A tireless advocate for justice and equality in South Africa, the United Kingdom (UK), and all over the world, Babette Brown was born in 1931 in Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng), the daughter of Annie and Lipman Kotkin (who were cousins). Her mother arrived in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape) in 1903 on a ‘poor ship’ from Lithuania, escaping the Russian pogrom against the Jews. After living in District Six for some years, she moved to Johannesburg where she would marry Babette’s father who worked in the coal delivery business.

Brown attended Parktown High School for Girls in Johannesburg before going to the University of the Witwatersrand in 1948, where she completed a BA in Education. In 1953, she married Emanuel ‘Mannie’ Brown, a fellow teacher. The couple were founding members of the Congress of Democrats (COD). Mannie Brown was involved in planning and implementing the successful escape of four political detainees – Moosa Moolla, Harold Wolpe, Charlie Jassat, and Arthur Goldreich – from Marshall Square Police Station in Johannesburg on 11 August 1963, much to the apartheid government’s anger and embarrassment. As the police narrowed in on Mannie Brown, he was forced into hiding while Babette Brown left for exile with their four young children to escape arrest, settling in London, United Kingdom (UK). Her husband followed them later.

While teaching again, Brown soon realised that the same racism that she had fought in her home country was also prevalent in the UK. This was the awakening of a new goal – to fight the racism, sexism, and classism that was deeply entrenched in the British education system and wider society.

Brown completed a BA degree in Education and Sociology at Enfield Polytechnic (now Middlesex University), graduating in 1975. She started lecturing Nursery Nursing at Barnet College of Further Education (now Barnet and Southgate College).   In 1986, she launched an international charity organisation aimed at combating racism in schools, colleges, and universities called Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network (EYTARN). Through this, she remained a strong advocate for the anti-racism movement in the UK.

In recognition of her charity work, Brown was awarded the Guardian Jerwood Award in 1997. In 2000, she continued to be an active voice in the anti-racism and anti-bias movement by founding Persona Doll Training (PDT), a charity organisation intended to train teachers and early years practitioners how to use PDT’s unique life-size dolls to help children learn about empathy and challenge discrimination. Brown trained teachers, practitioners, and advisers in using Persona Dolls and the importance of anti-discrimination in many countries including Germany, Austria, Iceland, Estonia, New Zealand, and Australia. The organisation remains active throughout the world, particularly in South Africa and the UK.

In addition, Brown authored several books on promoting equality. These include Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years (1998), Combating Discrimination: Persona Dolls in Action (2001), and Equality in Action: A Way Forward with Persona Dolls (2008). Brown often wrote articles for Nursery World magazine and in 2014, she wrote and self-published Separation, a novel for teenage children that highlighted racism in apartheid South Africa.

Babette Brown died after a short illness on 10 February 2019 at the age of 87. At the news of her passing, former African National Congress (ANC) Minister, Ronnie Kasrils, said:

So many of us have loved her dearly, been inspired by her virtues, benefited from her friendship, kindness and generosity, and regarded her as a trailblazer in so many things – her stand against apartheid, racism and injustice of all kinds; her service to education and gender rights; her compassion for humanity. She is in our hearts and thoughts and will be remembered as a fine human being as a very dear friend (Kasrils in Nursery World, 2019).

Collections in the Archives