Journalist, activist
You are in: surefish > news >South Africa
Date: 18 March, 2004

Charlene Smith. Photo: Charlotte Haines Lyon

'How could I have a child who didn’t know what apartheid was? I used to go round with a screwdriver in my handbag and take down apartheid signs, so they had quite a nutty mother.'

At the end of April, South Africa will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid.

In the first of a series of interviews exploring the lives of six South Africans, Charlotte Haines Lyon meets the journalist and human rights activist Charlene Smith

“Human rights issues, is not just about what governments do but its about what you as person do and how you as a person live your life.”

For Charlene Smith this has been a rule of life, despite it turning her into a reluctant expert on violence.

As a rookie crime reporter at the tender age of 17, Charlene reported on the Soweto uprisings of 1976 and her world was changed. “I suddenly realised what was happening, they were killing children.”

Charlene remembers going to Alexandra where the riots had spread, two days after Soweto, “That day they had been opening fire and there were houses, churches and schools were burning and the police were going in and dragging out bodies and throwing them into the back of police vehicles as if they were sacks of potatoes.”


Not only did the protests against the Bantu Education Act and the resulting police atrocities, inspire and anger young blacks across the country but they radicalised Charlene. By the 1980s, Charlene had given up full time journalism as well as friendly relations with her conservative racist family to become a full time activist against apartheid.

She is keen to emphasise that apartheid was much more than arrests, detention and brutality, but rather “it was the daily humiliations that people had to suffer that was so appalling.”

Charlene evidences this by describing her friendship with a black woman Maude: “We’d go out for lunch together, but because black and white people couldn’t go into the same restaurants. I’d go and buy sandwiches, then we’d find a place to sit, but we couldn’t sit in the parks together.

“We couldn’t even use the same toilets; I nearly got fired once because I took down all the apartheid signs for the toilets in the newspaper building. At one point blacks couldn’t even walk on the pavement,” she continues.

Despite training her children not to ask the names of underground people staying in her house, for fear of endangering lives should the police question them, it seems her son may have missed something. In 1994 when apartheid was being explained on the radio, Matthew said. “Gee, this apartheid sounds like a real problem.”

Charlene laughs in disbelief: “How could I have a child who didn’t know what apartheid was? I used to go round with a screwdriver in my handbag and take down apartheid signs, so they had quite a nutty mother.”


Many people might criticise her for being so politically active whilst being a mother. Indeed after being arrested she phoned her mother to ask her to look after the children, and was reprimanded with, “Oh God, this is so irresponsible, you’re the only mother I know who’s always getting arrested.”

But this mum is defiant: “I felt that activism was securing my children’s future, was creating a future of justice.” However, after investigating and telling the press about death squad activity in 1989 Charlene explains, rather nonchalantly, why she returned to her former profession.

“Life became reasonably uncomfortable because all the usual stuff started happening, the phones, being followed, the cars outside the house. When my dog managed to keep somebody up a tree for most of the night, I thought 'I’m alone with two children - I probably need to go back to journalism - it’s a bit safer.” Good timing it seems as a colleague was later blown up with a booby-trapped personal stereo.

Charlene acknowledges the very real decisions one has to make regarding the danger of becoming an activist, but also says that journalism brings its own difficulties. “A journalist can never stop being a human being, there are times if you realise as great injustice is going to happen - what is more important, to be a person or to be a journalist.”

She goes on to describe horrific incidents which forced her to leave the supposed journalists neutrality and try to save lives. This included
preventing a necklacing, a punishment in which a tyre is put round the victims neck, filled with petrol and set alight.

It is her everyday refusal to support the apartheid regime however, which makes me wonder if a few more whites behaved with such humanity then maybe apartheid would have fallen sooner.


“There was one situation,” Charlene recalls, “when I relied entirely on the black woman who looked after my child and I did two things that were highly illegal; I allowed her husband to stay with her and I allowed her two small children to stay with us.”

“A neighbour complained, the cops jumped the wall and when I came home they wanted to arrest her and her children. I said ‘no, you arrest me, I’m the one breaking the law.’ This simple step of resistance, including an equally defiant court appearance resulted in charges being dropped.

Whilst the elections of 1994 were a great joy for many, for Charlene it was a time of mixed emotions. The day before the elections, she was one of the first at the scene of a right-wing bombing of a taxi rank near Johannesburg.

“Nineteen people died, you couldn’t walk without stepping on bits of people this size,” she says holding her finger and thumb an inch apart. “There was an arm on the 4th floor of the building jutting out, a head on a parapet, men walking around with black bags picking up people. I thought we were going to inherit a holocaust.”

Nevertheless, her hopes were revived during the following days when visiting Zululand. “There were all these old people who had walked miles, some said they had walked for two days, most had no shoes, some had only one shoe, and they hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, they were sitting in the sun, waiting at the polling station to vote. It was actually seeing people like that when I realised what it meant.”

Commenting on how during the elections, blacks and whites started to talk whilst queuing to vote and discover their shared fears and hopes for the country, including social justice. She wryly remarks, “if you were white and privileged preferably social justice meant not losing your swimming pool.”


The end of apartheid did not bring and end to activism though. Whilst the government celebrates ten years of freedom, sexual violence is also a major issue in South Africa, as Charlene knows only too well. She was raped five years ago.

A battle ensued to obtain the anti-retrovirals, so crucial in preventing
possible contraction of HIV. She has fought valiantly not only for
improvement for the care of rape survivors but also against the silencing of these women.

“People will now openly tell you ‘yeah I’ve been raped, yes I was gang raped by six people, my husband was tied up next to me.’ That doesn’t happen anywhere else. If you have a hurt you have to talk about it otherwise it becomes a poison.”

When asked what the biggest challenge to the country is now though, Charlene in her indomitable way, points to the AIDs crisis. “Your average young man aged 16-25 is more likely to be shot dead than to die of any other cause, except for HIV/AIDs. Of the young people leaving school and matriculating, only seven per cent are going to find work. Then we say use a condom, practice safe sex -they must think we’re nuts.”

Angry that the government has spent money on arms rather than fighting HIV/AIDs she argues, “if we effectively confront HIV/AIDs it will transform all of our lives.”

Charlene then points out that this would entail “an end to sexual violence, clean water, effectively dealing with all illnesses like Tuberculosis as well as food programs. It’ll ensure we have a true functioning democracy.”


Despite a life of fighting, Charlene is not bitter. On the contrary:
“Through having this mad crazy life, its been the most wonderfully enriching life. If I look at my life, I’d change nothing. Making difficult decisions forces you to confront yourself as well and your life. I love this country, and I love these people”

Charlene Smith’s book Proud of Me is available by clicking here

Back to South Africa index