Journalist, trade unionist and social activist
The funeral of Lionel Morrison, the youngest accused, at age 21, in South Africa’s historic, four-year treason trial that began in 1956, will be held in London in two weeks. Morrison died after a long illness in his north London home last week, only weeks after after his 81st birthday. A journalist, trade unionist and political activist, he was born in 1935 and grew up in the Coronationville township outside Johannesburg.
By the age of 20, living in Cape Town, he was the secretary of the ANC-aligned Coloured Peoples’ Organisation (later Coloured Peoples’ Congress). Inspired by the adoption in 1955 of the Freedom Charter, in 1956 he painted the slogan “LET US BLACK FOLK IN” on a wall in the parliamentary precinct. On another, nearby, wall he wrote: “THE PEOPLE SHALL GOVERN”.
He was caught and his handiwork earned him a four-month prison sentence. After three months, he was released and headed back to Johannesburg having lost his job on the then Golden City Post, precursor to the City Press. However, just six days after his release, he was one of 156 men and women detained in a countrywide pre-dawn security police swoop. They were all charged with the capital offence of treason.
A year later, charges against 65 of the accused, including Lionel Morrison, were withdrawn. He went to work with Drum magazine and helped establish the first, although short-lived, non-racial union for journalists. “Arrests, detentions and harassments took care of that,” he once noted.
Less than four years later a state of emergency was declared in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). There was another countrywide security police swoop, with hundreds of activists detained, Lionel Morrison among them. He spent five months in jail, much of it in the “hanging prison”, Pretoria Central.
By then, he was also questioning the “multi-racialism” of the ANC and its allies, including the then already underground SA Communist Party. The comment by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe of the PAC that “there is only one race, the human race. Multi-racialism is racism multiplied,” made sense to him and he decided to go into exile and join the PAC.
It was a decision that saw him ostracised by his former comrades when he got to Britain on a ship he had managed to board in Cape Town with the aid of one of the crew. Divorced from the mainstream of exile South African politics, he dedicated himself to encouraging greater black participation in both trade unions and journalism as well as spending several years as a representative of the Afro-Asian Journalists’ Association in China that he helped establish.
An executive member of the British National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the union’s first black president, he also helped found some of Britain’s first newspapers serving the black community and played a key role in establishing the George Viner Memorial Fund that aids black journalism students. This has helped to address the fact of there being a disproportionately low number of black journalists working in Britain.
A passionately non-sectarian anti racist, Lionel Morrison was for years the principal information officer of the British Commission for Racial Equality and was instrumental in ensuring that the NUJ supported all anti-apartheid campaigns. For example, the NUJ, with Morrison’s support, became the headquarters for perhaps the largest trade union-based international anti-apartheid campaign the “Friends of Moses Mayekiso”, despite the fact that it was bitterly opposed by the ANC and its allies.
However, Morrison never expressed anger about such snubs and opposition, seeing them as opportunities to engage in debate. And what NUJ president Michelle Stanistreet this week referred to as his “passion and commitment to journalism and to social justice and equality” earned him an OBE in the Queen’s honours list in 1999. In 2008, the South African government also included Lionel Morrison in its list of recipients for the Order of Ikhamanga: “For excellent achievement in journalism and contributing to the ideals of a just and democratic South Africa.”
Tributes to this “man of the people” have begun pouring in from around the world. His family plan to bring his ashes to South Africa in the new year to be scattered “on home soil”.
Lionel is survived by Liz, his wife of 46 years, sons Sipho and Dumisa and their children.