This article was written by Ben Forstate and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship
Michael Guthrie Scott was born on 30 July 1907 in the village of Lowfield Heath, Sussex. The youngest of three brothers, Scott was somewhat of a disappointment to his mother who had wanted a daughter. In 1911, his father, an Anglican Priest, was transferred to a new parish in Northam, a slum of the English shipping city of Southampton. Throughout his childhood, Scott was well aware that while he was not well off, the moderate pension his father received allowed the family to lead a lifestyle radically different from that of his father’s parishioners. He noted that many children went without shoes, even in the winter, and that during the winter, when the tides came in and flooded the low-lying slum, families of ten were reduced to living in attics.
Especially traumatic for Scott, was the periodic sexual abuse he received at the hands of his primary school headmaster. He regarded the headmaster, also an Anglican priest, as a man of faith, but also someone he learned to fear. Scott would later recount how he became extremely confused and upset due to his inability to differentiate the love and attention shown to him by his parents from the unwanted attention forced upon him by the headmaster. Unwilling to tell his parents, Scott would internalize this issue and try to erase the experience from his memory.
Scott’s anxiety over his life in Northam led to his first crisis of faith, or what he later termed, “The Question.” (Scott, 58) “The Question,” which would eventually come to define Scott’s later life, originally revolved around the dichotomy between his lessons in Church about Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and tolerance and the reality of his abuse and life in the slums. Essentially, he tried to understand how God could continuously ignore suffering.
Athletic, smart, and handsome, Scott excelled in school and was determined to gain acceptance to Cambridge University to study medicine. His plans crumbled in 1926 when, during his final year of schooling, Scott developed severe pains in his stomach and was rushed to the hospital. After an emergency surgery to remove his gall bladder, the doctors found signs of an early tuberculosis infection and advised him to travel to Leysin, Switzerland and partake in a “sun-cure.” In 1927, he achieved full recovery, but was warned by doctors that returning to England’s cool climate could potentially cause him to relapse. Therefore, acting on the invitation of the Archdeacon of Cape Town, the brother of one of his father’s parishioners, he boarded a ship to South Africa.
After arriving in Cape Town, Scott proceeded to Faure, near Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, where the Archdeacon ran a colony for recovering lepers. Here, he spent his time aiding the Archdeacon in the church and volunteering in the community. Frustrated by the lepers’ plight and prodded on by “The Question,” Scott decided to enrol in St. Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown. It was during breaks from this institution that Scott traveled around the country and began to see firsthand the Union Government’s attempts to entrench racial separation and the efforts by various priests to use religion as a tool to confront these actions.
By 1929, he had returned to England and enrolled in the Chichester Theological College in Sussex. In 1930, he completed his studies and was ordained as a priest. In 1932, after a stint in a rural parish in Sussex, Scott was transferred to the Parish of St. Stephen’s in Kensington, an upscale district in West London. The seeming disconnect between Scott’s parishioners and the increasingly dire events taking place in Europe would convince him that the church, as an institution, was fundamentally flawed. In his view, there were two churches; the church as a divine sanction of the status quo, and the church as the divine instrument of change. In 1933, desiring to find a community in need of change, Scott transferred to the Parish of All Souls in Lower Clapton, East London.
The Great Depression had caused widespread upheaval in the slums as thousands surged into London looking for work. Desiring stability in the midst of chaos, many turned to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. It was Scott’s opposition to Fascism, more than anything else, which drove him to support the Communist Party. He admired the Communist Party’s impoverished members and their “courage and self-sacrifice” in standing up to tyranny (Scott, 1958). Though he made several high-ranking contacts, his commitment to Christianity meant he was never able to fully commit to the party. In 1935, he applied for work as a missionary and in 1937 arrived in India.
While working for the Anglican Church, first in Bombay and later in Calcutta, Scott was keenly aware of the ongoing independence movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi felt that the only way towards full sovereignty was through non-violence, a lesson Scott would take to heart.
Returning to England in 1939, during the outbreak of World War II, Scott decided to join the R.A.F. not as a chaplain, but as a pilot. Scott’s reasoning behind this move was that he felt that he could not use religion to persuade men to go off to war. After 12 months in training, he experienced another bout of stomach pain and was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. This diagnoses subsequently led to his discharge from the R.A.F.
In 1943, his love for the land and people of South Africa led him to return.In South Africa he was assigned by the South African Church Institute to become an Assistant Priest at the Pretoria Native Mission. After serious disagreements with the Senior Priest on issues of African rights, he approached the Bishop of Johannesburg, Geoffrey Clayton, for a transfer. Scott was hereafter assigned to St. Alban’s Coloured Mission just outside Sophiatown.
During World War II, Johannesburg rapidly industrialized. As new factories opened and pass laws were relaxed, rural blacks poured in from the countryside, drawn to the city like a magnet. Political deadlock and departmental confusion led to delays in housing delivery, and the African designated Townships became dangerously overcrowded. Fed up with waiting, bands of people began to leave the Townships and set up “squatter settlements” on their edges.
Quickly moving to address what he found to be the root cause of these issues, racist legislation, Scott set up what would become the Campaign for Rights and Justice (CRJ). The CRJ had three goals: the first was the full and direct representation of all sections of the community, the second was the abolition of legislation that discriminated on the grounds of color, sex and race and the third was the provision of land for the landless peoples of South Africa and the provision of assistance in obtaining the fullest use from it.
The CRJ placed Scott in direct opposition to the Church establishment and the South African government. However, the organization proved, in the short term, to be successful in facilitating cross-cultural dialogue and producing new, innovative government policy proposals. Throughout 1944 and 1945, the CRJ was able to continuously put pressure on the government to back down on its increasingly conservative racial policies.Unfortunately, as the 1946 elections drew near, the divergent desires of its constituents caused the committee to grind to a halt and eventually collapse.
At the same time the CRJ was imploding, the South African Government passed the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, commonly called the “Ghetto Act.” Building on the 1943 Pegging Act , which had restricted the sale of property to Indians, the Representation Act increased these restrictions to all areas save those specifically reserved for Indian use. In Durban where Indians numerically equaled whites, this set off a wave of disruptions.
In June, Scott accepted an invitation from the Natal based Council for Human Rights to observe and publicize the protests, and decided to drive down to the coast. Scott was excited for the trip because he had learned through his friend Yusuf Dadoo, President of the Transvaal Indian Congress, that the protests were being organized along Gandi’s Satyagraha, principle of non-violent resistance. This would be the first time Scott would see Satyagraha in use.
When Scottarrived, he watched, as the protestors would try to peacefully occupy a small piece of triangular land, only to be beaten back by a waiting gang of white youths. Unable to resist, Scott joined in. He stood his ground with the protestors as they were continuously beaten, arrested, and released. On July 19, Scott was yet again arrested, but instead of being released on bail, was charged with four counts of trespass, one count of riotous assembly and was sentenced to three months in jail. Unintentionally, he became an international celebrity, winning praise as a defender of human rights. At the same time, through his dissent, he made himself a target of the South African government.
Upon being released from jail and his return to Johannesburg, Scott found that Bishop Clayton, infuriated by his actions, had stripped him of his fixed position in the church. Unable to secure a salaried position, he became a “freelance” preacher. After living with his friends the Levsons, Scott turned to the only place he knew his services would be accepted and needed, the squatter camps.
Of all the squatter camps in Johannesburg, Tobruk, settled by Black veterans of the North African Campaign, was considered the worst. Scott went to the 'Tobruk' Squatter Camp at the invitation of the African Section of the Springbok Legion in December 1947, for the beginning of his six-month odyssey, he found that the settlement had deteriorated into abject squalor. Scott would attempt what no white man in South Africa had tried before - integrate himself into a squatter settlement.
At first, Scott camped with Samuel Komo, the settlement’s unofficial “administrator.” Scott detested the methods of intimidation, extortion, and violence Komo and his “police” used to run the camp and challenged him for leadership. Scott was briefly successful in forcing Komo to leave. Komo later returned and attempted to kill Scott by setting fire to the church in which he was now lodging. While searching for new accommodations, Scott briefly took up residence with Nelson Mandela. Scott spent the remainder of his time in the settlement trying to contain a smallpox epidemic and arguing with his friend, fellow priest, and eventual radical, Trevor Huddleston. In a series of letters, they clashed over the Church’s, and by extension Scott’s, mission in Tobruk. Specifically, they argued over Scott’s attempt to give the Sacrament to members of a non-affiliated Anglican church in the camp.
In the summer of 1947, Scott was arrested for violating the Native Urban Areas act., and forced to leave the settlement. Almost immediately afterwards, The Guardian, a left leaning newspaper in Johannesburg, asked Scott to investigate potential human rights abuses in the Eastern Transvaal farming community of Bethal. Setting out along with a photographer, a young Ruth First, he discovered the conditions under which the farm workers labored were near slave like.
Employing migrant workers from Nyasaland, the farmers would exploit the new arrivals complete lack of legal protection and unfamiliarity with the country to force them into long-term contracts. These contracts bound the workers to arduous hours with little pay and extremely poor living conditions. Scott found that the workers were often beaten and at night were locked into small prison like compounds. When the Rand Daily Mail published his exposé, there was an immediate uproar. Scott was subsequently called back to Bethal for a mass meeting where he was shouted down by insults and eventually escorted from the hall by police, as the assembly grew violent.
That fall, Scott was asked by his friend, Tshkedi Khama, regent of the Bamangwato Tribe, to come to Bechuanaland and make the acquaintance of Frederick Mahareru, the paramount chief of the Herero. Mahareru, impressed by Scott’s work in South Africa, asked him to champion the Herero’s cause at the United Nations. Khama’s reasoning behind this move was that if South Africa were allowed to annex South West Africa, he believedBechuanaland would be next. Mahareru, on the other hand, feared that if annexation occurred the Herero’s entire way of life would go extinct.
After South West Africa became a German colony in the late 1800s, the Herero were driven further and further off their traditional grazing lands. In 1904 after refusing to submit to German law and relinquish further lands, they rebelled. In response to this, the colonial army under General Trotha launched a genocidal campaign to wipe the tribe out of existence. In the space of a few short months, over 60,000 Hereros were killed. While some died in internment camps, the majority perished trying to escape into the Kalahari Desert.
Following World War I, South West Africa was put under the League of Nations Mandate system and turned over to South Africa. While the stated goal of the system was for the South African government to prepare SWA for independence, by 1947, it appeared that South Africa did not intend to do so. The Government had a stake in SWA’s strategic mineral reserves and was keen to bolster the Mandates’ relatively large white minority. In order to annex the mandate, the SWA government, backed by the South Africans, ordered a referendum concerning the incorporation of the Mandate into South Africa.
According to the Herero, the referendum had a number of flaws. First, it was presented as a choice between remaining in the British Empire or existing outside the Commonwealth as a Mandate. The Herero took this to mean that a yes vote would allow them to gain equal membership in the Commonwealth, free from South African Governance. The second issue was that many of the chiefs were actually employed by the local government and were easily coerced into signing documents pledging their support behind incorporation. There was no doubt in Mahareru’s mind that the referendum was not legal under international law.Further, he felt if no action were taken, the Herero that were left in SWA and penned in to reserves, would be further marginalized and cease to exist altogether.
Taking action immediately, Scott traveled to Windhoek and spent the rest of 1947 and early 1948 traveling amongst the remaining Herero in South West Africa.Scott devoted his time to gathering the Herero’s opinions. The tribe’s opinions would then be synthesized intoa petition that he would present to the United Nations in the fall. The Herero were adamant that South Africa be stripped of any authority over the territory and that the tribe should determine the fate of their own country. Another project that came out of this period was the preliminary filming for Civilization on Trial, Scott’s movie about living conditions in South West Africa. Civilization on Trial is considered the world’s first protest film.
Scott’s first trip to the United Nations began slowly. Jan Smuts had been an architect of the organization and most of the nations were inclined to give South Africa whatever it wanted. Scott worked behind the scenes lobbying delegates from the developing world to push the issue. These efforts would culminate in August of 1949, when Scott, became the first individual citizen to speak on behalf of a country, presenting his petition and delivering a hugely successful speech condemning South Africa’s actions in SWA.
In between these sessions, Scott undertook what would become his last trip to South Africa. In 1948 he returned to Windhoek to re-establish contact with the tribe and to update them on his UN mission. Having been repeatedly denied permits to organize a meeting, he camped in a dry riverbed for two months and spent nights waiting for messengers to relay his news. Exhausting all his legal avenues, Scott left for Johannesburg.
Scott spent his last year in South Africa trying to convey to the general populace the extent to which South Africa’s racial policies were tarnishing its international image. In the wake of riots between Durban’s African and Indian communitiesin Cato Manor, Scott presided over the opening session of “Votes for All” People’s assembly. This assembly was an attempt by the Indian and African congresses to build cooperation and respect, but was marred by the refusal of many senior ANC members to attend any conference that was not headed by an ANC party member. For Scott, the ANC’s inability to present a united front against Apartheid was extremely upsetting.This slight would lead to Scott’s longstanding distrust of the ANC. Instead, Scott would focus his attentions on the ANC’s rival, the Pan-African Congress (PAC.) The PAC was an organization Scott found to be both less violent and more in tune with his own personal opinions.
Later that year, Scott was asked by the executive members of the Lekhotla la Bafo (Council of Commoners), a small resistance movement in Basutoland, to come to the Territory and defend them against murder charges. The executive council had been charged with setting fire to the Roma Mission College thereby causing the death of four African Children. Further, they had reason to believe that the fire had been caused by the South African staffed police as part of a plot to discredit the organization and to squash resistance to the South Africa’s plans to annex the Territory.
As Scott’s investigation grew more extensive, he realized that the Lekhotla la Bafo case was just one in a series of many designed to undermine Basutoland’s local leadership. In addition to the Lakhotla la Bafo, Scott discovered that over sixty people, including tribal chiefs, were on death row, charged with ritual murder and cannibalism. Many explanations for these actions were offered, including increased intertribal competition and the blending of Christian belief in the sacrament with older tribal tradition. The convicted, however, insisted that South African authorities were digging up and dismembering the bodies in order to frame the local leadership. Moreover, they insisted this was done so the South Africans could build a road between the Transvaal and Natal through tribal territory. While Scott was successful in freeing the Lekhotla la Bafo, he felt that there was not enough evidence to pursue a case regarding the ritual murder trials. Therefore, he chose not to pursue the matter any further and many of the accused were executed.
After Scott’s second trip to the UN, he chose to return to London and find a base from which he could lobby the British Government. Taking up with the Friends International Society, he began a series of speaking engagementswhile making a number of contacts within the British government. In 1951, after a three year absence from South Africa, the government was able to declare him a prohibited immigrant, thus ensuring he would never step foot in the country again.
In 1952, Scott would meet two people who would have a profound impact on his life. The first was David Astor (second son of Lord Waldorf and Nancy Astor) Editor of the British newspaper 'The Observer' who befriended Michael. In Scott, Astor saw a man who could shed light on even the most obscure issues and who was committed to convincing Britain to begin the process of granting its African colonies independence. Together, the two men set up the Africa Bureau, an organization dedicated to providing accurate reports on Britain’s Colonies to its citizens, opposing discrimination where it would raise its head, and championing self-government.
The second person Scott met was Mary Benson, the future biographer of Nelson Mandela, with whom Scott maintained a personal relationship. Benson, well travelled and a former captain in the South African Defence Forces, originally applied to be Scott’s personal secretary. In this capacity, she succeeded at organizing Scott’s notoriously disorganized life and advocating in his place when he was away at the United Nations. As their relationship matured and deepened, Benson began to broach the idea of marriage, but was repeatedly rebuffed by Scott. Though he loved her, the trauma of his childhood abuse prevented him from truly trusting anyone. Eventually, Mary would leave Scott for good, returning to South Africa in 1955.
In l997, interviewed on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) programme 'Desert Island Discs’ Benson mentioned how deeply she was in love with someone during the War but he was married to a Catholic so divorce unlikely and he returned to his wife. She then told of falling in love with the idea of Michael and his work through reading an Observer 'profile'. When asked if she came to fall in love with the reality, she replied "I suppose I did in a way, I would see later it was part of my teenage idolising of movie stars". We had a long and caring relationship. In time, when my lodger left, he joined me for many happy years at my London flat in the house of mutual friends. I was with him when he died there after a short illness in September l983. [Lorna Richmond - email to SAHO - Dated 23 October 2015]
In the name of promoting self-governance, one of the first issues the African Bureau campaigned against was the forthcoming Central African Federation (CAF). The Central African Federation was an attempt by the British government to combine the white settler governed colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland into a single entity. The CAF would ensure that Britain’s influence in the region was secure and that South Africa’s attempts to annex these colonies would be checked. For Scott and the Africa Bureau, the CAF looked like another attempt to entrench white rule.
In Nyasaland, which before the federation had only a few thousand white settlers, local chiefs conducted much of the village level governance. In April, Scott traveled to the colony and began to drum up local resistance to CAF by meeting with each chief and convincing them to engage in a campaign of passive resistance. Eventually Scott managed to convince 83 chiefs to join the resistance. By then the white authorities, recognizing the severity of the situation began to arrest the leaders of the movement. When they came to arrest Scott’s host, Philip Gomani the Paramount Chief of the Angoni, a scuffle ensued and Gomani was secreted out of the village and across the border to Mozambique. Following this incident Scott was promptly deported.
Another important case that would come to Scott’s attention involved his old friend Tshekedi Khama, the Regent Bamangwato. Tshekedi’s nephew Seretse had married a white woman while studying at Oxford. This not only angered his uncle, but also caused political infighting amongst members of the tribe. Moreover, South Africa, about to introduce the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, fumed to the British Government and insisted that action be taken against Seretse. Britain, bowing to pressure exiled both Tshekedi and Seretse to London. After arriving, the two were taken in by the Africa Bureau while Scott worked to lobby the British government to lift their exile. Scott used his contacts to sway the government’s opinion and the British government relented. The two returned to Bechuanaland, and in 1966, Seretse would become the first president of independent Botswana.
Scott would spend the rest of the fifties traveling between the UN and London raising awareness on SWA and working for the Africa Bureau. In 1958, he would publish his autobiography A Time to Speak and in 1960 hone his skills as a protestor by becoming a founder of the Committee of 100. The Committee used “positive resistance,” defined as intentional breaking of unjust laws, to march against Britain’s pursuit of the atomic bomb. In 1962, Scott decided to take his model of positive-resistance to Africa.
This new development would take the form of the Peace Brigades. The Brigades were to be a non-violent army composed of youth from around the world, assembled to march against injustice. Working with Kenneth Kaunda, then the leader of Northern Rhodesia’s main black opposition party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP), Scott organized a “freedom march” against the Central African Federation. The plan was for Kaunda to call for a general strike in Northern Rhodesia while WPB volunteers crossed the border from Tanganyika. Their actions were meant to put pressure on the CAF and British governments. By mid-March over 5,000 volunteers had assembled in Dar es Salaam waiting for Kaunda to begin the strike. However, indecisiveness in UNIP over the necessity of the march, lead to a political stalemate and eventually most of the potential protestors demobilized themselves. The absences caused by his dedication to the WPB informed his decision to step down from his post as the Africa Bureau’s Honorary Director.
In 1964, Scott was invited by the General Secretary of the Nagaland Church Council, as part of a Peace Mission, to come to Nagaland and negotiate a cease-fire between his people and the Indian government. The Naga, a hill tribe in India’s far east had been promised increased sovereignty by both the British and Gandhi, but after Gandhi’s death found themselves trapped against their will in an independent India. Since that time, the Naga had instigated a guerrilla war that was coming close to ripping ethnically factitious India apart. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised Scott that if the mission could achieve a 'cessation of operations' he would preside over a conference to include the Naga 'underground'. News of a ceasefire reached Delhi the day Nehru died and, in a second sad setback, his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died suddenly in Tashkent having come to some agreement with the Russians. His last known words were "Now we must go and do the same with the Nagas".
Later, amid increasing tension, the other two members of the Peace Mission (Jayprakash Narayan and the Chief Minister of Assam) resigned leaving Scott in an untenable position. By May, when Scott convinced the two sides to sit down for negotiations, he had travelled, primarily by foot, over 5000 miles and met tribes who had, up until that point, never been contacted by the outside world. By 1966, the talks had become bogged down in issues of Naga sovereignty. This matter was further complicated by the election of Indira Gandhi, whose stance against Naga independence produced a great deal of tension amongst those leading the negotiation. Scott’s attempt to intervene on behalf of the Naga angered Indira who promptly exiled him.
Almost immediately, he received a deportation order, the Indian Government having decided his presence sustained Naga resistance to India's will. Cyril Dunn headed his Observer report 'India turns on its Hero'. However, when the cease-fire ended there was no return to large scale violence. Dr. Aram in his book 'Peace in Nagaland’, though not without some criticism, thought on the whole both Nagaland and India had much to thank him for. [Lorna Richmond - email to SAHO - Dated 23 October 2015]. Since that time, the Naga had instigated a guerilla war that was coming close to ripping ethnically factitious India apart. Scott’s mission in Nagaland can only be described as treacherous. By May, when Scott convinced the two sides to sit down for negotiations, he had traveled, primarily by foot, over 5000 miles and met tribes who had, up until that point, never been contacted by the outside world. By 1966, the talks had become bogged down in issues of Naga sovereignty. This matter was further complicated by the election of Indira Gandhi, whose stance against Naga independence produced a great deal of tension amongst those leading the negotiation. Scott’s attempt to intervene on behalf of the Naga angered Indira who promptly exiled him.
In 1969, Scott made his last large scale attempt at creating a dialogue with South Africa, the Mindolo Plan. Drawing on his friendship with Kenneth Kaunda, now President of Zambia, and Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania, Scott proposed that the two countries should enter into a “dialogue without pre-conditions” with the new South African Premier B.J. Vorster . The meeting was to take place in the remote Mindolo Ecumenical Centre. Neither the leaders nor the Africa Bureau were receptive to this, both fearing that the South African government would use the meeting to their advantage, further feeding into the Apartheid propaganda machine. By September of that year, both Kaunda and Nyerere had backed off and the plan collapsed.
By 1971, the UN had decided to recognize SWAPO as the official representative of Namibia at the United Nations. Scott found himself increasingly marginalized. In 1973 he organized the “Study Project on External Investment in South Africa and Namibia” a project intended to expose British and American companies who had invested heavily in South Africa. The project eventually unraveled because there appeared to be no definite end-point. Scott would spend the rest of the decade advocating for the Herero. As his health declined, Scottentered a state of semi-retirement in London, including occasional trips to the UN. In 1982, he made his last appearance at the United Nations. He died on 14 September1983, in London.
Michael Scott spent a great deal of his life fighting racial segregation and later apartheid in South Africa. The wider colonial society that included South Africa, India, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia meant that he could not turn a blind eye to the experiences of communities in these colonies. In addition to his struggles against British colonial authorities and later apartheid government, Scott also became involved in the struggles of the Herero tribe in South West Africa (SWA) (now Namibia). For much of the 20th century, SWA was administered by South Africa as a Mandate of the League of Nations and later of the United Nations.
Michael Scott’s, at first, lonely, long and valiant role at the United Nations and elsewhere on behalf of the Herero’s and other tribes in South West Africa (SWA – now Namibia) should never be forgotten. Without it, during apartheid, the erstwhile League of Nations Mandated Territory could have been quietly incorporated as a fifth province of the Union of South Africa (now Republic of South Africa), against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants.
A prominent road in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, has been named after him. In l992, Archbishop Desmond Tutu dedicated a small window in a church, St. Pancras, Kingston-near-Lewes in Sussex, England.
The Reverend Michael Scott's ashes are buried in this churchyard.