Sunday, 26 November 2006


Freda Levson, who died in October 2004 aged nearly 93, was a remarkable person. It was my privilege to be one of her closer friends during the last decade of her life.

Freda was the great-niece of George MacDonald, friend of Lewis Carroll and author of many books, best remembered for his children’s novel “The Princess and the Goblin” and other fairy tales. I hope to post more about him another time. I met Freda because she had been a moving spirit in forming the George MacDonald Society, which sometimes met at her flat near Paddington.

Freda was born in South Africa, where her Scottish parents had settled and her father had a busy medical practice. She was educated in England and had a deep love of Scotland. Always very liberal minded, she assisted the Rev. Michael Scott in launching his international campaign against the apartheid regime, and drafted his manifesto “In Face of Fear – Michael Scott’s Challenge to South Africa” [1950].

In 1952 Freda was involved in the launch of the African National Congress’s disobedience campaign in defiance of apartheid, and with her close friend Patric Duncan – son of South Africa’s first governor general and leader of the South African Liberal Party – joined the protesters who entered the African location of Germiston without a permit. She was arrested and jailed for four weeks.

Freda’s account of her stay in prison was very amusing. Although it must have been a very frightening experience, she maintained that it was equally uncomfortable for the tough Afrikaner wardresses who had never had a white woman prisoner in their custody before, and were uncertain how to behave. Fortunately they treated her quite well.

When in 1956 the government arrested 156 anti-apartheid campaigners and charged them with high treason, Freda became secretary of the South African Treason Trial Defence Fund set up by Bishop Ambrose Reeves and others. She became a close friend and helper of Nelson Mandela, and when he was on the run Freda and her husband Leo Levson, a Russian photographer, provided a safe house for him at their home in Johannesburg. In 1962 Mandela, who had left his homeland illegally, visited Freda in London, where she had returned to live. In 1975 she published “South Africa: An Historical Introduction”.

It will be clear from the above that Freda was a woman of great courage and strength of character. In person, however, she was unassuming, gentle, graceful and charming. I greatly enjoyed the many lunches I had with her at her flat. I would bring a bottle of wine, and Freda would telephone her local pizza shop and say “we’ll have an extravaGANza!” Her conversation was always interesting and sometimes unusual – it isn’t everyone who can casually say “oh, I gave all my Gilbert and Sullivan records to Winnie Mandela”. On her 90th birthday, her family and friends gave her a lovely party, at which I was a guest. Nelson Mandela, with that human touch which makes him so outstanding, sent a personal letter of congratulations, recalling the campaigns which he and Freda had waged together.

She was indeed unique, and I and many others still miss her.

1 comment:

zola said...

Thank you Anticant : I have been recently trying to make some similar information available to folk through Wikipedia.
Professor John Rex ( a man i respect) would like your words.
But after a few paragraphs that kept getting "hidden" I almost gave up. The Wikipedia system is so damned formal and standardised it is impossible to think or write.
By the way John Rex was from SA and he was a kind of exile.