The apartheid movement in South Africa forced many people to leave the country. Some left of their own volition, seeking personal freedom, but for others the decision to move away from their home was motivated by a greater cause, the desire to fight for the freedom of a nation that was imprisoned by the unjust laws of the apartheid government. One such person was the late Billy Modise.
Initially a medical student at Fort Hare University, Modise accepted a scholarship to finish his studies at Lund University in Sweden after the government introduced the University Extension Bill, which legalised tertiary segregation in terms of race. The restrictions placed on black South African students, combined with the aftermath of Sharpeville which saw police crack down on political activists, resulted in Modise being forced to leave South Africa in 1960 in order to continue his studies abroad.
On arriving in Sweden Modise didn’t limit his activities to academic pursuits, but rather used the opportunity afforded to him to bring awareness to the situation back home, even inspiring his Swedish class mates to sell their blood to clinics, in an effort to raise funds for the liberation movement. Modise’s activities also extended beyond South Africa: at Lund Modise met students from other liberation movements in Africa, whom he worked with, also inspiring local students, some of whom went on to enter Swedish politics. It is thanks in good measure to the efforts of Billy Modise that Sweden emerged as one of the most vehement and unwavering supporters of the ANC, and the liberation struggle as a whole.
After 31 years in exile, Billy returned to South Africa in 1991. As Head of the Matla Trust, Modise put himself to work in the area of voter education, an essential task given that the majority of South Africans had never before participated in an election. Over the next fifteen years Modise continued to serve the country in a variety of roles, including taking up the post of South African High Commissioner to Canada in 1995. From 1999 until his retirement in 2006, Modise worked as the Chief of State Protocol, putting his many years of international relations to good work.
In 2008 Billy Modise received the Order of Luthuli from former President Thabo Mbeki. He was also the recipient of the Premier of the Free State’s Excellence Award for the contribution he made to the liberation struggle, and the country as a whole. Last year Modise was bestowed the Swedish Order of the Polar Star by the Swedish Ambassador to South Africa.
Billy Modise passed away in Gauteng on the 20th June 2018 at the age of 87. President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared a category one state funeral for the great anti-apartheid activist, who did so much for his people for so long. He will be laid to rest on Thursday at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg.