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This Sussex Life: Robina Marks, Mandela Scholar alumna. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”

Robina Marks

Robina Marks with Lord Attenborough in 1999

Robina Marks, High Commissioner for South Africa in Sri Lanka, was a University of Sussex Mandela Scholar in 1998/9. During a visit this week to campus, she remembered how her experience at Sussex 20 years ago was a turning point in her life.

I was born into an apartheid South Africa that marginalised black people who were forcibly excluded from living a decent life of dignity in the land of their birth. At the time you would be jailed if you lived next to white people, use the same facilities as they did, marry them or even be buried next to them! It was a system that reduced us to live as third class citizens by excluding us economically and politically. I became an activist at the age of 13 because I was determined to survive. My shaping influence was poverty, living with my mother, who was a domestic worker, in a series of backyard dwellings in Capetown that we built ourselves.

I had the same idealism as many young people. I believed I could change the world. I now live with the comfort of knowing that my generation at least changed South Africa for the better.  My generation’s goal was mass mobilisation for the African National Congress, get Nelson Mandela released (who’d been imprisoned since 1964) and start the process of reconciliation. But I was on the run from the security police for a long time, and eventually detained and held in solitary confinement under the internal Security Act for two years. I decided to go into exile in Zimbabwe but was requested, as an organiser for the United Democratic Front, to go back to South Africa to build community organisations, the trade union movement, and structures in the church that supported freedom and democracy. This I did for several years.

I suffer hugely with survivors’ guilt. I wonder how I survived. Someone said to me that for our generation and the one before us we were essentially child soldiers and so all the trauma of not having a normal childhood, of fighting for a cause and encountering life and death issues that no child should have to deal with, has left us with this guilt. I am fortunate that I have a position in which I can make a concrete difference to the lives of our people by ensuring that trade, investment and tourism into South Africa grows so that our people can have jobs. 

When I came to Sussex it was like finding a circle in the forest. It was 1998 and Mandela had just finished his first term in office. I was 35 and it was the first year of ‘normal’ in my life. I had the relative luxury to just focus on working through some of the issues that we had to face in a post-South Africa. And in between I had the warmth and compassion of several people who made my stay so much easier.

The university’s chancellor Richard Attenborough taught me to play croquet. He thought it was a way to help me deal with the PTSD that I carried like a monkey on my back because of all that I’ve experienced and witnessed in South Africa. And he introduced me to Pimms! He was a great source of moral support and I had respect for him because he had directed and produced the Steve Biko movie. I think he liked me because we both had the same mischievous sense of humour, and of course he was an ardent supporter of the new South Africa.

Through studying for a Masters in Gender and Development in the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex helped me to make theoretical sense around women’s empowerment and gender equality and sharpened my voice. It helped me to go back to South Africa and to shape an equity policy around gender. When I left Sussex I immediately became an adviser to the Office on the Status of Women. A lot of the experiences that I heard from my classmates across the world helped me to turn my anger around gender discrimination into building a new government department that was responsive to the needs and aspirations of women.

As you get older, you become more focussed in terms of what you can change within your own sphere of influence. I am focused on social inequality, which is still great in South Africa. The advantage that white people have in the country remains that of inherited privilege and wealth that they gained through the economic advantages and protection of apartheid. They are insulated from some of the economic issues and challenges that ordinary black people face. But how do we redress the inequality of the past while still staying true to what we have set ourselves, which is to reconcile and live in peace and harmony?

I am fortunate that I am in position now where I can make a difference to the lives of our people. They are not around the old idea of ambassadors quaffing wine and eating expensive chocolates. That belongs to the past. Of course I wear the uniform – I have my lippy and my pearls, because there is a part of the job that is performative – but the values that shaped me when I was an activist around fairness, moral integrity, gender equality,  and non-discriminatory practices continue to guide me today.

I thought I would be able to retire from gender - I was going to grow lavender and olives and move on to another issues - but I am still talking gender all these years later. Right now, for example, I’m doing research on what a feminist foreign policy might look like in South Africa. What are the impact of foreign policy on transforming the lives of women? How do we ensure that women and men benefit equally from our foreign policy? This is new for South Africa, but Eleanor Roosevelt said you must do the thing that you think that you cannot do. It’s something that I believe in because when you do the things that you think you cannot do you, you get the greatest reward. In this case, it’s about breaking through one of the bastions of male power that excludes the vast majority of women, and yet it profoundly shapes our choices and our lives.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 12 July 2019

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