Douglas Chadwick Thompson

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Religious leader, Treason Trialist, Political activist and political detainee

First name: 
Douglas
Last name: 
Thompson
Date of birth: 
8 August 1905
Date of death: 
1985

Douglas Chadwick Thompson was born on 8 August 1905 to David Chadwick Thompson and Kitty Brettle in Manchester, England. In 1907 the family left Manchester and moved to Pretoria where Thompson did his primary school education and upon completion went to Pretoria Boys High School. In 1923 Thompson left school and became an iron moulding apprentice at the South African Railways and Harbours up to 1928.  In his late teenage years he developed an interest in local and world politics - particularly politics of the Soviet Union as well as the relationship between Christianity and Communism.

Thompson was extremely influenced by religious life and the church. Consequently, in 1928 he left the South African Railways and Harbours and went to the Wesleyan Methodist Ministry. Afterwards he went to study at the Richmond College, the Divinity School at London University. Upon his return to South Africa he was assigned to the Geaina area of the Pretoria Circuit.  He was sent to Pietersburg in 1937 where remained until 1941. The following year in 1942 he was stationed in Johannesburg West up to 1950 before being sent to Springs.  

When Thompson returned from his studies in England he had increasingly cherished a Christian Socialist position that was sympathetic to Marxism and the Soviet Union. During World War II he became chairperson of the Medical Aid to Russia movement, which became the South African Friends of the Soviet Union (SAFSU) in 1946. Though SAFSU was largely composed of communists, Thompson never became a member in the organisation. Later he joined the South African Peace Council (SACP) which he chaired briefly. Consequently, as a member in various organizations and SACP, he travelled abroad to the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc and Budapest. In 1953 Thompson spoke at a memorial service held in honour of Stalin at the Soviet Consulate in Johannesburg.

Thompson was involved in activities of the Congress of the Democrats (COD), the Penal Reform League and the Child Welfare. He was also an ardent supporter of the Freedom Charter and was the chairman of the Witwatersrand Mental Health Society for ten years and active in other welfare bodies.

On 26 June 1955 the second day of the meeting of the Congress of the People, he was scheduled to give a talk in Kliptown, but the meeting was disrupted and stopped by the security police. Later, Thompson was arrested and became part of the group that was accused of treason in the 1956 Treason Trial. He was one of the first of Treason Trialists to be released. He was banned for five years in 1962 to 1967.  

On the eve of the Sharpeville shootings Thompson liaised with the Treason Trial Fund on behalf of thirty two accused people. On 30 March 1960, Godfrey, Thompson’s son, who was in London at the time, wrote to his parents informing them that financial support from Christian Aid would soon be sent. As a result of this appeal Thompson was arrested and detained and by the time his son’s response arrived he was in detention. During his detention he was denied a telephone request to his lawyer presumably because of the state of emergency regulations. Consequently, he went on a hunger strike for three days.

Thompson was transferred to the Fort Prison in Johannesburg on 5 April where he was placed with two other white prisoners, Vic Goldburg who was a COD member and Vincent Swart, a supporter of the Liberal Party. On the 8 April, Thompson was transferred to cell 39 with another COD member, Louis Baker and Swart.

Eventually, his wife May and daughter Gwen were finally permitted to see him in prison on 20 April 1960. Shortly afterwards White prisoners at the Fort Prison were relocated to Pretoria Local Prison. In contrast with the Fort Prison, cells at the Pretoria Local Prison were much cleaner and the quality of food was also much better. Prisoners were allowed to order food from the prisoner officers’ cafeteria. An account, which was run by Ernie Wentzel, was available where detainees could deposit money so that they could purchase food from the canteen.

On 17 May, a Security Branch colonel informed prisoners that they would be detained until 28 March 1961, unless it was decided by the State that they should be released earlier. Thompson wrote a letter appealing for prisoners to be released. On May 31 1960, Ronnie Fleet and Mark Nye two of the prisoners were released.

Then on 29 June Mike Muller and John Lang released. Louis Baker was released the following day. Issy Heyman, Cecil Williams, Harold Wolpe, Vincent Swart, Ernie Wentzel, Raymond Thoms and more, were the next to be released. The following day, Willy Kalk and John Brink were also released. Then on 6 July Vic Syoret was freed. Mannie Brown, Eli Weinber, Percey Cohen, Archie Levitan and Vic Goldberg were the next prisoners to be released. The remaining White detainees were Thompson, Leon Levy, Rusty Bernstein and Joe Slovo.

On the 22 March Thompson was released.

Thompson died in 1985. 


References:
• Eagan, A. 2009. Detention without trial: the experience of the reverend Douglas Thompson African state of emergency, 1960. [online], Available at uir.unisa.ac.za[Accessed 21 November 2012]
• Pickover, M. 2006. The Rev. Douglas Chadwick Thompson papers. In Historical Papers, [online] Available at www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za[Accessed 05 November2012]

Last updated : 11-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 28-Mar-2013