by Greg Lanning
It was a familiar sight in South Africa. A group of black labourers were digging a trench along the side of the road under the watchful eye of a large white supervisor, who sat on a wooden box, and ordered them to work harder to get the job done faster. A group of students from the Cape Town University campus were walking down the road. One of the students suggested that the work would indeed go faster if only the white supervisor would get off his box and join his team digging. This suggestion was not well received. His friends quickly dragged him away from the enraged white man before he could re-arrange the student’s face.
That student was Robert Molteno, radical publisher, editor, social activist, and Living Streets campaigner who has died suddenly aged 79. The incident in Cape Town captures many of the qualities that animated his life. He was analytical, he was involved, he was quick to engage where he saw injustice, he was funny, and there was an irrepressible element of cheek. He was driven by the belief that, “We live in this world to enjoy it; to understand it; and to make it a better place for all of us.”
Those who got to know him in the last decade of his life saw these qualities in action in his work for Living Streets. Many of them were among the 250 people who gathered for a memorial event to celebrate his life, that started with a walk along the Thames from the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park to St Mary’s Battersea. But perhaps few had known about earlier stages of his life, where his exceptional qualities were equally evident in his work in other spheres – as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, a teacher of politics in newly independent Zambia, and for 27 years as editorial director of a radical academic publisher – based in London, but with global reach.
Throughout the 1980’s, alongside his publishing work, he had taken a leading role in campaigns to save Inner London Education Authority from abolition. Though they were ultimately defeated, the network of friendships and contacts he had built up as founder and chair of the Wandsworth Association of School Parents, convinced him of the power of local action. At the time of his retirement in 2008, concerned by the dangers of climate change, he looked for ways to harness the power of the community to reduce the dominance of cars and thus the level of carbon emissions. In 2010 he and Susie Morrow set up Wandsworth Living Streets to engage local people to press for safer and more user-friendly streets. Over the next decade, Robert recruited a growing group of volunteer activists. He built public support, organised petitions, talked to teachers and parents at school gates, and lobbied councillors, road engineers and transport planners. These efforts contributed to a significant shift in Wandsworth Council’s policies. He and Susie received a national award in recognition of their effective campaigning to get a 20 mph limit across all residential roads. In 2020 he recruited volunteers to help with trials of protective School Street closures, and in 2021 Wandsworth announced that they were expanding the scheme.
In 2016 he and Jeremy Leach from Southwark took the initiative in forming a London-wide Living Streets group, to strengthen the pro-pedestrian movement across the capital. The group pressed the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to improve pedestrian crossings across London. In addition to his persistent, detailed engagement with the engineers and planners, Molteno organised teams of volunteers to interview four thousand users at 45 sites around London. In 2019 Transport for London reviewed over 600 signals to make the crossing times safer and to save people thousands of waiting hours.
The national Living Streets website summed up his contribution:
“We can simply step out the door and look around to see the impact of his actions:
If you press a button on a crossing in London and you don’t have to wait as long as you used to…that is Robert.
If you walk along a street in Wandsworth and see 20mph signs and road traffic sticking to it…that is Robert.
If you benefit from a school street in your area to encourage and support families to walk to school and reduce traffic at the school gates…that is Robert.
In short, he is alive in the changes he made in our streets.”
In the view of Will Norman, Commissioner for Walking and Cycling for the Greater London Authority, “There is no doubt London is a better and safer place thanks to Robert Molteno.”
The attributes which made Robert an effective local campaigner had grown out of personal engagement on a wider range of issues. He came from a notable Cape Town family with a long tradition of political leadership. His great-grandfather, John Charles Molteno, was the first Premier of the Cape Colony in 1872. His father, Donald Molteno, a QC and Member of the South African Parliament, was a lawyer prominent in opposition to the Apartheid regime. His British-born mother Molly (née Mary Fleet Goldsmith), a Cambridge graduate and teacher of French, introduced him to a wider world of literature and theatre, and a love of countryside. He was educated at the Diocesan College, Cape Town (commonly called Bishop’s); he rejected its elitist values but appreciated the scope it gave to his intellectual curiosity. He did a law degree at the University of Cape Town, and at 19 he was on the executive of the strongly anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students. There he met and in 1966 married fellow student, Marion Marquard. They left South Africa to study in the UK, and after he had completed an MSc in Political Science at Manchester University (awarded with distinction), they moved to Zambia in 1968.
At the University of Zambia, first as a Research Fellow and then Lecturer in Public Administration and Political Science, he created new courses and materials desperately needed in the newly independent Zambia. He led the development of a cross-disciplinary introductory course in Social Sciences for first year university students, co-wrote a textbook on civics for secondary schools, The Zambian Community and its Government (1973), and his research contributed to the scholarly Politics in Zambia (1974) edited by William Tordoff, which included an influential chapter by Robert on factions and tribalism. In 1971 the Africa Bureau in London had published his booklet, The implications of South Africa’s outward looking policy, which attacked the political influence of South Africa in Zambia and beyond. The apartheid regime had him on a blacklist and withdrew his passport, leaving him unable to travel, or to visit South Africa for over twenty years.
His time in Zambia came to an abrupt end in 1976. When student demonstrators protested Zambian government policy in Angola, President Kenneth Kaunda closed the university and detained some 30 students. Robert enlisted 72 staff members to sign a petition in defence of the students. Unimpressed, the government arrested him and 4 other lecturers on spurious charges. He was interrogated, and then held in solitary detention in Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison for two months, before being deported.
After this traumatic experience Robert and his family came to the UK. A year later he was invited to join a new independent publisher, Zed Books, established by Roger van Zwanenberg as a not-for-profit workers co-operative. For 27 years he was Zed Book’s Editorial Director, and with his colleagues built it into the pre-eminent radical academic publisher concerned with Third World issues.
His editorial policy was to seek out “courageous social campaigners and engaged intellectuals who, against enormous odds throughout the ‘developing world’, struggle to make their countries more democratic, more confident, and independent, less poor, and with hope and strategies for a better future.” To this end, he commissioned over fifty books a year from academics, scientists, activists and specialists around the world. Among them were Egyptian born economist Samir Amin, Philippines activist Walden Bello, Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, and South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang. Zed was the first to publish English editions of the noted Egyptian author and activist Nawal el Saadawi, with The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1980), which drew world attention to the widespread practice of female genital mutilation, and her best-selling novel, Woman at Point Zero (1983).
His aim was not just to reach English-speaking readers in the Western world, but to circulate Zed’s books widely in the Third World. He developed innovative funding and distribution deals with low-cost local editions, to make sure, as he put it, “Books that matter get into the hands of readers no matter what part of the world they live in.” Some books were relative best sellers, like the German environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs’ classic The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (1992). Zed’s not-for-profit status meant that, even if projected sales were low, it could publish controversial books that gave voice to local movements and to ideas ignored by national and mainstream publishers. Zed Books provided readers around the world with an understanding of the issues they were dealing with. Leading Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, says “Like many other young scholars … I was deeply shaped by the books Zed was publishing.”
Zed’s list was to a large extent a reflection of Robert’s incisive assessment of the major issues of the time, covering Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. He did not wait for books to come to him but sought out authors who could write with authority on critical and controversial political issues. He commissioned studies of liberation struggles, and radical analyses of countries such as Bangladesh, East Timor, India, Iraq, and Iran. Often he was politically ahead of the curve. Long before the Gulf War, Gerard Challiand’s A People Without a Country (1980) gave voice to Kurdish intellectuals to highlight the plight of their homeless nation. Zed revealed secret Israel-Palestine negotiations in My friend, the Enemy (1986) by Uri Avnery.
Robert led Zed to respond to the dominance of neo-liberalism with extensive analyses of globalization, and later expanded the list into environmental and gender studies, always with Zed’s distinctive radical critical ideas from a Third World perspective – over half of Zed’s authors were from the Global South. There were ambitious books on international development, and detailed critiques of US foreign policy and the activities of the CIA. In Dirty Work: The CIA in Africa (1980) he himself contributed the chapter Hidden Subversion on the damaging role played by American academics in undermining African Liberation movements. He backed the courageous Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy’s Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (1991), which the Karachi newspaper Dawn hailed as “perhaps the most important book written and published in Pakistan in recent years”. Some books that sold poorly and fell out of print have later been rediscovered and republished by mainstream publishers, like Cedric Robinson’s seminal Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Now regarded as a classic, its analysis of racial capitalism has become a key text for the Black Lives Matter Movement in the USA.
Robert maintained a constant flow of correspondence with his far-flung authors, sometimes critical, sometimes offering suggestions, always supportive, and enthusiastic. He was intellectually acute, and used polite but relentless persuasion to nudge his authors to produce a better book. Wolfgang Sachsdescribed him as an editor as “quick and resourceful, inspiring and insisting.” But authors all round the world also became his friends. When he retired from Zed he compiled a list of contact details of those authors he wished to stay in touch with – there were 300 names on his list. Over a quarter of a century, he had commissioned well over a thousand titles and under his editorial direction Zed’s world-wide status and influence had risen to become, according to the Indian social scientist Kasturi Sen, “one of the most innovative publishers in the world.”
For another decade he continued to use his extensive experience through related academic institutions. He was invited to head the publication work of the International African Institute based at SOAS, which he did for 3 years, and for 11 years he was a trustee for the Royal African Society, helping to steer its work through a period of change.
He brought the same mixture of intellectual clarity, political shrewdness and commitment to his work with Living Streets, qualities that were recognised even by those he was lobbying. The Conservative Leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, wrote, “Robert was an energetic campaigner who gave us challenge but was always fair and well informed. One could never find factual fault with his argument nor doubt the genuineness in his advocacy. Whether on Europe or active travel, he believed with passion and advanced that with courtesy.”
The many volunteers who worked alongside him – many of whom he personally recruited – remember him for his enthusiasm, personal warmth, laughter, and his genuine interest in each of them personally.
Robert Vincent Molteno, born Cape Town, 11 January 1943, died Wandsworth, London, 31 January 2022. Survived byhis wife, the prize-winning novelist Marion Molteno, his daughters May and Star, six grandchildren, and his brother Frank.