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A tribute to dedicated ‘foot soldier’ Rica Hodgson

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NICOLA MILTZ

Hodgson, who was born Jewish and committed her life’s work to the cause of freedom, passed away on January 11 at the age of 97.

She was known by those close to her as being “feisty and determined” up until her 90s, when she published her autobiography, Foot Soldier for Freedom: A Life in South Africa’s Liberation Movement.

It tells a gripping love story of her life with her husband, the late Jack Hodgson, as they navigated the treacherous apartheid journey together. During the struggle years, Hodgson was banned, detained, imprisoned, placed under house arrest and exiled by the apartheid government. Then, after 27 years in exile, she returns to South Africa at the age of 70 to become Walter Sisulu’s secretary and Mandela’s close associate.

Her son, Spencer, told the SA Jewish Report this week that his late mother was “definitely feisty”. He recalled the time she visited him in hospital after he had suffered a heart attack and told him straight: “Spencer, if you die before me, I’ll kill you!”

To this day he treasures an antique pestle and mortar, which originally belonged to his Lithuanian-born grandmother, Rachel. He remembers helping his father grind potassium to manufacture explosives in his parents’ tiny flat in Hillbrow. They were making these for Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the then banned ANC, in 1961 for the sabotage campaign, which marked the first time the movement turned to violent means to liberate South Africa.

“I cherish it,” he said. “I was lucky to benefit from knowing a generation of phenomenal, wonderful people from my youth right up until today who were part of that time in our history, people I wouldn’t have known had my mother and father not been part of the struggle.”

Spencer was fresh out of school when he and his family fled the country in 1964. Although it was difficult for him growing up during those dangerous and tumultuous times, he said, “it was difficult for everyone. I couldn’t have imagined my life any other way.”

Rica was the youngest of 11 children – she had three sisters and seven brothers. Her father, Maurice Gampel, was a well-off Polish Jew from Warsaw who left Poland for South Africa in 1880 to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. She recounts in her book that he came from an “educated and culturally refined family” and described him as “conservative, racist and chauvinistic”, a man “who did all the things that rich men did”.

Her mother, Rachel, on the other hand was “a most beautiful woman” who was “brimming with femininity, kindness, compassion… coming as she did from a poor, religious family in Lithuania, she was intimately acquainted with hard work and struggle”. Says Spencer of his mother: “Although she was born Jewish, she was an atheist and a committed communist, but had tremendous love and respect for her family and their choices.”

Hodgson’s great-niece, Dr Dana Gampel, attended her memorial service, hosted by the SA Communist Party (SACP) in collaboration with the Hodgson family and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It was held in Johannesburg on February 4.

“Rica touched a lot of people,” Gampel told the SA Jewish Report this week. “At a time when she could have led a life of privilege, she chose not to; it wasn’t her truth.”

She has fond memories of the “precious” times she spent with Hodgson after her return to South Africa.

“She was an honest, principled, multifaceted individual. She had an amazing apartment and her sister and I would have parties and talk about politics. They enjoyed a good whiskey and gin, and we’d sit and talk about South Africa and how problematic the world was and how ridiculous the gender dynamics of the day were.

“Rica had a huge repertoire of issues that she was so well versed in. She was well read and had a genuine interest in the people around her. She genuinely cared about her carers. They weren’t workers; they were an intrinsic part of her life,” she said.

Israel and the Middle East would often come up for discussion during those afternoons spent together.

“She visited Israel and was very interested in what was going on there. Her focus was always on South Africa, but she had family in Israel and family was important to her, so we would discuss Israel regularly.”

She said Hodgson was not just loved because of her contribution and what she did, but also because “she made such an impression on people”.

“Rica always lived her truth, irrespective of the contradictions around her and the dangers associated with that. Because of this she became a reference point for so many,” said Gampel.

Hodgson played a key behind-the-scenes role in the anti-apartheid movement. She was a tough member of the SACP and did everything from making bombs to raising funds.

“Rica was one of the most resourceful women,” said Gampel. “She could raise money from the stingiest of people with a smile and she knew how to stretch that dollar to go hundreds of miles.”

Her life was the struggle. Even when the Hodgsons socialised, it was with other struggle couples. These included her close friends Ruth First and Joe Slovo, and Lionel and Hilda Bernstein, as well as many other activists such as Bram Fischer, Oliver Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande paid tribute to Hodgson, calling her a “gallant stalwart” and “one of the finest revolutionaries the Communist Party and our national liberation movement have ever produced”.

Verne Harris at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory and Dialogue, who collaborated with Hodgson and her son Spencer on her memoir, said in the book’s foreword: “The defining image of Rica for me is of a day, a few years ago, when she greeted Mandela reaching up a hand to touch his cheek. A touch with searing tenderness.”

He said Mandela’s “generation of activists and leaders was an extraordinary one, its contribution to the liberation of our country inestimable”.

Hodgson was presented with the Order of Luthuli by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2007.

 

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