At an early age, Ronald Segal proclaimed himself a Socialist, saying he did not want to be a millionaire. But he had no choice. His father was a co-owner of Ackerman’s, a giant cheap clothing chain in South Africa. At their home on the slopes of Cape Town’s Lion’s Head, his Zionist parents entertained visiting dignitaries. At age eight, Ronald read “Gone With the Wind” and a biography of Disraeli.
He Matriculated at age 16 from Sea Point Boys’ High School, and transferred to England hoping for a quick passage into Oxford University. Despite a letter from family contact Viscount Samuel, former High Commissioner for Palestine, and visitor of Balliol College, he was disallowed entry without sitting entry examinations. He returned to South Africa and entered University of Cape Town (UCT). At Cape Town University he majored in English and Latin and learned the raw facts of political life. Trinity College, Cambridge, followed, where he was more influenced by Enid Welsford, tutor in the English moralists, than by FR Leavis. An upper second was a disappointment. A dissertation on Paradise Lost won him a fellowship to the University of Virginia, but he found Charlottesville a “museum world”. Within six months, in 1956, he was back in Cape Town to launch the magazine Africa South. Politics had won his heart.
Africa South arrived at a dangerous time, ruffling the feathers of a regime that brooked less and less criticism. It gave a voice to communists, socialists, liberals (Alan Paton was one), the church and people of no known ideology. It was not scared of sacred cows. Economic sanctions, slave labor on white-owned farms, the status of South-West Africa, revolution – all were investigated or recommended. Segal had access to a family trust, for advertising would be difficult, and he could expect no support from his late father’s business friends.
Segal was a man of opinions, but not opinionated. His editorials were trenchant but full of common sense. He was harsh on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
He became a marked man, not helped by a speaking tour of US campuses, where he argued with passion for an economic boycott of South Africa. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at a fund raising event for Nelson Mandela and others on trial for treason in Pretoria – Segal ran the defense fund in Cape Town. His arrest one night in an African township, with a gun and pamphlets calling for a boycott of Afrikaner businesses, did not help. His car was torched. He lost his passport and was banned as a “communist” under the Suppression of Communism Act, making it a criminal offense for him to associate with other people.
After the Sharpeville shootings in 1960 and the banning of the ANC, every conceivable enemy of the state was detained. Oliver Tambo, designated to run the movement from abroad, had avoided arrest by being in Cape Town. Segal drove him in his mother’s Vauxhall into British Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and they both eventually arrived in England. When, two years later, Segal married Susan Wolff, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo’s children were their flower girl and page boy. Africa South continued in exile for a few editions until the Apartheid Government stopped the money. But then Tony Godwin, chief editor of Penguin Books, asked Segal to launch the Africa series. After Sharpeville, the public hungered for information and, for a generation, the PAL’s 65 titles, led by Basil Davidson and Ruth First, fulfilled that need. All the while he wrote books. After the autobiographical Into Exile (1963), he plunged into India, the US, the Middle East and a biography of Trotsky. His great quality was the commitment to work things out for himself, so he did not see these countries in the conventional way. He never set out to be controversial, though Oliver, his son, says he could be inordinately proud at having rubbed someone up the wrong way. Later he collaborated with Michael Kidron on a world atlas that ran into several editions. Perhaps his most ambitious project was his last: a companion set on the black diaspora, including a history of Islam’s role in Africa’s east coast slavery.
The Segal’s lived in a fine manor house in Walton-on-Thames, once the home of Justice John Bradshaw, who quite possibly signed Charles I’s death warrant in the living-room. Segal, whose commitment to local issues mirrored his involvement in international affairs, founded the Walton Society, a local residents’ association, which took over the majority of the town’s seats on the Elmbridge Borough Council. Its previous Tory majority spoke of the “rabid red” in its midst, but did not prevent the loss of control to the society and its largely independent allies.
In between travels, Segal had a passion for literature and classical music and collected first editions, in particular Henry James, George Orwell and Graham Greene. Round his bridge table could be found Peter Jay, Mark Boxer and Hugh Stephenson, while his poker mainstay was the Jewish Marxist – Joe Slovo.
When finally unbanned by the South African government, Segal returned to visit his homeland many times, including to a hero’s welcome in 1992 when he shared the stage with Mandela, Tambo, Slovo and others, in order to deliver a typically brilliant speech at the inaugural presentation of the Ruth First memorial prize for journalism on behalf of the trust which he had been instrumental in setting up after the activist’s death by parcel bomb in 1982.