Billy Modise (1930 - )
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Billy Modise
Billy Modise was born in Bloemfontein, in the then Orange Free State, on 8 December 1930. He grew up in a heightened political environment.
He received an Anglican scholarship to attend secondary school in Modeerport.
In the apartheid-pressured environment, black people were expected to step aside when meeting white people on the pavements of the city. Among other things, this sort of experience conscientised the young Modise, opening his eyes to the suffering affecting blacks.
From 1950 to 1955, just after matriculation, he worked at a wholesale store and later for a medical doctor, a Dr van Aswegen, to raise money to go to university. Dr Aswegen had attended the University of Cape Town where he interacted with communists and liberals who opened his eyes to the general political conditions in South Africa. After qualifying, he decided to start assisting black patients whose conditions he found unacceptable.
In January 1955, Modise went to the University of Fort Hare to study medicine. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) on the train while en route to Fort Hare. At Fort Hare, he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalised for six months.
In the Eastern Cape while still a student, he worked with, among others, Prof. Z.K. Matthews and Govan Mbeki. From these seasoned political activists he would absorb the politics of liberation, which would be imbedded in his mind from then on. He became secretary of the ANC Youth League Fort Hare branch, and later secretary of the Student Representative Council.
His condition forced him to switch from medicine to a BA degree, which he completed in 1959. While still at Fort Hare, Modise was also a member of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), of which he was an executive member. In 1960, he was asked by Nusas to attend a conference in Sweden. Nusas arranged with the European student formations for a Swedish scholar-ship for Modise.
He arrived in Sweden in January 1960. At the university Modise attended, there were only 11 black students out of a total of 5 000. He started mobilising all university formations against the apartheid state. It started small in the university but grew nationally. Between 1960 and 1972, Modise’s political mobilisation extended to Finland, Denmark and Norway where he set up ANC networks.
In 1975, he was redeployed to the United States to work in New York for Habitat, the United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Settlements, where he was preparing policy papers on resettlement. From 1976 to 1988, he also worked for the UN, training exiled Namibians in political science, sociology and education, among other courses.
Modise left the UN in 1988 to work for the ANC full-time. He was sent back to Sweden as chief representative of the ANC. In 1991, he was recalled from Sweden to head Matla Trust, established to prepare for the 1994 elections at the then Shell House ANC head-quarters.
In 1995, he was posted to Canada as high commissioner to keep the active support of the ANC alive.
Modise was the Chief of State Protocol from 1999 to 2006.
Billy Modise opted for a fight against oppression rather than accepting secondary citizenship status in his country. He braved the unknown, traversing many countries in search of an answer to the abhorrent system of apartheid in South Africa.
Modise is now retired from government.