Ethel de Keyser receives National Honour in SA

for her achievements in the struggle for liberation and transformation in South Africa

At a joyous and deeply humbling ceremony at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria on the 28th of April, and in the company of other awardees of South Africa’s highest honours, Ethel de Keyser received the Order of Luthuli Award in Gold for her “astounding contribution to the struggle for liberation”.

There to accept the award on behalf of Ethel de Keyser, who passed away at the age of 77 in 2004, was Nonkululeko Busika, the 2022 Canon Collins Scholars’ Scholar awardee. Nonkululeko is completing her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand on a Canon Collins scholarship for her study in practice of trauma-sensitive therapy for migrant parents and children.

The Canon Collins Trust was co-founded by De Keyser in 1981 with Canon John Collins to fund exiled activists to study in the UK and other countries. To this day, the Canon Collins Trust has awarded over 4000 scholarships to southern Africans committed to building a just and open region.

At the ceremony she was recognised for “her fundraising for scholarships for freedom fighters and their children’s education, (which) boosted the morale of our fighters in exile”.

Born in Cape Town to immigrants from Russia and Lithuania, it was her brother, the activist Jack Tarshish, who drew her into the political struggle against apartheid. She fled while he was sentenced to 12 years for sabotage. Eventually settling in London, Ethel devoted her life to the struggle for liberation.

Part of the group that founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement, she was its Executive Secretary for ten years, during which time she made the organisation a global force to be reckoned with. She tirelessly advocated with powerful political figures, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens to resist apartheid and remove support for apartheid South Africa. Through the AAM, she led campaigns against the 1969-70 Springbok rugby tour and forced the cancellation of a cricket tour in 1970. When the Government lifted an arms embargo in 1970, Ethel campaigned hard to prevent the supply of weapons to South Africa. She also helped set up co-ordinated campaigns to release political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

Believing that an inferior education was the most ‘successful’ – therefore the most destructive – of Dr. Verwoerd’s dreams of black inferiority, in 1981, Canon John Collins and Ethel de Keyser set up a trust to fund exiled activists to study in the UK and other countries.

For Ethel, the scholarships signalled an all-important shift from not only resistance to the current regime, but nation building for the future democracy as well. For Ethel, it was never just about scholarships however – she knew each scholar by name, and was always pleased when they climbed the stairs to her office in London for a sandwich and a chat.

At the Awards ceremony, Ethel was celebrated for this part of her legacy, “Through scholarships and personal support, freedom fighters acquired the knowledge and skills they need to contribute to the new democracies expected to emerge in southern Africa.”

After 1994, Defence and Aid and Anti-Apartheid were disbanded but Ethel was only beginning. She remained active and passionate to the end, passing away two days after her job as Director of the Canon Collins Trust was advertised. Mandela was keenly aware of Ethel and her work, describing her as “a brave and courageous human being” and “a mother to our South African scholarship students abroad.” In 2001, she was awarded an OBE for her service to human rights.

“We are deeply honoured and grateful for Ethel to receive this well-deserved recognition from the country she dedicated her life to,” commented CEO of the Trust, Stuart Craig, “she never looked for recognition and was content to work in the shadow of the Movements she led, but she was formidable and determined.”

The Trust continues to award scholarships every year to social justice-minded scholars from southern Africa. “We remain committed,” says Craig, “inspired by the same cause for an open and just society in southern Africa”.