Dorothy Mary Benson – known as Mary Benson – was born on 8 December 1919 in Pretoria, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng), where she received her early education. Born into the privileged world of servants and country clubs, Benson’s early ambitions were a far cry from where she would eventually end up.
The younger daughter of Cyril Benson, an Irish administrator of the Pretoria General Hospital (now the Steve Biko Academic Hospital), and Lucy Stubbs, a descendant of 1820 settlers in the now Eastern Cape Province, she grew up in a comfortable, happy home with all the racial prejudices of White South African of the time.
At around the age of eighteen, the young and ambitious Benson left her home in search of a career in film or the stage. In London, United Kingdom (UK), and California, United States of America (USA), she met many of the industry’s stars, but before she could find personal success, she was forced to return home due to the looming war. She briefly worked as a secretary in the British High Commission before joining the South African Women’s Army in 1941.
In 1942, Benson was stationed in Egypt. Her intelligence and hard-working attitude saw her being quickly promoted to Captain, serving as personal assistant (PA) to several British generals. Benson also served in Algeria, Italy, Greece, and Austria until 1945. After the war, Benson worked as a volunteer with displaced persons before returning to her passion for film. Seizing the opportunity, she again left for the USA in an attempt to start writing for the screen. It was during this time that she read Alan Paton’s celebrated novel, Cry, The Beloved Country in1948 and, deeply moved by it, wrote to Paton – marking the beginning of a life-long friendship and her rejection of the racial prejudices she had held since childhood.
Up until this point, Benson had never considered the plight of Black people in her country of birth but Paton’s novel opened her eyes to a reality that she had always been blind to. Hence, she discovered a new passion — to campaign for racial equality and fight against the injustices that plagued her home country.
With this new outlook, she left the USA and moved to London, where she attended a meeting addressed by an Anglican priest, Reverend Michael Scott (with whom she fell in love). She was immediately swayed and enthusiastically offered to assist wherever she could. So began a seven-year partnership, delaying her return to South Africa.
Rev Scott was, at this time, heavily involved in lobbying the United Nations (UN) on behalf of South West African (now Namibia) peoples, mainly the Nama and the Herero, who were opposed to the projected incorporation of their lands into South Africa. As Rev Scott’s assistant, she wrote, spoke, organised, and lobbied – her wartime experience and ‘way’ with people proving to be invaluable. Additionally, as Rev Scott’s health was extremely fragile, Benson often had to deputise.
In 1952, Benson, together with Rev Scott, helped found the Africa Bureau in London, subsequently acting as secretary for the body. Its intention was threefold: to inform the British public on African affairs, to enable African leaders to discuss their problems with colonial authorities, and to grow support for independence movements. She came to know many leading figures in the liberation movement and her tiny London apartment became an unofficial refuge for South Africans who were active in the liberation cause. On one particular evening in 1962, Benson heard a knock on her door and when she opened, Nelson Mandela was standing in front of her. She had been expecting Oliver Tambo and was surprised to see Mandela, who had illegally slipped out of South Africa on a mission to raise support in East and West Africa and had decided to make a quick trip to London. Benson later described how in 1996, Mandela (on another visit), paced up and down her apartment, bursting with new ideas.
He talked so excitedly and with such enthusiasm. It was unforgettable (Benson in Lyall, 2000).
Benson was actively involved in opposing British colonial policy in forming the Central African Federation (CAF) and in lobbying for reforms in the High Commission Territories (Basutoland (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and Swaziland – now Eswatini). When the exiled Tshekedi Khama (uncle to Seretse Khama) of the then Bechuanaland went to Britain in 1951 to negotiate for his return home, Benson acted as his secretary and he became the first Black African she had ever worked for. She came to know him very well and years later, after his death, she wrote his biography – Tshekedi Khama (1960).
Returning to South Africa in the mid-1950s (thus ending her partnership and deeply personal relationship with Rev Scott and the Africa Bureau), Benson was asked to take over the office of the Treason Trial Defence Fund in 1957, becoming secretary of the defence of Mandela and 155 others charged with treason for opposing apartheid laws. This allowed her to meet many of apartheid’s opponents and gain a first-hand insight into the conditions under which the majority of South Africans lived. Unfortunately, her deteriorating health meant that she was forced to resign and she was admitted to her father’s old hospital in Pretoria, where she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – a condition which she would live with for the rest of her life. Thus, she decided to turn her attention to writing.
When the African National Congress (ANC) was banned in 1960, Benson continued her support of its leaders. She visited Mandela when he was forced underground and even accompanied him in a car as he posed as her chauffeur.
The Treason Trial allowed Benson to meet many of the people who were involved in the liberation struggle and it is these connections that prompted her to embark on a project which had previously never been done before — recording the history of the ANC. She travelled all over the country, interviewing many of the members and leaders (such as Walter Sisulu, Mweli Skota, and Rev. James Calata), and gathered their life stories. The result was The African Patriots: The Story of the African National Congress of South Africa, published in 1963. She would later produce a second volume titled South Africa: The Struggle for a Birthright, which was published in 1966.
After Chief Albert Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (thus becoming Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) in 1960, Benson travelled to Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) to work as his secretary. In 1961, while he was underground, she had secret interviews with Mandela who was then known as the ‘Black Pimpernel’. In 1963, she became the first South African to testify before the United Nations (UN) to the Committee on Apartheid in the USA. She spoke about the evils of apartheid and the torture endured by political prisoners at the hands of the country’s racist policies. In doing so, she invited the wrath of the South African government. Undeterred, she travelled across South Africa, meeting numerous anti-apartheid leaders (such as the several secret meetings she had with Bram Fischer, who had also gone underground to continue with his anti-apartheid work). The next year, after the Rivonia arrests, Benson returned to the UN to testify, this time specifically about the political activists on trial – many of whom she knew.
After reporting on the numerous political trials that were followed by long prison terms for members of the ANC, she was consequently placed under house arrest, her passport was confiscated, and she was banned from all writing. Two years later in 1966, she was served with a banning order. Unable to move around the country, meet people, write or speak in public, Benson left the country. She would only return once, for a month in 1968 and under heavy restriction, to be with her father while he was dying.
Settling in London (where she would live in exile for more than twenty years), Benson devoted her time to writing and continued with her campaigning. Besides her two invaluable volumes on the history of the ANC (unique because she was able to interview many who are now late), she published her novel, At The Still Point (1969), an autobiography titled, A Far Cry: The Making of a South African (1989) in which she recounted how her early racial prejudices gave way to a complete abandonment of a White minority-ruled South Africa, and contributed to the publication edited by Marion Friedmann, I Will Still be Moved (1963). She also wrote biographies of Luthuli (Chief Albert Luthuli of South Africa – 1963), Mandela (Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement – 1986), and his then-wife Winnie Mandela (Part of My Soul Went with Him – 1984 – of which she adapted), written while Mandela was still serving his long prison sentence. Her history of the ANC and biography of Mandela were both banned in South Africa upon publication.
As a close friend of respected playwright, Athol Fugard, Benson also edited Fugard’s Notebooks 1960 - 1977 (1983) and wrote Athol Fugard and Barney Smith: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre (1997). Additionally, she wrote several documentaries and plays (therefore returning to her early love, albeit in an unexpected form) for radio, and regularly broadcast on political developments in South Africa. She never wavered from her commitment to the cause and Mandela.
In the years when newspapers and television did not like to be reminded of the man imprisoned on Robben Island, Mary never let them forget. Each year, on the anniversary of his imprisonment, she would phone them all again, shaming and cajoling them into doing something (Troup and Devenish, 2000).
Following the end of apartheid, Benson returned to South Africa as often as she could. On her 80th birthday, she received a special message from Mandela, thanking her for her friendship and all that she did for him and his family during the most challenging years of apartheid.
Dorothy Mary Benson died on 19 June 2000 in London at the age of 80. She never married and is survived by her sister.
- Los Angeles Times. (2000). Mary Benson; anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela biographer. [online]. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jun-23-me-43965-story.html. (Accessed on 10 February 2021)
- Lyall, S. (2000). Mary Benson, 80, who wrote of South Africa’s struggle. [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/22/arts/mary-benson-80-who-wrote-of-south-africa-s-struggle.html. (Accessed on 10 February 2021)
- Saunders, C. (2012). The ANC’s 100 years: some recent work on its history in historiographical context. [online]. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0018-229X2012000200013. (Accessed on 10 February 2021)
- Troup, F. and Devenish, R. (2000). Mary Benson. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/jun/22/guardianobituaries.nelsonmandela. (Accessed on 10 February 2021)