Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Beverley Naidoo, children's author

'It was no time to sit on the fence'
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The Independent Online

Beverley Naidoo, 64, was arrested in apartheid South Africa , where her first novel for young people, Journey to Jo'burg, was banned. She won the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth, and has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Her latest book, Burn My Heart, is published by Puffin Books

On 21 March 1960, the day of the Sharpeville Massacre, I saw the nuns running to shut the front gates at Parktown Convent. You were taught not to run, but a rumour went round our school in Johannesburg that black people were coming to attack us. The truth was exactly the opposite: 69 people demonstrating peacefully about the notorious pass laws for black South Africans had been shot by the police, first in the front and then in the back.

The massacre plays a critical part in "One day, Lily, One Day", a short story in my collection Out of Bounds, but it did not impinge on my consciousness then – I was 16 – only later, when I was at university. I have no recollection of being challenged to think. We were schooled, not educated. The library was locked up – I recall looking through the mottled glass at the grey, dusty volumes – and the science lab was empty of equipment.

A nun once enveloped me in her long black habit and said, "My child, I believe your mother is a Jew. Don't worry, I'm sure God will find a way." I was so worried for my mother. Eventually, I became an agnostic.

I took exams for matriculation into university, and also the "Taalbond" exams in Afrikaans. My mother arranged for me to have French lessons with Dee Beuchat, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. I remember a colleague would come into Dee's office and be incredibly courteous to me. In my mind was the question: "Why doesn't this man have horns?" He was Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, who was later imprisoned on Robben Island.

My parents saved for the fees for me to go to Witwatersrand. I have to thank my mother for not giving me too much pocket money, just enough for one meal in the canteen or five coffees. I took the coffee option and brought sandwiches from home. I looked around for students eating sandwiches and found them on the lawn outside the library. These were among the small group of students who were politically motivated.

They provided the best conversations, riveting talks about what was happening in the country. Dennis Brutus was a poet, later to become a professor of literature at an American university. He was then classified as "Coloured" and employed as a tea boy, but would stop and give us seminars on Yeats. I learnt more from these dialogues than I ever did in a classroom. I did a General degree in English, French and sociology. In my first year I got a Third, and in my third year I got a First.

It was not a time for sitting on the fence. To be seriously involved in change meant working underground, in a way like the French Resistance. It was a very dangerous time, and on 3 July 1964 there was an angry knocking on the door. The police came to arrest me, and I saw my brother Paul, who lived in the next street, being carted away. I was released after eight weeks and my parents said, "Don't you want to study overseas?"

I was offered a place at York University with a UN bursary, and did a BA Hons in two years in English and Education. In the Eighties, after I had written two novels, I did a PhD at Southampton University.

After York, I had been going to teach in Nigeria; it was at the time of the Biafran war and my parents were terrified. Instead, I met the man who is now my husband. His first words when he heard my surname were, "Do you have a brother named Paul? He and I met in prison".