Billy Modise was born on 8 December 1930 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (now Free State Province). He received an Anglican scholarship which enabled him to enrol for his secondary school in Modeerport. The racial discrimination imposed by apartheid which forced black people and his personal experiences of racism served as a political awakening for Modise. Just after completing his matriculation, between 1950 and 1955 Modise worked at a wholesale store and later for a medical doctor named Dr van Aswegen to raise money to enable him to further his studies at university. In January 1955 he enrolled at the University of Fort Hare to study medicine. It was while he was on his way to Fort Hare that he resolved to join the African National Congress (ANC).
While at Fort Hare he contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to a hospital for six months. As a student at Fort Hare, he came into contact with Professor ZK Mathews and Govan Mbeki who inspired him to become politically active. He was elected as secretary of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) for the Fort Hare branch, and later served as secretary of the Student Representative Council. Modise also became a member of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) serving as an executive member. In 1959 he switched from studying medicine to a BA degree.
In January 1960 he was asked by NUSAS to attend a conference in Switzerland. He declined, fearing that applying for a passport would result in his arrest. The ANC advised him to leave the country. At the same time the Lund University Students Union in Sweden offered him a scholarship to go abroad and study medicine. Subsequently, a ticket for his travel from Accra, Ghana to London was organised by the British Students Union. He then left the country for Bechuanaland, (now Botswana) where he would board a chartered flight that transported South African ANC refugees from the then-Bechuanaland to Accra. He missed his flight and had to find a way to Tanzania where met Barbro Johansson, a Swedish missionary who facilitated the transfer of his ticket from Ghana to Tanzania.
While studying at Lund in Sweden, he began mobilising university student formations against Apartheid and networking on behalf of the ANC. He was a founder member of the South Africa Committee in Lund alongside Lars-Erik Johansson and Ulf Agrell. The Committee convened meetings, printed posters, pamphlets and lobbied parliamentarians to support the struggle against Apartheid. Due to the demands of political work, he gave up studying medicine and switched to Sociology. Modise met students from other liberation movements in Africa who were also studying at Lund, thus his work later extended to cover liberation movements from across Southern Africa. While mobilisation began only in one institution, between 1960 and 1972, it grew internationally with Modise travelling to mobilise people in Finland, Denmark and Norway to boycott South African products.
In 1966 the ANC Youth and Student Section (ANC YSS) was formed with Thabo Mbeki as leader in Britain. The ANC YSS had two main objectives: looking after the welfare of the ANC youth and mobilising youth against apartheid internationally. ANC YSS leaders would later play critical roles in the country’s transition to a democracy. They included Billy Modise, Joe Nhlanhla who would later become Mbeki’s first minister of intelligence and was the chair of the ASA in Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Jackie Selebi and many others.
In 1975, Modise went to New York, United States of America (USA) to work for Habitat, the United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Settlements. His role was preparing policy papers on issues of resettlement. Between 1976 and 1988, he worked as Assistant Director of the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia where he worked closely with Namibians, providing training in political science, sociology and on education. In 1988 he left the UN to work fulltime for the ANC. Subsequently, he was deployed in Sweden where he served as the ANC’s chief representative.
Modise returned to South Africa in 1991 and was deployed at Shell House, the ANC headquarters. He was tasked with heading the Matla Trust, which was established to prepare for the 1994 elections. After the first democratic elections, Modise was posted as South Africa’s high commissioner to Canada in 1995. He also served as the Chief of State Protocol from 1999 to 2006.
In 2008 Ambassador Modise received the Order of Luthuli – Silver Class from former President Thabo Mbeki for excellent contribution in the achievement of a South Africa free of racial oppression and contributing to the building of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. He also received the Premier’s Excellence Award from the Premier of the Free State for his contribution towards the liberation struggle and South Africa in general. In 2017, Modise was bestowed the Swedish Order of the Polar Star by the Swedish Ambassador to South Africa. Modise was a member of The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) Board of Trustees from 2007 until his passing in June 2018.
Billy Modise passed away in Gauteng on 20 June 2018.
The Presidency, Billy Modise (1930 ”“) The Order of Luthuli in Silver, from The Presidency, [online] Available at www.thepresidency.gov.za[Accessed 14 November 2012]|
Nordic Africa Institute, Billy Modise ANC””Student and Chief Representative to Sweden High Commissioner of South Africa to Canada, from the Nordic Documentation on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa, [online] Available at www.liberationafrica.se[Accessed 14 November 2012]|
Tribute to Ambassador Billy Modise, from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, [online] Available at www.dfa.gov.za[Accessed 14 November 2012]