David Kitson (1919 – 2010) was an important anti-apartheid campaigner born in South Africa who demonstrated a lifelong refusal to compromise on his principles, even at great personal cost. After training as an engineer, Kitson served during the war as a ‘sapper’ in the South African army, an experience that was to facilitate his later position of bomb making instructor to the African National Congress during its sabotage campaign of 1961. Before then though, he moved to England, where he became involved in trade unionism and the Communist Party.
An early sign of his stubborn sense of personal conviction was demonstrated by his refusal to accept a promotion made conditional on the end of his union activities – he was sacked as a result. Subsequent difficulties in finding employment led him to return to South Africa in 1959. Kitson’s anger at the Sharpeville massacre of protestors by police the following year drove him to take on an active role in the anti-apartheid struggle that would define the rest of his life.
His participation was primarily in his capacity as a member of the (banned) South African Communist Party. Initially, Kitson played a relatively minor role in the campaign, but a combination of arrests and the retreat of leading Communists into exile abroad left vacancies in the movement’s leadership, and he took on a more prominent organisational position. This made him more vulnerable to arrest and he was captured relatively quickly.
However, Kitson was able to conceal the importance of his role, and thereby avoided a death sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, a sentence that he appears to have accepted stoically for the most part. As a white political prisoner, his conditions were better than most, and he used his time productively, studying for several different degrees. However, the enforced separation from his family took a toll, and he and his wife temporarily divorced. Throughout this period he remained unrepentant and was dismissive of those who wanted the ANC to use less aggressive tactics.
Upon his release in 1984, Kitson moved to London to continue campaigning. Despite initially receiving a hero’s welcome from activists, Kitson soon fell afoul of the ANC and SACP leadership as a result of his wife Norma’s aggressive campaigning outside the South African embassy. His refusal to disassociate himself from her methods resulted in his suspension from the ANC, and eventually the couple left the UK once again, this time for Zimbabwe.
Although he was personally praised by Nelson Mandela, and eventually rehabilitated by the ANC, Kitson’s role in the anti-apartheid movement was largely forgotten. He returned to South Africa but was not invited to Mandela’s inauguration as President, and received little public recognition during the remainder of his life.