Why I have best job in world
A little while ago my eight-year-old daughter press-ganged me into giving a brief talk to her Grade 2 class about what work I did.
I was one of half-a-dozen mums and dads who spoke for a couple of minutes each about their jobs. We all lost hands-down in the coolest parent stakes to the artist father who makes cartoons for a living, but before Cool Cartoon Dad stood up I told the class that I had the best job "in the whole wide world ever, ever, ever".
I justified this sweeping statement by telling them that I collected stories for a living. And when I asked them who liked a really good story, a forest of little hands shot up.
I thought of my sweeping statement last week while having tea with a 92-year-old white lady communist, a person my parents' generation would have derided as a "terrorist". For two hours I listened enthralled as a surprisingly sprightly and lucid Rica Hodgson related to me remarkable tales from her life of fighting for freedom and justice against impossible and literally life-threatening odds, along with her late husband Jack.
Rica's story has now been set down in a book, Foot Soldier for Freedom, a page-turner that I read over the weekend ahead of our meeting last Monday.
I had been led to Rica by Ilse Wilson, the daughter of Bram Fischer, the best-known and most celebrated of the white communists who were prepared to sacrifice everything to liberate South Africa. In the end Fischer did sacrifice almost everything for freedom.
The Hodgsons were in a sense more fortunate. They had been imprisoned and subjected to house arrest but escaped to Bechuanaland in 1963, on the orders of the ANC.
In his own autobiography, Nelson Mandela recalls how in 1961, while in hiding, he accompanied Jack, a World War 2 veteran and a leading light in the Springbok Legion and the Congress of Democrats, to a brickworks outside Johannesburg.
There Jack demonstrated the explosive devices he had concocted for Umkhonto we Sizwe's first sabotage campaign.
Jack used Rica's mother's brass mortar and pestle to grind the explosive ingredients on their kitchen table. If the house-arrested Jack hadn't escaped, and if the apartheid state had discovered he was manufacturing explosives for MK, I have no doubt that a team of highly trained prosecutors would have worked day and night to ensure that nothing less than a death sentence was made to stick against him.
While I listened intently to Rica's recollections, her son Spencer popped in to bring his mother some or other medication.
Spencer was the son the Hodgsons left behind in the care of her sister a day short of his 16th birthday when they were hurriedly sent into exile.
On the day I was visiting Rica at her retirement home in Waverley, Johannesburg, Spencer hugged his mother and Ilse, introduced himself and shook hands with me, but quickly disappeared. Their interaction was of the most routine kind between a caring child and an aged parent.
But the Hodgsons are anything but a normal family. Spencer qualified as an architect in East Germany, and, with wife Claudia and baby in tow, worked to carve the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College out of bare malaria-infested bush in Tanzania.
After working tirelessly to raise much-needed funds for the International Defence and Aid Fund, Rica joined them after Jack's death in 1977.
A week before tea with Rica, Bloemfontein Airport had been renamed in honour of Ilse's father. As we left the retirement home I asked her whether there were any schools or streets named after either of the Hodgsons. If there were, Ilse didn't know about them.
Almost two decades after democracy our maps still sport too many Verwoerds and Strijdoms. We could do much worse, I imagined, than renaming one or two thoroughfares "Jack Hodgson Road" or "Rica Hodgson Street". My daughter's Grade 2 classmates are still a bit fuzzy about what apartheid was all about. The white kids in the class don't get racism because they have never been taught to be racist. But in time they will all come to understand what apartheid meant and why they are so fortunate to be Born Frees.
They will learn it by being taught the stories of people like Mandela, Walter Sisulu, the Fischers and Hodgsons. I hope to help to tell a few of those stories.
And that is why I have the best job in the whole wide world. Ever, ever, ever.