David Hemson was born on 18 July 1945 in Durban, Natal. His father was a serviceman and by default Hemson was granted British citizenship. Hemson grew up in a very strict Christian household sheltered from the realities of what was happening in South Africa politically and socially. He was drafted out of high school to the South African Army. (He was one of the few men at his school who was drafted.)
After the army, between 1963 and 1964, Hemson was given the opportunity to be part of a foreign exchange in a small town in Minnesota, USA. According to an interview with Hemson (Maki and Lee, 2012) this trip gave him the opportunity to see the situation in the country from the outside and to realise that there was a big problem in the country. During his trip he spent a lot of time reading up on the African National Congress (ANC).
On his return to South Africa he began studying at the University of Natal and obtained an Honours degree. It was while being a student that his career as an activist began. He was an editor for various student papers and also articles criticising the apartheid government. Hemson joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) but after he joined NUSAS the group split and David joined other student activist groups. After completing his academic career he worked as a substitute lecturer. During this time he was approached by many African workers with complaints about the miniscule wages they were receiving. A colleague of his also approached him in need of another job and David began during research into wages at the university and cost of living. In the end the University gave a considerable increase to the African employees.
With the wage increase success, Hemson and his fellow activists decided to move the movement off campus. Together with Halton Cheadle, David Davies, Foszia Fisher and Karel Tip, Hemson set up the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF) in April/May 1972. The Benefit Fund worked closely with Harriet Bolton and Norman Daniels. The aim of the Benefit Fund was to provide the basis of worker organisations by informing them of their rights through an in-house newspaper, Isisebenzi, and through making representations with the Wage Board. With Cheadle, Hemson assisted in extending existing trade unions such as the African Textile Workers Industrial Union (A-TWIU) and formed new unions in sectors of the economy where none existed. Hemson was appointed the research officer for the Textile Workers Industrial Union (TWUI). Towards the end of 1972, he succeeded Ambrose Reddy, the Durban TWUI organiser and secretary. They began organising wage strikes for various trade unions. By January 1973 Durban was hit with a wave of wage strikes.
In February 1973, Hemson took up employment with the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU) in Johannesburg. He also became affiliated with the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE) which was founded in Durban in May 1973. Hemson’s activism career did not last long however, within six months of the strikes he was served with a banning order which prohibited him from meeting more than one person at a time and restricted him to his home for most of the day. Very soon after, Hemson went into exile in Britain.
While in Britain, Hemson received his PhD in sociology from the University of Warwick. After a couple of years in Britain, Hemson moved to Tanzania where he taught history and then did the same in Zimbabwe. His decision to move to Zimbabwe, however a political one, as it was an easy one as it was easier to meet with South African contacts. Hemson was part of a group of activists, along with Paula Ensor, Martin Legassik and Robert Petersen; who were suspended from the ANC in 1979. In 1985 they were expelled for trying to subvert the tripartite alliance. The four of them subsequently formed the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC. In March 1985, Hemson was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison for criticising the President Canaan Banana, president of Zimbabwe. He was held at a maximum security prison where he started a school. The school, the first to be started in a maximum security prison in Zimbabwe, is still running today.
On his return to South Africa he became involved in research on various social issues in South Africa. Working with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) he worked on changing South Africa’s water policy and evaluation of service delivery by municipalities. Hemson pioneered the ‘implementation research’ project Accelerating Sustainable Water Services Delivery (ASWSD). The project brought together 17 scientific bodies and implementing agencies to deploy infrastructure development for the delivery of safe drinking water in remote rural areas of South Africa. Hemson has also served as the water expert in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Lesotho impact evaluation project since 2009. He was also part of evaluating the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in the water and sanitation sectors of Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa. Hemson has co-authored Poverty and Water and his research on cholera was featured in the award winning documentary FLOW.
Hemson is currently working with engineers in South Africa, Germany and the United States of America to produce new packaged water plants and other technological innovations to meet the water and energy needs of the rural poor by using solar-voltaic designs.
Sithole, J. and Ndlovu, S., 2006. “The Revival of the Labour Movement, 1970-1980” in South African Democracy Education Trust The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 2: 1970-1980. Pretoria: Unisa Press