When the United Nations was formed in 1945, “750-million colonised people had no representation”, observed WEB Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This is the story of how that came undone, and the United Nations became the site for the worldwide struggle to be free of the colonial yoke.

Tin soldier

A slender young man with a military mien cautiously makes his way on horseback towards a tent pitched in the dry riverbed of the Gammams River in South West Africa (Namibia). Awakened by the sound of his low whistle, the Reverend Michael Scott emerges and greets his visitor, Gerson Zaire. He pats the horse genially. On the other side of the river bank, Special Branch police stake the scene. They don’t see Scott slide papers out from under the saddle cloth and slip them into his briefcase. Back in his tent, Scott examines them. It is another part of Chief Hosea Kutako’s second petition to the United Nations.

Scott stays in the tent for two months, receiving visitors who come at all hours of the night in a bid to evade Special Branch police. He is waiting for a permit to hold a meeting in the location he is just three feet away from and visit outlying reserves, so he can report back to the Herero and the other tribes what happened at the UN. Night after night, a hurricane lamp glows under the lee of a bush, where wrapped in a blanket, he takes down the statements of the African peoples of South West Africa. He discovers that many tribespeople he had contact with before his trip to the UN have since been interrogated by the police. Meanwhile in the papers, a local farmer threatens to find and kill the quixotic priest if that is what it takes to get him out of the way.

Michael Guthrie Scott (1907-1983) grew up in Northam, London, “England’s second worst slum”, where his father was vicar. There, from a seat of middle class privilege, he witnessed the injustice of poverty from early childhood. His father, a high Anglican priest, the Reverend Perceval Scott, was a man held in the highest regard by Michael. Yet, as he grew older, the church whose revolutionary gospel had won Scott’s love came increasingly to be seen as a failed institution, indifferent to, even guilty of human suffering. What is evil, he wondered, as a young man studying for his ordination in South Africa?

He believed the Church’s failure to engage meaningfully with this question had rendered it ineffective and irrelevant. “Jesus saw that the power of evil had to be challenged, even if it expressed itself through the authority of the state,” he wrote in A Time to Speak. Such opposition took courage, which he did not lack. It also required a piercing ability to see to the root of things. At the root of things he asserted, the most pressing problem of the age was a system of inequality: “poverty in the midst of plenty”. In a letter to his parents, he writes: “There is nothing evil about poverty, ignorance, disease and under-feeding. The evil lies over there, where the beauty parlours are, and everything is so nice and hygienic and people buy and sell to one another with little bits of paper, the products which all these people have created with their hands or dug out of the earth.”

In later years he would describe his faith as a “religion of doubt”.

Time in Tobruk

In the years leading up to the introduction of apartheid in 1948, the 40-year-old clergyman was in Tobruk – not the Tobruk taken by the Allied forces in 1942, in North Africa, but the shantytown in Johannesburg where many of the African soldiers who had fought in that battle were dumped and forgotten with access to neither law nor municipal services. His efforts there, like his work before that with the Indian Congress and the Campaign for Rights and Justice, was to point to the “regimentation of cheap Native labour, the uprooting and pauperisation of the African people, their concentration all around our cities as an uneducated, landless, homeless, culture-less mass in enforced servitude to a race blinded by prejudice.”

At a time when it was illegal for a white man to be in a township (1946/1947), Michael Scott made a home in Tobruk, a place where he “learned to love”. 

He came to loggerheads with a corrupt self-appointed community leader by the name of Komo who was extracting payment for “subscriptions” and benefitting from a trade in fake passports. Komo drove Scott out of the township.

Scott took refuge in the home of Nelson Mandela, who tells the story in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. It was Mandela who went to the community and interceded on his behalf. 

Meanwhile, Scott sent reports of the conditions of Tobruk to the Press and used his movie camera to capture footage (which was made into a documentary entitled Civilisation on Trial in South Africa).

Scott was a tall, handsome, idealistic man, never short of admirers. The pockets of his perennially shabby clothing were always bulging with sweets to perhaps soothe the Crohn’s disease he suffered from throughout his life. Yet he was sharp-witted and outspoken. To the abhorrence of the church, he quickly became a media personality, drawing the attention of international media and the ire of the world to Tobruk. Displeased by this latest embarrassment, the police arrested him for contravening the Native Urban Areas Act.

Slavery in Bethal

After Tobruk, Scott’s church superiors wanted to send him on a one-way ticket back to England. But, recognised for his talent for drawing attention to matters that would otherwise have been passed over, Scott found himself directed to a slew of invitations. He took up The Guardian newspaper’s request to visit Bethal, where near-slavery labour practices were in practice. He accompanied Ruth First and found “men whose clothes had been taken from them lest they should try to run away; the rows of labourers strung out in long lines across the fields, backs bent, clawing out potatoes with their nails; cut and calloused hands; weals and scars across backs subjected to the sjambok.” (Rand Daily Mail, 28 June 1947); working long hours, suffering abuse, beatings and killings. Fifty men would share three or four mattresses in compounds that they were frequently not allowed to leave.

Hell hath no fury as a Bethal farmer. They fervently decried this blight on their name and the reputation of South Africa. But local African people collected £17 to send a deputation to Johannesburg to verify Scott’s reporting, with one elderly man saying, “this pneumonia of which the farm labourers die is a wonderful thing, it leaves scars on the backs. If only the government people could see … people are being murdered.”

A mission in Botswana

After Bethal, Scott received an invitation from the Botswanan Regent Tshekedi Khama to a meeting with the exiled Herero paramount chief Frederick Maharero. They turned to Scott, a priest with no parish, of fragile health, of whom the British spy Michael Carritt said, “I never saw him looking anything other than dilapidated.” 

Maherero asked him to detail statements about the sufferings of the Herero as well as the fraud of the referendum (a sham organised by South Africa to claim local support for South West Africa’s incorporation), and present it to the United Nations in the hope of undercutting South Africa’s scheme. Maharero and Kutako had been refused permission by the South African Administrator to do as much themselves, being told that as Hereros had no government, they could not be represented at the United Nations.

In the words of then future US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles “when a few big powers get together to decide how to run the world, they generally, and naturally, conclude that the best of all possible worlds is a world which they will run.” 

Only states were allowed to join the UN, file complaints before the Security Council or appeal to the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, as the historian Carol Anderson explains, the US and the Western Europeans “spent an inordinate amount of time carefully managing the structure of the various committees – human rights, trusteeship and so on – in order to retain Western control.”

This is what the imperial statesman and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, author of the Charter of the United Nations, was banking on, when he announced the planned annexation of South West Africa at the very first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946. And though South Africa had been derelict in its duties to report on what it called its “sacred mandate” in Namibia to the League of Nations (which had no instruments or powers to hold the country accountable) – as Ruth First reflects in her book South West Africa – South Africa’s intentions were not expected to suffer any hindrance.

A petition is drawn up

Scott travelled to Namibia to meet Chief Kutako. There followed a petition, developed with the involvement of all Herero communities, calling for the return of land, the reunification of the Herero and re-establishment of their tribal organisation. Scott also took supporting statements from the Nama, Damara and Ovambo peoples.

The petition was signed at the annual gathering of the Hereros at the graves of their chiefs, on 28 August 1947 (what is now Namibia’s Heroes’ Day). It was at this time, that Scott captured Chief Hosea Kutako’s prayer, a prayer that he let echo in the halls of the United Nations and the pulpits of the churches of England for three-and-a-half decades afterward: “O Lord, help us who roam about. Help us who have been placed in Africa and have no dwelling place of our own. Give us back our dwelling place, O God.”

The Herero sold their cattle to pay for Scott’s trip and he set off. But the United States refused a visa from South Africa, where reports had reached the Embassy that Scott was a troublemaker. So he travelled to London, and was denied assistance there as well. Having gained a reputation for his vocal support of the South African Indian community, it was at the Indian High Commission where he at last found a way in to the United Nations, as a personal adviser to its UN delegation.

At that time, South Africa had the run of the place. It was a strategic ally and Prime Minister General Smuts was one of the UN’s architects. So it was begrudgingly that they prepared a report of their administration of South West Africa (SWA) to the UNs Trusteeship or “Fourth” Committee. 

Scott, in his individual capacity, was not able to counter the report’s many “errors and downright lies”; so he began to privately lobby small countries, sharing the concerns of the Herero, Nama, Damara and Ovambo peoples. These countries carried Scott’s pointed questions into the committee sessions. South Africa reeled under the assault. 

When the SA delegation found out that it was Scott who was behind it, they circulated a police dossier on him to the international press. They accused him of being “eccentric”, “with fanatical views”, “poor and of no fixed abode”. But their efforts backfired. Once again, the press loved the idea of this “reckless friend of the helpless” (New York Daily Post 30 December 1947).

In 1948, the Herero contributed £430 to finance a second mission to the UN in Paris. South Africa would not allow Scott to fly without surrendering his passport, so he drove and flew on charter flights across Africa and Europe, arriving too late for the meetings in the General Assembly. The UN requested that South Africa enter into a trusteeship agreement as regards SWA by 43 votes to one, with one abstention – the British government.

Dissatisfied with the progress, Scott returned the following year to New York. South Africa tried to get him sent back home, warning that he was a communist, and pressuring the US State Department to not allow Scott to use American facilities. Banks would not allow him to exchange dollars. SA did not succeed, but Scott’s movement was confined to a few blocks in Manhattan and he was not allowed to preach or speak to more than two people at a time. The Anglican Church wrote to Scott and informed him that they were withdrawing his right to preach.

But when it became clear that South Africa would not let any African leader come to the UN, nor allow a UN delegation to enter South West Africa, Scott’s application to speak had to be considered. All the colonial powers – Britain, France, Belgium and the United States – opposed the idea. Where would it end? They asked. Would the Arabs of North Africa try to indict the French? Would the whole African continent, “climb on the back of this procedure”? Would unrepresented minorities get the right to appeal to world opinion over the heads of their own government?

Former colonies and small countries such as India, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Pakistan and the Philippines came to Scott’s defence. When the vote to hear Scott speak to the UN Fourth Committee was counted, it was 25 votes to 15 with six abstentions. The USA tried to get the submission in writing, South Africa tried to get the address deferred, but they were not successful and on 26 November 1949, Scott became the first individual to address the UN, speaking on behalf of a people with no representation, from a country that was not a state.

What was happening to the Herero, Scott said, was an example “taking its dishonourable place in the record of means whereby the indigenous populations of the world have by treachery and deceit been deprived of their lands and natural rights”.

Scott spoke meekly, without raising his voice or showing emotion. Beginning with the genocide, he proceeded onto the betrayal by South Africa, the seizures of land and cattle, and the pass laws. “Something new and unique happened … to the parliament of the world,” wrote journalist Stanley Burch of that moment. “The United Nations found their soul.”

The UN finds its soul

The United Nations adopted Scott’s suggestion to refer the constitutional status of the country to the International Court at The Hague. DF Malan’s response was to reaffirm apartheid and South Africa’s commitment to have its way with SWA.

It was the beginning of a long journey. Only in 1969 did the UN Security Council declare South Africa’s occupation of Namibia illegal, and its independence came last of all the African countries, in 1990. 

But the beauty and power of the moment could not be taken away from the changing world. Scott’s victory did forge a new path, and as they predicted this path did not end well for Western powers or South Africa. It provided energy and strategic opportunity to the movement to dismantle colonialism on a global platform. “The impetus which the UN gave to African self-government can hardly be exaggerated,” Anderson quotes.

On that same day, Scott received the news that his father had died. South Africa would ban him from entering both SA and SWA – and he would never return there. So it was to England. He would keep the issue alive at the UN until the final year of his life. His address at the UN would prompt another cleric, Canon John Collins to begin his fight against racism. Among many things, he would found the International Defence and Aid Fund and later, the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust.

Scott died believing himself to be a failure in his life’s greatest undertakings – the end of apartheid, the independence of Namibia and the freedom and restitution of the Naga people of India (another tale that needs to be told). 

Posthumously, Scott has not enjoyed the honour of someone who has fought for his own freedom or the freedom of his own people or country. In a way perhaps that is as it should be, for he took on the battles of people whose personhood and agency had to be reclaimed. Selflessness was his legacy. 

He said: “If one acts disinterestedly, something miraculously comes out of it. The Nagas do get a bit of respite. South Africa does have to begin to change. It is not miraculous as is usually understood. It is the normal process of creation and if one cooperates with it, something good or something of beauty or of truth comes out of it.”

This article is the second in a two-part series and was developed as part of the blog project “Troubling Power: Stories and ideas for a more just and open southern Africa”, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust.

Read part one here:



Catherine Sofianos

Catherine Sofianos

Catherine Sofianos is communications specialist for the Canon Collins Trust. She is a writer and creative projects director and has worked in development communication for 17 years. She is a pioneer at...

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