- Comments on the occasion of the memorial service for Glenn Cowley, Howard College, Durban, 25 June 2011
We often refer to occasions like this as celebrations, as an opportunity to salute a life well lived and it is in many respects that. But I suspect that the greater reality tonight is that for us here this is a very sad event. We have all been utterly stunned, shocked to the core, at Glenn’s early passing and the fact that he has been so cruelly deprived of a leisurely retirement in the happy company of his new wife and in their new lovely home in Johannesburg. It is only 20 months since we gathered at Ike’s Bookshop to pay tribute to Glenn on the occasion of his retirement from the UKZN Press, a tribute organised by the Board of Transformation. None of us there that night, I am certain, even contemplated the possibly that we would so soon gather again, this time for a final farewell.
Much has been said tonight about Glenn the publisher and what Glenn did for academic scholarship in post-apartheid South Africa but my association with Glenn goes back over 40 years to our student days and so I want to say something about him in that time.
Glenn the student activist
We met at this university in 1964. We were then both SRC presidents on the respective white campuses of the then University of Natal. The campus struggle issue of the time was around the continuing affiliation of the two campuses to the left-leaning and non-racial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). This was a difficult time politically for the left in general and for NUSAS particularly both on campus and in the national arena. The [End Page 144] organization was under sustained attack from the then hard man of apartheid politics, minister of justice BJ Vorster, who referred to NUSAS as ‘a cancer in the life of South Africa’ and declared it his intention to wipe out the organization. What particularly irked Vorster was the fact that in July 1964 NUSAS had re-elected ANC president and Nobel laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, as its honorary president. Then under house arrest, Luthuli was to Vorster at best a communist fellow traveler.
The arrest in July 1964 of a number of recent leading figures in NUSAS (Adrian Leftwich, Hugh Lewin, John Lloyd, Stephanie Kemp, David de Keller, Selina Molteno, Lynette van der Riet and others) on charges of sabotage for their activities in the African Resistance Movement (ARM) triggered a barrage of National Party vitriol and efforts by government-funded conservative student groupings on the English-language campuses to get them to disaffiliate from NUSAS. None succeeded and NUSAS lived on to outlive Vorster and the remainder of the apartheid era. It voluntarily dissolved itself in 1992.
Here in Durban Glenn and his great friend, Ian Robertson, were at the forefront of those who we were determined to thwart Vorster’s ambition. It was no easy task, made more difficult by the fact that our two campuses were at the time densely populated by white Rhodesian students, a grouping then mobilised and politicised, cock-a-hoop at what appeared then to be a successful UDI in favour of white rule in Rhodesia. Stridently arrogant in their racism, their hostility to anyone and any campus group which did not share their outlook was highly vocal and not a little frightening.
That their campaign and that of Vorster’s failed was in large part on this campus due to Glenn’s powerful and effective leadership. Not only did he stand up to and take on the ‘Rhodies’ and their conservative allies led then by Renier Schoeman (later a National Party cabinet minister), but he charmed and wooed the great majority of non-partisan students into following his line and not theirs.
Glenn was not an overly political person in a party political sense; he was not unlike some on both of the white campuses either a covert ANC or SACP member. In fact, he had no great political ambitions for himself. What led him and guided his actions was a...