Images of a life lived to the full

THIS is a book about a man who has lived a full life.

Richard van der Ross has seen most of what life has to offer someone who was born in South Africa during the heady times of colonialism, racism, segregation and has tracked all the social, political, economic and cultural transformations leading to the current dispensation.

While he is best known as a founder member of the Labour Party, a former South African ambassador to Spain Andorra and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Western Cape, Van der Ross is a champion of the crusade to redefine the important position of "coloured" people in South Africa and their role in politics between the white minority and the African majority.

Also formerly a teacher, school principal and educationist, Van der Ross is an accomplished researcher as has been shown in his two books, Up from Slavery and Black Countess, which are also published by Ampersand Press.

Up From Slavery gives vivid accounts of the trials and tribulations of slaves in the Cape, detailing their origins and how they fared under the vile white slave master colonialists.

Black Countess tells the bittersweet story of a Wynberg native, Martha Solomons, who was born to a slave mother and became Lady Grey, the Countess of Stamford, the wife of Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford.

A Blow To The Hoop was launched in Cape Town in March at a function hosted by city mayor Dan Plato.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wrote the foreword to the autobiography, while she was executive mayor of Cape Town.

It is apt as Zille and Van der Ross - who became a Freeman of the City of Cape Town in September 1988 - have been, in Zille's own words, "associates and friends for many years, as our paths crossed both in education and politics".

Zille says: "This autobiography, especially its account of Professor Van der Ross' childhood years in rural Cape Town, with most of its basic amenities, also offers the reader a unique picture of life in early 20th century Plumstead and the southern suburbs of Cape Town, with detail of its physical, social and political character."

Zille says significant aspects of Van der Ross' political life touch on his intimate knowledge of early and mid-20th century Cape Town political movements, including the African Political Organisation, Non-European Unity Movement, Anti-Coloured Affairs Department Movement, All African Convention, National Liberation League, SA Coloured People's Organisation, Black Sash, the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress.

He deals with his involvement with most of these organisations and their work, and how their presence and efforts helped change Western Cape's socio-political canvas.

An observant reader will be moved by most of the unintended humour that surfaces intermittently,

An example is the entry about the Van der Ross family car when he was a child, which "was started, if it felt so inclined, by turning a crank handle vigorously, and coaxing it by setting two levers marked advance and retard on the steering wheel".

But, moments of sadness at the face of apartheid are also vivid in Van der Ross' memory, remembering discrimination against coloured students in the early years of the University of Western Cape.

This included being barred from attending postmortems where patients or corpses were white and being excluded from lecture rooms where the discussions were about white patients or corpses.

Other accounts include his incredulous meeting with then Prime Minister BJ Vorster, during which the politician spewed racist vitriol and ultimately invited Van der Ross to become a planner in the Nationalist Party's Department of Coloured Affairs.

Though written in a well-structured manner that would appeal most to avid readers of history, anyone who wishes to get an almost tangible glimpse of the life and times of fellow South Africans of substance, this is a book to read.