Audrey ‘Bobbie’ (her childhood nickname) Cobden was born in Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng) on 15 April 1923. She grew up in Johannesburg and when she was 12 years old, her parents – Sydney Dodson (who was the piano department manager of a furniture business in the city) and Olive (neè Hiles) got divorced.
After finishing school, she pursued a degree in psychology at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and subsequently opened a child psychology practice in the city of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the South African army as a truck driver, driving all over the country in a recruiting convoy. When the war ended, she underwent psychoanalysis at Anna Freud’s clinic in London, England, as part of her training in child psychology. She continued with her practice from time to time, however, her involvement in anti-apartheid politics became her main focus.
In the late 1950s, Cobden worked for the multiracial Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) alongside people like Jack Unterhalter, Alan Paton, and Peter Brown, before the apartheid government forced it to disband. Around the same time, she played an integral role during the 1957 bus boycott when 70,000 Black workers living in the townships on the fringes of Johannesburg refused to accept an increase in bus fares out of anger at the government’s unwillingness to support a bus service for Black people while it was willing to support bus services for White people. In protest, they walked to and from the city every day for several months and Cobden assisted by organising ways to get them to work while keeping their morale high. Furthermore, she helped White people understand the reasons behind the boycott.
During the 1955 - 1956 Treason Trial, she worked tirelessly for the Treason Trials Defence Fund, supporting all 156 defendants (including Nelson Mandela) and their families. In 1959, she helped to organise the production of King Kong, a jazz musical that introduced African music to White South Africans and launched Miriam Makeba’s career.
She practised as a child psychologist for some years while living in Durban in the late 1960s before returning to politics when she founded the Domestic Workers and Employers’ Project (DWEP), an organisation which aimed to secure better wages and improved working conditions for Black domestic workers.
She married her husband, Harry Cobden, in 1955. Although her political work at times left very little room for a personal life, she remained devoted to him throughout their marriage. When Harry decided to move closer to his sons who lived in Canada, although she was not too happy to leave South Africa, she agreed and they left the country in 1981. Once they settled in Kingston, Ontario, she started serving her new community working for disadvantaged children on the board of the Sunnyside Children’s Centre, the elderly on the board of the Frontenac-Kingston Council on Aging, as well as the dying in palliative care at St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital.
Following Harry’s death in 1997, she moved to Peterborough, in the same province of Ontario, where she enrolled in a course to learn Ojibway, a language spoken by one of the indigenous groups in Canada. This allowed her to meet people who, like her, were enraged with Canada’s poor treatment of indigenous peoples, as she took up their cause.
After dedicating her life to fighting racism first in South Africa then later in Canada, Audrey ‘Bobbie’ Cobden died on 29 March 2016 in Peterborough at the age of 92. Upon her passing, her stepson, Michael Cobden, described her as “a great defender of the weak, the poor and the elderly” (Cobden, 2016).
- Cobden, M. (2016). Audrey ‘Bobbie’ Cobden obituary, [online], Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/19/audrey-bobbie-cobden. (Accessed on 4 August 2020)
- Cobden, M. (2016). Lives Lived: Audrey (Bobbie) Cobden, 92, [online], Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/lives-lived-audrey-bobbie-cobden-92/article30884062/. (Accessed on 4 August 2020)