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All of us at the PSC were devastated to learn of the passing of our friend and Palestine Solidarity Campaign patron, Benjamin Zephaniah, on Thursday December 7th after a short illness. Beloved by millions across Britain for his inspirational poetry, writing for children, music and acting, his work was always animated by his unwavering commitment to freedom and justice for all racialised and oppressed peoples, whether in his native Birmingham or Palestine.

Determined to use his own experiences of incarceration, state racism and police brutality to improve the lives of others, Benjamin spent his whole life fighting for justice and liberation through his deeds and words. He was always unafraid to stand up to those he believed were propagating injustice, even when it lost him public support and was detrimental to his own career. His principles drove everything he did, and shined through every word he wrote.

Many of us remember his work in the 1980s, where he was always on hand to give active support to the anti-racist and anti-Apartheid causes that characterised the decade. In 1988, Benjamin visited Palestine to learn about the Palestinian struggle for liberation from Israeli apartheid and occupation. He performed his poetry for the people of Gaza, and often spoke about how much he learnt from them about creative forms of resistance to oppression. He wrote about his experiences in a short book, Rasta Time in Palestine, published in 1990. The book’s first page features a stirring photograph of Zephaniah standing arm in arm with Nelson Mandela. His 1995 album, Back to Roots, features a moving poetic tribute called Palestine:

“Work your land work your plan / You are a live nation / You are a global people / Suffer much evil / And now you just want get along.” The track’s refrain “Palestine lives!” alludes to his faith in the fact that the Palestinian people’s spirit and steadfastness are impossible to extinguish.

In 2019, Benjamin attended our annual march in commemoration of Nakba day, when we remember the 750,000 Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their homes by Israeli militias in 1948. He had to be persuaded to speak at the rally because he didn’t feel that large crowds were “my thing, really.” His speech, which linked the struggles of the Palestinian people against present day Israeli colonialism to the struggles of Black people in Britain against continuing colonial policies and practices reminded us so beautifully about how our own freedom is inextricably tied to the freedom of the Palestinian people. These same principles motivated one of his most notable public statements. In November 2003, just months after the British and American invasion of Iraq, Benjamin roundly rejected Tony Blair’s offer of an OBE. At a time when many in the British media preferred to ignore Britain’s imperial history, Benjamin memorably declared: “I am profoundly anti-empire”. He understood that the racism he struggled against in Britain formed part of the same imperial system which had enslaved his ancestors in the Caribbean and expelled his friends from their homes in Palestine.

As we organised against Donald Trump’s 2019 ‘Deal of the Century’, which sought to further annexe Palestinian land, he made a video for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in which he explains: “when I was young,” he said “there were two things that I really wanted to see; a free South Africa, and a free Palestine.” We regret that Benjamin was not able to witness justice for the Palestinian people in his lifetime. We thank him for everything he did for our cause, and for the PSC. We feel sure that, guided by Benjamin’s words and by his principles, the British people will continue to play our vital role in the international solidarity movement, and his childhood dream of a free Palestine alongside a free South Africa will soon become a reality.