Sonny Salasa has given me permission to post the obituary on my blog:
Ronald John Britten, or Ronnie as he affectionately became known to family, friends and comrades, was born in 1928, at a turbulent and troubled time, when the repressive minority state was fine tuning its racial policies to divide and rule the South African people.
He grew up in Paarl, a small rural town near Cape Town in the heart of the wine lands of the Western Cape. Like many of his generation, Ronnie was politicised at an early age, doubtless due to the influence of his teachers, and later, by the contacts he made at the University of Cape Town, where he studied History. It was here that he made contact with and formed lifelong friendships with the leading left wing intellectuals and activists of the day.
This is not the time or place to analyse the ideological differences between the many groups involved in the South African liberation struggle at the time, except to understand the background to how Ronnie came to be in the organisation that he spent all his life promoting, viz. The Non-European Unity Movement or as it later became known, The Unity Movement of South Africa.
Arising out of the Smuts government’s decision to set up a Coloured Affairs Department to control the affairs of the so-called Coloured people (Coloured as opposed to Whites, Blacks and Indians) the New Era Fellowship, a cultural organisation formed in 1937, convened a meeting of all non-White organisations to discuss ways to oppose the Smuts proposals. Prominent intellectuals in the New Era Fellowship, were I.B. Tabata and Jane Gool. It was out of this meeting that an organisation called the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department or Anti-CAD was created.
Later, an organisation for Africans formed by I.B. Tabata in the 1930s, called the All African Convention joined with the Anti-CAD movement to form the Non-European Unity Movement in 1943 in an effort to unite all non-Whites in their fight against the government. It became the first organisation in South Africa to adopt the principle of non-racialism, rejecting the idea of racial difference, the keystone policy of the minority government. The NEUM’s Ten Point Programme outlined the basic demands for a democratic non-racial South Africa, and preceded the ANC’s Freedom Charter by some twelve years, a fact now forgotten by many.
From this rather sketchy historical background of mine, we can understand Ronnie’s profound abhorrence of racism in any form and his respect for all peoples whatever their background or social class. I use background and social class advisedly instead of race, colour or creed because Ronnie was not one who believed in the concept of race, colour or creed, and only saw people as human beings.
I have mentioned that Ronnie studied History at university. He spent all of his life teaching, in the classroom and out. He taught History at school in South Africa and in this country, and latterly was Head of History at Mountbatten School. More than most he was someone who had to understand why things were the way they were, for to him, “those who did not know history, risk repeating it.” But Ronnie was more than just a teacher. He was a mentor in the classical sense of the word, and felt it important to nurture the next generation of intellectuals especially those involved in politics.
He was an intellectually curious man who needed to understand and make sense of the complex world in which we live. I remember vividly an occasion when he dismissed pop music as an irrelevance. My partner, Bill, took it on himself to explain to Ronnie the origins of Punk music as a reaction to the artistic and financial exploitation of pop musicians by the record company moghuls. We were all highly amused, when after listening very carefully to Bill’s exposition, he excitedly exclaimed, “Now I understand it!”
I think Ronnie would have liked me to mention just a few names from the formative years of his life. Foremost, from his university days were Dr J.G. and Mrs Dora Taylor, both of them brilliant left wing intellectuals. The Taylors were the ones to offer him a home when he arrived in this country as an exile in 1964, and helped him in practical ways to find a job and somewhere to live.
Ronnie had a lifelong friendship with the founders and leaders of the Unity Movement, Mr I.B. Tabata and his partner Miss Jane Gool, who sometimes stayed with him and Crystal in Hemel Hempstead on their visits to the UK. They were his mentors, and he respected their intellects and their devotion to the struggle. In time, as Ronnie and Crystal became more settled, their home in turn became a meeting place and a safe house for many left wing intellectuals and exiles passing through this country.
Ronnie’s political activities in SA during the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s did not go unnoticed by the minority government’s security forces. Unlike his brother-in-law, Frank Anthony, who was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island, Ronnie was alerted to his own imminent arrest and was smuggled across the border with the police in hot pursuit. Suffering great hardship, he managed to travel to Ghana, where the first post-independence President, Kwame Nkrumah, who knew Mr Tabata well, and also happened to be sympathetic to the Unity Movement, gave him asylum. Unfortunately, within months of his arrival in Ghana, Nkrumah was deposed in a coup, and Ronnie had to leave Ghana, this time to seek asylum in this country (England).
Ronnie lived his life true to his political principles. He was a humane and empathic man whose feelings were with the downtrodden and oppressed. Like the oppressed peasants in the rural areas of South Africa, whom he and the Unity Movement, and its successor organisation, APDUSA (African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa) worked so hard to mobilise politically against the repressive forces of the State. I think Ronnie would forgive me when I say that he saw himself as one of those oppressed peasants. For him peasant was not a pejorative term, but defined a person’s position in relation to the land.
The garden of his parents’ house in Paarl, in which he worked physically to relax and alleviate the stress of his political work, was a refuge, which I know he missed in later years. He loved Nature, and I remember him well in the 70s and 80s digging his garden and allotment in Gadebridge to grow vegetables which he and Crystal deep froze for the winter months. Unfortunately, a torn ligament in his knee put paid to that, but he still found pleasure in walking in the woods at Ashridge, and latterly on the boat trips which Crystal organised on the canals near Hemel. It is sad that his ill health prevented us recently from celebrating his 84th birthday, and their wedding anniversary on such a trip.
Ronnie and Crystal were married for 50 years. Their relationship was more than a marriage. Apart from companionship and friendship, they respected and understood each other. They were like the two faces of the same coin. In the latter years when his memory began to fail, if asked a question, the response would invariably be, “Ask Crystal, she will know,” showing the depth of understanding and trust they had in each other.They shared the tasks of daily life equally, and brought up their only child, Ronald, in the same mould. People sometimes saw Ronnie as a bit serious and aloof, but he had a sense of humour, which Crystal with her sense of fun, could easily harness when he became too serious! So much so that family and friends would sometimes joke that she was the only person who knew how to deal with him!
A shy, quiet and modest man, Ronnie would have been embarrassed at being the centre of all this attention today. He disliked personality cults. The Unity Movement and APDUSA to which he gave his life, unlike the ANC with its Mandela cult, eschewed the cult of personality. It advocated collective leadership. Individuals did not matter. The struggle for liberation and democracy and the final goal of Socialism were all that mattered. Ronnie, my cousin, friend and comrade, lived by this ideal.
This obituary was delivered by Ronald Britten’s cousin, Sonny Salasa at the funeral on 11 July 2013.