Richard Owen Dudley was in a class of his own

Richard Owen Dudley

Richard Owen Dudley

Published Apr 25, 2024


Thembile Ndabeni

Richard Owen Dudley was an amazing boy of colour (coloured) who started Sub A (Grade 1) at the age of four because he wanted to go to school with his elder brother.

His interest and that he looked up to his brother, combined with his brilliance that was later discovered, led to him enrolling for a degree at the age of 15. He became a teacher, never to be a principal because of his principles of challenging racism and defying apartheid policies.

An example of his defiance was his determination not to prepare children of colour for work on farms. In 1984, he resigned from teaching to concentrate on political activities, fighting against oppression and exploitation.

In the same year, he became president of the New Unity Movement (Num).

Unlike the politics of today, where office bearers of political parties are remunerated, it was a real sacrifice for the cause of the oppressed.

There are extraordinary people who are ordinary, reachable and humble. Dudley was one of them.

I was lucky to have met Dudley for an interview for my BA Honours (history) thesis. It is out of inquisitiveness, wanting to know more about other ideologies or political school of thoughts, that led me to do my thesis on the workerism school of thought, his school of thought, or how his school of thought is referred to.

Dudley and his father were lucky to have had each other. His father was lucky to have had a smart son who showed interest in education at an early age. The son was lucky to have had an educated father, a headmaster, leading him to start school early.

Across colour, it was rare for a learner to register at university at the age of 15.

The saddest part is having learnt of his death a couple of months after he died.

If you subscribe to the thesis that educated people are humble, then Dudley was evidence of that.

If all the people, activities and events of the Struggle were recorded and played after the Struggle, then the likes of Dudley would be known.

People would make a judgement about how they were supposed to be ranked.

The course of the Struggle is one dimension of uniqueness in the country. Since diversity and uniqueness are some of the special features of the Struggle, they make a good couple and Dudley’s Num proved that.

If you wanted to prove that the Num (workerism) produced clear, genius, articulate and eloquent products, Dudley would have been one person you should have listened to.

He was cool, calm and collected and not in a hurry to speak.

He listened with a smile when his opinion differed from that of the speaker’s, even when their argument was unclear. The smile wasn’t patronising but humane, on a path to explaining or answering the speaker. His answers and explanations were about educating, without being derogatory.

The unfortunate part is that people like Dudley, though being of such magnitude, are disadvantaged by the fact that they are not well-known or “marketed”, not that they were the way they were for the glory.

Dudley belonged to a school of thought that does not believe in crowd politics, populism, but rather, on an informed and working class-centred struggle. When I interviewed him, he told me that they “cooked” a person thoroughly before allowing them to take the platform as a speaker.

That is one good lesson to be learnt – it could save us from today’s vulgar politicians and their lumpen behaviour.

He belonged to a school of thought that takes politics seriously, one that did not look for short cuts or benefits.

Though teachers voted for him to be a permanent principal, the apartheid regime’s department of education would not accept someone who openly challenged racism.

Dudley replied: “The government in this country wants the boys in the class here to go and work on the farms.

My job is to keep them off the farms. They want the girls here to go and work in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen. I want to keep them out of the kitchen.

I think that you’re worth far more and you’ve got a contribution to make.”

Dudley would’ve been 100 years old on April 15.

Ndabeni is a former history tutor at UWC and a former teacher at Bulumko Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha.

Cape Times

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