Speaker: Lindy & Francis Wilson

Lessons from the South African Freedom Struggle: Using White Privilege for the Liberation of All

When Francis and Lindy Wilson shared their intention to return to South Africa in 1966 after living for many years in the UK, friends discouraged them from doing so, telling them that by returning, they’d be part of the problem, benefiting from the apartheid system and having “all the privileges of a white South African”. Francis saw it differently, saying that he “felt that it was feasible to operate in South Africa, to be an effective part of apartheid resistance within the country” despite his racial and other forms of privilege. 

This belief in using one’s privilege to work for change runs as a through-line throughout Francis and Lindy’s nearly 60 years of activism in South Africa.  As white anti-apartheid leaders, Francis and Lindy transformed their living room into a sanctuary where struggle leaders of all backgrounds gathered for robust conversation and compassionate wisdom.  Using Francis’s research as an economist and Lindy’s work as a documentary filmmaker, they have, throughout their lives, used their privilege to find ways to resist and work against racist and unequal systems.

Francis is a retired scholar and economist who for over 40 years documented and analyzed key social issues affecting South African society (most notably, inequality and structural poverty faced by South African migrant laborers), and then used his research and that of others to promote grassroots social change. Rather than focusing on economics as a theoretical concept, Francis used the principles of economics to center people who are so often forgotten or ignored by academic discourse.  Starting in the 1970s, Francis used economic research to expose the ways in which the South African economy was built on cheap Black labor.

In 1975, he founded the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), which collected and organized data on economic inequality in Southern Africa.  The Carnegie Corporation decided in 1982 to support a second Inquiry into Poverty & Development in South Africa as a massive independent research process, and Wilson was asked to direct this, with SALDRU serving as the base institution. This collective effort presented a formidable and graphic documentation of the impoverishment black South Africans endured under apartheid. In 1993 Wilson and SALDRU, in partnership with the World Bank, worked on a survey to produce baseline evidence of the state of the nation, which was widely used in the 1990s for policy formulation.

Francis has served as a zealous missionary for the cause of the public release of survey data. While the 1993 data set was used intensively in the 1990s for research and policy purposes, there were few South Africans with the skills to do so. Wilson flagged it as an imperative to build the capacity of South Africans to analyze their data and to undertake their policy analysis. With others he set up capacity building initiatives that run to this day. Francis continues to believe that the “cross-pollination” of ideas between researchers and NGOs working in communities is crucial to improving the lives of people in those communities.

Lindy Wilson is an independent South African documentary film producer and director. She grew up in Johannesburg and was PA to the editor of The Star evening newspaper there and The Times Literary Supplement in London before she married Francis Wilson in 1964 and they made their home in Cape Town. She spent 20 years (1967-1987) building up the Cape Town branch of a new, independent, national adult-education institution, The South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED), of which she became the Cape Town Director. SACHED was created to enable students who refused to attend the newly segregated universities to obtain degrees. This included black working students, particularly teachers. SACHED also trained teachers and held courses for trade-unions in administrative skills and produced books as well as an educational journal, Learning Post.

Lindy’s incentive to make documentary films came from her SACHED experience and from the events happening around her. She realized that films enable even illiterate people to speak out in their own voices and believed that by recording some of these devastating events, a secure archive would be made which nobody in the future could deny and say “we did not know.” One such action under Apartheid’s legislation was the systematic destruction of District Six, a lively integrated community of very long standing, with churches, schools and mosques, vibrant livelihoods, musicians and artists in the very heart of Cape Town itself. In 1983, Lindy Wilson made a film, Last Supper In Hortsley Street, recording one of the last families of the 60 000 people who were removed, which included the families of some of her students. Almost every house and shop in the District was bulldozed to the ground because the area was declared to be for ‘whites only’.

Robben Island Our University (1987) was the first film ever made (clandestinely in her home) about political prisoners from Robben Island prison, three years before the release of Nelson Mandela. In 1993, with negotiations underway for a democratic South Africa, Wilson made A Travelling Song, about the potential of the country’s transition. In 1995, soon after the first democratic election, she produced The Unbanned Series, sixteen films shown on TV made by independent directors which South Africans had not been allowed to see under apartheid. The extraordinary cover-up by police of the pre-meditated murder of seven young men in 1986 was unraveled over two years by the investigative unit of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and became the powerful subject matter of her next feature-documentary, The Guguletu Seven (2000).

In 1989 she worked with close friends of Steve Biko, the South African Black Consciousness leader who died in detention, to write a book about his charismatic leadership and the movement. They produced Bounds of Possibility. Her own contribution, the chapter on his life, was later updated and published on its own as a Jacana Pocketbook, entitled Steve Biko.

Francis was born in May 1939 to anthropologists Monica and Godfrey Wilson.  After receiving a degree in physics from the University of Cape Town, Francis’s desire to understand South Africa’s racial dynamics led him to receive a PhD in economics at the University of Cambridge.  He and Lindy were married in 1964 and returned to South Africa in 1966, at which point Francis began teaching at the University of Cape Town.  Described by his former vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town as “bright, unpredictable, an academic entrepreneur,” Francis Wilson “had that ability to engage with you and to capture the imaginations of undergraduates and inspire them.”  It’s this ability to engage with and inspire others that led to Francis becoming one of the preeminent white leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Francis and Lindy continue to work for a more equal and just society.  Francis works with the Mandela Initiative, which works with stakeholders from all aspects of society to reduce poverty and income inequality in South Africa.  Francis particularly focuses on the Mandela Initiative’s Action Dialogues, in which experts gather to discuss their work around specific themes relating to the Initiative’s goals.  Lindy continues to make films.  Her most recent film, For Which I am Prepared to Die, is about her uncle Roger Bushell who, in spite of knowing he would be shot if he was caught escaping again, undertook to master-mind the famous ‘great escape' of World War 2 (of which Hollywood made an iconic film in 1963) in which 77 men tunneled out of a Nazi POW camp in 1944.

Join us in conversation with this remarkable couple -- a conversation spanning a lifetime of lived history, a partnership of love, and work for the upliftment of all.

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