Norma Kitson: the great enigma

Read any of the online obituaries to Norma and you will find them all eulogising her for the great courage she showed in the struggle against apartheid. In his comment on her autobiography ‘Where Sixpence Lives’ (Chatto & Windus Ltd. London 1986) Craig Raine of Oxford says ‘… you can rely on Norma Kitson’s testimony.’

On the other hand, she was deeply unpopular with many of her fellow activists in London to the point that they eventually expelled her and her husband: and she has left a justified sense of hurt and betrayal among her relations for her characterisation of them in her writings.

She was born to wealthy Jewish parents in Durban. Her mother, Millie Stiller, was daughter of Bertha Zeffert, which is why Norma finds a place here. Bertha was the youngest child of Israel Zeffert.

Norma’s childhood probably wasn’t a happy one. She was looked after by an English governess with Victorian ideas of education and punishment for children. According to her autobiography she got little attention from her mother, whose hours were spent beautifying herself ready for the next party. She had a strong affection for her father, who instilled socialist ideas in her. However, when her parents divorced she went to live with her mother and the new husband.

She did not fit in at her Catholic boarding school and soon became something of a rebel.

With the implementation of apartheid (called ‘Separate Development’ by the Afrikaner regime) the most extreme restrictions were imposed on the black population, and the whites themselves were allowed contact with blacks only under very regulated circumstances. Non-whites had to have good reason to be in a white area and had to carry a pass at all times. The population was graded according to strict classifications – white, black, coloured (mixed race) and Asian. Of course, it led to ludicrous anomalies: e.g. Chinese were definitely not white, but Japanese were.

Norma’s first attempt to rebel against these unjust laws was something of a damp squib. Aged 15 she decided to get herself arrested by sitting on a non-white seat. After several hours no-one had even noticed her and she went home defeated. Her subsequent actions had far more effect. She joined the South African Communist Party which, like all opposition groups, was banned. Her time in prison and the brutal treatment by the authorities are well attested in various sites online, as are her marriage to David Kitson, the murder of her sister, her organisation of the London protest group outside the south African Embassy, and the struggle to achieve the release of her husband and Nelson Mandela. These can be easily read.

What is not shown anywhere is the extent to which she maligned her own family. She speaks of her mother as devoting her life entirely to pleasure, apart from a brief mention at the end of her autobiography the Millie organised a car ferry service to take home the black nurses who had been subject to attacks and muggings. In her short story ‘My Little Cousin’ she takes the actual adoption of a young Greek boy by one of her uncles and shows her aunts and uncles as all expressing the most unpleasant views opposing the adoption – in fact, that Greek boy, now a family man in his sixties is a full member of the family.

But her worst calumny is against her grandfather, Marcus Stiller the husband of Bertha Zeffert. In ‘Where Sixpence Lives’ she describes an argument with her mother. Norma accuses her grandfather of having made his money by charging his fellow Jews for helping them to escape the Nazis, through which she deduces that he must have had many Nazi friends. Her mother tries to counter the accusation with some very silly remarks. All Millie needed to have explained was that Marcus Stiller died 15 January 1938, eighteen months before the Germans invaded Poland.

Although it’s true Norma’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid was worthy of honour, many of her relations played their own little part. Unfortunately she was unable to give them credit for that.

Mike Zeffertt
14 February 2008.