Spotlight on 3 French personalities who strove for Liberation in South Africa

Governance and Human Rights

When Ms Catherine Colonna, French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs visited Freedom Park in Pretoria, South Africa, in June 2023, she paid tribute to the significance of this memorial site, and to the efforts made to remember and honour the past struggles and freedom fighters to inform the present.

Alongside the many South Africans who carried out the struggle for the liberation and dignity of all in the country, were people around the world who strived to support them by calling out the illegality, indignity and cruelty of the apartheid regime. Individuals and organisations dedicated tremendous efforts, each in their own capacity, to offering solidarity and support to the anti-Apartheid movement and towards a free and democratic South Africa.
Here we shed the spotlight on three of them: Danielle Mitterrand, Jacqueline Grunfeld, and Marcel Trigon. Their story exemplifies international solidarity between people and nations, based on shared values of freedom and equality.

Danielle Mitterand

Danielle Mitterrand was born in 1924 in Verdun, France. At the age of 17, in the course of the Second World War, she became a liaison officer in the Resistance.

As early as 1984, Danielle Mitterrand met South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, who told her about the situation in South Africa. In 1986, she created France Libertés, (today known as Danielle Mitterrand Foundation) a public benefit Foundation in France. Since its inception, France Libertés has stood up for human rights and supported the resistance of oppressed. From the beginning, Danielle Mitterrand appointed Breyten Breytenbach as a member of the Board of the Foundation.

Soon after its establishment, the organisation committed to support the liberation of South Africa through various events outside of South Africa. For example, in Dakar in July 1987, Danielle Mitterrand brought together academics, painters, artists and intellectuals opposed to the regime of oppression of the black population in South Africa. For the first time, a dialogue was established between intellectuals and leaders and members of the ANC. It was the first anti-apartheid meeting outside of South Africa. Danielle Mitterrand was proud to have brought together members of the ANC who were considered terrorists, and it was thanks to numerous artists, writers and painters that admitted to having discovered the unjust and inhuman reality of South Africa.

Also, in May 1990, Danielle Mitterrand initiated the stay in Gironde, France, of 26 South African children (14 boys and 12 girls – aged between 10 and 16), who were living in exile and attending a secondary school in Dar El Salam, Tanzania. Most of the children’s parents were imprisoned and victims of the Apartheid regime. This group of children was accompanied by four adults (two men, two women) who had arrived in France with false identities because they were ANC fighters.

In 1994, Danielle Mitterrand attended Nelson Mandela’s investiture ceremony with President François Mitterrand. France was the first Western nation to welcome this great hero of the struggle, back in 1990 when he was President of the African National Congress (ANC). In turn, President Mitterrand was the first Head of State to be welcomed by President Mandela, just a few weeks after his election in 1994.

One of the last chapters of Danielle Mitterrand’s biography book “La levure du pain” (1992) [Bread Yeast] is entitled ” Mandela”, where she mentioned her friendship and admiration for him: “He has only been out of prison for just over six months. When he got off the plane, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm, I felt like I was going to welcome a lifelong friend”. According to an article by Reuters, soon after his liberation, President Mandela declared that he wanted to thank Danielle Mitterrand for “her creative and imaginative role” the past few years.

France Libertés committed to support the liberation of South Africa and to assisting vulnerable people in the country, through various projects in South Africa:

  • In 1988, France Libertés supported the African Child Development Center for a project against malnutrition in the former Bantoustan Lebowa (Limpopo).
  • France Libertés supported an early learning resource unit association for a project on pre-school education in Athlone, Western Cape.
  • In 1989, France Libertés helped the nursery Imbeleko Women’s organisation in Tsakané, Gauteng.
  • In 1990, Independent Mediation Service of South Africa received financial support from France Libertés for legal assistance.
  • France Libertés mobilized French stakeholders to fight against the Apartheid regime. For instance, in June 1990 on the roof of the Trocadero Foundation, there was a gala in honour of Nelson Mandela, who, during his European tour upon his release from prison, made a point of paying his first official visit to France to thank the woman who had played a major role in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. French President François Mitterrand was there, along with Aimé Césaire, Barbara, Peter Brook, Renaud, Thabo Mbeki and author Breyten Breytenbach.
  • In 1991, France Libertés provided 50kgs of medicine for the dispensary of Gugulethu, Western Cape, for which were delivered through diplomatic channels. France Libertés also funded the construction of the nutrition centre at Winterveldt, Gauteng, in 1991.
  • In 1992, filmmaker Rina Sherman, exiled in France, received a grant from the Foundation to produce the movie “eKhaya retrouvée, pays d’ombres” [Finding eKhaya, a country of shadows].
  • In 1996, France Libertés provided financial support to the African Self Help Association for the schooling of 35 children in Kindergarten school in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
  • In 1999, France Libertés funded three scholarships of unprivileged students to study at the University of Cape Town.

The total funding directed by France Libertés to South Africa is estimated at 112 682,39 euros.

Jacqueline Grunfold

Born on the 10th of May in 1917 in France, Jacqueline Grunfeld had her first militant commitment during the second world war and fought against the Nazis regime. During the second world war, through the semi-clandestine network of Eclaireurs de France, Ms Grunfeld manages shelters for the persecuted and resistance fighters in the South-West of France. Later on in 1949, she became one of the first and most active members of MRAP (Mouvement contre le racism, l’antisémitisme et pour la paix – Movement against racism, antisemitism et for peace), which from the 80’s started to fight against the Apartheid regime.

She has three children including Catherine which married in 1976 to Khiphusizi Josiah Jele, one of the main leaders of the ANC and the first post-Apartheid Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations from 1995 to 1999. Through her son-in-law, Jacqueline began to take an interest in the situation in Southern Africa. She became particularly involved in the fight against the Apartheid regime. She worked closely with ANC representatives in France, first Neo Numzane, then Godfrey Motsepe, and in particular with Dulcie September, contributing to the growth of the anti-apartheid movement. Dulcie’s horrific murder, attributed to apartheid agents and sending shockwaves throughout France, was extremely painful for Jacqueline.

In October 1984, Jacqueline Grunfeld represented MRAP and MRAP-Solidarité in Geneva at a conference on “Women and children under the Apartheid regime”. Around the same time, she was part of a delegation that met with Claude Cheysson (then French Minister for Foreign affairs) on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with political prisoners from South Africa.

To enable the opening of an official ANC representation office in France, Jacqueline Grunfeld contributed to the establishment and to the activities of a non-profit organisation called “The Friends of the ANC”, together with Christine Abdelkrim and Joyce Tillerson.

Jacqueline Grunfeld’s activities were particularly appreciated by the women’s section of the ANC, now the Women’s League, whose President, Albertina Sisulu, and her colleagues, Gertrude Shope and Baleka Mbete, made a point of thanking her in person during her visit to Johannesburg in 1992 (Please see attached the picture).

  • Assistance to South Africans in exile and victims of the political violence :
  • On Jacqueline Grunfeld’s initiative, MRAP-Solidarité provided educational and health material for young South African female students at the SOMAFCO school in Tanzania.
  • Thanks to her, MRAP-Solidarité also sponsored the Dora Tamana creche in Lusaka, which was set up by the ANC for the children of South Africans in exile. Jacqueline Grunfeld travelled to Zambia on several occasions to provide educational and health assistance to the creche. She also visited the Namibian refugee camps in Zambia, including Nyango camp.
  • In a report she presented to the General Assembly of MRAP-Solidarité held on 11 October 1986, which was attended by Dulcie September and Eddy Amkongo of SWAPO, as well as Doctor Iyambo, head doctor of the Namibian refugee camp at Kazwa-Zul (Angola), Jacqueline Grunfeld recalled the main actions undertaken that year, in particular the collection of tons of medicine and equipment that were sent to the South African and Namibian refugee camps, and funding for the purchase of an electrocardiograph.
  • Through the MRAP Anti-Apartheid Commission, she garnered assistance for the victims of the political violence that unfolded in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s.

Marcel Trigon

Born on 13 May 1935, in Agimont, Belgium, Marcel Trigon was a communist activist, then member of the French Communist Party (FCP); mayor of Arcueil (Seine, Val-de-Marne) from 1964 to 1997, general councillor for Val-de-Marne (1985-2004).

A student at the FCP’s one-month central school in 1960, Marcel Trigon distinguished himself by his “efforts to reflect on the development of united action” and by his initiatives to “overcome narrow-mindedness and reluctance to unite”. Based in Arcueil, he took part in the secretariat of the Communist section and was elected to the committee of the Seine-Sud federation in 1961. The following year, he became head of the Communist section in Arcueil.

Rencontres nationales contre l’Apartheid (RNCA) [National Gatherings Against Apartheid] is a non-governemental organisation created in July 1986 by French anti-Apartheid activists including Marcel Trigon, who was elected the organisation’s first President. Its objective was to gather and organise people to intensify the fight against the Apartheid regime, by raising awareness in France, putting pressure on the French government who violated international sanctions, and offering tangible solidarity to ANC and the Liberation fighters.

Under the leadership of Marcel Trigon, RNCA organised several anti-Apartheid campaigns in France, such as the demonstration in front of the Embassy of South Africa in Paris launched on 11 October 1985, which was repeated every year until the end of the Apartheid regime. Many events were organised to protest against sports events that included South African sport teams (rugby and tennis).

Support of Marcel Trigon to Dulcie September

Marcel Trigon offered to graciously host Dulcie September in Arcueil, in order for her to save money. It also helped connecting with French people, and many meetings were organised with the people of Arcueil who regarded Dulcie September as a guest of honour. Marcel Trigon intervened to the French Home Office in order to provide protection to Dulcie September after she told him about the threats she had received, and that she feared for her life.

Under Marcel Trigon’s leadership, RNCA had strong relations with the ANC representation office in France, when by Dulcie September was its chief representative. They published joint press releases and organise joint meetings.

Today, a secondary school is named after Dulcie September in Arcueil.

During his first state visit in France, President Nelson Mandela insisted to visit Arcueil to pay a tribute to Dulcie September. He was welcomed by Marcel Trigon, then a delegation went to lay a wreath of flowers by the plaque on the building where Dulcie September lived. President Mandela paid a tribute to her compatriot and fellow Liberation fighter in a moving speech.

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