Martin Russell: Anti-apartheid activist and painter

A brief resume of Martin Russell's eventful life illustrates why he was described by one of his family as "a true contrarian, but a highly principled contrarian". He was a Christian who became an atheist, a conscientious objector who went on to become a full-time saboteur in South Africa, immersing himself in the world of dynamite and detonators. A lifelong opponent of Communism, he began to see some attractions in the system in his last years: in true contrarian fashion, he veered towards it just as much of the world was veering sharply away from it. Thus it was that, at his request, his coffin was covered with a large red cross, on which was stitched a hammer and sickle.

Born in London, he went to art school there for two years but as a teenager left for Germany in 1946 as part of the Red Cross relief effort. His work included helping to run camps for the homeless, providing supplies for displaced persons and reuniting families which had been broken up during the war. During his five-year stay he also drove an ambulance in Berlin, where he was involved in smuggling people out of the Russian sector. His parents were Salvation Army officers but in the course of his German sojourn he became a resolute atheist.

He heard many horrific stories from people who had been in concentration camps. He always said the greatest shock of his life was the realisation of how few ordinary Germans had helped anyone in need. A God who would allow such things to happen, he insisted, must be either mad or bad, a belief which left him with a profound, lifelong conviction that people had a personal responsibility to do what they could in this life.

On his return to England in 1950 he studied social work at the London School of Economics, going to work in the East End where he met an American, Nancy Cliffe, who became his first wife. When called up for National Service he registered as a conscientious objector, his German experiences having made him a pacifist. He was sent to work for a pathologist who, he recalled, delighted in setting him particularly grisly tasks.

In 1955 he went off to South Africa to work at a mission hospital but was so appalled at the apartheid system that he soon became immersed in political activism. Within a year he had come to the attention of the authorities, who stiffly informed him that his permit to enter native areas was being revoked. This effectively rendered him unemployed. His reaction was to throw himself into full-time revolutionary politics, becoming close to ANC figures such as Fatima Meer, and Govan Mbeke, whose son Thabo later went on to become prime minister.

Other whites joined an organisation close to the ANC, the Congress of Democrats, but most of its members were also in the Communist Party and Russell was adamant that he would not take orders from Moscow. He also favoured the use of force, which at that point was not yet official ANC policy. In his own highly individualistic way he figured that the apartheid state was so repressive that it needed to suffer severe shocks. The way to do this, he concluded was through sabotage, aimed not at taking lives, but at economic disruption.

A family member recalls his explanation for such extreme measures: "He said it began with thinking that things were absolutely outrageous and that something had to be done. It just made him so angry and was so unjust that he could not sit back and say it was terrible. The state was so powerful that you had to do something that would shock it, something which damaged it economically, that would hurt the whites and not the blacks. And then if someone's going to do it, he said, 'it had better be me.' "

His second wife Margo, an academic, joined in these resistance activities. He was frustrated by the difficulties of finding recruits, and by a shortage of both explosives and expertise in using them, but his organisation managed to blow up some electricity power-lines and railway-signalling systems. The authorities reacted to such incidents with mass arrests, lengthy detention periods, brutal interrogation methods and hefty prison sentences. His daughter Jenni later wrote: "We lived in an atmosphere of fear. My earliest memories are of police raiding the house at night, emptying out dolls' cots and sweeping books off shelves. People would simply disappear." During one search of the house police took only a cursory look underneath it, deterred by its dark and spider-filled atmosphere. They thus missed a box of detonators concealed there.

The Russells brooded on the prospect that both of them could be locked up, leaving their three children to be brought up by the South African state. Since this was too terrible to contemplate they fled to England in 1964, where Russell taught and became a painter, his portrayals of African scenes featuring in several exhibitions. But Africa was the passion of both Russells and they moved to Botswana in 1973, though with a Foreign Office warning that if they travelled via South Africa they would be arrested.

In 1976 they moved on to the Sudanese city of Juba, which the family remember as having many electricity cuts, very little food, horrendously high temperatures and epidemics of cholera and bubonic plague. However, "My father had never been happier," according to Jenni Russell. "He just loved everything about the culture and the society, and he would spend much of his day going off walking into the bush and talking to chiefs about what had happened during the civil war there."

In the 1980s they moved on to Swaziland where, after a period teaching, Russell was recommended by the British High Commission as tutor to the teenage king and absolute ruler, Mswati III. When Russell told the uninterested royal that they would study the Russian revolution the adolescent king ignored him and persisted in reading a comic. It was only when Russell explained, with heavy emphasis, that the tale concerned an absolute ruler who was killed because he lost the confidence of the people that Mswati sat up and took notice.

After the collapse of apartheid the Russells were able to return to South Africa in the 1990s, Margo becoming a sociology professor while her husband effectively retired to become a prolific painter with exhibitions in London, Nairobi, Cape Town and Wales. He was cynical about the ANC government, arguing that the party should follow much more radical policies, in particular transferring land from whites to blacks. He regarded much of the government as "a middle-class lot who have got accustomed to hand-made suits and chauffeur-driven cars, just intent on becoming part of the international business elite as fast as possible."

He was, according to some close to him, pretty much the most argumentative man in the world, devoid of small talk but extraordinarily trustworthy, endlessly hospitable, highly amusing and with a gift for friendship.

David McKittrick

Martin Russell, anti-apartheid campaigner and painter: born 14 October 1929 London; married 1954 Nancy Cliffe (one son, marriage dissolved), 1960 Margo Phillips (one son, four daughters); died McGregor, South Africa 15 December 2008.