This column first appeared in The Journal print edition on 03/02/2016
We all make presumptions. It’s part of human nature and I guess we would struggle with daily life if we weren’t allowed to make them.
While a student at Leeds University in the 1980s I became involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. One of our activities was to organise speakers to talk about the situation in apartheid South Africa, hence each term we would book an African National Congress (ANC) speaker to come from London. As a banned organisation in South Africa and with its leadership in prison (Mandela) or in exile (Tambo) or assassinated (First), the ANC never gave out the name of anyone speaking on their behalf. Which all goes to explain why I found myself standing at the ticket barrier at Leeds railway station waiting to meet an unnamed ANC speaker off the train from London.
The train arrived, the passengers alighted and passed through the ticket barrier out into the main concourse of the station. Alas, no sign of the ANC speaker, oh dear.
Then came a tap on my shoulder. I turned.
“You were looking for a black man weren’t you?” said a voice full of humour, and there stood a short, smiling, middle aged, white man.
The speed at which my presumption was demolished was matched by the speed of my reddening face, and so it was I met Rivonia trialist and recently released political prisoner Denis Goldberg.
The Rivonia trial of 1964 saw the apartheid regime decapitate the internal leadership of the ANC. Of the eight trialists, seven, including Nelson Mandela, were black and one, Goldberg, was white. All were found guilty and probably would have hanged were it not for the intense international media coverage the trial attracted. Instead they were all sentenced to life imprisonment.
One of the many perversities of the apartheid state was separate jails for black and white prisoners. Mandela, Mbeki, Mlangeni, Kathrada, Sisulu, Motsoaledi and Mhlaba were incarcerated on the notorious Robben Island, whereas Goldberg was separated from his comrades and placed in Pretoria Central Prison, which contained only white prisoners the vast majority of whom were common criminals unlike Robben Island where they were all political prisoners.
In 1985 after 22 years in prison Goldberg was released and exiled, travelling first to see his daughter in Israel, then on to Zambia were the ANC had their headquarters in exile. After an emotional reunion with other exiled comrades he was asked by ANC leader Oliver Tambo to travel to London and work out of the ANC’s London office, hence his appearance at Leeds University, his first public appearance in the UK since his release.
Last week the three surviving Rivoniatrailists, Goldberg, Mlangeni, and Kathradawere honoured at a special ceremony at Downing Street.
Goldberg forgave me my presumptuous faux pax although when I use to bump into him at Anti-Apartheid events in subsequent years he couldn’t resist gently pulling my leg. “Still looking for a black man?” he'd ask with a wicked grin.
In the debate around our EU membership presumptions abound. For instance, ‘Brussels is undemocratic’. Not so, the Parliament is directly elected every five years, the Council is composed of the 28 elected prime ministers of the EU member states and the Commission is 28 individuals each one nominated by their prime minister in a fairly similar way to the appointment of the Head of 10 Downing Street.
Another readily used presumption is that ‘Brussels is run by faceless bureaucrats’. I’m not sure about you but I don’t think I could name a single civil servant working in London, does that mean ‘Westminster is run by faceless bureaucrats’?
A third and final example would be that ‘Brussels has too much power’. This has been bandied about so much that the Prime Minster set up the much publicised at the time ‘Balance of Competencies Review’. After many months of investigating the matter it finally report in December 2014 that ‘the balance of power held between London and Brussels’ was about right. Another EU presumption demolished.
With the referendum on our EU membership looming we are in for a presumptuous few months so I’m very glad that Denis Goldberg inoculated me against making presumptions all those years ago.