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Colin Legum was born on 3 January 1919 in Kestell, a small town in the Orange Free State (now Free State) province of South Africa. After finishing his schooling, he entered journalism at the age of 16, working for the Sunday Express and later for the Daily Express. From humble beginnings as a copy boy and library assistant, he rose to crime reporter and political correspondent. Legum joined the Labour Party and edited its weekly paper, The Forward, and became active in local politics, serving on the Johannesburg City Council in various capacities between 1943 and 1948.
Following the Nationalist Party’s victory in the 1948 elections, Legum left South Africa for London. Whilst working for the Tavistock Institute, he came into contact with David Astor, editor of The Observer, and a fellow analysand. He began full-time work on The Observer in 1953, and became the paper’s (and Fleet Street’s) first Africa correspondent, contributing significantly to the paper’s anti-colonial policies. His extensive travels in Africa made him a recognised expert on the region, and his personal friendships with many African leaders (such as Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, and Thabo Mbeki to name but a few) ensured that he always had access to people in the forefront of developments on the continent.
Throughout his life, Legum was an active opponent of colonialism and apartheid. He was involved in both the Africa Bureau and the Africa Publications Trust with Michael Scott and Mary Benson, amongst others. He became a popular spokesman on African affairs on both radio and television programmes, and lectured frequently, both in England and abroad. Apart from his extensive journalistic writings, he also authored and co-authored many books, and contributed to several academic publications. The publication of South Africa – crisis for the West (which he wrote with his second wife, Margaret, in 1964) resulted in the South African authorities banning them from South Africa.
Legum’s professional interests were not focused solely on Africa, though. An ardent Zionist and supporter of Israel, he travelled extensively in the Middle East and contributed many articles and essays on Jewish and Arab affairs. His personal interests included cultural affairs – art, music, and literature – and activities such as fly-fishing, gardening, and photography were enthusiastically pursued.
Legum left The Observer in 1984 (he was the associate editor at the time) when the paper was bought by Lonrho, which was owned by Mr “Tiny” Rowland. Rowland had extensive business interests in Africa, and Legum was concerned that this would adversely affect the paper’s editorial integrity and influence its stance on African matters. Legum then established his own syndicated publication, Third World Reports, and continued editing the highly-acclaimed Africa Contemporary Record. Following the unbanning of the ANC and other parties in 1990, the Legums returned to South Africa and in 1996 settled in Kalk Bay. Legum was awarded honorary doctorates by Rhodes University and the University of South Africa, and presented a course at University of Cape Town’s Summer School, and continued to write (his last book, Africa since independence, was published in 1999). However, despite his years of unflinching support, his contribution to the struggle against apartheid has been sadly unrecognised.
Legum’s first wife, Eugenie (nee Leon), died in 1953. The couple had one son, David (1943-1996). In 1960, Legum married Margaret Roberts, an economist and successful author in her own right. Three daughters were born to them. Colin Legum died on 8 June 2003; Margaret Legum died on 1 November 2007.