Born on 17 August 1910 in Roodepoort, Percy John ‘Jack’ Hodgson was the eldest son of three children born to Jessy (nee Turner) and Percy John Hodgson. An immigrant from Yorkshire, Jack’s father died in a mine accident. Having to fend for herself and the children as a waitress, Jessy was just able to retain her baby daughter, Doreen, having to place Jack (aged 4) and his brother George in an orphanage until she remarried a few years later.
Together with many of his black revolutionary contemporaries, Hodgson experienced the hardship of poverty from an early age and gained a deep appreciation of oppression, as a result of which he became a great teacher contributing to the nucleus around which Umkhonto we Sizwe units were later established.
At the age of 13, Hodgson started work as a butcher’s apprentice. He became a professional “runner” in the Lichtenburg diamond rush at the age of 17. Later, he became a mineworker on the reef where he worked 16-hour shifts during the depression years until he was blacklisted for his early attempts to organise workers. Jack found work in the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia, where, together with Roy Welensky, he helped to found the first mineworkers union and organised the white mineworkers strike of 1938.
Endeavouring to return to Northern Rhodesia from a brief holiday with his first wife Peggy and their 3 children, Jack found himself declared a prohibited immigrant. In 1940 he joined the army to fight the war against fascism and in 1941 he joined the Communist Party of South Africa. In North Africa he served as a sergeant in the “Desert Rats”, an irregular armoured car unit moving behind enemy lines on reconnaissance in the Western Desert and attached to the 8th army.
As a member of the Communist Party, Hodgson played a leading role in the formation of the Springbok Legion, a militant union of soldiers and ex-servicemen which was launched in the same year to ensure that the ex-soldiers of this war were not betrayed like their predecessors after World War I and that the aims of the anti-fascist struggle were carried over into civilian life in post-war South Africa. The Legion recruited both black and white servicemen and women on the front and at home.
Hodgson went through some terrible experiences while under fire in the desert war and his health was so severely damaged that, after a long spell in military hospital, he was invalided out with a permanent disability pension in 1943. This marked the beginning of a 35-year struggle with ill health. (The pension was withdrawn later by the Nationalist Government and restored to his wife after the democratic election of 1994.)
Upon discharge from the army, Hodgson became National Secretary of the Springbok Legion (1943 -1952) and in the course of his organising work, met his wife Rica with whom he shared his life and contribution to the struggle until his death in 1977. The Legion fought against the rise of fascism in South Africa in the form of Afrikaner nationalism and engaged fierce battles to defend the right to hold meetings on the Johannesburg City Hall steps. As National Secretary, Hodgson led the Legion’s campaign against the Nationalist Party in the 1948 election and its subsequent policies, and was party to the Torch Commando campaigns of the early 1950’s protesting the unconstitutional Separate Representation of Voters Bill, which sought to remove the coloured voters from the main voters roll in the Cape. In 1952, as National Secretary, Hodgson campaigned for a national standstill of all commerce, industry and agriculture so that the National Party Government would be forced to call an early general election.
In 1953, Hodgson was a founder member and first National Secretary of the Congress of Democrats (CoD), aligning white progressives in the mainstream Congress Alliance led by the African National Congress. Listed in 1951 in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, he was served banning orders in November 1953, which restricted him from public gatherings and membership of some 20 organisations. From this time onwards, together with many others, he was forced to adopt covert methods to continue the struggle. On his banning Hodgson established a business making jewellery boxes and children’s toys on the same floor and directly opposite the offices of CoD. This business enabled him to remain on the spot and also provided cover to two other banned comrades, Elias Motsoaledi and John Motshabi.
Along with 156 others, Hodgson was arrested and charged in the Treason Trial of 1956. In the 1960 State of Emergency, he avoided detention after being instructed to flee with others to Swaziland. His wife, Rica, was detained and spent 3 months in prison.
Perhaps the most crucial role he was called on to perform, was that of helping to organise and train the cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe, a task that absorbed all his attention not only in South Africa but also abroad when he and his wife, Rica, were instructed to leave the country in 1963 after being placed under house arrest the year before.
Hodgson was a founder member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and a member of the Johannesburg High Command. His military experience and knowledge of explosives, gleaned from his mining days, enabled him to develop the bombs and timing devices used in the Sabotage Campaign and to train MK cadres ahead of its launch on December 16, 1961.
In this period, under the alias of John Watson, Jack travelled around the country to meet with MK units and to deliver the explosives produced in the Hodgson’s small Hillbrow flat. Prior to this, Hodgson together with Nelson Mandela and other MK cadres tested the first bomb at a brickyard outside Johannesburg. Also during this period, he played a role in the security arrangements for Madiba, who was then the Black Pimpernel, as well as other members of the High Command, securing safe meeting venues and transport.
Introduction in 1963 of the 90-day detention provisions effectively enabled the apartheid regime to detain political opponents indefinitely and a protracted struggle became inevitable. Hodgson was instructed to leave the country and he and Rica illegally crossed into Bechuanaland to set up a transit centre in Lobatsi. There they took up the option of a farm where MK cadres from home could be sent over the border to be trained and returned to South Africa. Hodgson’s stay in Bechuanaland was short-lived. After refusing to sign an undertaking not to be involved in politics he fought to resist deportation in a legal battle that attracted international attention causing some embarrassment to the British Government. In September 1963, he was declared a prohibited immigrant and deported to London together with Rica.
In 1964 Hodgson was one of the co-conspirators listed in the indictment of the Rivonia trial. In the same year he left for Moscow to receive specialist training in secret work. He returned to London in 1965 and set up a workshop producing false passports, letter bombs and fake suitcase bottoms used to smuggle covert material to South Africa. From 1966 to 1976 he, together with Yusuf Dadoo, Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils were part of a special committee to develop underground activities in South Africa from the United Kingdom. Throughout this time he continued to impart both military and underground skills to an entire generation of combatants. Just after the 1969 Morogoro Conference, ANC President, Oliver Tambo, addressed a personal note of thanks to Hodgson for “”¦the most inspiring results of three weeks of gruelling work put in by you and Ronnie”¦ Now we must press on. All of us have to live up to the standard you have set, and I intend it should be so on all fronts, by all departments.” (see letter transcribed below)
Following his death in London on December 03, 1977, the Star newspaper (December 09) in South Africa reported the chief of security police, Brigadier C F Zietsman as saying that “many saboteurs who entered South Africa had been through the hands of Jack Hodgson. This, ”¦ was one way in which Hodgson remained active in undermining South Africa after he fled the country in 1963”¦. One of those trained by him was Ahmed Timol” who plunged to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square while in police custody.
At a memorial service held on December 17, 1977, leaders of the Communist Party, The South African Congress of Trade Unions and the African National Congress paid tribute to Hodgson’s indomitable courage and unfailing optimism that inspired all who knew and worked with him.
Jack is survived by his wife Rica, their son Spencer; children from his first marriage, Dawn, John, Jacqueline - and their families.