Dr FRS de Souza 1929-2020

By Professor Michael Chege

With the death of Dr FRS de Souza in London on 2 March 2020, the curtain has been finally drawn on the career of one of the most distinguished Kenyan nationalists of Asian descent, a human rights advocate long before that term came into use, an opponent of racial discrimination under colonialism and after, and above all a decent human being.  Born in Mumbai, brought up in Zanzibar and Kenya, qualifying as a barrister and earning a doctorate in London, a frequent visitor to Goa, ‘Fitz’ was a citizen of the world. But Kenya was always his home – the country to which he dedicated all his working life and whose people he loved and deeply cared for.  Because his widely-covered memoir, Forward to Independence, published just months before his death, includes a lot of his background, upbringing and education (from Zanzibar, Magadi, Nairobi and London), his strong opposition to racial discrimination, his legal defence of Kenyan nationalists like the ‘Kapenguria Six’, his relationship with Jomo Kenyatta and other independence movement leaders like Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and Pio Gama Pinto – many will still be unfamiliar with his support and friendship for ordinary Kenyans down the hierarchy during the independence struggle and after; for Fitz maintained loyalty to his friends regardless of their social status.

On 18 November 2007, I served as a translator for him (English to Kikuyu) as he addressed several thousand mourners at Dagoretti, just out of Nairobi and historically part of Kiambu. It was at the funeral of my uncle, Senior Chief John Kinuthia, a nationalist-activist of the 1950s who had served as a law clerk at De Souza’s law firm at Bohra (now Lagos) Road in Nairobi at the height of the Mau Mau war. Frankly, we were not expecting him but he had read the obituary in the newspaper and decided he must come. He told us the story of his relationship over that period with a young John Kinuthia, and with my grandfather’s younger brother—the well-known nationalist Justus Mugo Muratha – with the same vivid clarity you find in the book. Most of what he said was new to us, and signifies how underrated has been the Kenyan-Asian contribution to Kenya’s independence struggle, and that Fitz was a humanist before he was a lawyer.

(From R-L) E.P. Nowrojee, Advocate (partial view); F.R.S.De Souza, Advocate,Kanta Kapila, Advocate, Mrs. T.E. Nowrojee, J. Bickerton Williams, LSK Treasurer, Achhroo Kapila, Advocate, (backing the camera) at a Law Society of Kenya dinner, c. 1953. (Source: Collection E.P. Nowrojee)

As the defender of Jomo Kenyatta and Mau Mau activists, De Souza lived under constant police surveillance.  Regardless, he told us, he hid both Kinuthia and Muratha at his house at Parklands when both were being sought and there was a bounty on their heads. A Kenyan Sikh, sympathetic to the movement whose house adjoined De Souza’s built a concrete tunnel connecting the two houses from below opening to concealed covers on the floor. Had the police discovered this, the consequences would have been dire to De Souza himself, to his legal career, to his family, and to the unnamed Sikh whose name we deserve to know. Kinuthia survived to serve De Souza’s law firm with integrity after the Emergency eased. In 1965 and with popular acclaim, De Souza recommended Kinuthia for the position of Dagoretti’s chief where he served with the integrity he had observed in the 1950s.  Mugo Muratha proceeded to serve the movement in hiding until he was arrested in Kiambaa and then detained for years at Hola then Manda Island together with Pio Gama Pinto among others. His daughter Tiebo remained a friend of Emma Pinto and of Fitz de Souza to the end.

In addition to the human touch that he demonstrated to those ordinary people, many of them survivors of the events of the 1950s, and to high level politics; Fitz de Souza will go down in history as the witty, intelligent and most genuinely accomplished speaker of the Kenya parliament seen so far. Though nominally, the deputy speaker and member of the Parklands constituency (1963-69), the Hansard reveals the record of a man who had full mastery of the standing orders and the law, and who used his time on the chair as much to educate the members on the legal procedures as to enforce them. He was a stickler for decorum and the need to serve the common good in the house, both so rare in today’s legislature. A ruling he made on 14 October 1965, against Oduya Oprong (MP for Teso) who had defied his constant advice on the proper procedure to amend an Appropriations Bill, and who had levelled accusations of bias against De Souza is worth rereading:

       ‘Mr Oduya, I have asked you often not to cast aspersions and make statements like this. It is absolutely untrue on your part to say that any bill has been amended by giving notice like this (i.e. the proper way). If you had done so, then you can look up the Standing Orders and you will find that you have done it wrongly. Do not try to pull a fast one on the Chair (i.e. De Souza) by saying that you have done it because you know it has not been done. I have been in this House for at least five years and I know that it cannot be done under Standing Orders.  As long as I am here, it will not be done’.

       As one who sacrificed so much to fight racial discrimination, he was horrified to see so soon after independence, African leaders in that parliament and out of it turn into racists, violating the rights of Asian-Kenyans in the name of the ‘Africanization’ of business and positions in public service. On June 1966 for instance, with him in the House, Martin Shikuku led charge against Asian families turning Nairobi’s Central Park on weekends ‘into a Bombay or Madras’ demanding their expulsion.

       That racist trend and the murder of Pinto in 1965 impelled him to quit Kenya politics. But as the incident I bore testimony to in Dagoretti shows, he never abandoned the public or his many friends. The curtain on his life may now be drawn. But on the stage of history the work of Fitz de Souza, Kenyan nationalist, anti-racism campaigner, and distinguished parliamentary speaker will endure for ever.       

By Pheroze  Nowrojee

The best part of Dr. De Souza’s memoirs is the conveying of the spirit of freedom that his generation exemplified in the immediate post-War years in Kenya from 1945-1963. They were strongly influenced by the anti-colonial feeling throughout the world and were particularly moved by the Indian independence struggle. They were committed to Kenyan dignity and to the decolonization of the colony. The generation understood they had the power to bring about change, and the desire to act, if not always the will. The book covers this period.  

The book has some historic photographs. Searching in my family records, I too was able to retrieve two relevant historic photographs of that period. One has Dr De Souza and my parents in it and the other has Ms. Kanta Kapila, Advocate, mentioned severally in the book, in it with Jomo Kenyatta. She later went to India and made nationalist broadcasts in the early 1960s in support of Kenya’s freedom on All India Radio (AIR) in Delhi.”

While enjoying Dr. De Souza’s adventures, it might appear to readers that the true heroes of the book are the author’s courageous and self-sacrificing father and mother, Doctor De Souza and Mrs. De Souza, who were ambitious for their son, shared his ideals and always stood by him. Theirs is a great story. Many other personalities are mentioned, though the book would have gained if it had not included several personal remarks about a highly respected colleague, remarks which are not necessary to the narrative.