To Change the World !
Is Reason Enough ?
Ron Press - His Story
Ron Press, London, August, 1995
This is Ron Press' story of his part in the struggle against apartheid. Forced into exile in the early 'sixties, Ron Press contributed to the struggle by providing much-needed technical expertise. Read here how equipment and weapons were smuggled into South Africa and how the movement's 'Technical Committee' created a variety of devices that were used in operations against the apartheid state. Ron Press also contributed to the setting up of secret communications networks that were operational in the late 'eighties. Ron Press may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chapter 1 Mists and Images
Chapter 2 Images in Exile
Chapter 3 Recycled Images
Chapter 4 Coda
Ilya Ehrenberg said that he was proud to be a Jew because of those thousands of Jews who died fighting the Nazi's. I am proud to be a white South African because of those of us who fought Apartheid.
I remember when I was in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the then East Germany in one of the huts there was the picture of a young Jewish girl. When about 16 years old she led an attack on a Gestapo office and killed some Nazis. She was captured and was imprisoned and died in the camp. It was for me a lesson in humility and reverence. One so young could be so brave and determined. To die so young and so beautiful. To die in the fight against fascism. For people like these we must be humble and reasonable and not use swearwords loosely. It is not leaders alone who make history. It is the small people the little people whom we must honour. And these are found in all countries in all walks of life and are the hope of humankind.
1. Mists and Images
I made my first bomb when I was at school. It was quite unconnected with anything except driving curiosity and the demand in my nature to succeed in making things.
In this I blame my father. He did everything, from laying paths in the garden, cutting down trees, decorating, plumbing and electrical wiring. He made a rotary lawn mower way back in 1945. It did not hover like the modern ones but it preceded them by many years. It worked well without accident. But then only he and I were allowed to use it, it was deadly. The motor was a squirrel cage 240 Volt, quarter horse, without a cover and with the lead trailing all over the garden. The grass cuttings had to be periodically removed from the motor's innards. The blades were of steel about twelve inches in diameter rigidly fixed to the shaft and without a guard of any kind. I certainly received the rough and ready training of the frontier's man in working clothes.
My teacher was, in his own way, also to blame. We students never did any experiments in chemistry. There were no laboratory practicals and the teacher demonstrated the various chemical reactions from time to time while we merely sat and watched. This was not to my liking. One of the experiments was about explosives. Teacher made the guncotton and proceeded to show how when you subjected it to a sharp shock it was supposed toexplode. A bit of the compound was placed on an upturned steel mortar and hit with the pestle. He banged away and to his embarrassment and our delight nothing happened. Not to be defeated next day he returned with some more of the supposed guncotton and this time we could hear the faint pops above the sharp clash of iron. His problem was that he did this out of view behind the demonstration bench. Naturally we had little faith in his success. But he being a brother in his long black cassock and white collar made it all the more difficult to think that he was lying.
Well, I determined to try it out for myself. We had a room in the house set up as an electrical and mechanical workshop. There we had an electric welder, a drill press, air compressor, steel work bench, and lots of tools. There was no fume cupboard but that did not deter me. I proceeded to make guncotton by treating my mother's cotton wool with a mixture of concentrated sulphuric and nitric acids. The acid mixture gave off nitrous fumes which I wafted out of the open window. According to the books there was no danger of explosion unlike in the manufacture of nitroglycerine. I removed the treated cotton wool washed it well with water and let it dry. The spent acids I flushed down the toilet. The guncotton was slightly yellowish in colour and brittle in texture. Next I had to test it. A small bit burned rapidly and brightly and that was a good sign but according to the books one needed a detonator to explode it. I only ever saw a detonator many years later. So what to do? Again according to the books it would explode if confined and heated. I rammed the guncotton into a threaded half inch steel pipe coupling, my dad used to call them nipples, and sealed both open ends with steel pipe stoppers or plugs. I screwed them in tight on the understanding that pressure alone would not set it off.
Next I took it into the yard at the side of the garage. There I set up a small methylated spirit burner in a tin can with a cotton wick. This was then surrounded with loosely stacked bricks. Balancing the coupling over the flame I quickly piled bricks on top. A few minutes later it went off with a loud crack. Removing the bricks revealed a shattered coupling and a neat hole in the can that had held the methylated spirits. The piece of shrapnel had pierced the can and buried itself in the earth beneath. This was dangerous. This was interesting.
The College was run by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Marist Brothers. It was at the top of a hill in Observatory, Johannesburg . I was not a catholic but my parents were keen on me having a good education and it had this reputation. I never did very well at junior school. I was naughty and always argued with the teachers, until Junior Certificate when we got a new teacher. Then I began liking to understand things. From then on I seemed always to come second in the class. That is one of the stories of my life. Coming second. I was however quite bright. I won most prizes in the year prior to the matriculation. Prizes for Geography, Science, Mathematics, second prize overall and the Valerian Bursary, entitling me to free schooling in this my last matriculation year.
Which Side Are You On
My first revolutionary act occurred in the English class in 1946. The classroom was in the corner of a quadrangle of classes built of red brick. The wall facing us held a large black chalk-board. To the left were windows facing a sandy lane lined with a hedge. On the other side of the hedge were the sports fields where I had found that one could not play rugby while wearing glasses and that cricket where one could, was boring. We were being taught English by the only lay teacher on the staff. He was a neat dapper middle aged man, small and precise in manner. He always wore a grey suit with a collar and tie. Our essays were being returned with the usual set of comments. He handed me mine and said, "Press you write like an uneducated coal miner." I always was, and still am, quick on the draw. I generally regretted it later. "What's wrong with an uneducated coal miner?" He had touched a nerve deep seated in my subconscious.
Well, he wasn't having that. So for the first time in my life I was punished for sticking up for the poor and dispossessed. I don't say that I consciously thought so at the time but actions reflect inner urgings. I was somehow proud of having come from a working class family. I have never regretted this my first act separating me off politically from the majority of my fellow pupils. Being successful at my studies gave me the ability to stand on my own feet and not to require too much of others. In this I was well trained by my mother and father who were both self contained and largely self educated. The punishment was to be sent out of the classroom to wait in the corridor at the top of the steps leading out of the quadrangle. I remember being on an emotional high, not resentful nor sorry, but rather confused. What if anything had I done wrong? It was also an unusual punishment for me. I usually got the cane or the strap.
It was true that I was very poor at languages but I enjoyed examinations especially when I knew the answers. I nearly did not write my matric at all. I had singed eyebrows and burned glasses when a chlorate and red phosphorous mixture exploded in the bathroom. It was a week before the examinations and I had read of how the mixture would explode when a pellet of it was dropped. This seemed a good thing to do in ones last year at school. It required that the mixing be done very gently while wet. As I mixed it I got the impression that it was getting a little dry. Wandering into the bathroom, I was about to pour in a drop more water to keep it wet when it exploded. A bright flash set my glasses alight. I flung them off as the bathroom was filled with smoke. The ceiling dripped with a brown, black acid and my fingers and eyebrows were singed. It is often said that the wearing of glasses is a bind. Well it is, but it also has it's up side. They have so often saved my eyes from damage. This was one of my less successful experiments. My folks took the accident with little recrimination. They more often understood their children than chastised them. I often got beaten by the brothers at school but never at home. The doctor was called and the school was phoned to say I would not be well enough to write my exams. My recovery however was so rapid that a few days later they phoned the school to say that I would write after all. The school was more annoyed by having to re-arrange for me to take the examinations than they were sorry for my having had an accident.
Before school was over I had prepared some of the mixture again. This time successfully. One day in the last weeks after the exams and before we broke up I took one of the little pellets to school cradled in cotton wool and during a lesson threw it out of the window. It went off with a loud bang. Persistence had paid off.
None the worse for wear I did well in the matriculation exams getting "A"s in Chemistry, Mathematics, Geography, "B" in Latin, only a "C" in Physics and English and a better than expected "D" in Afrikaans. I had dropped History as being a boring list of dates and events with no logical connections between them. In South Africa at that time History ended at the end of the first world war. Much later I realised that this was because if more was covered the Russian Revolution would have to be mentioned. The dropping of History meant that I split science into Chemistry and Physics. At the time the Brothers had said that they would give me special tuition to catch up in Physics. Because they never took this promise seriously I never did catch up thus my rather poor "C". The marks for Geography and Latin surprised everyone including my teachers.
The examination results opened the path to studying Chemical Engineering at Wits. It had the right balance of intellectual and practical challenge. For the four years I absorbed science and engineering. During the holidays we had to undertake various trips to chemical factories such as the dynamite complexs at AE&CI near Durban and Johannesburg. Once I was assigned to an engineering works. There I worked with the apprentices and craftsmen making gears, gear trains, chains and watching them harden precision parts. It was all very instructive and interesting. I really quite enjoyed it, even the repetitive job of turning steel bushes out of silver steel, which in their turn were made into chains. I remember the apprentices decided that I must be initiated and they grabbed hold of me to perform this ceremony. I decided not to make a fuss and just let them get on with it. They took me into a passageway between two buildings and pulled my trousers down and spread red grease all over my balls. It was very silly, but in a funny sort of way it made them feel better and I was now initiated. The ways of man are wondrous to God.
There was also some extra curricular activity like tennis, swimming, and listening to classical music. For the latter I am eternally grateful to Robert Vogel, who introduced me to so many of the great composers and their works. His family were relatively rich and he had a great collection of 12" classical records. But we were generally kept very busy at college. There were a few extra-curricular lectures on the history and philosophy of science that I remember fascinated me. I came second in the graduation year but I got a Cum Laude and a thirst for the reason "Why?". Politics was not in my curriculum official or unofficial and was never mentioned amongst science or engineering students. There were no black students in the faculty to disturb us with doubts. Our intellectual walls were precursors of white South Africa's garden walls, raised high against any intrusion and topped with broken glass to keep our thoughts pure.
It was only in 1952 when I was doing my Doctorate that politics knocked on the garden gate. It first enticed me with the gentle call of reason. I could not accept God as an answer to so many of my questions? My mother asked me when my 13 th. birthday was in the offing if I wanted a push-bike or a Barmitzva. My father added that a Barmitzva was expensive and I would have to learn the Haphtorah and read a portion of the Torah written in all those funny symbols. The choice was obvious. I chose the bicycle. It was a bad choice in one way because it was stolen from the garage a few months later. It was insured and they paid out £13.00 which my mother kept. I still feel that was an injustice. Even one's mother is not perfect. When I was about 15 years old my family had decided that my sister and I were growing up and perhaps religion was necessary. So we were trooped off to the reform Synagogue. There two things happened. The bibles we were given in the services had one page Hebrew and the opposite page the English translation. That was a mistake on their part. I had been to the orthodox Synagogue before but it was all gibberish, with singing and ceremony. Very impressive, awesome and unintelligible. Now for the first time I could read and, I hesitate to say, understand what the rabbi was saying. He was in essence talking meaningless rubbish. "The Lord is our God, the Lord is one, blessed be the Lord our God..."
The second thing I remember is my Father coming home one day and saying that he would never go back there again since all they wanted was his undoubted ability to fix things mechanical and electrical. He refused to be used and taken for granted. He had some years ago commented on Christians as, " Preying on their knees on Sunday and on their neighbours on Monday." For him Catholics were "Cats in Dreck" He had no religious prejudices.
The questions however persisted? How does it all work? Why is it so? The research for my PhD. was into the reaction between azide ions and Iodine. It produced Nitrogen and was catalysed by Sulphide ions. (1,2 & 3). I was developing the system as a method for the determination of small quantities of sulphide in solution. The work was going well and I had spare time to go into philosophy. The books of Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Berkeley, Eddington, Russell, were scoured for answers. The first pattern matching came when I was invigilating an examination in the great hall. It was part of my duties as a research student to help out here and there. Well, it was a boring unrewarding job, walking round and round supposedly seeking miscreants. The hall was large with rows and rows of desks seating hundreds of students. These left their notes, books and such like strewn untidily along the floor at the back of the hall. A small pamphlet, Marxism and Modern Science by Maurice Cornforth caught my eye. Nobody would mind if I read it on my perambulations. I don't remember much else about the examination but that small book matched the patterns already developing amongst my neurons and synapses. All the other philosophers seemed very learned and erudite. They, specially Russell, used beautiful language but they obscured rather than simplified. Here at last was something I could grasp. I finished it before the end of the examination and dropped it back where I found it. I never knew or thanked the student who left it for my edification.
In the basement of the library were the "stacks," rows and rows of books and documents. I had access to these in pursuance of my chemical research. I discovered a shelf of banned books. It had me hooked. Lenin, Marx, Engels, lined up in chains, imprisoned like precious jewels. But worse the jailers did not admire their treasures. I liberated them. They in their turn liberated me. Freedom brings its own chains but more of that later.
A fellow student asked me if I would be interested in coming to a talk by a Charlie Feinstein, something about the Congress of Democrats or such. The title and the organisation were not clarified. Some of us research students used to eat and have tea in a little cafe on the corner just opposite the main gate to the University. It was not far from the Chemistry block, cheap, friendly and off campus so one could relax. The meeting would be held upstairs. It was all very informal and Charlie gave a rundown on how all people were equal and discrimination was wrong. I found it all quite interesting but clearly obvious. At the end of it he asked me what I thought. I just shrugged my shoulders and said I agreed with all he had said. He had clearly expected some argument or disagreement for which he had prepared. My answer rather dampened the atmosphere and we parted with no clear commitments on my side.
About this time I met my first African on terms of near social equality. I was writing up my thesis. Malcolm Clarke, a mathematics professor, was helping me with my statistics. My mother was typing the manuscript but I had a number of graphs to draw. I was and still am not very neat. One of my weak subjects had been engineering drawing. I easily understand the subject but I was constantly making blots, smudges and my script was very untidy. I was advised to seek somebody who could do the graphs for me. A Mr. Mashugane was recommended. I remember his name because it is the Yiddish for being a bit mad. He worked in the Engineering Department and did a great job on the graphs. He was besides being my first experience of social contact with the opposite colour also a surprise because he was the model of your petty bourgeoisie. I had been programmed to think all black people were workers with working class attitudes. How wrong I was.
I graduated with a doctorate and my father arranged a job for me with his boss a Mr. Harmel, a Director of the Schlesinger organisation. I was appointed as a plant chemist in their soon to be erected colour film processing laboratories in Killarney. They sent me to the United Kingdom to the Rank film processing laboratories in Denham. It was my first trip overseas memorable for broadening my love and knowledge of the arts. I regularly went to symphony concerts at the Festival Hall on the south bank. I used to go by train straight from work in Denham, have a bite to eat at the hall and return to Gerrards Cross where the firm had put me up in the Bull Hotel. I went to the Tate, the National Gallery and saw the sights. On the way back to South Africa I persuaded the boss to let me have a two week holiday. I spent them in Paris and Rome. I stayed in a small hotel near the Arc de Triemph, visited the Louvre, the Muse De Art Moderne, the Eifel tower, Montmartre, my eyes wide open to every sight. I went to the Folly Bergere with a fellow South African I met by chance. He invited me to go with him to find a prostitute but it was against my inner nature or nurture I am not sure which. In Rome, the Vatican, the Forum, all fascinated me. In St. Peters square I was accosted by a peddler selling mass produced tinplate crosses. They were of exceptionally poor quality with raw sharp edges. Although they had been allegedly blessed by the Pope I expressed no desire to buy one so he lifted the tray and offered me some dirty pictures. This and the flying of the red flag from a building just opposite provided a strange twist to the nature of society. Works of art to marvel at. Music which uplifts and transports. All done by people. Buildings and streets that inspire amazement. There are great wonders in the world. There were even more curious contradictions.
I learnt that people are people all over the world. None are better or worse than any other, language, culture, colour, all these things are irrelevant to the main Humanity of people. Or rather they make up the humanity of people. The ingredients of the stew may be different in each country but the result is still food for the body and the soul. Seeing the old Rome, St. Peters, the old temples now taken over by the church, I learnt of how every age is built on the previous age. How the church took over the temples simply replacing, Mars by Christ, Athena by Mary. The peasants and labourers just carried on being exploited but prayed to the old gods in the new form. The new rulers did not dramatically change everything they just distorted it to their needs. The vision was changed but the substance remained.
I learnt how to be alone but to survive. This is necessary. We are in the ultimate all alone. But it took me a long time to learn to combine the thought for and concern for the future with the realisation that one's life must end and there is no individual future. Our society does not give us a rounded picture of life. They inculcate in us the necessity to plan for our futures. To live our lives as if the present is not as important as the future. This is just not true. They are linked. We as individuals have only the present and a very limited future.
To be an extremist is very easy but to conceive of the whole picture is very difficult even in its barest outlines. Beware those who present simplistic solutions to the question "What is it all about." My only answer is, it is about living. There we have no option. Here we are and we live. Make the best of it. But the best can only be the best if it includes all of the people of the earth and their children. And this means that the future of the people of the earth and the earth itself are our personal concern.
On my returned I was rich. I bought a car, a Morris minor. The path of the professional white worker opened before me. However it was not to be. I received a request for a donation and I sent six pounds to the Congress of Democrats. I never went to any meetings but as the end of 1953 I got an invitation to a new years' eve party. I asked one of the lasses at work to go with me. She turned me down. I was very old fashioned, or perhaps I was in step with the times, but I thought one could not go without a partner. So I spent the dark of the night walking in the rain up Louis Botha Avenue towards town feeling very sorry for myself and enjoying it.
Joining the Human Race
The first meeting I attended is lost to me. I do however remember a meeting at which discussion took place about the policies of the Congress of Democrats. The liberals were there and representatives from the ANC. I did not understand the nuances of the discussion but in the midst of it all Jack Hodgson grabbed my arm and asked me to follow him out of the meeting. He pointed to a chap walking in front of us and said something about a police spy. We tailed him up the road until he went into a building about five blocks away. This seemed to satisfy Jack that he was a policeman. I never knew why or what happened later. I was very immature in these matters. But joining the Congress of Democrats was auto-catalytic. I met people outside the confines of my family, they introduced me to a maelstrom of activity. These sucked me into a larger community of all races all with the desire to see a more rational world. Instead of discovering the wider world confined by my own inadequacies, the world was being revealed to me by a dynamic involvement with others. I never made friends in the commonly accepted sense of the word. At school, at university, I became friendly with people but friendship never survived even a short separation. There is probably only one person, Percy Cohen, who could claim that title. Comrades I have had a plenty. They have remained my comrades for decades. Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, the Hodgsons, the Browns, John Nkadimeng, Wilton Mkwayi, Solly Smith, Moses Mabhida, Uria Maleka, Obed Motshabi, Mosie Moolla, Lillian Ngoyi and so many more. One of these comrades was a Mick Harmel whom I learned years later was a close relation of the Harmel who was my first employer. Being a comrade is signing a contract, and I always tried to honour my contracts.
My social life blossomed. There were parties and fund-raisers attended by girls of my own age. There was the discussion club held at Molly and Bernie Arenstein's house. Here we met every Friday night and had speakers from the university, the ANC, authors, and celebrities. It was very open and expansive. Ruth First, Rusty Bernstein, and others on the left came from time to time and participated in lively debate. There was a talk on art by the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery and I said that a supersonic airplane was a work of art. It aroused a lively discussion with no conclusion Tea and biscuits and good company. A discussion club camp was organised and for the first time I spent a weekend with young lads and lasses of all colours. I never had any problems with voicing my own opinions but listening also came easily.. I had a lot to learn of social conduct but I was too busy to recognise the difficulties. As far as women were concerned my problem was that my pheromones and all the other 'ones' were well developed but I was always over anxious and serious, shy and pushing all at the same time. My psyche was ill coordinated in the interaction of the sexes.
There were the unattainable like Ruth, she was the Greek goddess destined for the higher pedestals. To my credit such inevitability's were easy to accept. But there were many others who while being attracted soon generated an indifference towards me. Yet others who saw me, or perhaps their families saw me, as a good buy. I was wary of them. If they were so keen? Why? There was one pretty young thing, small, simple, nice, I was quite serious and I thought she was as well. I visited her at home and had tea with her parents. In the ultimate it revolved around my political activities. I got the feeling they were afraid. Perhaps it was echoes of Nazi Germany. In one of my more poetic moments I quoted "Ours is not to reason why, Ours is but to do or die." I had to reason why. They only saw the die.
Then there was Dushka Dimovic who had left Yugoslavia as a child because Tito had allegedly taken away their property. She had been educated at a free school. Her father earned his living by running a bridge club. All this made her approach to life extremely open and uncomplicated but also self contained and self centered. She became my friend on the rebound from another member of the discussion club. We got on famously and intimately. But I was brought up in the old school, or rather not brought up but merely emerged without any real knowledge of the niceties of sex. She was not serious and when her previous love became available she returned to him. So that affair was at an end. He left her a short while later but we never got together again. Looking back perhaps it was all for the good. She would always be more concerned with self than with others. The relationship also exposed inner secrets both in my family and myself.
One night mom and dad asked me to go to the Coliseum cinema with them. Dad used to get free tickets since he was the foreman on the electrical shop of the Schlesinger cinema empire. I asked if I could bring my girl. There was no problem until the next day. "Ronnie," my mom said," She is a shicksa." Well so what? I thought. But I respected my family so I remained silent. "You know we never told you but before Issy met me he was married to a `shiksa' (gentile). They got divorced. It never worked out." Shock! Horror!. Well, not exactly but I felt that for the folks this was a considerable revelation. The anxiety and concern could not but have an effect on me and my ties for Dushka relaxed. Perhaps inwardly I was really a coward or perhaps respect for the family can overpower weak attachments. Some years later when I was married with a child my mother said, "You know Ronnie we were much more worried that you would marry a `schwartze.'" (black) There are it seems degrees of racism.
There were others. The tubby lass who would have been great but her father had had a stroke and she was determined to take over as head of her family. Or the big bosomed dark beauty with long black hair. And the Indian nurse Miriam who lived at Kholvad house in President Street. She fancied me but not I her. Harry's sister Ann Barolsky? How much is chance and how much conscious design. I assure you that with me it was mostly unconscious. But choices are made, seeds sown and even the most uncomfortable bed with time becomes a place of rest.
The human race is bigger than you think
Politics in South Africa at this time was an adventure. As a white man I did not have the driving necessity to be active but I had found a group of my sort of people. For example every November the 7th. Congressites were invited to the Soviet Consul in Pretoria. For all of us it was a great time out but for many of the African comrades it was the opportunity to be free from the shackles of Apartheid if only for a few hours. Booze was plentiful and the police could not arrest them for drinking. My memory of my one and only such trip to Pretoria is stopping at Half Way House and walking up the red dirt path from the Jukskei river with an African comrade at my side. There were trees alongside and it was unusually green. Elias Motsoaledi and I got to talking about Marxism. I was delighted, surprised, and excited. Here was a fellow spirit who thought the same as me. I remember that the emotions were not unconnected to the fact that he was black. I too had much to rearrange in my inner thoughts about black people.
Sometimes these were rearranged in a rather brusque manner like the time Kathie asked me to come down to the ANC Office. It was in a cellar in a side street not far from Kholvad house where Kathie lived. One went down steps and the offices were dark and unimpressive. But they were the gateway to the future. Kathe said "Ronnie we want you to take a comrade Shadrack Rapodile to Alex." "Who?" "Listen comrade! You had better get used to African names." Well, he was right. On this occasion the objective approach obviated the racial overtone that could have been exacerbated. There were other occasions when the intense hatreds and divisions could and did enter into Congress life. But the necessity for change was overpowering.
Racism is however very complex. Take the case of the sheep. I was returning from the Eastern Transvaal where I had driven Gert Sibande in my green Morris minor. We had had a few successful meetings and were relaxed and readying ourselves for work on Monday. The sun was still up but it was getting towards the evening.. I drove up a steady slope and as I topped the rise there in front of me stretched a long straight road. No traffic in sight. Clear and uncomplicated as far as the horizon. We coasted down the gentle slope when I saw in the distance three sheep being driven across the road by a ragged African man. I saw no danger and gently directed the car to the right aiming to pass the sheep as they trotted of the road on the left. As I came up to them the shepherd suddenly realised that a car was coming and decided to drive the sheep back to where they had come. Too late the car and the sheep attempted to enter the same volume of space and time. The impact was not violent but one of the sheep was dead and dung was scattered all over the car and the road.
We stopped and I gave him my address. The car was damaged so we phoned one of the comrades in Johannesburg and he came and took us all home and arranged for the car to be fixed. I remember getting home in the early hours of Monday morning and having about one hour sleep before going off to work. I really do not recall anything of that day's activities except that I contrived at an intricate mixture of sleeping and working.
A month later I got a summons to proceed to court where the shepherd had laid charges. I persuaded one of the African comrades to come with me. It was a small court with a magistrate who typed out the court proceedings as they went along. He was clearly very proud of his typing speed. The prosecutor asked the usual questions and in particular asked why there were no skid marks. I proceeded to pontificate on how one could use ones breaks without skidding. How in fact it was better not to lock the wheels as it was more efficient. I gave quite a lecture. Nobody seemed to mind and we proceeded with further questions. It was then after I had explained how the sheep had suddenly changed direction that the prosecutor asked what I knew about sheep. I said, "Well they could do anything." At this point I had put my foot in it. I was guilty. We adjourned for lunch. I asked the African comrade to talk to the shepherd. He would receive no compensation even if I was found guilty. Would it not be better if I personally compensated him. He was having none of that. It was clear that he would be satisfied if the white man was to be found guilty. It was a small measure of revenge for all the indignities he had suffered being black.
He had his wish. I was convicted of careless driving. There was a small fine. It was all in the course of the struggle.
I went on many such expeditions both before and after the Congress of the People. One particularly memorable meeting was a report back on the Freedom Charter to the people of Ermelo, Gert Sibande territory. On the way we stopped for a bite and a bottle of lemonade. The three of us, two black and one white, sat on the curb in the middle of the little dorp. As we chatted and ate our buns a large white Boer looked at us but seemed too startled to comprehend a white man and kaffirs being so familiar. We noticed him as he walked away from us across the road. He was big with the build of a rugby prop. He was dressed in white that contrasted with his well-tanned skin. His shorts were drawn tight across his broad backside and he waddled like a baby hippo. He was so proud of his physique and was showing it off to the best advantage. He appeared like a model on the catwalk of boere-stad selling Afrikanerdom. We all burst out laughing but as he started to look back we cut our noise. We were not looking for trouble, it would find us soon enough and we were not in a position to educate him at that point. It was not racism on our part but a mocking of the white man's arrogant stupidity.
We arrived at the Ermelo location at midday. The square next to the location was dusty and filled with people mostly Africans with a few Indians. The meeting went very well. I was asked to speak and I went through the Freedom Charter clause by clause. I was like a teacher engrossed in his subject and his mission. The crowd was highly charged. Everything I touched upon was what they wanted for themselves and their families. There was a feeling of oneness and expectation. I felt not only part of the people but someone whom they respected and cherished. I was a white man but that was not a problem but rather a symbol of the solution that was possible. It was the best speech I ever delivered and the best reception I ever experienced. It was one of those few occasions in a lifetime when all the colours and shapes, the thoughts and actions, the hopes and desires seem to harmonise. I had accomplished something useful not only to myself but to others.
Gert Sibande was great. He had my respect. He and I were very different. He was a large well-built man with a history of struggle. He had little or no education but he had a deep understanding of life. He was from African peasant stock, his whole life had been one of discrimination and deprivation. He had by his own efforts and determination risen above the absurdities and barbarism of Apartheid South Africa. Although we were so different I had a great affinity for him. We respected each the other for what we were and what we had accomplished in each our own spheres. When added together we were much much more than just two humans struggling against unreason.
Like all young people I developed my own myths about leaders. One weekend I was with Oom Gert and an Indian comrade from Johannesburg. Oom Gert was to address a public meeting in the location in Ermelo. His ban had just been lifted and the meeting was a bit of a reception for him from his people. It was a very big meeting and Oom Gert appeared to be wary and cautious as if he was unsure at the same time as he was pleased to be amongst his own. I was on this occasion acting as the driver and just listening. When he had finished I noticed a tension in the crowd. Then two burly white men walked up to him and arrested him for allegedly breaking his ban.
I had created the image of a leader to whom arrest was a challenge and taken in one's stride. I was disturbed to see that Oom Gert was visibly shaken and apprehensive. The specials were about to take him away when I confronted one of them "Who are you?." He was taken aback. The crowd was pleased. He did not know what to do. Here he was being confronted by a white man and his automatic reaction mechanism had not been programmed for this eventuality. "Please can I have your name?" He gave it to me and I wrote it down. It was a small success. One up for us. The Indian comrade told Oom Gert not to worry he would immediately get a lawyer and arrange for food to be sent in from one of the local Indian families. Oom Gert brightened as they marched him off. He was soon released as he had not broken his ban. My view of reality was a bit clearer. When I thought about it I realised what arrest meant to an African. It meant beatings, brutality and humiliation. When Oom Gert had realised that he was not alone and that the movement was springing to his defense and assistance he felt much better. A leader is a human being.
It also indicated that whites could help, and that they were appreciated especially by the ordinary African people. One could even make an impact. The ANC in Port Elizabeth was holding a big regional conference. Now PE was a big well-organised area so the meeting would be very large. Helen Joseph, Retsi (Elias Moretsele), two others and I were sent down by car. We arrived the day before the meeting and I was put up at a comrades' flat for the night. The meeting was being held in a big hall. There were marshals dressed in khaki and a feeling of good organisation and discipline. Themba Nqota, Wilton Mkwayi, and other legends were present. I was more used to the self organised chaos of the Transvaal. However we were ushered onto the stage. Helen spoke. There must have been 500 or more in the audience. It went down well. Then I was asked to say a few words. I was on a high. I started with a loud mayibuye. Now I have a powerful voice and the crowd was surprised. I said the usual things. But I was young enthusiastic and militant. They warmed to me and it was fine. The in closing I said, "Those Whites do not want to join with us will have to be thrown into the sea." It was foolish and not Congress policy but it was what they were pleased to hear. They had clearly not expected it from a White man. I had not intended to say it either. Emotions are dangerous things.
We adjourned for lunch and had pumpkin, meat, and potatoes eaten on the stage. Then we were off back to Jo'burg. I was dog tired. I slumped in the back seat next to the window and slept with my head on Retsi's shoulder. He was large man consistent with owning an eating house in Sophiatown, old enough to be my father. A good man on the nationalist side of Congress. I often wondered what he thought of the white boy sleeping on his shoulder in the night on the way through the Veldt. It was so natural but in South Africa so unnatural.
For congressites colour was a factor of decreasing significance. It could be and was used from time to time to gain individual advantage with the less politically clear amongst us. A thick skin and the ability not to be provoked were useful. The enemy was a racist that was sufficient. To further the political struggle the movement eventually had to return to the use of arms as in the days of Hintsa, Shaka, Moshoeshoe, but never to the use of racism. Ideologically racism cannot be fought with racism. The movement knew this and built on it. The big meeting in Tongaat was a case in point. Chief Luthuli was confined so he could not easily be smuggled out of northern Natal. It was essential that he attend so we all found our various ways to a garment factory in what was known then as Zululand. We sat amongst the checker board of sewing machines, in a factory owned by a sympathetic Indian businessman. It was hot and steamy. We came from every part on the South African community. Whites, Africans, Indians, Coloureds, workers, intellectuals, professional revolutionaries, ministers of religion, communists, nationalists. I do not really know why I was there but it was a proud time for me. The discussion was amongst the leaders and we listened and learned. I learned to be part of a greater whole.
"Congress" of Trade Unions
The South African Congress of Trade Unions held its founding congress in 1955 and I served the tea and white bread rolls. This was the noble task allocated to those members of the Congress of Democrats fired up with the desire to see an end to Apartheid. It was a job I was particularly suited to. After all I had a degree in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Chemistry and of more importance, I came from a family where trade unionism was a way of life.
My Father told of the days in 1913 when the white miners were on strike. As a lad he was on the roof in the market square in Johannesburg and threw bricks at the dragoons who charged the strikers. He told of the time when he used to go to the market and steal vegetables to help feed the family. Of how they used to walk the railway tracks to pick up mielies that had fallen from the trucks. He went to work when he was eleven years old and earned one shilling and sixpence a week. He said that he could have bought an acre of land in the middle of Johannesburg for half a crown. When in my innocence I said in a pained and surprised voice" Why didn't you buy it?" He said resignedly. "I never had a half a crown." He was one of a large family of somewhere around 19. His father came from London, England and had been a smous (a petty salesman) on the Capetown docks. His father who was a bit of a drunkard, had evidently come from somewhere in Eastern Europe. They were of Jewish extraction but from what my dad intimated they were not religious.
Dad became a cinematograph operator and learnt to make advertising signs to go outside the cinema. I remember a book of sign writing in the house and him saying that there was heavy unemployment and he thought he would be better able to keep his job if he could do that little bit extra. He became the secretary of the Cinematograph Workers Union, a post he held for some 20 or more years.
He was in one of the white worker-commando's during the 1922 Rand Revolt and was a dispatch rider. He had a big 'Red Indian' motorbike and was shot at by the army.
Mother was a shorthand typist in the Trades and Labour Council and worked for the secretary Creswell. She was better educated than my father and read a great deal. She remembered when the police came to arrest Creswell at his office in the Trades Hall, Rissick Street and he jumped out of the window and ran across the roofs.
Later they married and I followed my sister Lydia into the world.
Dad was a battler and eventually became foreman in the electricians workshop of the Schlesinger organisation. He was clearly a reformist trade unionist. He cooperated with the boss to found a union for the usherettes and others in order to prevent them from being organised by people less favourable to the the company. I remember he got the closed shop and trade union deductions for the new union that killed off the opposition. He battled for the workers but never led them in struggle and never let it get to a strike.
He was in the Trades and Labour council and sided with the right wing against the left. He evidently had had meetings with the Communists. He told how one time he was asked to meet the general secretary who turned out to be a 'native'. But he hated the reformers. They were the spearhead of the Nationalists in the trade union movement whose job it was to capture it for the white racists. I never understood a certain fear that crept into the conversation when I had become active in the congress movement and the Nationalists were mentioned. Only later did it come out that the Cinematograph union was in the Trades and Labour Council and was being wooed by the communists on the one hand and the nationalists on the other. Dad was against the communists but equally he was against the Nats. He feared the latter since the death of Charlie Harris the secretary of the mine worker's union whom he was convinced had been killed by the Nats. He spoke of how one day he had been visited at home by the reformers. Never in detail but always with fear. It was clear that the union was registered with more votes than members on the council in order to swing the vote to the side of the social democrats.
My dad had a number of brothers. The one he only mentioned much later, when I had become political, was an electrical engineer in America. Dad said that he had gone to the Soviet Union to help build the hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper. They were in a way proud of him but also a bit scared, and felt that they ought to disapprove of his going. In practice they signalled the opposite feelings.
Mother told me about her family that was very large. Her father was a gambler and they had a bad time of it. She was born in Leeds, England and had come out to South Africa in 1912. Her father was a schneider, a tailor and they had originally come from one of the countries in Eastern Europe. I once saw an old man in an old persons home. We took some cigarettes, Sobrani's, in a round tin to this place and I remember the tin much more than the old man. He was my grandfather but I do not remember on which side.
So one can say that I am the child of East European Jewish refugees. Working class in that although the grandparents were on one side petty merchants on the other side they were workers. My immediate parents were not only working class but participated in the struggles of the white workers. When I was in my formative years I learnt about trade unionism, about struggle, of poverty and how to fight and organise. The union held meetings in the family house, my mother typed the minutes, I helped turn the handle of the duplicator (a hand driven Gestetner with wax masters). The duplicated pages were laid on a large square table and we used to walk round and round collating the documents.The arguments and battles on the executive were gone over at lunch and tea. My fathers' friends and enemies were almost exclusively connected with his life as an electrician and as a trade unionist. I do not remember him ever relaxing by going out to a football match or a pub, or playing cards, gambling, or getting drunk. We were very much a family and relaxed together and went to picnics, read books, or made things. I helped dad in making and repairing things, all sorts of things, and making biscuits, sewing, and cooking with mother.
We were always on the move. I think we moved to a new rented house almost every year. The first I remember was a tall block of flats. It was not very nice. Then I remember a house where we erected a tall radio aerial from some pipes left by the workmen who laid the local water mains. From there we went to a house in Joel Road that had a cellar and fruit trees in the garden. I never forgot eating cherries, yellow peaches, apricots and plums direct from the trees. Marvelous. The cellar was fun too and I tried to do it out as a hideaway.
I remember my aunt Becky and her son Godfrey and daughter. I had been ill and during the spare time while recovering I made some model battleships out of thin cardboard. They were all curved and with guns and turrets. Mom asked me to make some for Godfrey and I recall some puzzlement as to why he could not make his own. I was good with my hands but never artistic. I could not draw freehand, faces, hands and such like but I could design and make things mechanical.
I first went to school in the district, near Hillbrow. The trams ran nearby. I was not much good at school. I suppose because we often moved. I never had any school chums or became part of any gangs. I think there was something about us being Jewish but not being part of the Jewish community. My father evidently called me Ronald Edwin because he was called Israel Ernest and had been discriminated against and ribbed for his Jewish name. My sister was Lydia June.
I, like my dad, have had no friends outside the movement.
We were part of a large extended family but we seldom saw uncles or aunts on my father's side. On my mother's side we often visited the aunts. Mother was a twin to a sister named Lena with a husband named Sam. They had a daughter Priscilla, with whom I was quite friendly. One aunt, Becky was married to a jobbing builder, Fred Saber, and they became quite rich and this caused some friction. Dad was very proud and did not like it that they always expected us to come to them and be entertained by them. There was also an uncle, husband to one of my mothers' sisters, in Durban with children Eric and Aubrey. They were not the flavour of the month. Once we had an accident on the Pietermaritzburg to Durban road, My uncle repaired the car, did us down on the repairs and stole the battery and the tools. Or so it was alleged. They had two sons Eric and Aubrey. Eric was a fighter pilot during the war against the Nazi's and was shot down in flames over Yugoslavia where he was rescued by Tito's partisans.
There were two uncles on my father's side. One in Capetown who had a drapers shop and one who worked on the mines. We seldom visited them, the reason for which was never clarified.
Work with My Hands
I have already said the family was essentially very practical. My father always encouraged me and bought me practical toys. One of his pleasures was to window shop for tools. On a Saturday night we would go to town and wander around the streets. While mom and Lydia looked at the dresses we would seek out the tool shops. I had electric motors and lamps, switches and wires and the run of dads tools. Once I had been given a spring driven mecano motor and took it to pieces to see how it worked. The spring unwound and the brass cogs fell all over the table. I could get the cogs back and set it up but I could not squeeze the spring so that it would fit into it's housing. Try as I might I could not get it back. I was in tears of rage and frustration and a little bit frightened when dad returned from work. He immediately showed me how to rewind the spring using the motor mechanism. It was really quite simple. He assembled the mechanism with a long tongue of spring hanging out. He then merely used the winder key to wind it in. He said that I had been right to take it to pieces because how else could I learn.
We eventually bought a house of our own at 64 13th Street Orange Grove. It must have been in the early 1940's. It was a big house a single story with a corrugated iron roof. It stood at the corner on a quarter acre of land. There were 5 rooms with the usual kitchen and bathroom. There was the Kia (the servant's room) in the yard. We had a servant like all whites, her name was Lizzy. She was with us for 20 to 25 years.
Uncle Fred's firm built a large extra room for the union meetings and a beautiful face brick wall around the house. Dad and I did all the decorations and painting. The exterior walls were lime washed with quicklime mixed with water. The stuff boiled and bubbled and we used rubber gloves. The brushes were large and floppy and the lime sprayed all over the place. The roof was painted red. We remade the kitchen, knocking down the wall between the old kitchen and the larder. We put in all new built-in cupboards with marble tops (some old cinema had been pulled down or re-decorated and dad 'acquired' the white marble). We were not much as gardeners.
I made a toy washing machine with an agitator, a wringer and water pump and so on, using bits from the old Mecano set with tin plate for the tub. It all worked, with an ecectric motor driving the the water pump, the agitator and the wringer. I also made a telephone in tin plate. It did not work but it was quite realistic. I did however make a radio receiver, a Hi Fi ( an all valve affair with 6L6 push-pull output, based on a circuit in the Gramophone Magazine). It drove a massive 12 inch dual concentric speaker in a 16 cubic foot cabinet. I also designed and made a free standing bookshelf, easy chairs and a twin turntable set up for the Hi Fi.
Photo of desk and chair
Later I used to repair my Morris Minor doing the brakes, rings, valves and even the bearings on the cam-shaft. We of course did all the electrical work, the gas for the stove and the plumbing. The old style plumbing with iron pipes, cutting threads and hemp and paint on the joints.
We had a workshop with a Myford lathe, (which I bought with the money I earned at my first job), a spot-welder, (made from a transformer wound and set up by ourselves). a reciprocating hack saw made by me, an electric arc welder made from a transformer taken from an old cinematograph projector light source, drill press, long steel bench and all. It was great. There were two large wooden toolboxes crammed with all sorts of hand tools. The house was supplied with town gas and we had an air compressor so that I could do glass blowing and heavy soldering. All the large items went when dad died and I became a wanderer.
I still have many of the hand tools and some of them are with my son- in-law Ian. But I get ahead of myself.
Tea and sympathy
So I had the background to serve the tea and rolls with cheese and cold meat to the assorted delegates at the SACTU conference.
Not that my parents approved. They were not "Kaffir Lovers," and my dad had fought against the Communists on the Trades and Labour Council when they wanted to allow Africans in! I had joined the underground South African Communist Party in May 1955, the year of the founding of SACTU and the holding of the Congress of the People.. Rusty Bernstein first asked me if I would like to come to some political classes. Which I did. Then I remember a drive to town with him when he asked me if I would like to join the Communist Party. I said I would think about it. I felt that I should not appear to be too keen but to have given time to and reached a considered decision. Actually there were no questions in my mind. I joined some weeks later. In spite of all the trials and tribulations, the mistakes and tragedies, it is a decision I have never regretted.
My folks did not suspect that I was a member of the party but my Dad strongly disapproved of my association with the ANC. Still, we had come to a working arrangement. My father said that I must give up my politics. I said that I would not do so, and if necessary I would leave home. Mother said she did not want that to happen so we settled the matter in my favour. I continued to live at home and to continue with my political activities.
I particularly remember the first resolution on the conference agenda, what should the name be? We youngsters were all rooting for the name "South African Congress of Trade Unions." With the choice of name came the choice of path. The hall was full, the debate calm but heated, People I knew by sight sat on the platform, and in the hall. Leslie Massina, Solly Smith, Obed Motshabi, John Nkadimeng and many others. The congress voted overwhelmingly for `Congress'. The die was cast, the path was chosen. After that everything was an anticlimax. I do not remember much else except that I was more deeply embedded in the struggle.
In the months that followed I worked in all my spare time representing the Congress of Democrats on the Congress of the People Transvaal Committee. It was an interesting committee on which amongst others sat Obed Motshabi, and Bartholomew Hlapane. On one occasion the chairman, Retsi fell asleep during the proceedings. We felt it would be unkind to wake him. It was also because perhaps we did not take his contributions too seriously. His politics were not quite in tune with the rest of the committees. We carried on without him. Retsi awoke and proceeded at just the exact moment at which he had left us. The meeting stuttered and readjusted itself. It was about this time that the work was being held up for lack of cash and the ANC asked me for a loan of fifteen quid. I do not think I expected to be repaid but for the record, I am still owed. When I was about seven years old the barber in Twist Street charged my mother nine old pence for my haircut. In my first job in 1953 I was earning £1000.00 per year and I bought a car a Morris Minor for £300.00. In 1987 when I finished working for a boss I earned about £18,000.00 per year and a car cost something like £5,000.00. A haircut now costs me over £5.00. So I reckon the ANC owes me at least £300.00 not taking into account compound interest on the loan.
There was no trade union representation on the committee because trade unionists were thin on the ground. Being a trade unionist was not on my agenda but by November 1956 I became the general secretary of the Textile Workers Industrial Union.
Working for a living
As already mentioned my first job in January 1953, after finishing my Ph.D. at Wits., was as a chemist for African Film Productions. Within a year I had insulted one of the directors. I was busy sorting out a problem on the cinematograph colour film developing machines when up he popped. He had considerable experience but did not offer advice so much as tell me what he "knew" to be wrong. He said, "You don't want to take advice." I replied "I do take some people's advice." I suppose it was arrogance mixed with pride and lack of respect for high office. When I was young I used to help my Dad. Later I did things on my own and he used to give advice. This became irksome because I wanted to go it alone as all young people do. It got to the stage when I occasionally burst out in anger when he kept looking over my shoulder kibitzing. This occasion was a bit like that. The general manager called me in and asked me, "Do you intend spending your life working for us?" I thought that was a nonsense. How could they expect me to predict the future? "No" I replied. I was too honest. I was looking for employment.
It was at this time that I first became active in the Congress of Democrats. In February 1954 I started work with the Chamber of Mines Research Laboratories. There I learnt of the scientific precision with which they calculated the maximum work that could be done by the African mine workers, for the minimum outlay on their diet, taking into account the high humidity and temperatures a mile underground. In this they pre-dated the processes of the Nazi's in their treatment of the Concentration Camp prisoners. Africans were not human beings, only profit margins. I also learnt of how the dust count was regularly reported by the technical staff as being below the danger level because figures above that were generally unacceptable to management. When identity numbers were introduced for whites I refused to have my photograph taken and one of my colleagues drew swastikas on the lapels of his laboratory coat for his photograph.. My next job was at the University of the Witwatersrand. It lasted from February to December 1955. My contract was not renewed because I was arrested for being in a location without a permit
Actually what happened was that I had been asked by the ANC to address a Congress of the People meeting in White City Jabavu. As per usual the Special Branch was present taking notes. It was quite a small crowd of about 30 or 40. Sunny, dusty, in an open space a little away from the shacks. White City was relatively quite posh for Soweto. I followed one of the African comrades and lead off by saying that we wanted the demands of the people for incorporation in the Freedom Charter. One of the specials was leaning against the police car throwing peanuts into the air and catching them in his mouth. "One of our demands will be, that we don't want monkeys at our meetings eating peanuts." I remember a sudden tension in the air and this big burly white man dragging me off. Things moved quickly and I found myself at the police station being charged. In came Nelson Mandela. He was representing me he said. The white police looked at me and then at him and seemed to be amazed that I agreed. It was not natural that a white man could even consider being represented by a black lawyer.
It was my first experience of the real struggle. The case was reported in the papers, I spent a short time in the cells and found out what the Prisoners Friend was. I also found out that Professor Bockriss my immediate boss who had recently arrived from England was no friend of mine or of freedom. He called me into his office and informed me that he could not ask the Nationalist Government for research funds if there was a Communist in the department. Of course he did not really know that I was a communist. As far as he was concerned anyone who associated with the blacks must be a Communist. I suppose it was in the end no loss. I could never have developed into a full-time academic. In practice at that time I was much more focused on the Congress of the People Campaign.
This was reinforced when Joe Slovo arranged a meeting with myself, Sidney Shall (he later became a biology professor in England) and one other on the top of one of the mine dumps. The agenda was simply that if we did not make a special effort the Congress would not be a success. This was my first commission by the party. Well, it was a success and I did my bit organising for it and at it.
Prior to the Congress I helped collate the demands that were collected from all over South Africa. We sat in the lounge of a flat in Hillbrow and sorted the demands into piles. Education, Passes, Industry and so on. Then we handed them over to those who were drawing up the draft Charter. I remember one demand that came in from a group of shop workers in Eloff Street. It was calling for Socialism and aroused my curiosity. It seems John Motshabi was working there which explained why it was so framed. I knew that John was banned for being a communist. His brother Obed was very proud of him. I discussed it with Rusty saying that perhaps Socialism should be one of the demands of the Charter. He however said that it was not a correct demand at this stage. If we could win the demand for one person one vote, socialism would surely follow. To put it forward at that time would not be useful. It showed the maturity of the movement and how the Communist Party, of whom I knew Rusty to be a leading member, understood their role as facilitators, activists, and supporters of the fight for National Liberation. In the decades that followed the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Liberation Movement there was much discussion questioning if it was a Socialist document. The fact that it was not, enhanced it's appeal to the people of South Africa and the world as a unifying program. Socialism in the light of history still provides the only basis for solving the worlds problems, but the concept of Socialism is a bit more complex than we imagined at that time.
At the Congress of the People in Kliptown I was under the speaker's platform looking after the set of car batteries driving the public address system. In the 1990,s I read in the literature that I delivered the message from the Peoples Republic of China but my memory of this is vague. What I do remember is the time when the police who had been hovering around all morning suddenly surrounded the meeting and descended on the platform. A great murmuring surged like a wave through the assembly. With it the pulse beat faster and the murmurs created echoes of anger and beckoned violence. The specials and the police began to react. Disaster loomed. Then a voice rose in song. Rapidly one section after another took up the refrain. The pent-up anger and fear dispersed into the river of melody. The people had won. The police were disarmed. They were no longer in charge. If there is any reflection of my love for the African people it is in the happiness roused in me by their voices in song. The Chairman announced that the meeting would proceed and that we would continue the adoption of the Charter.
In the descending darkness, having hosted its historic meeting the square began to empty. The people drained away through the bottleneck of the Special Branch who recorded each person and took their pictures. Dozens of small fires emerged into the growing gloom, revealing circles of comrades feeding them with documents, notes and addresses. My help was no longer needed. It was time to leave. I had nothing to burn. My job was done. I joined the exit queue and a flash of light transferred my face to film.
At the next historic gathering, the march of the women to Pretoria on August the 9th 1956, I acted as a taxi for some of the leaders. I stood at the side of the great arc of the amphitheatre and listened to Lilian delivering her now famous challenge in front of the thousands gathered. "You have touched the Women. You have touched a rock. You will die." The air rang with silence.
After such moments earning a living was not living but merely necessary. My academic career ended in December and my next job was in January 1956 with a firm of analytical chemists, McLachlan & Lazar. While there I soon made friends with one of the African workers who was a member of the ANC branch in Sophiatown. I also met my first player of the stock market, my direct superior. His name is best forgotten. In any event he must be dead by now. Every morning he would busily consult the stock exchange prices in the Rand Daily Mail tutting and clicking his tongue. It made my working class blood boil. The work itself was boring but required some considerable technical skill. In a way I quite enjoyed it when a cement analysis added up to 100.1%. When one had to repeat the exercise day after day it no longer represented an achievement. It represented work.
Representing the Movement Overseas
It was early 1956 and I had been working at for McLachlan & Lazar for a few months. "There is a peace conference in Stockholm. They want a scientist. Did I have a passport? Would I go?" I do not remember even thinking about my reply. I did however remember to ask the boss for two weeks unpaid leave. It was my first conference where I represented the movement. I did not do a great job but I did not disgrace myself or the ANC. At one session of the congress in the great hall, I was sitting listening to the speeches when a side door swung open. Into my mind jumped a picture of the Special Branch. It was a raid. No! That was a different country a different time.
During the breaks for food I got friendly with a group of Australians and they were great. One was a Lady something, another was a member of the Waterside Workers Federation. During the conversation I said I would love to go to China. They advised me to ask the Chinese delegation for an invitation to China. I was reluctant to be so pushy but they persuaded me that it was not wrong. I asked the Chinese delegation and they agreed. I felt that it was a bit wrong but every-body else seemed to think it was correct. It is indeed difficult sometimes to know right from wrong. Perhaps there are some-times situations where the whole concept of right and wrong does not apply. There is no right or wrong way to eat an apple or pray to God.
Before I left I sent a post card to my comrade at McLachlan & Lazar. Then together with a group of Arabs from the Middle East I traveled by air to Helsinki, and by train to Leningrad, and Moscow. This was my first time in the USSR and I admired the brickwork of the History Museum in Red Square, the ingenious humor of St. Basil's Cathedral, and visited the Lenin Museum and Mausoleum. Then on to Omsk, Tomsk, Ulan Bator, and Beijing (then Peking). I spent a month in China and then back home via Delhi and Cairo.
I remember Lufthi, he was a big Arab truck driver, a Muslim from Sudan. I was an intellectual, a Jew, a small white man. But there was only the respect and friendship of comrades in common struggle. On May Day we danced with the Chinese in Tien an Men square and holding hands walked back to our hotel. Or the Mayor of Shanghai whose only instruction given him by the party at the height of the struggle against the Kuo Min Tang, was to survive. The co-operative farmers were so proud of their straw hut, the ceiling covered inside with old newspapers. When I asked what the revolution meant to them they looked amazed at the question. One old man answered, "Before we drank the water in which the rice was boiled now we eat the rice." Or of the old man in the jade carving factory who could not work any more but was given the special place of an honoured adviser. Much better than our western style retirement.
They laid on a dinner for the peace delegation in their major restaurant in Peking, or Beijing as it is now called. It had over forty courses, fish, chicken, vegetables, sea slugs, shark fin, steam bread, rice, birds nest soup, a few speeches, green Chinese tea, and plenty of mulberry juice. The latter was very pleasant and was served instead of rice wine or other alcoholic drinks in deference to the Arabs in the delegation. This meal spoilt any Chinese meal I have had ever since. It was the way they served the dishes, the care taken with the decorations, and the fact that each dish was served straight from the cooking. We were taken to the Opera, to see paintings, a coal mine in Hanschow, and a chemical factory. They really did take good care of us.
Then there was the unknown boatman on the River in Kowloon. I was standing on the balcony of my hotel. The sun was bright, it was hot and placid. The broad river rippled as it flowed down to the sea. There alone in midstream was a boatman. He stood in the stern, a small figure in the wooden boat loaded with goods. With every stroke he launched himself against the two oars straining with his whole body. The boat seemed to stand still in the current. Again and again he strained his whole being. Slowly painfully he made headway. Life was hard but he would win against the river, against the pitiless odds. With every stroke he gave everything and yet found more for the next battle. In Delhi a few days later I watched in the midday sun, as a man stripped to the waist pulled a heavily laden cart with wooden wheels. He was harnessed in the shafts like an animal. It was over a hundred in the shade. With every step up the hill his feet left a pool of sweat on the hot tar. Who or what planted the devil within them that drove them?
It taught me lessons of solidarity, of struggle, and it put this struggle in a context. There is a top layer in society which when divorced from the ordinary people loose so much of the meaning of life that their thoughts are froth. Their souls are barren and their comments destructive of human values. They give up the right to leadership, perhaps to existence. There are those who deliberately refuse to see the people's struggle for survival and only have eyes for the stock exchanges and money markets. They give up the right, as a species, to exist.
When I got back about two months later, I found a letter with my dismissal from work. I asked for a meeting with Mr. Lazar, the boss, to explain what had happened. He granted my request. He accepted my explanations and said he would perhaps have forgiven me "But to write to one of his Kaffirs and not to him," this could not be tolerated.
I was unemployed again but after a while I got a job with Buffalo Salt Works. They had a project building a tall climbing film evaporator for the purification and production of table salt. The system was nearing completion and final construction was under way. The white engineer doing the fitting and welding was a work-a-holic. He was not a bad man but hyperactive in all directions including his love life. This did not bother me but I was unsympathetic to his treatment of the African labourers. I started talking to them and getting on friendly terms so that they could begin to get organised. The white engineer took the path regularly traversed by racists. He told the boss all about it. I had only been there a month when I was hauled over the coals. The boss had me in his upstairs office. "I don't mind you organising the blacks. I myself read New Age," He went over to the window and from under the shelf he took out a copy. " But I won't have you organising my Kaffirs."
For six months I was unemployed and unemployable. It was quite pleasant for the first month. There was plenty to catch up on and it was akin to a holiday. Then it began to get tiresome. I had been so active and busy and now there was not enough to do. I also found myself getting short of money and had to sell my car.
It was at this time that, in spite of the comments of my English teacher, I began to write with the encouragement of Ruth First the occasional article for New Age, the movement's news paper. The first came out in June 1956. I wrote about my trip "In Peoples China I saw Science in the service of Man." ( We were far less conscious of women's liberation in those days.) Fighting Talk also carried a piece on science in its October 1959 issue. I disagreed with an article in Liberation written under the name of J. Johnson and discussed it with Jack Hodgson. He told me that he had written it but it could not be published in his name because he was banned. He induced me to write a reply. His thesis was that the majority of whites in South Africa could be won to support the Congress of Democrats and thus help to overthrow Apartheid. I was of the opinion that this would not happen and that only at the last knockings would they accept the inevitable end of Apartheid. This was my first venture into political theory (a, b & d) . It is strange to read some of these scribbling nearly 40 years later. I was so sure of myself, so confident. That confidence was not entirely misplaced. Certainly I did not get it all right but I was traveling in the same direction as the stream of history and the ones on science were factual and informative.
The Secretary of Textiles
Well being unemployed lead to me becoming general secretary of the Textile Workers Industrial Union, a job for which I had no academic qualifications. As in most things it is who knows you and what they think of you. The secretary of the union Piet Beyleveld was banned, they were desperate for a replacement. I suppose the political activists in the union knew about me and my participation in the struggle. I was elected and became a full time trade unionist.
We had our offices in Pritchard Street in the centre of Johannesburg. On the same floor on the opposite side of the stairs, Shulamuth Muller a lawyer had her offices. She was married to Mike Muller who had been the general secretary of the union before Piet Beyleveld. He was banned but offered to help me. On our side and in the same row were the offices of a number of African Unions, Solly Smith of the Toy workers, Uria Maleka of the Furniture, Lawrence Ndzanga of the Railway and a number of others. They were all small and struggling against enormous repression. They were on the whole penniless and often relied like the furniture workers on a single progressive boss, the parents of Ruth First, for survival. The offices were small, each about three metres by four. The Textile occupied three such offices and all the other unions two between them. Don Mateman was the Transvaal secretary and occupied the same offices as did the African Textile Workers Industrial Union. At that time the registered union could have whites, coloureds, and Indians as members but, by law, not Africans. There was no sense in such a separation so we tried to run the two unions as one.
It was quite a job. At the prompting of Mike Muller it was agreed that I do a round trip to visit all the major centres of the union. From this trip and from later experience I got a better idea of the structure of the membership.
In the Cape area most of the workers were 'coloured'. (That was how they were designated at that time.) Things then became more complicated with many saying that if differentiation were necessary they should be designated as 'so-called coloureds'. Today the drift is towards phasing out any references to racial differences but this will take some time. They were not the most militant or political of the membership but the most proletarian. They had no ties to the land. They had nothing to sell but their labour. The apartheid pill was for them covered in the sweetness of not having to carry a pass. They were in the historic sense, all be it "illegitimate," the sons and daughters of the whites. They were good trade unionists but prone to walking around problems only to find later that the problem was still stalking them. I met all the leading figures, I. Topley, the Union President, Willie Martin the Union Treasurer, and Alex Calmeyer the Secretary at his house in Cape Town. George Kika was the secretary of the African branch.
There was a blanket factory in the Cape, S.A.Woollen Mills. Many of the workers we represented worked there. I found out a few years later that it was owned by an uncle of my wife. She told me that he had helped her with money when I was locked up during the State of Emergency. I never met him and never had an opportunity to thank him. Although we were poles apart, him a capitalist and me an organiser for his overthrow we somehow both felt a duty to the same person. People are not all bad, they are more complicated than that.
I also met Ray Simons who was already a legend. That is the trouble with preconceived visions, the reality is always disappointing. I am not sure what I had expected but I had been told that "She will put you right." Well, she may have been a great sculptor but perhaps my clay was of too poor a quality or the time was too short. The visitation left me much as I had been before but a bit letdown and more unsure of myself.
In Port Elizabeth my next port of call I met Lizzy Walton the registered branch secretary. Port Elizabeth was however much better known for its high level of organisation and militancy of the Africans. The ANC was widely known and respected. The Secretary of the African Union was Wilton Mkwayi, who was also a leader in the ANC. He immediately became one of my heroes and remains so to this day. He was fearless, purposeful, and calm. One creates images and he was one of mine. Thus PE had all the potential for a well organised and militant branch of the union. It had been so in the past but somehow it never lived up to this potentiality. PE was not a large center for textile manufacture. It was and still is a great centre for organisation and solidity.
Durban was a major centre. Here Philip Frame one of the leading blanket manufacturers, filled his sails with the winds of apartheid, and ruled an empire. There were two main groups of workers the Indian and the African. The Secretary of the registered union was Alec Wanless. I remember when I mentioned his name to my father he warned me to be very careful since to his knowledge Alec was close to the Special Branch. I was quite shocked when I first saw him. He was a dissolute, disheveled and tramp-like character, gone to fat and drink. He wore a light gray suit, his trousers tied round his bulbous stomach with what appeared to be a piece of string. His shirt once white was now gray, tie-less and open at the collar. The appearance with his trousers half hitched over his big belly was of one who had lost control over his natural functions of decency and respect. The workers in textiles were poor but they carried their poverty with dignity and their union membership with pride. The African workers despised him. The Indian workers had lost all faith in him and were organising to have him dismissed. This happened a short while later.
It was clear to me that the Natal union was in difficulties. They owned a building but it was not kept in a good state of repair. The Indian workers were sophisticated and skilled. They were however divided. I heard of tales about "the weavers" or "the spinners". There was no leadership. The potential was clear but it would need a major shake-up, and reorganisation. Mannie Isaacs would become the Secretary with R. Chin the Chairman. This was after the big strike in 1957.
The African Union's organiser was Moses Mabidha. He impressed me greatly. He had an authority and presence. He commanded respect. Together with Steve Dhlamini they were the backbone of the African Union. The Union's problem was that Moses was into everything. He was active in the ANC, in the SACTU local committee, and the underground SACP. It is the unexplored vengeance of nature to overload leaders and thus to divide and rule high office. The movement never understood or solved the task of delegation of authority. It suffers from this still. I was to learn the effects of this disease but not in such an extreme form because I was not such a welcoming host.
So back to Jo'burg. The political and dynamic strength lay in the power and determination of the African workers. The organisational and financial strength lay with the registered union. Our task, my task was to weld them into a unity. I see this only now, not then. At the time I only had crisis after crisis, battle after battle, and some successes.
My four years as secretary of the union was crowded with activity. In December 1956, the year I started work, I was amongst the 156 arrested for high treason. As usual the special branch came early in the morning. The warrent stated that I was accused of treason. My immediate reaction was one of curiosity and then a feeling that they were not being serious. I had certainly not been plotting treason more reason, as the old Irish patriots used to say. But there you are that is what it said. Mom and Dad took it in their stride. I had been raided before and they had seen it happen in the twenties. The usual searches took place and then off to Marshall Square. I note in my Prisoners Property Receipt that I went to jail with nine shillings and a penny in my pocket, plus a Parker pen and pencil, a hankerchief and some keys. The first few weeks we spent in Jail. Then we were let out on bail of #250. We were banned from meetings, our passports were taken from us, and we had to report weekly to the police. The conditions fortunately allowed trade union activities so I was not out of a job again. Nonetheless for the whole of 1957 I had to spend most of the normal working day in the Drill Hall in Johannesburg attending the preliminary hearings. The only evidence produced against me personally was a circular letter issued by the Congress of Democrats under my signature as Chairman of the Transvaal region. This meant that I carried on the union work early morning, at times when the court adjourned and at week ends.
Photo of treason trialists fixing my tie
A Small Interruption
In January 1957 I married Sibyl Sack. I had met her in the discussion club, and in the Congress of Democrats. She was a pretty little thing and quite shy. I myself was, I suppose, rather immature in matters of the heart and had been turned down quite a few times. I remember however that the first night out of the cells I went to see her and we spent the night together in her flat. I asked her if she would marry me but she must understand, "The people come first." It was one of those dramatic, foolish, simplistic, statements of a naive young man. The passage of the years has revealed a different underlying meaning. The marriage was not based on passionate love. I did put the "people" high up, if not first, on my agenda of life that is too complicated for numbers to categorise.
We announced our intentions to get married and I told the parents that we were going to get hitched in a registry office. My mother and father had no opinions on the matter but my mother, always the practical one, said "Ronnie the family will not give you presents if you do not get married in Shull." So being open to such sound advice, my mother and I went to see the rabbi of the reform synagogue. I told him without much ado what my mother had told me, and that therefore I wanted him to marry us. I further said that I did not believe in all that religious stuff. The Rabbi said very little except that he would be in touch. A week later my mother said that the rabbi had phoned. Since my mother was a Jew, I was a Jew, according to Jewish law they could not refuse to marry a Jew. It was a Jewish reform synagogue and we went through a reasonably simple ceremony. I wore a suit. This was in itself a very unusual form of dress for me. I did wear bright green socks as a protest. These were clear to everyone as I walked up the steps to the Chupa and chatted with Sibyl. So I got my presents, and very useful they were too about £800.00 if I remember. They were enough to later let me put down a deposit on a house when it became necessary. We had a small reception for family and friends in Orange Grove on the lawn at my sister-in-law's house in Orange Grove. Oliver Tambo also married at about the same time and a combined movement reception was held at an Indian night-club in Fietas (Vrededorp).
In mid 1957 the workers in the big Frame factory in Durban were threatening to go on strike against a wage cut preceded by a laying off of workers. I flew down to Durban to lead my first ever strike. The strike was the first to be held under the then, new regulations. A ballot had to be held before a registered union could hold a strike. The ballot was a farce. The workers were already determined to strike so we quickly duplicated a ballot form, set up a cardboard box with a slit in it and the workers lined up to vote yes. It was illegal for the African workers to strike under any conditions. Although Moses Mabidha tried to get them to join the Indian workers the African workers knowing the retribution that would fall on them could not agree. There was however no antagonism between the two groups of workers. The Indian workers knew the score and accepted the African workers decision. Both Moses and I were banned from gatherings so I could not openly talk to him or the Branch Executive. I remember once when there was a problem Moses and I held a conversation standing back to back surrounded by workers. The bail conditions however specified that the accused in the trial must report to the police once a week. They would not let me report in Durban so I had to fly back and forth to Johannesburg
One day some of the strikers came to me in high spirits. It was marvelous. Frame had come up to them at the factory gates and begged them to come and work. They had had their first taste of workers power and loved it.
Philip Frame would not talk to me so I had to rely on the good offices of SACTU. Leon Levy the SACTU President negotiated for us on the phone from Johannesburg. He was of course also banned from gatherings. I was told he spoke with Frame for over an hour. We had won. When I got back to court in June I was issued with a banning order restricting me to Johannesburg. We won the strike, prevented a wage cut and forced the blanket bosses to negotiate a national agreement.
In February 1958 3,800 African workers in the biggest organised factory, Amato Textiles in Benoni went on strike. I was banned and confined to Johannesburg so my participation was limited. It would take some thirty years for the African workers in textiles to recover. The police intervened violently against the strikers. Rufus Makaru the Chairman and Eddie Cindi the Secretary together with over a hundred leaders of the strike were deported to the Bantustans. The strike was lost. We received as much help as was possible from SACTU and the other unions but they were themselves poor and struggling. The WFTU sent us a substantial donation.
One story told to me by Eddie sticks in my memory. The Workers assembled in the factory yard and demanded to speak to the Union Secretary. Eddie addressed the workers. Amato who was never afraid to put his case directly to his workers also addressed them. The workers sensed that this strike was make or break for the union. They knew the forces ranged against them. One of the young weavers shouted, " Burn burn." Eddie bravely argued them out of such a line of action. I still think that young fellow was right. The Apartheid state had declared war on the African workers. The time was fast approaching when the the movement would have to fight fire with fire. Perhaps the young fellows call was premature but he was more in tune with the realities than perhaps we were.
While we fought the regime on the industrial front the Treason Trial continued in the old Synagogue in Pretoria which had been converted into a High Court. This meant a long journey each day the court sat. There were memorable moments when the likes of Bram Fisher gave the court a lecture on what Treason was, or when the Judge was called upon to recuse himself. These were great intellectual victories.
1959 a quiet year
. The treason trial dragged on. The Union work settled down to a continual struggle to survive. We managed to continue the job of organising and agitating. The Union brought out a few editions of a news paper, "Textile Unity" and a history of the Union, "25 Fighting Years," text by Alfred `Tough' Hutchinson. I had a few science articles published, "A guide to Sputnik" in October and "Why did the Russians send up a dog" in November "New Age".(b) My aunt Lena who was the caretaker threw us out of our flat in town. She could not allow us to stay because I had invited Don Mateman, a coloured man, my branch secretary, to lunch. It seemed that the neighbours had complained. We still had some of the money from our wedding presents and we bought a small three roomed house in Henrietta Road in Norwood Johannesburg. SACTU was very busy and the textile workers organisers, members and branches were active in the various campaigns, especially the "1 A day Campaign". I was unable to freely take part in the committee work because of the bail conditions. I did attend one or two local committee meetings. I opened, in the invented name of Mr. Sarel Harbour, a building society account for the S.A. Railways and Harbour Workers Union. Lawrence Ndzanga was the Secretary/Organiser. The money came as a solidarity gift from The World Federation of Trade Unions. Rita his wife was also a trade unionist. They were both staunch dedicated militants. The Special Branch murdered Lawrence in detention in 1976. Rita's name was mentioned in dispatches as they say until the late 1980's.
There were a few smaller strikes. "Shoulderpads" was a small factory in Braamfontein where the boss was sympathetic to unions. He gave us access to the workers and I visited it regularly to collect subs. The workers were mostly African women and many were ANC members. There was one worker M. who always avoided paying subs but claimed to be a union member. There was also another worker S who was not very sympathetic to the union as much as I tried to persuade her. I eventually found out that she was sleeping with the white foreman and thus I had no chance of getting her to join the union. Elizabeth the shop steward, on the other hand was great. She was bright, active, politically conscious, and a real leader.
One day I got a phone call from the boss. "Come down immediately the workers are on strike." Now all strikes of African workers were illegal. I was banned from attending and speaking at meetings. What could I do? There was nobody else in the office at the time. So there I was on the factory floor talking to the workers asking what the strike was all about. Evidently the boss had promised them a five bob a week raise but would only give them a half-a-crown. I tried to persuade them to take the money now and the boss agreed that he would pay them the rest later. S was nowhere to be seen but M began a tirade against the boss, and the Union. The Union was letting them down we should force the boss to pay. All the boss had to do was call the police and we would all be in jail. And here was M more militant than anyone else and demanding her say in how the Union was to operate. I quietly exploded. "When you pay your subs you can tell the Union what to do." Well, that sorted that out. The workers reluctantly agreed to the two and six now and the rest later. To the boss's shame he never gave them the delayed increase. Let us be thankful for small mercies that he did not call the police.
There was another small factory that was owned by two Jewish immigrants. It produced various knitted items such as bandages and sanitary towels. They were from the old school and very sympathetic to the plight of the African people. We had a stop order for Union subscriptions and full access to the workers. When the government passed a law making it illegal for deductions to be made they agreed to set up a medical aid scheme. In this way the workers would get medical benefits and the Union would be paid for its administration. In this way we maintained our income. There were some bosses one could work with.
1960 was not so quiet
1960 started quietly enough but the calm did not last long. The ANC pass-burning campaign got underway and militancy of the population escalated. The police shootings at Sharpville and the general strike that followed were heralds to the declaration of a State of Emergency. At the end of March I found myself back in jail. There, together with thousands of others I had to leave my trade union and political work. Initially it was a shock, and then a feeling of helplessness and euphoria took over.
The cell in Marshall Square was a 20 by 20 foot empty black box of a place. There were small mesh covered dirty windows high up in the outer walls through which nothing was visible. One side was all bars from floor to ceiling. A toilet graced one corner with its smell. Fortunately we did not stay there long. The Fort was cleaner and we occupied a wing of the ancient building. This was divided into cells with a central corridor. I shared a cell with Monty Berman, and Hymie Barsel, if I remember correctly. One midnight Monty started to moan and mutter. We could not wake him. I started to shout and call out. "Its Monty I think he is going to die." Panic all round. In all the cells in our corridor there was a shouting and a banging of tin mugs on the doors. It had no effect. Nobody came. Next morning Monty was much better. A doctor eventually saw him and declared it was a stomach ulcer. We were different from the ordinary prisoners. We were all comrades. We stuck together. We were in jail because we believed in the redistribution of societies' wealth not its redistribution between individuals.
One of our group of prisoners was an old man who seemed set himself apart from us. He was clearly known to most of the old timers. Although polite to him they seemed to keep him at a distance. I remember one day seeing him creeping to his suitcase like a thief, looking around to see if anybody was watching. There he poked about and securely closing the battered old cardboard case he looked over his shoulder and sat down, alone. I was curious. Who was this individual? Why was he somehow set aside and avoided? What was he up to? Soon all was revealed. It was no secret. He was merely hiding bits of food to safeguard his future. He was Louis Joffe, the former Communist Party Secretary. I had the impression that he was once a powerful man who carried the mantel of a miniature Stalin. This was the man my father had so hated and feared. It seems that he now had mental trouble and his high status was gone. Nobody was frightened anymore but clearly he was best avoided. It was pitiful really. He deserved sympathy but then perhaps he had not earned it.
There were no newspapers or radio and we relied on the assistance of the occasional smuggled paper from the ordinary prisoners. What was really amazing was that they were on the whole friendly and could not understand why we should be prepared to go to jail for political reasons. Most of them were in jail by mistake anyway? Like the one chap. He was caught in a friend's house. Outside was a stolen car with his fingerprints all over the steering wheel. By his own account he was innocent. "He was walking down the road. He had a bad foot and this car came along and gave him a lift. The owner dropped him off at his friends house together with the car !" But there was the honest one who said that this was his fifteenth time in for stealing. It was almost a home for him. In a funny sort of way they admired us.
Then we were transferred to Pretoria. Here all the white male prisoners occupied a single large dormitory. It was previously a workshop. There were two rows of beds, a row of washbasins at one end and cooking facilities. Running along one side was a walled courtyard where we could play ball games. So other than being locked up we were really quite comfortable. Although most of the accused in the Treason Trial had been discharged from the court, it continued with a smaller group with Leon Levy from amongst the white prisoners. So he went off to court every now and then. One day a small pocket radio appeared. It had somehow been smuggled in. So now we could listen to the news. We were all delighted. Then suddenly the radio disappeared and the news stopped. It seemed that one of the prisoners had decided that somehow he was at risk because radios were forbidden. I later found a transistor in the ashes of the stove. I was annoyed and saddened. It seemed such a waste and so anti-democratic to burn it like that.
It was here that I began to take notice of a man called Vincent Swart. He had been brought in some time previously. He was dissolute. He looked and acted like one of the dispossessed, dispossessed of dignity, of thought processes, of health, of friends, one of life's mistakes. Slowly he regained the kingdom of humanity. His colour became pinker, his cheeks filled out, his eyes began to emerge from their dungeons, and he now and then joined with us in our activities. Curious as ever I inquired about him. Why was he here? Well, it seemed he was a democratic anarchist. He and a girl friend were at one time quite rich. They lived close to Alexandre Township and being free human beings saw no reason why they should not be free together with the Africans around them. They organised, well organise is the wrong word, they seeded a group that met, drank, discussed, and generally disturbed the regime of racial separation. There was no chairman, secretary or treasurer. There were no minutes so there was no need of a secretary. The two white participants supplied the booze so there was no need of a treasurer. Anyone who liked it at the time could be the chairman.
There were no tangible results of their activities except the drift into booze and drug induced poverty of our Mr Swart. It led to his arrest during the State of Emergency. In my opinion and that of many of my fellow detainees, it was the best favour the regime ever did for him. When he joined the slow stream of those released he quickly relapsed. He could have been a contributor, an asset, fate had a different destiny for him.
I decided that I had been away from science for some years and needed to refresh my memory. Perhaps in my subconscious I felt the need for comfort and safety. Perhaps I was not angry enough. Perhaps my revolt was more in the mind than in the heart. I was not destined to be a full time politician or trade unionist. I really loved science and technology. I should have been an electrician. Much of my later participation in the struggle was to be of technical assistance to the ANC.
We were allowed non political books so I asked Sibyl to bring me my textbooks, Perry, Handbook of Chemical Engineering, Elements of Differential and Integral Calculus by Granville Smith and Longley, and a few others. To my credit I also requested and got the Complete Works of Shakespeare, one of my school book prizes.
We settled down to a routine and organised plays and lectures. I gave one on rockets and how to get to the moon. It was quite mathematical with equations, graphs and drawings, not normal fare for most of my cell mates but they were very polite and appreciative. I was also in a play staged by Cecil Williams on June the 26th.
We had Heinz 57 varieties of political views amongst us. There were liberals, reverends, anarchists, communists, democrats, and others in various combinations. Some were there because they were on some Special Branch list. Hymie Basner had for example, been a member of the CP but had left in 1939 over the Stalin-Hitler non agression pact. He had been inactive ever since. But he was on a list. So there he was with us. Still there we all were so we determined to live together and present a united front. A Reverend led prayers on Sundays so in the cause of unity we communists and atheists attended. There were plenty of discussions and arguments but all went well. Even after the decision to hold a hunger strike.
It was agreed we would not eat until we were released and the State of Emergency lifted. It was not agreed to by the liberals, and one of the priests. This priest said that what he had done for the struggle of the people was God's work. If however he was to be imprisoned then that was also God's will and he would not oppose it by joining a hunger strike. I tried to follow his reasoning but I am afraid about half way through I lost the thread. So with about three exceptions, we went on strike. There was talk of fasting to the death. I never found out if this was a serious proposition but I thought suicide was untenable. All we would take was water. The first day I was quite hungry, but after that it was surprisingly easy not to eat. I was lucky I could always sleep, day or night. So although hunger made me tired it was no problem I just slept. After about 5 days it was decided that to keep from serious health risks we were advised to take a spoon of sugar each day, together with plenty of water. The first spoon of sugar was magic. During the strike the conversation turned more and more to food. We exchanged recipes and my maths book became the depository not only of the genius of Newton and Leibnitz but of how to make 'Stuffed fillet', 'wine sauce', and 'potato pudding a la Issy Heymann'.....and the signatures of the thirty-four of us and J. van Zyl, our warder.
( Which reminds me of the only time I saw Joe Slovo close to tears. We had in the larder a half dozen eggs. I said that I knew how to make a fluffy omelet. This clearly revived memories and aroused the taste buds of Joe. So off I went to beat the eggs whites into a stiff consistency, I folded in the yolks and poured it into the frying pan. Joe hovered around clearly his anticipation increasing with each step. I brought it up to heat and the creature rose in the pan. Now I was brought up by my mum that food had to be cooked. In our house it was never underdone. So I placed the omelet under the grill to solidify the top. I presented it in triumph. Joe almost cried. All his anticipation was shattered. His cultural history was different. In his circles the whole beauty of the omelet was in its uncooked soggy nature. He never complained but clearly it was a low point in his respect for my cooking expertise.)
After a further five days we were summoned into the yard by the prison chief. We were lined up and told that we should cease the strike. The women had agreed and were breaking their fast with oranges. We said nothing. The silence lengthened. Then Eli Weinberg spoke in a calm, loud, matter of fact voice. "We do not believe you." Even the birds and the wind fell silent in anticipation of the storm. It never came. The chief just repeated his statement and agreed that we could get a direct message from the women to confirm what he said. A day later we found that the women had indeed stopped. We agreed to break our fast. Leon Levy had in his possession a birthday cake. We broke our fasts with a slice of rich fruit cake, topped with marzipan and soft white icing. It was supposed to make you ill to eat rich food after a fast. Nonsense It was excellent with no after effects. After the hunger strike I remember Rusty saying that that was the last time he would attend any religious ceremonies on a Sunday. If the priest could not stand by the majority he would not sacrifice his principles and attend religious ceremonies.
Slowly detainees were released. My wife Sibyl was pregnant and visited every so often. It was painful to see her and then to go back to the cells. It reminded me of the outside and disturbed the steady rhythm of the prison. I almost got to hate visits. One visit from someone else I remember very well. Five of the original white prisoners were now left, Rusty Bernstein, Leon Levy, Rev. D.C. Thompson ( not the priest referred to above), Joe Slovo and myself. We were locked up and just doing nothing.
This became a way of passing time, just turning off so to speak. I had first practiced it during the long hours of the trial in the drill hall in Johannesburg, and again in Pretoria. It was a bad habit and our Council constantly advised us against it. I remember one time when I was so turned off. My curiosity was aroused when Council complained that the indictment had a lot of either/or's. We were guilty of doing either this or that , and or, this or that ... This roused my curiosity. I quickly worked out the number of possibilities arising as being some astronomical figure. I scribbled a note that got into the hands of Council in time and this particular absurdity in the indictment became part of our defense. I then went back to my musings.
We were all in this state of suspended animation when we heard a door being unlocked. There was a message for Rusty. The warder had come with the message and had clearly made the mistake of bringing Nelson with him. I suppose he was on his way to return Nelson to his cell. We did not think. Nelson did not think. We all did the natural thing. Nelson walked in and shook hands all round. But for the warder it was disaster. In the inner sanctum of Apartheid, he was witness to the open flouting of the rules. He blustered while we carried on in mild amusement. Then it was just too much. Nelson was whisked away and insanity returned him to his cell. It took a bit of time for me to return to my state of meditation. It was the closest I came to Buddhism.
Bribery and corruption?
We were still cut off from access to newspapers and radio. So it was with pleasure when we heard that we now had a small radio smuggled in for us with the help of Bram Fischer. This was the second one and since we were now a small compact group we could listen to it at lunch time when we were locked up and alone. We usually sat around the table with the radio turned on low and to preserve the batteries we only listened to the news. As we sat eating and commenting on the news items our warder suddenly appeared through the doorway between the dormitory and the kitchen. There was a stunned silence. I sat with my fork halfway to my mouth. Without so much as a moments hesitation Leon Levy, the President of SACTU, and inveterate negotiator, said," Nice radio isn't it? We could always leave it for you when we go."
The warder was taken aback. He took no action but after a moment left us to our meal. Shortly afterwards I was released, so I never heard what happened. Certainly there were no charges brought as a result of our breaking the rules.
I was called into the interrogation office. It was off a circular central hall with a tall roof. I was taken into three special branch officers. One sat behind a desk and the other two stood nearby. They sat me down facing them and one of them said. "Mr. Press, Why do you want to leave?". It was so illogical and unexpected that whereas I was usually very sharp and quick I was confused into silence. Then I mumbled something like "I want to go back to my wife." There were no further questions, statements, or other illogic.
I was to be released and they agreed to phone my wife to pick me up next day. I was up early and did my packing. My books, clothes, and my overcoat. In the pocket I stuffed one of the small pressed steel basins that usually held our fat or sugar. I had to have a memento. Down one of the sleeves I inserted the walking stick that I had carved out of a prison broomstick with a small pen knife smuggled in by Willie Hepner. It had two linked snakes, Apartheid and Capitalism. The prison gates, keys, an assegai, a knobkerrie, and two prison bars. The knob of the stick was made from one of the wooden feet of an iron bed. I had burnt out a hole in the top of the broom handle and wedged the knob in. It bears the signatures of the five of us left at the time of my release, Rusty, Joe Slovo, the Rev.D.C.Thompson, Leon Levy, and myself. Well, I was ready to go. The warder came in and said my wife would be coming and did I want to wait. There was no way that I could cool my heels within the prison walls. I said good-bye and all agreed that they would soon follow me out. So there I stood outside the heavy prison gates. It was sunny but cool. I had successfully smuggled my contraband and I was no longer surrounded by walls and bars. While I was standing there looking silly a large truck drove up . In it were the African comrades returning from court. They greeted me cheerfully and I still feel the embarrassment, the strangeness of being on the outside waving to my comrades returning to the inside.
On the way out
Soon enough Sibyl arrived, she was self-conscious, happy, anxious, large in the belly, leaning backwards, and very pregnant. Estelle was born on the 14 of September 1960. Like all good males in the sixties I was at home asleep when it all happened. I saw Estelle the next morning. She was a small crumpled thing with a squashed purple green nose.
I was soon back in the Union office only to learn that, in spite of Don Mateman's efforts the Executive had only agreed to continue my employment if I took a cut in salary from the 60 in 1959 to 35 per month. We were so hard up at one time that we agreed to sell Sibyl's wedding ring. We got 11 for it. Sibyl had up to now worked from time to time but the arrival of our daughter made this difficult. We were loath to have a nanny because I felt the employment of others changed one's self for the worse. What could I do? It was true that I could not fully perform my duties being banned and confined to Johannesburg. I now had a wife and child. I also was not in essence an office worker or office holder, I was a scientist always curious, always experimenting. The road of least resistance lay before me. I looked for employment in my profession as a chemical engineer.
It was not so easy. I had resigned from the South African Chemical Institute because they refused to allow a Chinese student of mine to join, she was a "non-European." During my research for my doctorate I had had a reference in Japanese. I traced a Japanese business man to the posh Carlton Hotel. He was classed as a European although they had been the enemy during the war. The Chinese had been on our side against fascism. Very strange? So I had no contacts in the academic or industrial world. I looked in the usual places and got a number of interviews. Every time I had to first write to the Special Branch asking for permission to go for an interview. Wait for the permission that they were usually quite agreeable to give me. Then the usual questions and probing. How could I account for four years of my life as a full time trade unionist? I invented a business of my Father that had gone broke. Generally the bosses were either so thick or perhaps turned a blind eye.
At about this time my father had a heart attack and after a long two months died in much distress in hospital. Schlesinger took over all the hospital expences and Dad received the best of treatment. On reflection I am not so sure that what they did was for the best. Perhaps they were ignorant but they instituted all kinds of treartments which prolonged his life but made the lingering deathlonger and more unbearable I re-member him in bed having had a stroke and being non responsive to the family but suddenly smiling when we held Estelle up for him to see.
Working at my profession
I got a job as a plant chemist at the South African Pulp and Paper mills in Springs. I think they knew about my political activities but were still prepared to employ me. For a short while we lived with my mother in Jo'burg and I commuted to Springs. We tried to sell our house but this proved so difficult because of the political situation that we just gave it to the mortgage company and moved to Springs.
Financially we were much better off my salary having risen to over £160 per month. I had my father's car an Opel and all his tools. I was banned and now confined to Springs. In any event there was still a possibility for me to do some political work. I was transferred to a Communist Party group formed around Lewis Baker in Benoni. He was a long time communist lawyer who was also banned. The third member of our group was a comrade Mavuso. He lived in Springs and was active in as far as it was possible in the now banned ANC that had yet to begin the readjustment to underground activity. He was very small in stature and very lively. He was clearly well known and he told me that when necessary just to get in touch with any African taxi driver to give him a message. I once had to do this when I heard that there were to be mass raids by the Special Branch and he should be warned to clear his house of any incriminating material. I drove down to the taxi rank and went up to the first taxi in sight and said I had a message for Mr. Mavuso. The driver immediately knew whom I was referring to and was quite willing to act as messenger. Mavuso was a fish swimming amongst the people.
A fourth member joined our group. He was a mine clerk. He had gray hair and was a contact of the Party from the days of the Mineworkers strike in 1946. It was a pleasure having him in our group. Sentiment perhaps but also an echo from great struggles past.
At home I was unable to do much. My neighbour was typical. An African mineworker came round one day and asked if he could do our garden. I readily agreed since I was no good at all at growing things. I had proved this when I was in Norwood. He asked for one and six a day. I said no that was too little he must have at least half a crown. When the neighbor got to know about this he complained bitterly that I was spoiling the Kaffirs. At work the whites were inaccessible because they were politically not receptive, to put it mildly. Also because I was based in the laboratory where we had little contact with the shopfloor workers. The African workers were more political but even more difficult to contact. I do remember however the long straight road from the mill to the town. At knocking off time there would be a long line of Africans walking on the path at the side of the road, and a string of African cyclists on the tarmac on the side all dragging themselves back to the location. On the road in cars sped the stream of white workers going back to their garden suburbs. It encapsulated in a single snapshot the colour division in South Africa.
One day being driven home by one of my fellow workers who was a strong Nationalist supporter we were talking about this and that when he said how much he wanted more children but it seemed his wife could not. He wanted them because the Party had urged the Afrikaners to assure the future of the White race. I could not resist intervening. I asked him to sing the national anthem. He enthusiastically launched into the theme and got to the part where it goes..."Ons sal lewe ons sal sterwe, ons vir jou Suid-Afrika.." ( We will live , we will die for you South Africa). I stopped him and said do you know that there are places in South Africa where those words cannot be sung. He sniggered in disbelief. I said, "If you are Black and live in a location you cannot sing that." We rode on in silence.
The Party group met regularly and we had discussions on Marxism and on the party programme and policies. Our activities were however limited. Lewis and I were both banned and confined to our different towns. Mavuso and the other African comrade were subject to all the problems of the usual apartheid laws and so it was difficult for us to meet let alone act together. Whatever we did was basically illegal. Even trying to live a normal life involved us in breaking the law.
Lewis lived in Benoni with his wife and two children who were a bit older than our child Estelle. We had a car so in spite of the ban we went to visit Lewis on a Sunday to have tea, sun bathe and swim in their pool. It was good, nay essential, to have friends and chat as normal human beings. He had a nice house in quite large grounds. The living room had a deep pile red carpet with grand settee and armchairs, coffee table and ornaments, spotless and neat, the sort of room one would expect of a successful lawyer. We never sat in it. It was for visitors and thank God we were not visitors but comrades. We sat and talked and had tea in Lewis's study. A small crowded room full of papers, furniture and unrelated bibs and bobs. It was homely and relaxing. Villa Lewis's wife perhaps wished for something more akin to being the consort of a successful lawyer but was resigned to being the long suffering helpmate of a persecuted revolutionary. Lewis understood this and a modus vivendi had emerged which while fully satisfying neither party did not stand in the way of respect and love. This was a relationship not unusual amongst many couples involved in the struggle.
The Rev Thompson lived in Springs with his family so occasionally I went to visit them and we had interesting conversations about the struggle and family matters. He was a Methodist , an active opponent of Apartheid, and a friend of the Soviet Union. I asked him if these contrasting ideologies were not a problem. He then went into a long well thought out discussion how a belief in God was not only consistent with Marxism and Dialectics but essential to an understanding of it. He was it seemed part of a world wide group of priests who understood and developed this approach to religion and democracy. Liberation Theology was not a big thing then so perhaps this movement was one of its early strands.
So quite often I broke the law, but sometimes in the course of duty. One day the boss called me in and said that there was trouble at a mill in Ladysmith. They made a form of softboard from wood pulp. It was supposed to be white but occasionally it turned out a bright red. They had asked for the help of the chemists at our mill. We would be going down for a few days to inspect the process and decide a line of action. I was not sure that the boss knew what my legal position was. If he did then he would not be asking me to go. If he did not then I could not easily tell him without compromising my job. I decided to go and take the consequences.
It was nice to get away. I had applied to the special branch on a number of occasions for permission to go on holiday only to be refused again and again. We went down by car and put up in an hotel. The first thing that confronted me was a request to sign the visitor's book. This created another dilemma. I had thought that if I proceeded carefully nobody would know that I had left Springs but now I was being asked to supply irrefutable evidence that I had broken my ban. I signed. The problem of the colour turned out to be due to certain logs having present a strong red dye in the heartwood. The answer was clear but the solution quite expensive. Still that was not my problem. Frankly that was why I never made a good employee. I never could raise the slightest emotion about the boss and his profit. The problem was interesting the economics not my concern. We left for Springs a few days later and all my concerns about breaking my ban were for nothing. Perhaps the Special Branch was more sophisticated than I had thought. Perhaps they knew all about my trip but realised it was in the course of duty to the system and this required that they do nothing about it. Perhaps they thought I would reform given time.
I have my grave doubts that they had any compassion but they did exhibit intelligence beyond the call of duty. Sibyl, Estelle and I had settled into a rented a corner house in Fusion Road Springs. A month or two later a problem I have lived with all my married life came to light. Estelle was a developing child with no problems outside those normal to the well fed and looked after. I was not under pressure at work and my political activity was at a minimum. Perhaps it was the reaction to this relaxed state of affairs or to the after effects of childbirth but Sibyl just stopped sleeping. For a week she never closed her eyes and slowly became a sleep walker. This was no good so I shepherded her to our doctor. He almost immediately diagnosed her problem as a mental one and made an appointment for her at a specialist in Johannesburg who I gathered had treated her before.
There was no possibility that I could apply for permission to go to Johannesburg. There was not sufficient time and I knew there would be a big delay before they even considered my request. What could they do? Arrest me. Anyway if I applied and they refused then what could I do? Well so be it. I got Sibyl and Estelle into the car and went to see the specialist.
It seemed that the specialist knew all about Sibyl and had treated her before. She suffered from schizophrenia. It was incurable. I was agitated and alarmed. My immediate response to the specialist was that I was having none of the Freud psychoanalysis nonsense, and I said so. He hastened to reassure me that the treatment was by way of drugs. Stellazine was prescribed and she was on drugs for the rest of her life. She was a bright intelligent loving wife but from that time on she was never quite with it. Without the drugs her behaviour rapidly became erratic. With them she was only half there. But that was how it was so what could I do? If one's wife has all her faculties it is not an unequal or unjust decision to separate but when one's partner is unwell, especially mentally, then decency and loyalty demand fidelity. As Marx said freedom is the recognition of necessity.
Well now that I was in Johannesburg illegally, now that I had done what I had come to do, I phoned the Special Branch and told them. As I hoped there was nothing that they could do under the circumstances. Perhaps it was because the struggle had not reached the pitch of later years. I decided to look in on some of my comrades and having found out that Joe and others were playing tennis I went to see them. It was a pleasant reunion before going back to my exile in Springs.
The struggle was also getting tougher. The ANC as well as the SACP were banned. All legal avenues of protest were now almost impossible. The movement was being forced to improve its underground structures and to consider embarking on the armed struggle. This decision was taken in the upper regions of the movement and we only heard about it later. It is in the nature of the beast that such decisions cannot be widely debated. For me it was no great leap in to the dark. It was clear that the opposition to Apartheid was getting restless. There were reports and rumours of violent reaction to the brutalities of the police and the state. I think my psyche is a contradictory mixture of left wing adventurism and contemplative caution and cowardice and when asked I helped where I could. This meant that technical matters became more important and since I had not only technical training but was also experienced in making things I was more in demand along these lines.
Some time before the banning when I was at an ANC conference in Lady Selborne in Pretoria. The comrades called me outside and showed me some wires that they said had just recently been strung from the telephone pole to the roof of the hall. They were rightly suspicious since there was no telephone in the hall anyway. Would I take a look. We entered the loft and with the help of a small torch made our way along the rafters to the front of the hall where the platform would be. There in the ceiling was an electronic valve with the wires coming into it. Coming away from the electronics were a further two wires that ended up in a small round disk held on to the ceiling with Plasticene. It was clearly a listening device. If I had been more experienced in the politics of publicity I would have suggested that we did nothing but immediately get in touch with the press. I pulled the microphone away from the ceiling where it was covering a small hole right over the platform. I pressed the Plasticene over the microphone blocking out the sound and retreated back to the meeting. A satisfactory reply to a rather crude Special Branch operation.
It was becoming more difficult to talk to the people so the movement started to investigate the use of more adventurous methods. The use of radio broadcasting was always a method being theorised about. The problems were not only technical but also organisational. If transmitters were developed would they be heard? If the populations have receivers, would they know where on the wave bands to listen and when? The regime knew that broadcasting was a useful method of control so they had installed a distributed sound system in Soweto. One could have a loudspeaker in the house and have piped music and news. We attempted to break into the system in the 1960's. We attached an amplifier with a tape recorder to the speaker in one house and injected some music. A comrade listened in another part of the township. He reported good reception. It was never followed up although there was some talk of getting into the network at source with the help of sympathisers.
Later around 1970 when I was in exile in Bristol, I was asked to develop a 100MHz transmitter. The device was satisfactory up to a point but there were no tests of the range or the reception. It was difficult without assistance and with lack of enthusiasm again it fell flat. A few years later a supporter gave us a transmitter to test. It seemed a good device though a bit large and complex. Again we did not have the organisation to follow it up. Later when a request came for it to be looked into again the supporter had been lost track of. Organisational backup was always a problem. Sometimes it was the security measures that defeated us. I was asked to make a radio receiver that could be smuggled to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. At that time they were denied all communication with the outside world even newspapers. The idea was to have the receiver in a pen and have one of the Red cross visitors get it to Nelson. It worked well. The pen was sent down to Lusaka where it was tested. The SABC came through loud and clear. Doc Dadoo was chuffed with it. Unfortunately our contact could not pass it to Nelson and the project failed.
Radio Pen for Nelson
In Jan 1990 the whole question was raised again but this time we were in a better organisational position to use such devices. I was living in East Finchley, London by now. A person in the Netherlands had made a prototype for us and I reproduced four of them for evaluation. We tested them and they had an output of about 8-9 watt. Things were easier now since Tim Jenkin, a comrade in exile with me at the time, could help. When he phoned me from Finchley Central I set the transmitter going in the flat in East Finchley, for a short time with music from a tape recorder. He phoned me back saying that the music had come through loud and clear. He then traveled further to Whetstone when we repeated the procedure. The distance was now about five miles which was quite sufficient. The transmission frequency was approximately 100MHz but was not stabilised by a Xtal oscillator. The reception could thus drift in and out of tune. We sent them to people back home who were in a much better position politically and organisationally to assess their usefulness. I understand that during the immediate period prior to the elections in 1994 it was tried in the field. Now of course Nelson not only listens to the news but broadcasts our messages over the SABC.
To return to the late 1950's I was gaining a reputation of being of use technically. Rusty had also once called on me to fix a wax stencil Gestetner duplicator used for producing illegal leaflets. It was in the cellar of a house of a sympathiser near to Rusty's house. Now in Springs, Jack Hodgson got in touch with me and asked me to make some devices that could be used to set off explosives. This was just prior to the start of the armed phase of the struggle. I still had most of my Fathers tools and so I set to work. There was the well-used device of concentrated sulphuric acid eating through a sheet of paper and then dripping onto chlorate or permanganate. I set about trying it but I was never happy with the system. It seemed so indeterminate. The acid strength was difficult to control and the paper thickness and type was critical. Electronic timing devices were not so easily available in those days and certainly the technology was not so well-known to our comrades. I made a device based on a simple kitchen timer. It was a question of gluing a rod onto the dial and onto the base so that the two touched after a set time. It was simple, inexpensive, easily made from readily obtainable everyday articles. Insert. A battery, some wires and an electric torch bulb completed the device. The doctoring of the bulb was the most difficult but I learned later that a gas lighter was substituted for the light bulb and the device became widely used with MK. I devised some other methods such as a spring-loaded sugar cube which when the sugar dissolved in water set off the charge. These more sophisticated devices never caught on.
The Special Branch still undertook raids and I was still on their list. They came for me one day at work and took me home to see what they could find. It was shortly after I had sent off my experimental devices to Jack. I had by now learned that there was nothing one could do so the best thing was to relax. Some years earlier I had been raided. It was my first time and I was "all shook up" as the song goes. When they left having taken a series of documents and books I sought comfort and comradeship. I got into my car and drove off to the Bernsteins in Observatory. They had a large house with a swimming bath and a long drive up to the front door. I drove up through the gates alongside the hedge only to see a black car parked in front of the garage ahead. I parked and walked towards the front door. In full view through a large bay window was Rusty lying on a couch reading a book. The front door was open so I brightened up and got ready to unburden my fears and distress. There in front of me was a member of the special branch whom I immediately recognised. He was carefully going through Rusty's bookshelf. I had the presence of mind to turn on my heels and disappear. The special looked up but I was gone.
This time I stood relaxed in the yard of our house in Springs while they scrabbled around but I was clean with nothing of interest. Then one of them came up to the leader of the raid and showing him a small white plastic bottle said, "Sergeant what is this?" He sniffed it and turned up his nose, "It's nothing." It was the bottle in which I had stored the sulphuric acid. But how was he to know? The raid however did my wife's health no good. Fortunately the boss did not take it amiss and it did not affect my employment.
I was now in a difficult position. My wife was not able to face the strains of an ordinary life let alone the problems of a husband involved in the struggle. I had to carry a much larger burden. Society was at the interface between the necessity for political change and the refusal of the society to accept it. It was decision time again and reason indicated that the era of my usefulness was at an end. If anger and emotion had played a larger part in my decision making processes I may not have thought of leaving South Africa. If I personally had been humiliated or beaten up, if in my or in my immediate family's history there had been a traumatic event wrought against us by the Apartheid system it may have been different. My life had not been fashioned by great swings in love and hate, beauty and horror, it had been one of even emotions and reasoned decision making. I was not so much in love with my wife as loyal to her. In loyalty to the movement I asked the party if I could leave. I had discussions with Eli Weinberg our party group's contact with the centre. He told me that my request had been discussed and agreed. He said I should not feel bad about it since it was considered the best decision under the circumstances. The departure of others had been agreed to (one I knew about was Percy Cohen). There would be others. He foresaw the time when even he perhaps would have to leave.
I began my preparations and booked our passages. The boss spoke to one of the directors of Wiggins Teape a paper concern in the UK. They in South African Pulp and Paper, had clearly found me worthy of my hire. The Myford lathe was sold for a song. I packed what tools I could and prepared for the cold in the UK by buying a warm pullover. I remember I bought it on tick and I still have to settle that account. There was an eight foot copy of Guernica by Picasso that I could not take away with me so I gave it to one of the chemists with the hope that it would arouse some political thoughts. I had a huge pile of classical 12 inch records which together with a long wall mirror I gave to Comrade Mavuso. He was so pleased because he said he at last could show his wife that he did get something out of the movement. It should assuage her complaining. In the midst of these preparations our group got a message that there was to be a leaflet distribution publicising the first MK actions on the 16/12/61. It was a week before my departure date. We had a meeting. Lewis could not help distribute, Mavuso and the other comrade were also unable to help which left me. It was decided that I could not do it alone especially so near to my departure date. That was my last Party meeting in South Africa. It prompted me to sell the Opel Cadet car that I had inherited from my father. I was sure the market would slump after the first MK explosion. This was my first and only attempt at insider trading.
My passport had been taken away from me prior to the Treason trial so I applied for it's return and this was refused. They instead gave me an exit permit which made it illegal for me to go back to South Africa. This was in February 1962. We had to travel by train from Jo'burg to Cape Town to pick up the Union Castle boat there. In Johannesburg there were a number of my friends to see us off. Don Mateman was amongst them. He had to get into the station via the "Non-European Only" entrance and then walk along the platform to join us. I was so pleased to see everyone that they must have thought I was delighted to leave. Was it a meeting or a parting? Many were to join us in exile in later years so it was perhaps but an interruption in the flow of life. It was to be over thirty years before I returned.