BENSON, Mary (1919-2000)

Scope and Content

Papers of Mary Benson on South Africa, and the struggle against apartheid, 1948-1999; principally comprising correspondence and statements on apartheid, 1964-1970 (ICS 6/1); correspondence and papers on political prisoners and prisons in South Africa, 1963-1982 (ICS 6/2); general papers on Robben Island Prison, 1962-1983 (ICS 6/3); papers on individual prisoners on Robben Island, particularly Dennis Theodore Goldberg, and Nina Hassim, 1972-1979 (ICS 6/4); papers on individual South Africans, particularly Bram Fischer, Albert John Luthuli, Vuyisile Mini, Walter Sisulu and Toivo Hermann ja Toivo (ICS 6/5); miscellaneous papers on apartheid, 1964-1976 (ICS 6/6); papers on Treason Trials, 1957-1982 (ICS 6/7); press cuttings on Nelson Mandela, 1961-1990 ICS 6/8-11); correspondence with Winnie Mandela, 1962-1989, with associated press cuttings, 1977-1990, (ICS 6/12); correspondence and press cuttings on boycott of South Africa by British playwrights, [1957-1987] (ICS 6/13); cuttings on South African Politics, 1966-1985 (ICS 6/14); correspondence with Hilda Bernstein, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Mandela, Helen Suzman, Denis Healey, Ismail Ayob and others, mainly on the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela, 1964, 1977-1987 (ICS 6/15); correspondence and cuttings on Robben Island Prison, mainly on the plight of inmates, particularly Nelson Mandela, 1962-1983 (ICS 6/16); correspondence and cuttings on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Luthuli, 1961 (ICS 6/17); correspondence and cuttings on the African National Congress (ANC), 1957-1987 (ICS 6/18); correspondence on South Africa and international politics, 1957-1980 (ICS 6/19); correspondence and papers on Alan Paton, 1948-1995 (ICS 6/20); correspondence with Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, 1966-1993 (ICS 6/21); correspondence with Ruth First, 1962-1988 (ICS 6/22); correspondence with Walter Sisulu, 1987 (ICS 6/63); correspondence with Oliver Tambo, 11964-1986, and material relating to Tambo's visit to London, 1985 (ICS 6/24); correspondence with Wilton Mkwayi, 1989-1998 (ICS 6/25); correspondence with other activists, 1964-1989, correspondents include Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu and Govan Mbeki (ICS 6/26); correspondence on the murder of Matthew Goniwe and three other anti-apartheid campaigners, 1985 (ICS 6/27); file of miscellaneous correspondence and papers, including material relating to Guy Clutton-Brock, Christopher Gell, Laurence Gandar, Bessie Head, Trevor Huddleston, Helen Joseph, Mzwakhe Mbuli and Sue Sparks, 1952-1999 (ICS 6/28). Press cuttings, correspondence and draft articles by Benson relating to apartheid, Nelson Mandela and the Mandela family including reviews on publications about Mandela, 1986-1997 and correspondence with the Press Council on an article printed in the Spectator 'Time to Free Mandela', 2 May 1987, which Benson complained contained inaccuracies and false descriptions of Mandela; correspondence on publications on South Africa and apartheid. Photographs and negatives of Nelson Mandela including portraits, 1937-1993; in Transkei, 1937; preparing for the ANC's defiance campaign with Nina Sita, 1952 and with Yusef Dadoo, Maulvi Cachalia and Indian Youths, 1952; in the office of Mandela & Tambo, attorneys, 1952; helping with the washing up after lunch during the Treason Trial, 1960; in London, 1962, including with Mary Benson, outside Westminster Abbey, outside Westminster Hall, with Freda Levson and Mary Benson by the Thames and by the Thames opposite the Tower of London, 1962; with Algerian officers, 1962; with Oliver Tambo in Algeria, 1962; with Walter Sisulu in the courtyard of Robben Island prison, 1966; in the garden of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cape Town, 12 Feb 1990 and with Nigel Vermaas, being presented with an item marked 'Robben Island', Jul 1993. Postcards featuring Mandela, [1952-1954] including in Johannesburg sparring with professional boxer Jerry Moloi, 1954. Other photographs including of Zindzi Mandela reading Nelson Mandela's statement, 10 Feb 1985; landscapes in South Africa including Soweto and Transkei; Ruth First with Winnie Mandela ; group portrait of Basil Somhlahlo, Evelyn Mandel, Make Madele and Khazeka Somhlahlo; Mary Benson with Chief Albert Lutuli; Mandela family snapshots; film set, possibly on the life of Mandela; Walter Sisulu, [1960]; Lilian Ngoyi; group photograph of the Treason Trial defendants, 1956; Walter Sisulu with a young boy in his home, Jan 1990; Stanley Lollan, Nov 1961; Fatima Meer and Chief Albert Lutuli with two others; Annie Silinga with her family; Gert Shadrack Sibande with his family and unidentified photographs.

Administrative / Biographical History

Mary Benson was born on 8 December 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa and was educated there and in Great Britain. Before the Second World War she was a secretary in the High Commission Territories Office of the British High Commission in South Africa. Between 1941-1945 she joined the South African women's army, rising to the rank of Captain and serving as Personal Assistant to various British generals in Egypt and Italy.
After the war she joined UNRRA and then became personal assistant to the film director David Lean. In 1950 she became secretary to Michael Scott and first became involved in the field of race relations. In 1951 she became secretary to Tshekedi Khama, and in 1952, together with Scott and David Astor, she helped to found the Africa Bureau in London. She was its secretary until 1957 and travelled widely on its behalf. In 1957 she became secretary to the Treason Trials Defence Fund in Johannesburg. She became a close friend of Nelson Mandela, and assisted with smuggling him out of South Africa in 1962. In February 1966 she was served with a banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act and she left South Africa for London later that year.
In London she continued to work tirelessly against apartheid, writing to newspapers and corresponding with fellow activists in South Africa. In April 1999 Mandela visited her at her home during his state visit to Britain and later that year an 80th birthday party was staged for her at South Africa House.
Mary Benson died on 20 June 2000.
Among her writings are South Africa: the Struggle for a Birthright , Chief Albert Luthuli , The History of Robben Island , Nelson Mandela: the Man and the Movement , the autobiographical A Far Cry and radio plays on Mandela and the Rivonia trial.


The filing system used by Benson has been retained as far as possible, although items have often been placed into date order within particular files.

Access Information

Advance notice should be given. Access may be granted for scholarly research to non-embargoed materials. Users of the papers are required to sign for access. Personal correspondence is embargoed for a period of 15 years from the date of the correspondence. This embargo may be waived in writing by the authors of individual items or the ICS Information Resources Manager consultation with the Director.
Readers wishing to consult ICS 6/20-28 require the permission from ICS in conjunction with the Chairman of the Ruth First Memorial Trust, since this part of the collection is owned by the Trust rather than by ICS.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued to item level (see link to repository catalogue).

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Matti Watton, 2001, revised by Alan Kucia as part of the RSLP AIM25 Project. Revised by Sarah Drewery, 2008.

Separated Material

There are other Mary Benson archive holdings at Rhodes House (Tshekedi Khama and Africa Bureau papers), the Munger Library, Boston University (personal papers) and UCLA (ANC material).

Conditions Governing Use

A photocopying service is available, at the discretion of the ICS Library staff.No photocopying or quotation from personal correspondence shall be allowed. Quotation is permitted for no-embargoed items. The source of such quotation must be acknowledged.

Custodial History

ICS 6/1-6 were presented as a gift to the ICS by Mary Benson in the mid 1970s. ICS 6/7-19 were presented as a gift to the ICS by Mary Benson in the 1980s (1984 and 1989?). ICS 6/20-28 were deposited at the ICS on 27 Sep 2000 in accordance with her will, which gave this material to the Ruth First Memorial Trust, who therefore own this part of the collection.

Related Material

Published items donated by Mary Benson previously have been added to the ICS library in the normal way.
Several other ICS collections contain related material including African National Congress (ICS 1); Ruth First (ICS 117); Marion Friedmann (ICS 20); Ruth Hayman (ICS 30; Baruch Hirson (ICS 32); Mandela Treason Trials (ICS 52); Josie Palmer (ICS 57); Edward Roux (ICS 67); University of Cape Town SRC (ICS 81); University of Transkei (ICS 109);