Becoming a refugee is not a choice - Refugee Council
July 28, 2016

Becoming a refugee is not a choice

Gillian Slovo is a celebrated novelist, playwright and memoirist. She fled South Africa in 1964 with her two sisters and her parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who were pioneering South African anti-apartheid activists. She has lived in London ever since.

As a child growing up in the South Africa of the apartheid era, I had always known my parents were different to those of my friends. A school mate of mine once remarked that she had seen my mother sitting in a car with a black man in the passenger seat. She was shocked to find that this man was not my mother’s driver, but her friend. He was one of many black friends and colleagues of my parents.

I still remember the vast array of flower vases in our house – vessels for hiding the bottles of alcohol from the parties in our home, once the police inevitably burst in, trying to find black and white people drinking together, which was then illegal.  

My father studied at law school with Nelson Mandela and devoted his life to opposing the apartheid regime as a leading member of the African National Congress (ANC). My mother was a journalist and anti-apartheid activist; in 1960 she was listed and banned by the government – meaning she could longer attend meetings or publish any work.

For my parents, as for most people forced to flee their homes, the decision to leave the country was not an easy one.

In 1963, during another government crackdown, my mother was imprisoned and held in isolation without charge for 117 days under the Ninety-Day Detention Law. My father had left the country to go and find training for the ANC’s new army which he had helped Nelson Mandela found and while he was gone, the Rivonia arrests happened so he couldn’t come back without also being charged with treason – which carried the death sentence. With my mother unable to work, since she was banned from pursuing her trade as a journalist, and my father unable to return, we left the country.

We arrived in London in 1964 on my twelfth birthday. I was stuck in front of a BBC television camera – because my mother was a well-known figure they wanted to hear what my first impressions were of Britain. All I can remember is feeling betrayed by Dickens’ portrayal of powdery, white snow, which the dusty, grey version that actually lined the streets of London had not lived up to.

At school they laughed at my funny accent and asked me about the lions and tigers they imagined roamed my neighbourhood.

My mother took up lecturing posts at the University of Manchester and the University of Durham and my father worked full time with the ANC eventually becoming chief of staff of the ANC’s army, Nkomtwo we Sizwe.  

On 17th of August 1982, my mother was killed when she opened a letter bomb that had been sent to the university where she worked, in Mozambique. The bomb had been sent to her by members of the South African police, two of whom eventually applied for amnesty for her killing.

I had just got back from a holiday in France, and when the Immigration Officer looked at my passport he told me to immediately ring my sister. I knew that something awful had happened. When you live with persecution you always expect to hear the worst, though nothing ever prepares you to hear something like that.

In 1990 my father went back to South Africa to take part in the negotiations that ended apartheid. It was he who proposed the end of the armed struggle and also the sunset clauses that made the final settlement possible. After the elections of 1994, he became Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s government, a post he held until his death from cancer in 1995.

As a child I had never been interested in writing, never even keeping a diary. It was only in my twenties that I discovered that side of myself.

I have published thirteen novels and a family memoir, and written three verbatim plays. My latest works are a novel, Tem Days, and , a verbatim play based on the accounts of a group of mothers whose children went to join Islamic State in Syria, which has just finished a run at the National Theatre in London. My works often explore the impact of politics on individuals – something that interests me because of my history. 

It is so important that Britain continues to protect refugees as it is part of who we are, our common humanity. Refugees are people who must move through no fault of their own, who we are legally obliged, under the UN Refugee Convention, to protect.   

I wasn’t what most people would think of when they imagine a refugee– I’m white, I speak English, I’m well educated and I flew in a plane to get to the UK, I didn’t have to risk my life in a flimsy boat. But it’s important to remember that becoming a refugee is not a choice. It is something that can happen to anyone. It happened to me.