Salter Lecture 2021: Quaker values in South Africa’s struggle

24 July, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come. that your carriage and life may preach among all people, and to them. 

then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering to God in everyone. Whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you. 

—George Fox, 1656 

It is a great honour for me to give the 2021 Salter Lecture on “Quaker values in South Africa’s struggle” at the Britain Yearly Meeting. I thank the Quaker Socialist Society for celebrating the amazing lives of Ada and Alfred Salter. I had been looking forward to joining you in person last year, but a year later, we are meeting online, due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I bring you greetings from the Quaker Community of Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, which is also meeting virtually at this time. 

Ada Salter’s life of activism and political engagement fascinates me, as it speaks of a deep commitment to transformative public service. Born a Methodist and of liberal background, she embraced radical and pacifist views in her youth. She not only opposed wars, she also campaigned for women’s suffrage, social justice and workers’ rights. I was fascinated that the Salters succeeded in bringing politics and health together in the service of all. 

When thinking about this talk, I went back and forth in time, looking at my own role as a social activist in the national liberation movement to end apartheid and in my role as a politician in a free South Africa. Even though I was not born a Quaker, the Quaker testimonies to peace alongside justice, equality, simplicity, integrity, community, and stewardship of the earth have had a tremendous influence on the decisions I took. 

Quaker Testimonies

Quakers believe in living life in the spirit of love and truth and peace, reaching for the best in oneself and answering “that of God” in everyone. Quaker testimonies or spiritual insights unite us worldwide and are expressions of the commitment to put those beliefs into practice. 

The Peace Testimony has evolved over three hundred and fifty years in response to a changing world. Quakers have been faithful throughout in maintaining a corporate witness against all war and violence. 

However, in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government. 

Growing up in SA and the Values that Shaped my Activism

I was raised on the African values of ubuntu – a person is a person through others. In ‘Guns and Gandhi in Africa’, by Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes in the Foreword about ubuntu as the essence of what it means to be human as a source for compassion and that idea that “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be truly human together.” This is the fundamental principle for non-violent struggle. 

The value of ubuntu aligns with the Quaker value of seeing that of God in the other. When Africans were converted to Christianity, some of these values were lost, together with a whole lot of other precious attributes that defined what it means to be an African. Despite this, great African leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere developed education for their newly independent countries based on philosophy as represented by Ujamaa (Swahili for familyhood). 

Education in this context is designed to make all citizens of Africa self-reliant. Self- reliance is portrayed in economics, politics, and social cultures. A self-reliant person does not exploit other people and at the same time they are not exploitable. Ujamaa is about African socialism, a belief in sharing economic resources in a traditional African way, as distinct from classical socialism. 

The Black Consciousness (BC) Movement slogan: ‘People Shall Share’ was an attempt to entrench and promote African Socialism while also addressing internalised racism and restoring a positive image of what it means to be black. 

I was introduced to black consciousness as a student when I attended a Youth Camp organised by Steve Biko and others at the Mahatma Gandhi Settlement in Phoenix, just outside Durban. 

They had chosen one of Gandhi ashrams for raising the awareness of young people like me about the importance of social awareness and non-violence. Gandhi developed the philosophy of Satyagraha, which influenced the national liberation struggle in South Africa, India and beyond. 

During the Camp, we visited the local village, to conduct a community survey and learn about people’s living conditions and basic needs. These Black Consciousness ideas of self-reliance are built into the Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha or “soul force.” 

The thread which ties spiritual and social liberation together as inseparable forces is tightly and colourfully woven through Ubuntu and Ujamaa, from Black Consciousness to Satyagraha, from letting one’s life speak to the work of Ada Salter to my childhood to our virtual togetherness here today. 

Growing up as a child in an African village, I was taught to greet everyone, including strangers. In isiZulu, when two people meet, they stop and say “Sanibona” meaning, “We see you.” Often followed by “Ninjani?” – How are you?”, greetings are in plural form to indicate we are not meeting as individuals but as representatives of our families and communities. My family greets your family, my community greets your community. 

I saw a re-awakening of this tradition in Philadelphia during the COVID 19 lockdown, when strangers started to greet one another. Previously I had seen people walking past, wearing headphones, and not bothering to greet. 

A senior citizen in the community where I grew up often reminds me, with a broad smile, of how much she appreciated the gesture when I used to take her tea, when she was tilling her fields in the village. I am sure this would have been on instruction from my grandmother. We probably got paid back in kindness and madumbes (yams). 

And as the cry that Black Lives Matter went up around the US and the world considering the murder of George Floyd, the echoes brought me back to Sanibona: We can be certain that our lives matter when we are able to truly see one another. 

Raised as a Christian, I realised I made my grandmother uncomfortable when I asked why she had abandoned African spiritual beliefs. I now know that she too was struggling with these questions, even though she was grateful for the education she had received from the missionaries. 

In my adulthood, I am grateful to my grandmother, my mother, my teachers, the women in the Natal Organisation of Women and fellow activists in the struggle for freedom, who taught me resilience and the values of ubuntu – we are human because of others. 

When I was in solitary confinement, I often had vivid dreams of my grandmother who had died a few months before. I believe her spirit was present in my mind, at that difficult time. I drew immense strength from the power of struggle songs. Often sung in rallies and protest marches, they had the power to instil amazing courage and fearlessness. Even though I was alone I felt a sense of being connected to my comrades through singing struggle songs. 

I was attracted to Quakers through my interaction with a small Quaker community in Durban in the early eighties. In 1983 I had been part of establishing the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), which joined the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was formed as a broad coalition of civic organisations established in August 1983 to oppose the Whites-only referendum for a new constitution that created a tri-cameral parliament for Whites, Indians and Coloureds, while excluding the black African majority. 

NOW worked closely with the youth and we were concerned that the youth was getting militarised in their response to state violence. Our own strategy was to organise marches, peaceful protests, and night vigils. During one of our night vigils we invited Richard Steele, a Quaker and Conscientious Objector to address a night vigil as part of promoting non-violent forms of resistance. When he had been called up on 4 July 1979 to serve in the whites only South African Defence Force, Steele had written a letter explaining that he would be unable to report for duty due to him being a pacifist. When he was called again the following year, he refused to serve, and was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. 

While in prison, he began to question his long-time congregation, the Baptists. He read about Mahatma Gandhi and came to respect his teachings. After his release, Steele travelled the world, learning and seeking a more integrated spirituality. On his return he served as caretaker of the Gandhi Centre in Durban and became a Quaker. He, his wife, Anita Kromberg, Jeremy Routledge and others, were active in the End Conscription Campaign and the Conscientious Objector Support Group. 

Jeremy was also an active member of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA) – a non-racial teachers’ union. He, Richard, Anita and other young whites had joined the struggle to end apartheid, mobilising against militarism, and in solidarity with the oppressed black majority. As Quakers, they actively participated in campaigns in support of detainees and exposing and opposing state sponsored “black on black” violence. Jeremy was also active in the Detainees Support Group. 

Jeremy Routledge and I found love across the colour line, following our detention without trial. Jeremy was detained for a month during the national state of emergency in 1986. I was detained for just under a year in 1987, under the Internal Security Act, which gave the apartheid state powers to detain activists indefinitely without trial. We were married in January 1989 in a blended African traditional, Christian and Quaker ceremony, attended by friends, relatives, comrades and the local community. 

The wedding took place in the rural village where I was born, and the African traditional part of the ceremony included ilobolo, an exchange of gifts that united our two families and our peoples. To this day, Jeremy is loved and regarded as umkhwenyana or son-in-law by the whole village. Our children are their children. 

The backdrop to this was that the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which prohibited marriage or a sexual relationship between White people and people of other race groups had been repealed (1985) while the Group Areas Act was still in place, and we were not allowed to live under one roof in a white designated area. 

Despite our different racial backgrounds, Jeremy and I had found we had much in common. We both had a parent who was a teacher, and we had both studied science; had grown up in rural KwaZulu Natal and we shared a concern to end racial injustice. We had become activists, mobilizing our communities and reaching across the artificial boundaries created by apartheid. 

Quakers believe we should let our work speak for us. These Friends, who were mostly white, connected their spiritual lives with political action, their connection to humanity and the God in all people, with their opposition to violence in the form of racist policy and militarized defence. 

They recognized that for them to be free, they needed to give up white privilege and join the struggle for a non-racial, democratic and equal society. All these actions connected with the African Values at the heart of my upbringing. 

On Non-violence and Armed Struggle

The question of whether to support the ANC in the struggle to end Apartheid caused intense debate among Quakers globally. Since the adoption of armed struggle in December 1961, the ANC’s strategy had moved from a totally non- violent struggle to one that incorporated violence, particularly under pressure from its youth wing, of which Mandela was part. 

The 1960s marked an important watershed in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 in a firing by the police that lasted for approximately two minutes, leaving 69 unarmed protesters dead and, according to the official inquest, 180 people seriously wounded. This killing of unarmed peaceful protestors signalled the beginning of a far more brutal and intensive phase of state repression that would crush internal resistance in the space of a few years. 

South African Quakers had challenged the abuse of race and power. However, the question of support for the ANC caused debate among Friends. I became aware of these debates during a Southern Africa Yearly Meeting I attended in 1988 in Botswana. 

A representative of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) challenged Friends about their ambivalence, and this raised a heated debate in the Meeting, whose main objection was the ANC’s association with the South African Communist Party and its embrace of armed struggle. 

Hendrik van der Merwe was a South African Quaker, academic and peacemaker who grew up in a conservative rural, Calvinist Afrikaner community in the Western Cape. He was actively involved as a mediator in South Africa, meeting with leaders from the ruling National Party and homelands, the exiled and imprisoned leaders of the banned African National Congress (ANC), and the internal resistance led by United Democratic Front. 

In aligning with the oppressed, HW gained their trust while continuing to put pressure on the powerful. HW explained that when forced to choose a side in a conflict, he would choose the side of the powerless or the oppressed. This explained to me that Quakers can be pragmatic yet principled when faced with complex decisions. 

I had not begun to challenge the ANC’s adoption of armed struggle, as one of the four pillars of the anti-apartheid struggle. I felt the ANC had made this decision as a last resort, in response to a massive onslaught on an unarmed resistance, as illustrated by the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. 

A way to think about this is that, firstly, my support for members of MK was informed by a belief that the system of Apartheid was cruel and unjust, and that we were fighting an illegitimate regime. I had not begun to question whether or not the means justify the end. 

Secondly, the armed struggle was only a tiny part of the pillars of the liberation struggle and that the defeat of Apartheid was due largely to the other pillars: underground organisation, mass mobilisation and international solidarity. Archie Gumede, a stalwart of the liberation struggle and former chairperson of the UDF stated that, “The armed struggle did have some effect in showing that people could resist oppression. It boosted morale” (p163 ‘Guns and Gandhi’). 

My position began to shift after engaging with Quakers in my small meeting in Durban. However, violence had broken out in our townships, led by armed Zulu warriors recruited by and aligned to Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. 

During one of the attacks, someone had fired a gun into the air, which caused the warriors to disperse. This caused debate among us about whether the use of violence to counter violence was ever justified. There was reason to think, if the Police were not protecting us, we would have to protect ourselves, especially following the advent of state sponsored “black on black” violent attacks. 

I now fully embrace non-violence as a method of struggle, as both the means and the end. Today, as a Quaker, I support the peace testimony in full as I look at the aftermath of Apartheid and colonial violence in South Africa. The deep-seated culture of violence is proving difficult to uproot, confirming the adage that violence breeds violence and that we should continue to oppose all wars and preparation for war. However, while always anti-military, our nonviolence must be ever-more militant, supporting revolutionary change in the face of oppression, through mass unarmed civil resistance and non-military means. 

A Quaker and Deputy Minister of Defence?

My appointment as Deputy Minister of Defence in 1999 came as a total surprise and I wrestled with this issue, which questioned by pacifist beliefs and caused debate among Quakers and the media. The Christian Science Monitor commented that it was either “a stroke of brilliance or a monumental gaffe.” 

When I got the call from the Secretary General of the ANC, on behalf of President Mbeki, I told him he had called the wrong number. When he insisted, he had the right number, I told him I would need time to think about it. He gave me half an hour! I was alone in the house and the first thing I did was go on my knees to pray for guidance. 

People have asked me why I chose politics as a career. My answer is that I did not choose politics, politics chose me. By that I mean, it was impossible to ignore the injustice around me and not be involved. My entry into politics was through the national liberation struggle. 

Growing up in rural Apartheid South Africa, I did not even begin to dream of becoming a Member of Parliament. In any case, this was not even possible at the time. Blacks were not allowed to vote, let alone to be voted into positions of power.

There were good reasons for feeling that it would be right to accept the challenge as South Africa’s first female pacifist deputy Minister of Defence. 

  • I found support among Quakers who debated the issue at our Yearly Meeting in 2000. We adopted a Statement on Peace in Africa, an outcome and testimony to the Quaker process of consensus building. 
  • South Africa and the world had witnessed a miracle, something I had never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. 
  • We had seen Mandela walking out of prison and start negotiations to end apartheid. 
  • South Africa had installed our first democratically elected non-racial, non- sexist parliament with Mandela as our President. 
  • As a newly elected Member of Parliament, I had sat across from my former enemies in the Parliamentary Chamber and had witnessed a military fly past in the colours of our new flag salute Mandela at the inauguration, where I had seen global leaders who came to witness this amazing change. 
  • Our country had been welcomed back into the global community as an important player in the effort to achieve global peace. 
  • This was a time of change and optimism both locally and globally. 

Under the new Constitution, the policy and defence posture began to undergo radical transformation from state security to an all-encompassing condition, in which individual citizens: 

  • live in freedom, peace, and safety. 
  • participate fully in the process of governance. 
  • enjoy the protection of fundamental rights; have access to resources and 

the necessities of life. 

  • and an environment which is not detrimental to their health and well- 


I have a dog-eared signed copy of the Human Security Now Report that our former Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Frene Ginwala gave me. She was democratic South Africa’s first woman Speaker and was one of the 12-person Commission on Human Security that produced the UN Report in 2003. 

The report describes the concept of human security as freedom from want and freedom from fear. This is the concept of security South Africa had embraced, and which made it easy for me to relate to my role in the Ministry of Defence. We had argued that it was important to increase the participation of women in all the Peace and Security structures and processes, and at all levels of decision making. 

We stressed the importance of their presence in sufficient numbers to form a critical mass – at least a third – to make a difference. As MP’s and as part of the women’s movement, we had established strong connections with feminists outside of Parliament, who helped shape national policy and legislation. I could therefore draw on a large pool of activists who were more than willing to help me develop programmes aimed at transforming the role of the military in a democracy. 

I became aware of the work of Sydney Bailey at the United Nations when his widow sent me a copy of his book: ‘Peace is a Process’ published by the Quaker Home Service and Woodbrooke College in 1993. This assured me of the important role Quakers can play in influencing high level diplomacy. Bailey was
a conscientious objector during World War II, spending several years in the Friends Ambulance Service. 

Through the opportunities afforded me in the new South Africa we had fought for, the core beliefs which always guided me, and my new experiences from leading fellow Parliamentarians, UN experts, and Quaker-informed diplomacy, my work as a Deputy Minister of Defence while attending Quaker meeting opened a world not of conflict or contradiction but of challenging questions about creative nation-building. 

Speaking Truth to Power 

As Deputy Minister of Health during the HIV and AIDS crisis in South Africa, I drew strength from the call to speak truth to power. I was saddened to see people dying needlessly from AIDS when they were refused treatment in our public health facilities. I could not understand the refusal by my government to deny HIV positive pregnant women access to Nevirapine to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child. 

When I heard about babies dying at Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape and went on an unannounced visit to investigate the cause. This angered the Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who was promoting only the use of nutrition and traditional remedies instead of the scientific approach to the treatment of people with AIDS. I took the decision to speak publicly in support of science based interventions and this led to my dismissal by the President, after several warnings for me to say only what the Minister of Health was saying. 

In speaking truth to power my aim was not to embarrass the President but to take a principled stand on the side of the powerless, the people who were dying needlessly because they were being denied life-prolonging medicines by their own government. Though I was famously fired from the position as Deputy Minister of Health, in an act which still casts more criticism on the President who fired me than on my own forthright acts, my Quaker orientation helped make it clear on what side of the principled/pragmatic poll I should fall. 

Friends have never been diffident about offering advice to rulers about how to achieve peace. I am inspired by the Quaker Mission to Tsar Nicholas in 1854 in the hope to avert the Crimean War. A panel from the Quaker Tapestry by Mary Mason and family illustrates this Quaker effort to prevent war. The inscription on the tapestry says, “O Mighty Prince, may the miseries and devastation of war be averted. Speak Truth to Power.” 

Looking at the compromise in diplomatic work, Sidney Bailey answers the question of how we can distinguish between a concession of marginal importance, a sacrifice of vital national interest, and a violation of personal conscience. He says, “Friends often ask for an enhancement of the moral element in international decision making, and they are quite right to do so. 

At the same time, we should recognise that for the harassed foreign minister or ambassador, the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical is often blurred…Our commitment to peace and justice should be infectious, so that we inspire others to share in the process.” 

I was inspired by Audre Lorde, an American writer who dedicated her life and her work to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, and homophobia serves as inspiration. She says: 

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision Then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid. 

Freedom is a Constant Struggle – A lifetime of Activism

I have learned that freedom is a constant struggle and that every generation must play their part in defending the gains made by those before it. Recently, I was thinking about my role as an activist and Psalms 121, which I had learned to recite as a child, came to me. I thought of an activist as someone who stands up for others, who is willing to sacrifice his or her own freedom to help others gain theirs. I thought of Mandela who said we are not free until all are free. 

So, when I left formal party politics in 2009, after serving for 15 years, I had not abandoned my role as a catalyst for change. I feel strongly that wide ranging basic rights in the Constitution MUST be given expression in people’s lives, which includes mobilising them to become active citizens, participating in elections and in between elections, through public participation. 

Jeremy and I established Embrace Dignity, a non-profit abolitionist feminist organisation that seeks to challenge gendered power inequalities that continue to oppress women, girls, and other marginalised people through the system of prostitution, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and patriarchy. We are campaigning for the abolitionist Equality Model Law pioneered in Sweden and adopted by a growing number of countries. Our aim is to restore the rights of women and girls to equality, life, dignity, human security and psychological integrity, rights our Constitution has promised to all South Africans. 

What are the most pressing issues facing us and the world today, and how should we respond as Quakers? How do we ensure social, economic and climate justice for all? How do we respond to the call for reparations for colonization, slavery, and apartheid – as well as the intergenerational trauma that these systems of oppression have caused? 

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust issued a statement on 15 April 2021, acknowledging “that the roots of the trusts’ wealth stems from “slavery, colonialism and white supremacy.” In the statement the Trust stated that “The Rowntree Company purchased cocoa and other goods produced by enslaved people while the company itself benefitted from the system of colonial indenture.” 

The statement says, “Wilson Rowntree, the South African subsidiary of the Rowntree Company, was also responsible for highly oppressive and exploitative practices during the apartheid era.” 

Additionally, how do we respond to the #Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo campaigns? How do we ensure a just peace in Palestine, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, to name but a few places of violent conflict? As the saying goes, “We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children.” 

How do we contribute to righting the wrongs of the past? The Statement issued by the Joseph Rowntree Trust opens an opportunity for British Quakers to partner with the Southern African Quaker Community in our effort to end poverty through the work of our Yearly Meeting. 

Thank you for listening. I hope I have inspired you to continue the good work you are doing to make the world better than you found it. 

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge giving the Salter Lecture from her home studio. Photo by Jeremy Madlala-Routledge