Skip to main content
facts & arguments

Audrey (Bobbie) Cobden

Anti-apartheid combatant, wife, stepmother. Born on April 15, 1923, in Johannesburg, South Africa; died on March 29, 2016, in Peterborough, Ont., aged 92.

Throughout her life, Bobbie raged against racism and against anyone who seemed to bully or condescend to the weak, the poor, the sick, the elderly.

In her years in Kingston, Ont., after immigrating from South Africa in 1981, she worked for disadvantaged children (on the board of the Sunnyside Children's Centre), for the elderly (on the board of the Frontenac-Kingston Council on Aging), and for the dying (in palliative care at St. Mary's of the Lake Hospital).

When she moved to Peterborough, Ont., in her late 80s after her husband Harry died, she enrolled in a course to learn Ojibway. It didn't matter that she learned only the rudiments of the language; it allowed her to meet others who felt as angry as she did about Canada's shabby treatment of indigenous peoples.

She took pleasure in what one of her two stepsons called her "enthusiasms" – events, ideas, people she felt passionately about. Whatever she favoured or disapproved of, she did it combatively. You either agreed with her or you clashed.

Audrey Dodson – always known by her childhood nickname, Bobbie – grew up in an unhappy home that broke apart when she was 12. She earned a degree in psychology but when the Second World War came, she joined the South African army as a truck driver. (She always loved driving; years later she and Harry would enjoy an MG and a Jaguar.)

After the war, she practised as a psychologist occasionally, but her main focus became anti-apartheid politics. In the late 1950s, she worked for the multiracial Liberal Party of South Africa alongside people like author Alan Paton and lawyer Jack Unterhalter.

When 70,000 black workers living in the townships outside Johannesburg staged a months-long bus boycott in 1957, protesting against higher fares, Bobbie played a key role in organizing ways to get them to their jobs in the city. She also helped white people to understand the reasons for the boycott.

She worked for the Treason Trial Defence Fund in the late 1950s, supporting the 156 defendants, including Nelson Mandela. In 1959, she helped to organize the production of a jazz musical, King Kong, that introduced African music to white audiences and launched Miriam Makeba's career.

When living in Durban in the late 1960s, she practised as a child psychologist for a few years, but was drawn back to politics as leader of the Domestic Workers and Employers Project, aimed at improving conditions for black domestic workers.

In many ways, Bobbie helped to raise South Africans' awareness about the wrongs of apartheid, and in that she helped to pave the way for its defeat.

At times, her political work left little room for a personal life, though she was devoted to her husband, Harry Cobden, from the day they met until he died in 1997. Harry was a clothing manufacturer who met Bobbie at a party a year after his first wife died. They married in 1955.

When she was 57, she and Harry moved to Ontario. She wasn't happy to leave her homeland as it struggled toward the end of apartheid, but Harry wanted to spend his last years in Canada near his sons and their families. We're glad she made the move.

Michael Cobden is Bobbie's younger stepson.