Anti-apartheid campaigner and passionate Labour party activist. Ben Bousquet, who has died, aged 66, on the western Cape in South Africa, was a migrant from St Lucia, who became a Labour party local councillor and parliamentary candidate in London’s North Kensington, as well as an internationally renowned campaigner against South African apartheid.
He was from a rural family in St Lucia, and after finishing school, he came to Britain alone as an 18-year-old in 1957. Even before leaving the Caribbean, he had a lively awareness about the complex intertwining of race, economics and politics which was to become the focus of his life and work. Describing his reasons for leaving his island, he would say that “the whole system in the Caribbean is based on two things: race and class”.
Typically, almost as soon as he arrived in London, he began working, in Notting Hill, with the best known activist in the migrant community, the communist Claudia Jones, who was about to launch the first immigrant newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. During his first year in Britain, however, Bousquet found paid employment with the BBC, as the subject of the first documentary about race on British television, when the BBC’s Tonight programme followed him around Brixton looking for a room. Predictably, the film was a record of cruel and sometimes insulting rejections, which were a painful eye opener for most of its audience. Talking about the programme later on, Bousquet said it was “an awful experience. That hurt. Yeah. That hurt a lot. It hurts even now.”
The Notting Hill riots followed soon after in 1958, and Bousquet became part of a group that organised a series of events, initially aimed at raising funds for victims of the riots. These were part of a network of events that later on crystallised in the early Notting Hill carnival.
In June 1959, a meeting in London was organised to promote the boycott of goods from South Africa. Julius Nyerere, then the president of the Tanganyika Africa National Union, addressed the gathering. This was a defining moment in Bousquet’s life. Within a year, the boycott committee became the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), and Bousquet threw himself into its activities, becoming especially engaged in its black solidarity and trade union committees, and later being elected as an executive member. The consistency of his dedication to the cause of South African freedom illustrates the sort of man he was.
Bousquet’s other passion was the Labour party. During the 1960s, AAM had brought him into contact with the leading figures on the British left, and by the next decade he was a Labour party activist, with Notting Hill remaining the most important site of his activities in Britain. In 1978, he was elected to the North Kensington council and he remained attached to the area for the rest of his life. He was the Labour party’s candidate for North Kensington in two by-elections during the 1980s, but when the sitting MP, the Conservative Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, died in 1988, Bousquet was dropped in favour of a white woman. (Ironically, Bousquet served as an usher at Rhys Williams’ funeral, welcoming Margaret Thatcher, who was among the mourners.)
His experience in Labour party politics intensified his commitment to the attempt to create a black section within the Labour party. At the same time he is remembered for his work as an activist in promoting the cultural interests of the black community, in particular, in establishing the community centre, Yaa Asantewaa, off Harrow Road, North Kensington.
He was widely known as a warm-hearted generous person who was passionate in promoting the cause of racial equality. He was also a most fervent Arsenal supporter; a season ticket holder for many years, he not only attended the big games, but was a regular for the reserve matches and was famous for writing letters to the club management about which players they should get rid of.
Towards the beginning of the 1990s, Bousquet suffered a heart attack. He retired from his job in the urban planning department at Lambeth council, and moved with his English wife, Mary – they had been together since the 1960s – to a farm in Sudbury, Suffolk, but he seemed almost as active as he had ever been. During this period, he campaigned for the recognition of black veterans in memorial celebrations, and began researching for a book (with Colin Douglas), West Indian Women at War (1994). He also campaigned for the reburial in St Lucia of the bones of some black prisoners who had been shipwrecked in 1796 off the Devon coast near Ilfracombe.
At the end of 2002, he and Mary retired to South Africa where he died. She survives him.
Paul Boateng writes: Ben Bousquet and his beloved wife Mary, striding across the bush around their home in the Overberg region of the western Cape, were a striking sight to eyes unaccustomed to multiracial couples in this part of the world.
If Afrikaner and other eyebrows were raised initially, this still British couple soon became very much part of their community. In South Africa, Ben, true to his ANC and anti-apartheid roots, threw himself into community development work in the townships. Music, history and politics were central to his life in South Africa just as they had been in Notting Hill. Visiting Ben you were as likely to find a multiracial mix of musicians – he managed local a band – as you were political activists from all over the world.
Seeing Ben just before he died, he spoke with his customary passion about his latest historical researches uncovering the previously untold tale of a Trinidadian, Sylvester Williams, who had practised law in Cape Town before going on to become a Westminster city councillor in the early 20th century.
Asking me for the latest news, he could not resist a dig at the Anglo-US alliance in Iraq prompting his wife to remark: “Can’t we leave Bush out of this deathbed scene?” We all laughed. In the end that great warm heart gave up. It had seen him through so many battles. They were all worth fighting, but at the last what mattered was not just how he had lived his life but where he was able to die, in a free, non-racial, democratic South Africa.
Ben Bousquet, political activist, born 1939; died June 19 2006