screaming and cheering. I could not believe it, and I don’t think they could either. I got to spend about four days with them. I also visited my ‘Cape Town family’, the Paulses, in Mitchells Plain. They were worried that I was going to be a government target now that I had the scholarship, but I assured them that I was still ‘LP’ (low profile) and that the government only went after ‘HP’ (high profile) individuals. Mrs Paulse said jokingly, ‘My boy, you’re going to be high profile now with this scholarship, so you’d better get used to the idea that you will be under more pressure from the police.’ 

When I got back to Durban, I was still not sure whether I was going to accept the scholarship or decline it. However, a very special thing happened. An activist from the Tin Workers’ Union in Durban facilitated a meeting with ANC stalwart Billy Nair. Muna, as we fondly called him, had served 20 years on Robben Island for his resistance activities. He was hiding close to where I was hiding and arrangements were made for us to meet. He had a sharp mind, a quick wit and was a respected trade unionist. We held him in very high regard. In fact, I was in awe of him; getting to spend an hour with Muna was a real honour and he told me some extraordinary things. I told him about the scholarship and my uncertainty. He was calm in his response: ‘You must take it. We are going to need people who are educated and have skills, and if there’s an option for you to get out and get some skills, that would be in the best interest of the struggle, rather than you just sitting in prison for donkeys’ years.’ Muna removed the doubt from my mind by making it clear where my focus should be. Going to Oxford was not a choice anymore, but a singular mission that I had to undertake. 

When it was finally time to go home, I called ahead to let the family know I was coming. After a few rings, Karmini picked up. When she heard my voice, she blurted out, ‘Anna Kumaran, the army was here yesterday!’ I was stunned, but knowing our phone may have been tapped by the security police, I didn’t ask many questions. My life had suddenly taken a very different trajectory. DM/ML/MC

Extract from Letters to my Mother – The Making of a Troublemaker by Kumi Naidoo is published by Jacana Media. 


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