Culture Blog

From Struggling With Mandela to National Union of Journalists’ President: Meet Lionel Morrison OBE

posted by the hanging out team - Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Lionel Morrison with Hanging Out graduate journalist Orrel Lawrence. Photography courtesy of Elam Forrester.

Aged just 21, Lionel Morrison would find himself on trial alongside Nelson Mandela and 155 others who dared to oppose Apartheid. Notwithstanding this, he would go on to become the first black president of the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Quite simply, Morrison challenges inequality wherever he finds it.

Born and raised in the full grip of Apartheid South Africa, Morrison bitterly recalls his first police raid after speaking at a university political meeting. He was aged just 19 years of age, and increasingly gathering a healthy interest in political activism. But with drastic consequences for anyone who dared to challenge the Apartheid regime of the time, what would drive a relatively young man to risk what little liberty he did have as a black person?

“Easily, for me what I hate is inequality,” Morrison answers my question in short. “In South Africa, I couldn’t even go into the post office and I always questioned why I couldn’t go to the other side. It was unfair, and only because of my bloody colour.” Morrison speaks emotionally, as if the unjust was as recent as yesterday.

As we relax and settle into our interview, right on cue Morrison quizzes me. “If we are sitting here, and the house next door starts to burn with children inside, do we sit and wait on firefighters? No! We rush over and get the kids out!!” he emphatically answers his own question, before providing a context for his radical outlook. 

“As a black person in South Africa we had to observe partitions in public places. You had to have an ID pass that would tell you where you could be. Only black people must have had that pass.”

“We couldn’t go to the same churches, and we even had to be buried in separate cemeteries. We attended separate schools with black teachers, but the principle was always white. That was South Africa,” Morrison recalls. 

“In different ways we must become our own revolutionaries. When things are wrong, you’ve got to do something about it,” Morrison insists, before we pursue with the interview in which such words come to epitomise his life.

By 20 years old, having gained a reputation as a political activist, as well as a journalist on a local black weekly, Morrison was arrested again; this time for putting up political slogans with an anti-Apartheid activist group ‘The Picasso Gang’. Morrison spent the next five months in Johannesburg’s prison, The Fort.

“You could easily get sodomised in there. It was an interesting question of how to exist,” Morrison ponders. “You live in a cell of 92 people in a 15 x 45 foot space, like sardines. There was one toilet. Young people were brought in by the warden. In the night you’d hear screams of a young boy being raped, and nobody says anything.”

Lionel Morrison with Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday in South Africa.

Just months after his release from the notorious Fort, during the night of 6 December 1956, police raided his house, and yet again arrested Morrison. He was then put on trial with 155 others, including Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sissulu, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the state.

Now aged just 21, Morrison found himself the youngest person in South Africa’s history to face a charge of High Treason, a charge that if found guilty was punishable by death. Whilst admitting that this was quite a prospect to consider, he maintains he was appeased by the question “Would you like to offer yourself for what you believe in? Once you say yes, you are no longer scared.”

After a fortunate acquittal, Morrison continued work as a reporter for the Golden City Post, South Africa’s first black weekly newspaper, before founding the South African National Union of Journalists, with the help of the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Some years later, Morrison would be dogged with yet another arrest, this time on suspicion of possessing banned materials. In 1959, after numerous detentions Morrison managed to flee South Africa for the UK. Arriving, he would successfully set up the Afro-Asian Journalists Association (AAJA). The AAJA would take Morrison around Europe, Asia and Africa before he returned to the UK in 1969.

Morrison  admits that whilst he may have escaped Apartheid back home, in the UK ethnic minorities were still up against a racial struggle, which he too would experience first-hand.

“I wrote to nearly one hundred editors in newspapers and magazines for a job”. Of those who did write back, some of them asked to see Morrison, purely intrigued and humoured by the prospect of a black journalist in Fleet Street – but not to actually offer  him work.

Lionel Morrison. Photography courtesy of Elam Forrester.

Discontent would eventually cease when encountering Bob Edwards, a Fleet Street editor with a history of major editorials under his name. Edwards finally deployed  Morrison to fertile ground, and soon Morrison gained by-lines with popular mainstream titles, such as The Evening Standard and The Telegraph. Morrison recalls that at this point with him establishing himself in Britain, his struggle against racial inequality was just as important as the struggle back in South Africa.

“My fight here was an extension of my fight in South Africa, since I couldn’t be there. Once here, I thought it’s important to fight inequalities here. Let me join the unions and fight for better things here. If I neutralised attitudes here, attitudes towards South Africa would also be neutralised, and it would help Britain not to support the Apartheid government.”

During the 1970s, Morrison remained an active member of the NUJ in the UK. But soon, he  would realise that seventies Britain had its own limits in the way of racial tolerance, when in 1977 he took the very bold step of putting himself forward for the NUJ presidency.

“I had put in a bid in 1977,” he says, before candidly explaining that despite being overwhelmingly the popular political choice; due to his colour he would lose the election to “bloody racism.” But in 1987, Morrison would indeed eventually make history, successfully re-running to become the NUJ’s first black president. In what was almost an effort to expiate his own loss a decade beforehand, he would spend much of his presidency addressing inequality in the media, as well as the NUJ itself.

“I was able to put forward the issues of race, gender and equality in the Union and in the industry. We went on to set up a committee and a Black Members Council which opened up many doors,” Morrison proudly recalls. And more proudly still, he would play an instrumental part in establishing the George Viner Memorial Trust, an NUJ trust, to financially aid aspiring black journalism students.

Morrison remains optimistic with the issue of race and the UK media, noting progress, as he does with wider British society. “Okay, today racism may well be more subtle, but we have laws against racism which shows progress. We have further to go but we have more power now to complete our journey.”

But what of Morrison’s hopes for his native country, particularly in the aftermath of Mandela’s passing? Morrison maintains, “South Africa is a good place, but it will take much longer to heal.”

Morrison reflects fondly on his friendship with the late former president. “My great opportunity in life was to be around Nelson Mandela, and to be able to understand him. He was a great negotiator. His ideas were always straight, and good. He was able to prevent a bloodbath, and get to a situation with peace.”

“Nelson was able to open up the reconciliation process, but unfortunately he was in power for just three years because in his last two he was giving too much power to Mbeki. From Mbeki, things just started going downhill. All of Nelson’s successors failed to connect in the same way. He should have had two terms.”

As he flashes back to days that are thankfully now long behind him, Morrison recalls his fight for basic human rights and democracy. “To be happy in a society, you must be a part of it. Democracy is not a question of the majority imposing on the minority. All we wanted was to ensure that there would be a democratic country, where we could all live together, as equal people.”

Unsurprisingly then, five decades on, Race, Equality and the Media form a key part of Morrison’s modern day struggle. Morrison still actively participates in the NUJ and resides as chair of the Board of Trustees on the George Viner Memorial Trust. He continues to encourage young people, particularly those from ethnic minorities to apply to the Trust, as well as to actively seek involvement in the wider Union. 

“Journalism must be one of diversity. We must be able to look at different views as this is what society is all about.” The NUJ’s George Viner Trust, which Morrison played an active part in setting up in the late 1980s, has helped over 150 students gain necessary journalism training, helping to redress the imbalance of ethnic minority journalists in the UK.

His struggle spans decades, as well as continents. Now in his late seventies, Lionel Morrison reflects on an at-times chilling past, and celebrates the positive changes both here and in South Africa that he is visibly jubilant to have championed.

Orrel Lawrence  is  a graduate journalist  with the  Hanging Out  project

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