Mary Benson; Anti-Apartheid Activist, Nelson Mandela Biographer
Mary Benson, 80, exiled anti-apartheid campaigner and biographer of Nelson Mandela. Benson absorbed the prejudices of white South Africans growing up in Pretoria, where she was born in 1919. She did not reject those attitudes until she read Alan Paton’s celebrated novel about the nation, “Cry the Beloved Country,” in 1948. She developed a close friendship with Paton and began to write about black Africans’ struggle against apartheid and campaign in London for their cause. She met Mandela in the 1950s, decades before he became president of South Africa, and in 1957 she became secretary of the defense for Mandela and 155 others charged with treason for opposing apartheid laws. In 1963 she was the first South African to testify before the United Nations about the evils of the nation’s racist policies and its torture of political prisoners, declaring that “the whole state is based on violence.” While reporting on a series of political trials as a freelance journalist in 1964, she was placed under house arrest and banned from all writing. Two years later she fled to London, where she lived in exile for 20 years. Her biography of Mandela and her history of the African National Congress were banned in South Africa upon publication. She returned to her native country in 1990, the year her autobiography, “A Far Cry: The Making of a South African,” was published in Britain. A close friend of South African playwright Athol Fugard, she also edited Fugard’s “Notebooks” and wrote “Athol Fugard and Barney Smith: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theater.” On Monday in London.