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 (now University of Kwazulu-Natal – UKZN) where he obtained an Honours degree. It was at UKZN that his career as a political activist began. David Hemson was actively involved in student politics in the 1960s and served as Vice President (International Relations) NUSAS. He was an editor for various student papers and also wrote articles criticising the apartheid government. Hemson joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).
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 minuscule wages they were receiving. A colleague of his also approached him in need of another job and Hemson 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. Together with Halton Cheadle, in March 1971, Hemson established the Wages Commission on the Durban campus; this was then extended nationally.
In the early 1970s he edited Race Relations News and was charged for being a leader of a march at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) students, which led to the release of Winnie Mandela and others from prison.
Following the wage increase success, Hemson and his fellow activists decided to work 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 worker organisations by informing them of their rights through an in-house newspaper, Isisebenzi, and through making representations with the Wage Board.
Together with Cheadle, Hemson assisted in expanding 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 (TWIU). Towards the end of 1972, he succeeded Ambrose Reddy, the Durban TWIU organiser and secretary. They began organising wage strikes for various trade unions. By January 1973 Durban was hit with a wave of wage strikes.
Together with Harriet Bolton he organized the textile industry as well as dock and abattoir workers. After participating in the Durban strikes in 1973, organizing unions and serving as secretary of the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE), which was founded in Durban in May 1973. He was banned with others in January 1974.
In February 1973, Hemson took up employment with the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU) in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). Hemson’s activism career did not last long. 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 was restricted to his home for most of the day. Very soon after, Hemson went into exile to Britain.
In exile he completed his doctorate on Durban dockers with Martin Legassick at the University of Warwick and was conferred with a PhD in sociology. He became one of the founders of the Marxist Workers Tendency of the African National Congress (ANC). In 1985 they were expelled for trying to subvert the tripartite alliance.
After a couple of years in Britain, Hemson moved to Tanzania where he taught history. Hemson was part of a group of activists, along with Paula Ensor, Martin Legassick and Robert Petersen; who were expelled from the ANC in November 1979 while lecturing at the University of Dar es Salaam.
He relocated to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and became active in trade union organization in Harare, Bulawayo and elsewhere. In March 1985, Hemson was arrested and sentenced to three months in Chikurubi Maximum for criticising 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. In 1985 he was detained in for “organizing a workers’ party” and deported back to the United Kingdom (UK).
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 (USA) 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.
Presently, David Hemson lives with his family in the USA. He is an active socialist and supporter of independent trade unions in Belarus and socialist movements in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and elsewhere. He is working to help establish secondary education otherwise denied to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
- Maki, B. and Lee, D., 2012. David Hemson[online]. Available at https://statisticalcourage.info[23 October 2012]|
- 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
- Hemson, D. (2022). Email from David Hemson to SAHO, dated 6 March 2022