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Lionel Morrison: A journey from SA prison to NUJ president

MUCH IN COMMON: Morrison and Mandela together - both men fought apartheid in their own ways

FOR LIONEL Morrison fighting inequality is a lifelong devotion. Born and raised in the teeth of Apartheid South Africa, aged 21, he found himself on trial with 155 others, including Nelson Mandela, who dared oppose the system.

“When things are wrong, you have got to do something about it,” Morrison said before our interview in which such words come to epitomise his life.

As he takes a look back into the chilling past, Morrison reflects with anguish the reality of a barbaric South Africa of the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls an early incident when being arrested for activism; sentenced to five-month imprisonment in Johannesburg’s notorious prison, The Fort.

“You could easily get sodomised in there. It was an interesting question of how to exist,” Morrison recalled.

“You live in a cell of 92 people in a 15 x 45 foot space, like sardines. There was one toilet. Young people were brought in by the warden. In the night you would hear screams of a young boy being raped and nobody says anything.”

The infamous Treason Trial followed just months later. During the night of December 6, 1956, police raided his house, and arrested Morrison. He was then put on trial with 155 others, including Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sissulu, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the state.

This charge carried the even more serious prospect of his life taken away if found guilty. Morrison insists his values allayed any fears of South Africa’s draconian death penalty.

“On the day when the prosecution got up and said we are being charged for high treason, there and then we believed our destiny was being set for us. At that moment, you ask the question, would you like to offer yourself for what you believe in? Once you say yes, you are no longer scared.”

After the acquittal, Morrison continued work as a reporter for the Golden City Post, South Africa’s first black weekly, before founding the South African National Union of Journalists, with the help of the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Morrison’s union would be non-racial, in stark contrast to the established South African Society of Journalists which forbade black journalists.

Years after setting up his neutral South African NUJ, Morrison would be dogged with yet another arrest, this time on suspicion of possessing banned materials. In 1959 Morrison managed to flee South Africa for the UK. Arriving, he would successfully set up the Afro-Asian Journalists Association (AAJA) The AAJA would take Morrison around Europe, Asia, and back into Africa before he returned to the UK in 1969.


RESILIENT: Lionel Morrison speaking at an NUJ event

But Lionel admits his campaign against inequality would not stop on British shores, pondering that while he may have escaped Apartheid back home, in the UK ethnic minorities were still up against a racial struggle, which he too would experience first-hand.

“I wrote to nearly 100 editors in newspapers and magazines for a job,” Morrison recalls his failure to secure a job here. Of those who did write back, some of them asked to see Morrison, purely intrigued and humoured by the prospect of a black journalist in Fleet Street – but not to actually give him work.

Discontent would finally cease when meeting Bob Edwards, a Fleet Street editor with a history of major editorials under his name. Edwards finally pinpointed Morrison to fertile ground, and soon he gained by-lines with popular mainstream titles, such as The Evening Standard, The Telegraph and The People. During the 1970s, Morrison remained an active member of the NUJ in the UK. But soon, he would realise that 1970s Britain had its limits in the way of racial tolerance, when in 1977 he took the very bold step of putting himself forward for the NUJ presidency.

“I had put in a bid in 1977,” he said, before candidly explaining that despite being overwhelmingly the popular political choice; due to his colour he would lose the election to “bloody racism”. But in 1987, Morrison would indeed make history becoming the NUJ’s first black president. In what was almost an effort to expiate his own loss a decade beforehand, he would spend much of his presidency addressing inequality in the media, as well as the NUJ itself.

“I was able to put forward the issues of race, gender and equality in the Union, and in the industry. We went on to set up a committee, and a Black Members council, which opened up many doors,” Morrison said.

And he would play an instrumental part in establishing the George Viner Memorial Trust, an NUJ trust to financially aid aspiring black journalism students. The fund continues to help redress the disproportionately low numbers of black journalists today.

But what of Morrison’s hopes for his native country, particularly in the aftermath of Mandela’s passing? Of South Africa’s current ruling party, Morrison says: “What the ANC need to do is to reconnect with what they first stood for: the freedom charter, things like free education, healthcare and so on.”

Despite being forced to flee South Africa in his early 20s, Morrison still believes that “South Africa is a good place, but it will take a much longer period to heal.”

Orrel Lawrence is a graduate journalist with the Hanging Out Project.

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