For anyone who played a role in the Apartheid Regime – whether for it or against it - Molly Blackburn was a figure to be reckoned with. While she was based in Port Elizabeth, as part of Nelson Mandela Bay was once known, her name and her good deeds were known throughout the Eastern Cape and in Cape Town as she committed her life to the development and upliftment of non-whites.
Molly Blackburn was born on 12 November 1930, and was raised by liberal parents, who made their children aware of the social and political injustices that blacks, Indians and coloureds faced at this stage of South African history. It was not long before Blackburn could no longer take a back seat to the violence and poverty that pervaded the lives of non-whites. It was at this time that Blackburn started taking an interest in the activities of the Black Sash – an organisation of women who worked to build bridges between South Africa’s various races. This caused a lot of anger within the white community, and Blackburn felt the effects of this disapproval. This society was not yet in Port Elizabeth.
In 1982, Blackburn won the provincial seat for the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) to represent Port Elizabeth in the Cape Provincial Council. However, this party was only focused on issues faced by whites and Molly was unable to agree with its ideals. By 1982, Black Sash had opened in Port Elizabeth, and Blackburn again became a member, only to leave it shortly afterwards due to its inactivity. From here, she began to campaign for justice and the general upliftment of the South African black community.
Through such campaigns, she gained a reputation of being caring, compassionate and willing to help. She did not approach people, as her reputation of being a troublemaker would imply. Rather, she would allow those needing her assistance to approach her, and then she would dive in to the cause whole-heartedly.
In 1982, Matthew Goniwe approached Blackburn to make an official enquiry regarding the rent restructuring that was going on in the Cradock township of Lingelihle. Goniwe and three other freedom fighters – Sicelo Mhlawuli, Sparrow Mkhonto and Fort Calata – became known as the Cradock Four. Blackburn advised them to set up a Civic Association, which could represent them in all official matters. They heeded her advice and the final constitution of the Cradock Resident Association was established in Blackburn’s Summerstrand home. This association became a key player in the fight against injustice and racism in the Eastern Cape. The Cradock Four would join Molly Blackburn in addressing social and political issues in rural towns such as De Aar, Hofmeyer, Bedford and Somerset East. In June 1985, the Cradock Four were in PE on business when they were abducted. Blackburn became involved in the search for these missing men, and the badly burnt bodies of Mhlawuli and Mkhonto were found at the township police station of New Brighton. Later, Goniwe’s body was also recovered. Blackburn insisted that the police disclose the facts about the deaths of these men, and it was revealed that they were killed as a result of the Security Police’s policy that “all enemies of the state should be eliminated”.
It was also during June of 1985 that a little boy was killed in the crossfire during a Security Police attack in New Brighton. Molly Blackburn retrieved the child’s blood-soaked t-shirt, torn apart by bullets and took it to Louis Le Grange, the Minister of Safety and Security at the time. This brazen act caused a huge outcry amongst those in the Cape Provincial Council.
Di Bishop and Molly Blackburn were also instrumental in getting the National Party to make an enquiry into the Langa shootings that took place on 21 March 1985. This became one of South Africa’s most significant investigations since the Soweto Revolt of 1976.
It was these brave acts of unabashed courage that earned Molly Blackburn notoriety along with death threats. She was even arrested for her efforts on several occasions. Then, on 28 December 1985, Blackburn was travelling from PE to Oudtshoorn with Judy Chalmers (her sister and the chairperson of Black Sash), Di and her husband Brian Bishop. A collision left Molly Blackburn and Brian Bishop dead.
The love and respect that Molly had earned during her short call to duty was evident by the 20 000 people who attended her funeral on 2 January 1986. Non-whites from all over the country had nicknames her Nosizwe, meaning “mother of the world”, a task she whole-heartedly embraced. In fact, she was perfectly described by a friend who would prefer to remain anonymous as being one to plunge “head first – and heart full”.