Remembering Denis Rosen: Jewish socialist and anti-apartheid activist

Denis Rosen was a member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and a stalwart of the Non-Stop Picket. He died, in suspicious circumstances, in Botswana on 2 July 1989.

Denis Rosen defying police ban on anti-apartheid protest, 1985 (Source: City Group)

Denis was a socialist, an active trade unionist and a teacher.  At the time of his death he had been teaching in Botswana for almost two years.  He was killed in a hit and run accident on a road near his home.  His death was viewed suspiciously by his friends because, in the circumstances of the accident, it seems unlikely that the driver could not have seen him and seen him some way off.

Denis joined City Group in 1984 at a time when the Metropolitan Police had banned protests directly outside the South African Embassy.  Like the longer ban on the Non-Stop Picket in 1987, City Group responded to that ban with a campaign of defiance to break the ban. Denis was one of those arrested for crossing Duncannon Street in defiance of the ban.  He did the same again, in similar circumstances, in 1985.  In April 1986, he was in Trafalgar Square for the start of the Non-Stop Picket and was committed to regular shifts there until he left the country.  I never knew Denis well, but I remember covering a few shifts on the Picket with him in 1986 or early 1987 (probably, given he was a teacher and I was a sixth form student at the time, during the school holidays). I remember a small, bearded man in a slightly crumpled shirt and (I’m pretty certain) a velvet jacket.

In our archival work for this project, we have found a number of letters from (or relating to) Denis.  On 20 August 1985 (after City Group had been ‘disaffiliated’ from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement), he wrote the following letter to the Executive Committee of the AAM – a copy is held in the AAM Archive at Rhodes House in Oxford and another is amongst the City Group papers we are cataloguing at present.

I was at yesterday’s Save Benjamin Moloise picket, and I went today, from 1 to 6.30pm, with at most 150 other people. While there, I helped to distribute material advertising the march & rally called by City Anti Apartheid Group (on 25/8/85). It is worth writing, by the way, that a considerable minority of those who attended today’s picket, also attend C[ity] AA Friday pickets. I was severely criticised by one of your members for distributing the ad to picketers. I was accused of splitting the movement, diverting energy. This was done in a vehement, angry way. My arguments were brushed aside. Later, two members of CAA were approached in the same way. I witnessed an argument take place, that could only comfort our enemies… Is AAM so large and strong an organization that it can afford to sneer at the people who did actually attend these pickets, and who may have been instrumental in saving Mr Moloise’s life? I’m not an AAM member, but I felt the cause important enough to attend – where were all the AAM people?…It is for AAM to explain why it allows its members to publicly vilify CAA supporters and to bring the ENTIRE movement into disrepute by provoking unpleasant scenes…the very person who was attacking me was selling the Morning Star!

In November 1987, shortly before he left the UK for Botswana, Denis wrote to City Group requesting a donation towards legal costs of £850 he had incurred as the result of an arrest at Tower Hamlets Town Hall during a protest against that council’s policy on homeless families.  His letter stated,

My national union has refused me legal aid. In making this request I would remind you that I have agreed to assign any money due from the police from the [South African Embassy Picket] campaign of 1984 and my arrest at the embassy in June this year, to City AA.

City Group appear to have taken their time responding to this request, but eventually made a donation of £50 towards his costs in January 1988. Following Denis’s death, his sister Marion made a donation to City Group’s anti-apartheid work in his memory.

City Group Singers performed at a memorial event for Denis held at Dalston Unity Club that drew together the many people he had worked with politically in London.  In addition to being a supporter of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, Denis was a member of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, an active member of the National Union of Teachers in Hackney, and also Islington Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action.  With this last group, he was involved in monitoring and opposing racist attacks targeting Bengali families on the Highbury Estate, offering practical support to the families under siege and volunteering with the play scheme set up for children on the estate.  In the spirit of the Non-Stop Picket, he combined opposition to apartheid with practical anti-racist work in London.

If you knew Denis Rosen better than me, please share your memories of him.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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