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The 99-year-old Sudbury woman Mary Owens who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa for decades and started scheme helping to feed thousands of children



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The moment a schoolgirl fainted from hunger in front of her was a turning point in the long life of Mary Owens.

It was soon after the Second World War. Mary, who will be 100 in January, had just moved to apartheid-torn South Africa to be with her husband.

She was a volunteer giving sewing lessons to black children when her eyes were opened to the misery of those who routinely came to school with empty stomachs.

99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk
99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk

Mary was not one to stand by and do nothing. As well as campaigning against apartheid for decades - which saw her stripped of South African citizenship, spat at in the street, and interrogated by the country’s much-feared secret service - she started a scheme to help feed 6,000 children in township schools.

Her work earned her the name Mabantu - it means mother of the people.

Mary, who now lives in Suffolk, was born in Kent on January 5, 1922 - one of three children of Norman, an engineer who had served in the First World War, and Lillian, a farmer’s daughter.

99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk
99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk

In the 1930s she benefited from an excellent education at Wallington County High School, one of the country’s first girls’ schools.

“I loved art, but English literature more than anything,” said Mary who still volunteers sorting books at her local Oxfam shop.

“My first headmistress at Wallington was a very dignified woman who wanted the school to produce ‘ladies’.

“When she retired she was replaced by a young woman, Miss Amy Bull, who was captain of cricket for England.”

After leaving school she worked as a clerk for London County Council. In 1942, during the Second World War, she joined the WRENS and was sent to the Mull of Kintyre where she met her husband Alaric.

It was a whirlwind romance. South African-born Alaric, known as Ric, had volunteered for the British Navy.

“He was a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, and I was a radio mechanic. The first time we met I was getting a battery out of a plane, which meant I was leaning over with only my bottom sticking out.

“He said ‘do you know what you’re doing in there?’ I took it badly and said ‘certainly I do’ and walked off.

“He came back and asked me to go for a walk with him. The second night we went out to dinner and he said ‘will you marry me?’. I said of course not, I hardly know you.

“But within a week we decided that was what we would do. When we had been married for around six weeks he was sent overseas and we waited 20 months until we saw each other again.”

Her time in the WRENS was also memorable for another reason... a rogue torpedo almost cut her life short at only 22.

She had been allowed to go on a Fleet Air Arm flight, but when the torpedo was fired it bounced 'like a pebble' and went through one of the aircraft’s wings. “It was a miraculous escape,” she says.

After the war, she joined Ric in South Africa as soon as she could get a berth on a troop ship.

“There were nine of us wives in on cabin, sleeping in three tiers of bunks. We landed in South Africa in June. It was amazing coming into Capetown because it was the most beautiful morning.

“We had a wonderful three months before he was demobbed and went back to his old job as an architect in Johannesburg.

“Then he was offered a job in Kimberley. We were well off because he was paid £70 a month. Later he started his own firm.”

From the start she found apartheid hard to stomach - a view shared by Ric. “I was not a good South African. I didn’t really fit in terribly well for political reasons.

“I had been brought up in a very liberal way - although in Wallington we had never even seen a black face. I had very strong feelings about communism and a fair deal for all.

“I immediately got interested in local politics and fell foul of the apartheid regime, and had my South African nationality - which I got when I married - removed.

“But it didn’t matter. I had always felt I was English and had never given up my British passport.

“Ric was also very liberal. He was completely against apartheid - we belonged to all the protest organisations.The Nats (the National Party which promoted Afrikaner interests) came back to power in 1948 and it escalated as they got more powerful.

“When I started to live in Kimberley I had no job because wives of white men didn’t work in 1946, so I had very little to do and volunteered to help at St Peter’s, a small mission school for black children.

“The teachers were Catholic nuns. Sister Brendan was in charge of the actual teaching, and could do everything well except sewing, so that was what I mostly helped with.

Mary Owens pictured with some of the people she worked alongside in South Africa
Mary Owens pictured with some of the people she worked alongside in South Africa

“One day a girl, sitting at her desk, simply fell to the floor in a faint and water ran out of of her mouth. Brendan was quite matter-of-fact, saying this happened quite often because the children had had no breakfast.”

Shocked to the core, Mary went home and wrote a letter to the local newspaper, saying how sad it was that any child should be so hungry in a prosperous town.

Kimberley’s source of wealth was its diamond mines which brought prosperity to owners De Beers and a few miners who had independent claims.

But many families, white as well as black, knew what it was to be short of food when their claims were worthless, or they were out of work.

“They came forward with amazing generosity, so that I was able to send food to St Peter’s, and all the other schools in the bigger black township Galeshewe,” said Mary.

99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk
99 year old, Mary Owens pictured at her home in Sudbury. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk

“I had amazing help. My husband’s office manager did the banking for me, and the local baker told me about the healthiest and most economical food - a good slice of brown bread with peanut butter or margarine.

“I asked friends to help but most were too frightened to go into Galashewe. The churches were sympathetic and most, after a while, sent small groups from their congregations.

“De Beers built us a kitchen with a boiler so we could make soup. It was made from powdered stuff that had good nutritional value but nobody liked it and we finally had to give it up because it became known as ‘prison soup’.

“The prisons used it, and many black people believed it was a white trick to do them harm.

“However, soup brought me my best worker ever - Nellie Suhemo. We had never had a black volunteer before because they needed paid jobs to feed their families.

“Nellie had no children. She came in every day to light the boiler and clean up afterwards, and her boyfriend who worked for the council was really useful in keeping government officials away as much as possible.”

But apartheid was being enforced more strictly all the time and harassment by officials was still commonplace.

“They failed because we were careful to stay within the law,” said Mary, “but their hostility and race hatred were hard to take - one man said to me ‘you should be ashamed of yourself, working for k*****s.’”

The word he used was considered so insulting it was even frowned upon by the Nationalists.

Mary and Ric belonged to a church where the congregation was nearly all black. “They had problems with wrongful arrest - people belonging to the ANC being taken without charge", she says.

“The minister there helped to run an escape route to Basutoland. There was 90 day detention without a reason, without charge, and often people would walk out of prison and be picked up again.

“That was the time I got interrogated by BOSS, the security service - heavies with guns.

“They came to the house and asked me if I knew certain people, and I said yes. It was after that they took away my South African citizenship.”

She believes being British saved her from more serious repercussions. “I was very lucky in that if I’d got into trouble there could have been an international incident, which they would think twice about.”

Meanwhile, the Dutch Reformed Church threatened Ric with damage to his business. “The pastor came to see him and said my activism wasn’t conducive to their policies,” said Mary.

All their children - three daughters and a son - were born in Kimberley where the family lived for more than 20 years.

“When we left I was given an illuminated certificate with the name Mabantu, which means mother of the people. It was a great honour,” she said.

They moved to Johannesburg where she continued working with the human rights organisation Black Sash, founded by white women to confront the government over injustice.

Members wore black sashes to symbolise mourning for the South African constitution and often faced abuse or violence from apartheid supporters.

“I worked in the Black Sash advice office. Most people we helped were women picked up by police because they didn’t have the right passbook while visiting their husbands, who were working in town,” said Mary.

“I was very unpopular, and a couple of times I was spat at.”

Life was governed by stringent bylaws. “We were not allowed to eat with a black person, sit at table, or serve them off the same china,” she says.

99 year old, Mary Owens with daughter Sue Copping. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk
99 year old, Mary Owens with daughter Sue Copping. Pic - Richard Marsham/www.rmg-photography.co.uk

Her daughter Sue Copping recalls having breakfast with Desmond Tutu. Later Archbishop of Capetown, when she was a teenager. “We ate boiled eggs standing up, because that was allowed.”

Apartheid ended in 1990. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, became the country’s new president.

“I was absolutely thrilled when he came to power. He had always talked about a rainbow nation, including all the colours there were,” said Mary, who also expressed sadness about the corruption which came with later regimes.

She and Ric were married for 65 years. After his death aged 95 in 2009, she stayed in Johannesburg until 2014 when she moved back to England, and now lives with Sue in Sudbury.