Obituary: Marius Schoon

MARIUS SCHOON'S life was a powerful argument against the notion of racial stereotyping. Nelson Mandela has described him as "an enduring example of the fight for non-racialism and democracy. He destroyed the myth that all Afrikaners were racists and oppressors. He therefore will be greatly missed, not only by his colleagues in the fight against apartheid, but by the entire South African nation."

White South Africans who challenged the apartheid government in the 1960s, at the risk of everything most precious to them, were very few. The number of white resisters whose first language was Afrikaans - the language of the regime that had institutionalised racism in every nook and cranny of social and personal life, the language of the police raid and the torture chamber - was minuscule. Schoon was one of that tiny handful. He both loathed the ideology of racism and loved the richness of the Afrikaans language, especially its poetry.

After the massacre of unarmed demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, radical opponents of the government, along with Nelson Mandela in the leadership of the African National Congress, turned towards violent methods of resistance.

Schoon served 12 years in prison for a futile effort to blow up a radio transmitter at a police station in Hillbrow, Johannesburg in 1964, a fiasco compromised from the beginning by the police provocateur who had set it up. His two colleagues in this attempt were Mike Ngubeni, a black South African, and Raymond Thoms, a white English- speaking South African. Ngubeni was sent to join Mandela and other black male political prisoners on Robben Island, while Thoms and Schoon were sent to Pretoria Local Prison, where the white male political prisoners were kept. (Prison, like everything else in South Africa, was strictly segregated.) The strain of his long sentence broke Thoms's spirit, and on his release he killed himself. While Schoon was in prison, and following their divorce, his first wife, Diana, had also committed suicide.

On his release in 1976, he joined the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party in exile. For a period, while living with his second wife Jeannette in Botswana after his release from jail, he was a contact for the underground ANC military wing, Umkhontu weSizwe.

He had met Jeannette, a former student and trade union activist, after his release from prison. Both were "banned" and prohibited from meeting each other, and they had in the customary way "skipped the border" and left South Africa illegally. It was while Schoon was working as a university teacher with the ANC in Lubango in southern Angola in 1984 that South African state assassins, under Major Craig Williamson, decided to kill him. Their chosen weapon was the parcel bomb. (The same technique, and the same assassin, killed the writer and political leader Ruth First in Mozambique in 1982. Williamson has also admitted responsibility for the bombing of ANC headquarters in London the same year.)

Schoon was away from their flat in Lubango when the parcel bomb arrived. It killed Jeannette and their six-year-old daughter, Katryn. Their son Fritz, then aged three, was found wandering nearby. Schoon's life was left in ruins.

Schoon had made a radical break from the ideology of apartheid when young. His father was an intellectual advocate of the apartheid system, a headteacher and both a zealous member of the National Party and a member of its secret guiding "brain", the Afrikaner Broederbond. Schoon himself studied at the academy of the Afrikaner elite, the University of Stellenbosch, before transferring to the more liberal and radical culture of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. There he joined the non-racial Congress of Democrats, an organisation of white leftists allied to the ANC.

Not long before his release from prison in 1976, Schoon had the satisfaction of knowing that his father had publicly protested - at a National Party meeting - at Schoon's treatment in prison, and had resigned from the party to join the opposition Progressive Federal Party. Such strange things did happen in apartheid South Africa.

Schoon came through his losses, a scarred and battered survivor, caring for his son, and moved eventually to the Republic of Ireland. There he met and married Sherry McLean. After the downfall of apartheid, they returned to South Africa in 1990, where Schoon worked in the Development Bank, overseeing projects to help rural black communities. His friend and fellow political prisoner Hugh Lewin has said that he would "hate to describe him as a banker. He was far too much of a poet." Schoon wrote both in Afrikaans and in English.

Prior to the opening of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year, Schoon had begun a civil action against Craig Williamson for damages. By a very narrow margin, the court decided to withhold judgement, pending Williamson's application for amnesty to the TRC, on the grounds that the killing of Jeannette and Katryn was political. Schoon angrily rejected a suggestion from Williamson's lawyers that they meet "and reconcile". Judgement is expected later this month.

Marius Schoon, political activist, teacher and poet: born Johannesburg, South Africa 22 June 1937; married first Diana Openshaw (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Jeannette Curtis (died 1984; one son, and one daughter deceased), third Sherry McLean; died Johannesburg 7 February 1999.

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