Arnold Selby

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Freedom fighter.

First name: 
Arnold
Last name: 
Selby
Date of birth: 
14 November 1918
Location of death: 
27 August 2002

Arnold Selby was born on 14 November 1918 in South Africa. He joined the liberation struggle in the 1940s. His experience as a miner brought to light the discrimination practiced by the mine bosses and the ruling class against blacks. At a time, when not many whites were prepared to face the hazards of joining the struggle for the rights of the black majority, he became involved in the trade union movement and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), both of which he joined in the early 1940s.

Arnold Selby was elected Secretary of the African Textile Union, a post he held until his banning in 1953 under the Suppression of Communism Act. Africans were not recognized as workers, nor were their trade unions.  Thus, they had no legal bargaining rights with their bosses under a myriad of apartheid laws controlling labour. This made fighting for worker's rights very difficult. The banning meant that Selby had to discontinue his trade union and political activities.  However, Selby, was undaunted.

The Sharpeville Massacre, on 21 March 1960, in which scores of people were killed, was followed by the declaration of a State of Emergency whereby over 20 000 people were arrested and detained in prisons throughout the country. One of those who escaped the police net was Selby. He was advised to leave the country, which he did and headed for Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). From Bechuanaland, he made his way to Accra, Ghana, in an airlift organised to take refugees away far from the claws of the apartheid regime whose secret service practically ‘invaded’ that country.

Arnold and his fiancée, Jeannette Thomas, married in the Accra home of Mr. Geoffrey Bing who was Ghana's Attorney General at the time. It was Mrs Bing who organised the airlift from Botswana and arranged for a one-way passport for Jeannette to leave South Africa. Marriage in South Africa was impossible as Thomas was a member of the Coloured community and under the Immorality Act blacks and whites were not allowed to marry. It was a crime punishable by imprisonment without the option of a fine.

According to the GOLDEN CITY POST (28 August 1960), a Johannesburg weekly paper covering news for the black community: "Their marriage was the climax of a long, hard struggle for both of them. Arnold, as General Secretary of the African Textile Worker's Union had led 33 strikes in the past 15 years and detained more than 10 times. Police, anxious to catch the couple under the Immorality Act, had hunted them so closely for the five years of their courtship that Arnold had to change his flat every few weeks".

In an interview a few months prior to his death, Selby described his stay in Ghana thus: "It was in Ghana that I learned the importance of international solidarity to any justified struggle for social liberation and general well-being of all. I was given a position in the Ghana Trade Union Congress and was accepted as a member of the team. Jeannette and I were treated as fellow Africans. I was invited to join the Convention People's Party (CPP), which I did with the approval of my Movement. As a stateless person I was given a Ghana identity document with the understanding that should I apply for citizenship, it would be favourably considered".

The Selbys were invited by the Confederation of Free German Trade Unions of the (FDGB) to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1961 to have Arnold's chronically ill eyes treated. Thereafter, the Selbys were requested to stay in the GDR. Selby explained that "Jeannette and I visited numerous factories and schools talking to the people about the inhumanity of apartheid and in this way helped to organise solidarity with our struggle back home. Wherever we went, the reception was very warm and hospitable. We were very well received and made to feel at home".

Still later Selby joined Radio Berlin International and was in charge of a programme called ‘Spotlight on Southern Africa.’ "This programme was received in South Africa judging from the number of letters reaching us from listeners there with all sorts of advices and suggestions and the fact that much of the information was unobtainable in South Africa itself. We were able to do this because of the close contact we had with the Headquarters of our movement and with solidarity groups all over the world" declared Arnold Selby.

"Corresponding with us in East Germany was a very dangerous undertaking but people managed to get the letters posted outside South Africa. Such feedback was very important to us because it must be remembered that South Africa practised a very harsh press censorship and our programme was able to penetrate this rigid regime. Later our role was complemented by Radio Freedom, voice of the African National Congress and Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation - military wing of the ANC) which was able to reach South Africa from various capitals of Africa." explained the liberation veteran.

At the age of 62, in 1980, Selby found a new hobby - long distance running - and completed his first full marathon in 1981. From 1984-1990, Selby and other members of the ANC formed the Mandela Runners Group and participated in the Annual London Marathon for the release of Nelson Mandela. Arnold Selby completed over 70 full marathons in various European cities and in the process raised funds for the liberation struggle and other needy organisations.

An injury sustained during a marathon in Sweden put paid to his running days. Nevertheless, this did not stop him from entering the Berlin Marathon on 10 September 2000 where he took part in power walking which benefited  South African charity from his participation.

Arnold Selby died on 27 August 2002 in Leipzig, Germany.


References:
• Singh, E. (2002), Who was Arnold Selby, from the South African Communist Party, 6 September [online] Available at www.sacp.org.za. [Accessed 19 July 2011]
•  Singh, E. (2002), Arnold Selby from the South African Communist Party, 27 September, [online] Available at www.sacp.org.za. [Accessed 19 July 2011]

Last updated : 02-Apr-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-Oct-2011