Farewell, Professor Richard Ross

Richard (Dick) van der Ross , in the middle, on his 95th birthday with friends Helen and Moos Japhta. Mr Japhta is the only remaining Strawberry Lane flower grower in Costantia. He operates behind Peddlers on the Bend.

Professor Richard (Dick) van der Ross, author, former teacher, anti-apartheid activist and Freeman of the City of Cape Town, died at Bergvliet Evergreen on Wednesday December 13.

He was 96. In 2015, mayor Patricia de Lille hosted the launch of Professor Richard van der Ross’s book, In Our Own Skins (“Book launch,” Bulletin, May 28, 2015). In this academic offering, Professor Van der Ross details a political history of the coloured people.

As a teacher and principal of the Battswood Seconday School and Training College, during his involvement in teachers’ unions, and even as editor of the Cape Herald, he maintained the view that education afforded us all the greatest opportunity for change. In September 1988, he was granted the Freedom of the City for serving the Cape community through education.

Ms De Lille has hailed Professor Van der Ross as “a great son of Cape Town who made an immense contribution to the city as a teacher and activist during apartheid”.

Professor Van der Ross was born in Plumstead in 1921 and studied atUCT, where he received MA, BEd and PhD degrees.

He grew up in Wynberg, off Constantia Road, and later lived in the same neighbourhood with his wife, Frances (Fan), and their two children.

His daughter, Freda Brock, remembers family life characterised by discipline, a strong work ethic and the stimulation of social and political consciousness and debate.

“Valuewasplacedon independent thinking within a framework of justice, fairness and duty of care. While this was understood in the family, having a father who publicly stood his ground on controversial issues was tough,” says Ms Brock.

“Whereas many people believed that liberation could not be logically pursued by postponing education – indeed that education is liberation – most people kept quiet and out of the line of fire,” she says.

In 1964 the family was forced to move by the Group Areas Act. They moved to Ottery, where their home was raided twice by the security police and they were forced by Group Areas to move again after 13 years. It was at the age of 80 that Professor Van der Ross eventually returned to Constantia where he and his second wife, Marie, lived for 10 years.

In 1966 he took part in establishing and became the first president of the Labour Party of South Africa, which was the opposition party in the Tricameral Parliament and was formed to reject the idea that coloured people, as a group, supported apartheid.

He resigned in 1967 to return to what he knew best -education.

He became an assistant education planner, later a planner and then an inspector of schools in the Department of Coloured Affairs.

He applied successfully for the post of principal of Hewat Training College, only to have his acceptance rescinded by the cabinet.

Disillusioned, he became the first editor of the Cape Herald, where he hoped to spread educational ideas in coloured communities predominantly. “This was not the stuff that sold newspapers,” says Ms Brock.

After one year, he left to take on the challenge to establish the Athlone Early Learning Centre in Kewtown, which gave rise to the Early Learning Resource Unit, thus becoming a springboard for developing early childhood programmes country-wide in the absence of state provision in black areas.

In 1975 he became rector of the University of the Western Cape. In the foreword of his book, Professor Van der Ross says, “While anyone who writes history should expect criticism, for tracing the history of the coloured people, I make no apology”.

In 2007 he published Buy My Flowers, the story about early life in the Strawberry Lane area of the Constantia Valley.

Professor Van der Ross’s “oupa” was part of that community, earning half-a-crown a day. His “ouma” was the illiterate granddaughter of a St Helena slave. She raised 13 children, supplementing her husband’s meagre wages from wood sold from a donkey cart with vegetables from the garden and eggs from the chickens. “There were many such communities.

“They formed the basis of the Coloured people of the Cape,” wrote Professor Van der Ross in the book. “This book recognises and salutes them, and is dedicated to their memory with gratitude, love and respect.”

A Blow to the Hoop The story of my life and times, was published in 2009.

In 2015, he released his book In Our Own Skins: A political history of the coloured people.

His major work was a social, political and cultural history of the coloured people from 1880 to 1985, which he had condensed for publication in 1986 under the title The Rise and Decline of Apartheid.

Professor Van der Ross is survived by his two children, Ben van der Ross and Freda Brock, and seven grandchildren.

There will be a funeral service on Friday December 22, at 10am, at the
Uniting Reformed Church in Belhar.