Draft:Rommel Roberts

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Rommel Roberts, South African theologian, human rights activist

Rommel Roberts (born December 2, 1949, in Durban, South Africa) is a theologian, human rights activist, Director of the Hilltop Empowerment Centre, consultant, lecturer and author.


Rommel Roberts grew up in Mafeking (today: Mahikeng, North-West Province, South Africa), where he was confronted with the effects of apartheid as a child.

His father was white, and his mother Maureen Roberts, a qualified nurse and the only medical specialist for the surrounding townships, was of Indian descent and thus classified as non-white according to the categories of apartheid, and so the family was exposed to diverse discrimination.[1] Rommel grew up with seven siblings.

Roberts graduated from High School in Cape Town and then studied theology and philosophy at St. Joseph's Theological Institute near Pietermaritzburg.

After his studies he went back to Cape Town, and in the following years committed himself to the struggle against apartheid linking up with the few existing human rights groups and finally founding his own organisation focusing on non-violent direct action. During these years he worked closely with Bishop Desmond Tutu.[2]

Roberts was the first non-white South African to undertake an illegal marriage (Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949 ) across the colour line in a public ceremony when he married the former white nun Celeste Santos, also a human rights activist. They had a son and a daughter. The pressures of human rights activism finally led to their separation (they could not divorce due to the illegal nature of their marriage).

In the years after Nelson Mandela's release, Roberts was involved in various projects to build up democratic and economic structures as well as taking care of returning exiles. In 1994, he was called to Mafeking to prepare and monitor the first general free elections[3], also to resolve conflicts in the then ‘Homeland’ Bophuthatswana, where there had a been a major uprising.[4]

Since 1995, Roberts has been director of the Hilltop Empowerment Centre in the Eastern Cape. He lives there with his wife Robin, to whom he has been married since 2002. They organise numerous projects aimed at education issues and improving the living conditions of people in rural areas.

He is involved in consultancy work with South African municipalities and government departments as well as occasionally guest lecturing at universities like University of Western Cape (UWC ), Walter Sisulu University (WSU), his topics being community development including IT literacy, communication and conflict resolution.

Roberts continues with his spirit of activism today and is openly critical of leadership both in business and politics and the inherent corruption  as well as the unequal living conditions in today's South Africa.

Anti-apartheid and political views[edit]

When Roberts came back to Cape Town after his studies in 1974 he was especially interested in working with children and young people. He came in contact with the Early Learning Centre (today: Early Learning Resource Unit, ELRU) in Kewtown that was involved in caring for children and general community work. Kewtown was a township near Cape Town where mainly coloured people lived. Roberts learned about the townships and informal settlements which emerged as a result of the apartheid government’s policy to evict and resettle black and coloured people. Roberts got deeply involved in supporting those people who often lived in poor housing conditions, sometimes only in shacks or provisional shelters. These dwellings were not secure as the government often destroyed whole townships, e.g. the township Modderdam in 1977.[5] Through his association with the South African Council of Churches, Roberts worked together with Bishop Tutu as his national development officer during the late 70s and during the 80s. His tasks also included building up national and international support networks.[6] [1]

Roberts worked  in human rights groups, organising campaigns against government oppression which included famous court cases holding the government accountable for its actions: "one of the most active spokesmen for the 'squatter communities' in Cape Town" (United Nations Centre against Apartheid.[7] In the case of Modderdam, after legal interventions had failed, they organised the evacuation of about 10.000 people when their homes were demolished and people were threatened to be deported to the so-called ‘homelands’. The Apartheid policy was that Blacks were no real citizens of South Africa and had to live in remote so-called ‘homelands’ where there were no job opportunities. They could only live in South Africa temporarily, and in order to live in South Africa they had to have a 'Pass'. The protest against these 'Pass Laws' was one of the key issues in the struggle against apartheid and has a long history. Together with others, Roberts organised lots of campaigns, boycotts (Bus Boycott[8]) and protest marches. One of the famous actions was the Cathedral fast in the St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where people fasted for more than 20 days before Easter in 1982 and which resulted in the suspension of the Pass Laws.[9]

During his work as a peace activist Roberts has been arrested and imprisoned several times, for both long and short periods.[10][11][12]

Roberts has always believed that real changes could only be brought about with non-violent means and so did not agree with the attitudes of ANC (African National Congress) and PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) in this point.

During the 1980s, when the country became more and more insecure and violence increased, including the infamous practice of "necklacing", Roberts organised several peace conferences together with Bishop Tutu where they  brought various hostile factions  together and through an interventive programme successfully ended the necklacing era in the Western Cape.

The Quaker Peace Centre[edit]

Rommel Roberts  was able to launch a series of peace initiatives through his links with international Quakers in the UK and USA. In 1974 he joined the Quakers and has worked with Quakers since then.  He was also a founder member of the first Peace Centre in South Africa, the Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town, which was formalised in 1985.[13]

This institution has launched several non-violent actions as well as positive initiatives like training in peace education, life skills, children’s rights. It is engaged in active peace intervention in schools where violence is a huge problem [2]. Roberts continues to be involved with the centre through the training of volunteers who monitored the 2019 elections.[3] [4]

Through the Quaker Peace Centre and Accountability Now, Roberts is currently engaged in seeking to hold government accountable in the famous Arms Deal corruption matter.[14]



His writings include a variety of papers, training manuals, books/booklets, talks/lectures, research papers and works encompassing, conflict, co-operatives, rural development, environmental issues among others.

  • Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Aufl, Küsnacht: Digiboo, 2018. ISBN 978-3952456071
  • Roberts, Rommel, Stimmen für die Freiheit. Geschichten von mutigen Menschen für ein neues Südafrika, 2. Aufl, Küsnacht: Digiboo, 2018. ISBN 978-3952456040
  • Rommel Roberts, Wie wir für die Freiheit kämpften:Von stillen Heldinnen und Helden in Südafrika, Bern: Lokwort Verlag, 2014. ISBN 978-3906786520

Hilltop Empowerment Centre[edit]

The Hilltop Empowerment Centre was established in 1995 with Roberts as its managing director. It is situated in a village near King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape. Roberts’ focus was and still is on rural development and the empowerment of deprived rural communities. With the assistance of many international institutions, NGOs, church bodies and several volunteers he and the Hilltop team developed an education strategy which included the introduction to computers and digital e-learning [5]. More than 100 Computer Training centres have been set up using schools and community centres as a base with donated computers [6] which spawned many trained IT trainers and eventual a series of entrepreneurs of whom many exist to this day [7] and some transformed into large institutions. With Hilltop and his international connections Roberts initiated a lot of practical projects and programmes to improve living conditions and job opportunities in rural communities, e.g.  woodwork, rural and urban pottery, garment making, beadwork and other craft operations, market gardens, small business development projects, small town development plans etc. [8]

He is currently busy with the facilitation of transfer of skills from international technical training institutions to local TVET colleges (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) and upgrades of poor status of existing TVETs.


Co-Willing [9] is an international Swiss based development NGO. It was formed as a result of the international conference Freedom Our Responsibility in Bloomfontein, South Africa, in 2014. Its goals are to promote good governance and sustainable development in Africa. Roberts was a founder member and has worked for Co-Willing since then. Several conferences have been organised [10] and people have been brought together to analyse the plight of Africa and look toward solutions resulting now in existing projects in South Africa and Kenya [11] .


  1. ^ Furlong, Patrick; Jaster, Robert Scott; Jaster, Shirley Kew (1993). "South Africa's Other Whites: Voices for Change". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 26 (3): 677. doi:10.2307/220503. JSTOR 220503.
  2. ^ Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Ed., Digiboo, 2018. See foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
  3. ^ Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Ed., Digiboo, 2018, p. 228f.
  4. ^ Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Ed., Digiboo, 2018, p. 228f.
  5. ^ Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Ed., Digiboo, 2018, p. 72f.
  6. ^ Deming, Vinton (January 1988). "An Interview with Rommel Roberts" (PDF). Friends Journal. Volume 34, No 1: 19–22.
  7. ^ United Nations Centre against Apartheid (Ed.), Treatment of Political Prisoners and Detainees in South Africa - Notes and Documents - United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, 04.1979. United Nations, New York, p. 14.
  8. ^ Sadet, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Cape Town: UNISA PR, 2006, Vol. 2, p. 311, Note 377.
  9. ^ Roberts, Rommel (2018). Seeds of peace : stories of silent heroes and heroines in South Africa. ISBN 9783952456071. OCLC 1097616552.
  10. ^ Rommel Roberts, Seeds of Peace: Stories of silent Heroes and Heroines in South Africa, 2. Ed., Digiboo, 2018, p. 32f.
  11. ^ "It was getting funding from the Catholic Church, and other donors. The person who started it, a bearded man, Rommel Roberts, was seen by the police as a Communist. Anyone who opposed the government then was a Communist." (Commissioner Wallace Mgoqi is the former City Manager of the City of Cape Town, the former Chief Land Claims Commissioner on the Restitution of Land Rights, see: Interview with Wallace Mgoqi, in: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
  12. ^ "Committee to oppose detention without trial". Cape Times, Cape Town. 1978-07-02.
  13. ^ Betty Kathryn Tonsing, THE QUAKERS IN SOUTH AFRICA: A SOCIAL WITNESS, Grahamstown, South Africa: Rhodes University, 1993, p. 294
  14. ^ @Ifaisa, »Press Release: Quaker Peace Centre seeks to overturn R35 billion in Arms Deal«, in: Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa, Cape Town, 2017.https://accountabilitynow.org.za/press-release-quaker-peace-centre-seeks-overturn-r35-billion-arms-deal

External links[edit]