I am deeply grateful to the members of the Christopher Gell Memorial Award Committee for giving me this unique opportunity to participate so prominently in the remembrance of his memory. Let me at the outset thank the Committee from the bottom of my heart for the high honour bestowed on me by making me the recipient of the Christopher Gell Award. Your Committee deserves the congratulations of all our people for the idea and active steps you have taken to perpetuate the memory of this great man. The memory of the late Christopher Gell and his yeoman service to humanity will now live long and achieve immortality when most of us, lesser men, will have died and been forgotten.
He was a man we are sad to lose. Although afflicted by an almost incurable physical handicap - for years he lived and laboured in an iron lung - he yet devoted all his remaining strength and courage to the fight against race discrimination and championed unflinchingly the cause of democratic rights for all in South Africa regardless of race, colour or creed. He did not appear in public nor travel the length and breadth of the country vocally espousing his ideals but his incisive written words could not be held in check. His writings warmed the hearts of all freedom lovers and his wielding the cudgels on behalf of the wronged and underprivileged even though it may have earned him the wrath and enmity of some race conscious and superiority complexed white folk, nevertheless and in the main, created a wide and strong bond of friendship and admiration among our non-white communities. He flayed the havoc brought by the Group Areas Act and its application and his work in this field to expose inhumanity, greed and injustice is unparalleled by the efforts of any one man. My Indian friends, in particular, are deeply grateful to him, and his passing has certainly caused a deep breach in the wall of resistance against the ruinous flood of the Group Areas Act and its apartheid menace.
At this juncture, I tentatively throw out a suggestion if not already conceived by you. I feel it would be a fitting tribute to this gallant South African, if his writings could be collated and published in book form, so that his whole host of admirers may have the privilege of keeping in material form his memory which they cherish so dearly. I, certainly, would find much pleasure in re-reading the letters and writings of Christopher Gell who refused to remain silent where a pen was needed to defend the rights of those who would not be heard or could not defend themselves against the many injustices perpetrated against them.
On an occasion such as this, it is appropriate that I dwell briefly on the social and political climate in which the late Gell lived in South Africa so that we may better appreciate the attitude he adopted and the work he did.
Gell did not live to see the birth of the Republic of South Africa but he lived a considerable time in this country even then governed by the architects of the present new-born Republic, to appreciate and hate the practices of the rulers of this country. His South Africa had no less the taste of the evil that White Afrikaner Nationalism and race superiority had engendered in this land. Exclusiveness, an essential of apartheid, is a political malady of our country that is making South Africa so diseased a country that it is now as repulsive as a plague to most nations and people throughout the world who are striving for true democracy and everlasting peace among all humanity regardless of race, colour or creed.
Here I would like to applaud the late Mr. Gell and those like him who have unreservedly dedicated themselves to the struggle for freedom; but there are still far too many who do not take the struggle seriously or appreciate the catastrophe to which this country is heading under the unbridled, insane policy of oppression against non-whites which the present Nationalist Party Government is pursuing. Victory can only come when we outmatch the determination of the oppressor. The indications are that the freedom struggle in our land is likely to be the fiercest in Africa. The government has shown in recent years and months - during the State of Emergency last year and the twilight Emergency during May this year - that it is arming itself to the teeth against an unarmed people who throughout their struggle have indicated by word and action their desire for a peaceful accommodation of their aspirations by those presently in power. In a sense we should be encouraged by the show of strength, for it is a product of fear and not courage, that possesses White South Africa. It is a measure of South Africa's vulnerability. We who believe in freedom, however, regret this wasteful and needless fear. For we stand four-square for peace and friendship on a basis of equality. How can anyone who acknowledges the dignity and brotherhood of man not join us in our stand?
The birth of the South African Republic(2) in an atmosphere of tension ushers in an era of harder times for all. Strained race relations continue to plague this country. Democracy, instead of being advanced and broadened, is being summarily snuffed out and in its place are being imposed and foisted hollow apartheid institutions and plans in the name of Bantu Self-Development, Asiatic and Coloured Affairs Board and the like.
All this should deceive no one but the na´ve and the few among us with vested interest in slavery or who see in apartheid prospects of acquiring affluence as privileged slaves - a terrible price to pay for selling one's soul and one's people.
It is encouraging to know that there are, however, many in all communities who will remain true and loyal champions of democracy for all - who steadfastly follow in the traditions of the late Christopher Gell. They and their growing number is the true memory that should live to remind South Africa of this great son of our land.
For my part I am deeply touched by the conferring of this award. Would I were able to be present in person to receive it! Unfortunately, as is well known, I am a prisoner in my own land. I am confined to my rural home at Groutville, Lower Tugela, Natal, and I have not been allowed to travel to you by the authorities that be, lest I contaminate you with my presence. However, my thoughts are with you and I have tried to pen as best I can my feelings on this occasion.
In thanking you for the honour conferred - which I personally feel I do not deserve - I want to assure you that whilst I may have not done much for our cause of liberation, I hope sincerely that this award will prompt me to greater efforts and I hope not only I, but all the oppressed people and their freedom-loving friends will be encouraged and steeled to make greater contributions to the cause of justice and freedom in this land. We can only show our deep appreciation for the efforts of men like the late Christopher Gell, by supporting with all our strength the cause he so arduously espoused, and to be true and unflinching freedom fighters, so that men like Christopher Gell are not to have laboured in vain.
1. Chief Lutuli sent a written text to the meeting as he was restricted by banning orders.
In its obituary on the death of Christopher Gell, Fighting Talk (Johannesburg, June/July 1958) wrote:
"Christopher Gell was a rarity upon the South African scene and his death leaves an aching void.
"Stricken with polio while serving in the Punjab with the Indian Civil Service, he came to live first in Rustenburg and then in Port Elizabeth for the warm climate, and all his 11 years in our country he lived out his days in an iron lung. His hours for writing and meeting people were strictly rationed but within them he compressed phenomenal effort, soon coming to be recognised as one of South Africa's most prolific writers. Who has not read Christopher Gell's incisive comment on political programmes and parties, his penetrating analyses of the Group Areas Act, his scathing indictment of apartheid in sport or the nursing profession, his passionate attacks on Nationalist policies and defence of peoples' freedom campaigns?
"Christopher Gill's tenacity in fighting his disability, rallying time and again from bouts of more severe illness, was matched by the courage of his political convictions, and over the years those whom he could not join in the conference session or on the public platform came to his bedside to consult with him, ask his advice, keep him in touch, and draw inspiration from him. He was as much part of the Congress movement as any volunteer who went to prison during the defiance campaign, or branch official who participated in the hurly-burly of political activity in the townships."
2. The Republic was proclaimed on May 31, 1961, after protests by the African people, led by Nelson Mandela, were suppressed by an unprecedented show of force and repression.