By Marion Wallace, 21 June 2016
Randolph Vigne, who has died aged 87 in Canterbury, UK, was an anti-apartheid activist, historian, publisher and senior figure in the South African Liberal Party. He was a leading light in the Namibia Support Committee, the chief UK campaigning organisation for Namibian independence, and it was on his initiative that the Friends of Namibia Society was founded in 1969 and again in 1996.
Randolph spent much of his life campaigning for the independence of Namibia, which was named South West Africa until 1990 and was under South African rule and subject to apartheid (despite United Nations resolutions to the contrary). In Cape Town in the 1950s he made links with activists from the territory, and in 1961 he was invited to Namibia, where he met Herero paramount chief Hosea Kutako and other leaders. Forced to flee South Africa in 1964, he continued to support the Namibian cause and became, in his own words, “a one-man support organization for the visits of the ceaselessly travelling SWAPO President, Sam Nujoma, and his aides”.
After Peter Katjavivi set up the first London office of SWAPO (the main liberation movement and now Namibia’s party of government), Randolph spearheaded the founding of (the original) Friends of Namibia “in a downpour of rain, on 17 July 1969…at a public meeting in Red Lion Square”. He served as its president until 1974, when the Friends changed its name to the Namibia Support Committee and adopted a more radical, solidarity-based approach, with Randolph as Hon. Secretary between 1974 and 1990. He was always very active in the organisation’s many activities and his presence, work and quiet authority had much to do with the credibility it achieved at an international level. He was also active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF).
Independence was finally achieved on 21 March 1990 – a good quarter-century after most former colonies in Africa. In 2004 Randolph summed up his thoughts on the years of solidarity:
“The Friends of Namibia and then the Namibia Support Committee had helped right to triumph at last, to see a people freed from colonial overlordship and to win their birthright of national sovereignty. We had contributed also, by our long struggle on South Africa’s flank, to bringing down the apartheid government itself. Perhaps our efforts were best recognized when we were asked by the government of the Republic of Namibia to set up an Anglo-Namibian friendship association in Britain and to call it the Friends of Namibia Society.”
Randolph was the prime mover in setting up the new Friends of Namibia Society, and became its Founding Chairman in 1996.
Randolph’s achievements in other areas are perhaps less well-known to the Namibian(ist) community. He was a respected publisher and historian, writing on Namibia and a wide range of other topics, and continuing his research and writing until very recently. Two scholarly articles (on the natural history of the Cape in the 18th century and the Congress Alliance) appeared this year, and a major work on Thomas Pringle, the Scottish writer and abolitionist who emigrated to South Africa in 1820, in 2014. He also wrote on Huguenot history – of Huguenot descent himself, he was active in the Huguenot Society – and produced a history of the South African Liberal Party.
One of his most recent works, written with the publisher James Currey, was published in 2014 called The New African: A History, about a magazine they published (together with Neville Rubin and Timothy Holmes) in Cape Town between 1962 and 1964. A mix of culture and politics, the magazine was both innovative and too radical for the apartheid government, which closed it down – but not before it had served as a vehicle through which to publish African writers from across the continent. Randolph was also heavily involved in opposing apartheid in South Africa itself, and among other things participated in the African Resistance Movement in the early 1960s. Banned by the South African government and with his home firebombed, Randolph was forced to flee South Africa for the UK in 1964.
Randolph returned to South Africa in 1990, and in recent years he and his wife Gillian have also spent part of each year in the UK. He is held in high respect in Namibian government circles, and he has also been recognised by the South African government with the award of the Order of Luthuli in Silver, of which he was very proud.
Jo Morris, a trade union leader and a former Executive Secretary of the Namibia Support Committee, writes that “Randolph will be remembered for a life well spent, and as a supporter in so many different (often unobtrusive) ways of Namibia and its associated causes – and as a very unlikely but effective subversive…he was always very supportive to me as a young and inexperienced activist…Randolph was wonderful – and his contradictions and the subversiveness, hidden behind the bow tie and affable English gent front, always made me laugh.”
Randolph is survived by his wife, Gillian, his two children Piers and Lucy, and four grandchildren. He is held in great affection as well as admiration in the solidarity community, and will be much missed.
James Randolph Vigne, 1928–2016
Quotes, unless otherwise stated, taken from Randolph Vigne, “Standing by SWAPO: British Campaigning for Namibia” (2004)
Obituary in the Namibian newspaper
Obituary in New Era newspaper
Video interview recorded in 2004.