Nelson Mandela paid a special visit to St John’s Wood to visit his friend the campaigner, Mary Benson. The flat where she lived in Langford Court is tiny, with one room about 10 feet square, plus kitchen and bathroom. Mandela’s powerful presence must have overwhelmed the space, just as he and his bodyguards had startled the commissionaire downstairs. He sat in the same chair that he had used on a previous visit.
Mary’s Flat in St John’s Wood
By this time in 1999 Mary was incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis, her wheelchair folded in the corner, her fingers without feeling, but her brain as sharp as ever, and her spirit strong. She could still rise above her disabilities. She had bright blue eyes and loved wearing a blue scarf to set them off. She enjoyed watching the birds in the trees outside her window.
Mary Benson had a privileged white South African upbringing in Pretoria but, longing for more adventure, set off for Hollywood, where she worked for David Lean for a while. During the War, she volunteered for the South African Army and her obvious capabilities meant that she was promoted to Captain, having served in Cairo, Algiers, Italy and Athens.
Setting Up The Africa Fund
In 1948 she read Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton which was her epiphany. Having seen the suffering which war brings, she realised that the blacks in South Africa were also displaced persons in their own country. Feeling guilt, she determined to do something about it, and worked for some years with the Revd Michael Scott, who was well known for his campaigning for human rights in Namibia and South Africa. The two of them set up the Africa Fund, assisted by David Astor.
Secretary to the Defence Fund
Later Mary became secretary to the Defence Fund which was set up to help the 156 defendants in the Treason Trial. Mandela was one of the defendants and she would meet him clandestinely. In 1962 he had been smuggled out of South Africa and she gave him a tour of London which he hugely enjoyed. Photographs exist of him posing outside Parliament. He was nicknamed the ‘Black Pimpernel’ at this time.
First Biography of Nelson Madela
In 1963 Mary was asked if she would testify before the United Nations newly formed Committee on Apartheid. This she did, being the first South African to do so. Her testimony concentrated on the effects of apartheid on living human beings, within her experience. This, together with her other campaigning and fund raising work meant forging many contacts with all sorts of people. Her writing, including Nelson Mandela, the Man and the Movement was the first biography of him. She travelled around meeting the anti-apartheid front liners in secret. Naturally she attracted the notice of the authorities in South Africa and she was put under house arrest in 1966 and banned from further writing. Friends persuaded her to leave the country. It was a painful decision for her to take but that is when she finally settled in St John’s Wood.
She continued the campaigning from here, speaking out, writing articles, introducing influential people to each other and raising money. Among others, Oliver Tambo came for a meal at her flat. Athol Fugard became a lifelong friend and made many visits to Langford Court when he was working on his plays at the Tricyle Theatre.
BBC with Mary as Mandela is released
In 1990 Mandela was freed from prison. On that day a BBC television crew spent hours in her small flat looking to get her reactions as he walked out. He took a long time to do it, as one recalls, and Mary found it hard to provide soundbites. She remembers the next day well, when she phoned him where he was staying with Bishop Tutu. Winnie said he was in a meeting but Nelson grabbed the phone with delight at her call, and apologised for not having sent her a birthday card!
20 years ago in 1994, the first democratic elections took place in South Africa. Mary went back for several visits, noting the changes. In her Desert Island Discs interview, she says she is anxious about the future without Mandela in charge. Mary had written her autobiography A Far Cry: The Making of a South African and she updated it in the 1990s.
Mandela sent a tribute to her 80th birthday party at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square with thanks for her friendship over half a lifetime and for the help she had given him and his family during the dark days of apartheid.
Mary Died in 2000
Mary, who died in 2000, was a passionate person, with warmth and sincerity, tending to fall in love with men who were unavailable. She didn’t regret not being married, and lived and worked for the cause close to her heart, fighting injustice. Many people spoke at her funeral which was held at Kensal Green Crematorium and the Tricycle theatre. The Langford Court flat housed a beacon which will be noticed long after her death.