History highlighted: South Africa's relationship with Lewisham.

History highlighted: South Africa's relationship with Lewisham.

“The Freedom of the Borough is the highest honour that the Council can bestow. It’s awarded to ‘persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the Council, rendered eminent services to the borough.”

Did you know that Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop, had his first Parish in Lewisham? In fact he lived in Grove Park in the 70s and was honoured by the Lewisham borough council, with a “Freedom of the Borough award” in May 1990. I was surprised to learn this upon my first visit to Lewisham’s civic suite a few weeks ago. There I also learnt of the friendship link between Lewisham and Ekurhuleni; an area to the east of Johannesburg, signed in 2002.

As Journalists, when we think of news we’re conventionally taught to focus on reporting recent events. However, I believe that there is also news to be found in historical events. Whether it has happened in the past is not the point, the point is whether it is still significant today. If it is, then we must ensure the news is understood by the masses. That is the ethos of “history highlighted.”

Uncovering and highlighting this history is especially important today, as we continue to work towards equality and inclusion across global fields. As we think about the future of our communities and societies, and as we strive to not repeat mistakes made in the past. The late American novelist and social critic James Baldwin, whose work is still frequently cited today, writes “know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

This concisely articulates the importance of knowing your history, for the significant contribution it makes towards the brightness of ones future. More on topic, in an interview with Phillip van Niekerk for the Observer in 1995, Archbishop Tutu similarly says “forgetting is dangerous. You cease to be a human being if you forget. If you didn’t have history, you would forget where your home was. Forget you had a wife — some of course might want to — but identity has a very great deal to do with memory and when you want to weld people together it is through shared memories.”

As a Zimbabwean immigrant living in Lewisham, distant as it may seem, I never thought I would have such a personal and historical connection to the borough. I was born in Zimbabwe in 1997, my family moved to Slough (south east England) in 2000, then to Reading where I mostly grew up, before moving to London in 2015. Much of my family lives in South Africa and I know that ancestrally, some of our lineage derives from there. So, home to me has been less of a fixed residence and more “where the heart is.”

I find home in culture, in communities and in the relationships I build with people. My identity is more complex and intersectional than it is linear. This is the reality of many immigrants, including the South Africans who created home in London during apartheid. “Vella Pillay, Tennyson Makiwane, Abdul Minty, Yusuf Dadoo, Kader Asmal, Oliver Tambo and later Thabo Mbeki and the Pahad brothers (Aziz and Essop), among many others, all settled in England for periods and used it as a base from which to conduct the struggle against apartheid.”

We know that London has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. According to the 2011 census, the top four boroughs ranked by the highest population of black people, are all in South London. Lewisham is third on that list. A source taken from Lewisham library’s archive, in the section on Desmond Tutu reads: “in 1962 the church sent [Desmond Tutu] to London to take a degree in theology at King’s College, with a scholarship from the World Council of Churches.” He, alongside his wife and children, made the move together and “found it liberating to be able to walk freely in London, not required to show a pass to every policeman, and being treated courteously by white people.”

Tutu’s family lived in Golders Green, North London during their first British residence, it wasn’t until 1972 that he returned to England as Associate Director of the Theological Education Fund, based in Bromley. It was during this year that he also served as curate at St. Augustine’s Church in Grove Park. In Grove Park today, you can still visit the Desmond Tutu Peace Garden which was officially opened by the Archbishop himself, in 2009.

This is the beginning of an exciting time for Catford Town Centre. The more people involved, the better the needs of the whole community will be reflected. Have your say via Commonplace, and share the project with people you know locally.