To Change the World !
Is Reason Enough ?
Ron Press - His Story
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.