Janet Cherry

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

General Secretary of the National Union of South African Students, Member of the United Democrat

First name: 
Janet
Last name: 
Cherry
Date of birth: 
1961
Location of birth: 
Cape Town, South Africa.

Janet Cherry was born in 1961 in Cape Town, where she was raised.  Janet comes from a family committed to social justice.  Her father, Robin, the Dean of Science at the University of Cape Town, and her mother Helen, have played active roles in opposing apartheid.  While at school at Rustenburg Girls High in Rondebosch, Cape Town, Janet first became aware of the injustices in South Africa.  At this time she was a strong supporter of the Progressive Federal Party.  After matriculating with distinction in 1979, Janet began a degree in Economic History and Industrial Sociology at UCT.

She became politically active while studying at the University of Cape Town in 1980. She was involved in the Wages Commission, doing support work for independent black trade unions, and in worker education and adult literacy programmes in Crossroads and Nyanga townships in the Cape. While at University, she ran the student printing press as a member of the Student Representative Council. In 1982, she was recruited into the African National Congress (ANC) underground. A year later, Cherry was elected General Secretary of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). At that time, she was involved in discussions around the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Her commitment to the establishment of a living wage led to her joining and later co-ordinating the NUSAS Wages Commission. She also served as a voluntary worker for the General Workers Union and assisted with its worker advice office. She played a central role on the support committees of the 1980 Meat Workers strike and the 1981 Wilson Rowntree strike.

In 1980, she began working as a volunteer literacy teacher for the Adult Learning Project.  Through this work, most of it involving evening classes in Crossroads, she not only learnt to speak Xhosa fluently but also had first-hand experience of the needs and desires of black workers. Janet always believed in the importance of working for change within her own community and of winning over as many Whites as possible to the cause of democracy.

For this reason she became actively involved in student politics. In 1980 she was elected to the Arts Students Council and in 1981 was one of the poll-toppers in the SRC election. She served as SRC Media Officer, and through this work developed contacts with youth and civic groups throughout the Western Cape. After graduating in 1982 she was elected Secretary-General of the National Union of South African Students and worked full-time for NUSAS in 1983.

In 1984 Janet joined the Black Sash and has played an active role in the organisation ever since. She developed a close friendship with Molly Blackburn, and together they worked tirelessly in showing the white community the realities of life under apartheid.

In 1984, Janet Cherry relocated to Port Elizabeth, where she established the Eastern Cape Adult Learning Project and began her work teaching literacy skills to trade union members. She served as the chairperson of the area UDF committee. The South African government declared a State of Emergency in 1985, which included a ban on all UDF meetings. Cherry’s adult literacy programme was also no longer permitted to operate, so she concentrated on creating a crisis information centre to support people who disappeared or had been detained during the uprising. Cherry herself was detained in 1985, in 1986, 1987, and again in 1988 before being put under house arrest in 1989.

She has faced constant repression and harassment from the security police and from right wing elements.  In 1981 she was detained for a day after taking part in a protest for the rights of meat workers. In August 1984 she was again briefly detained on the eve of the Coloured and Indian elections for the House of Delegates. In July 1985 she was detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act and held in solitary confinement for three weeks without charge, and in 1986 she was detained for a fourth time. In all she has spent over a year of her life in detention without having been charged for any offence.

One of Janet's first efforts in winning support within the white community for the democratic movement was in setting up the Million Signatures Campaign in 1984. Over 1 000 signatures were collected from Port Elizabeth's white suburbs, and in August 1984 the Walmer Town Hall was packed for the launch of the Port Elizabeth UDF Area Committee.

In July 1984 she was hospitalised after a rock was thrown through her windscreen while she was driving. She has received numerous death threats and has been assaulted by white thugs.  Janet's home and office have also frequently been raided by the security police.

In December 1984, Cherry and Molly Blackburn formed the Port Elizabeth branch of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and Janet was elected its first chairperson. She also served on the ECC National Committee, addressed ECC meetings throughout the country and has represented the ECC overseas.

In July 1985 all meetings of the UDF PE Area were banned, and the ban was renewed. During this period Janet served on the UDF regional and national General Councils and on several UDF subcommittees.

In 1986 when the repression in the area made it difficult for her to fulfil her role as a literacy co-ordinator, she transformed her offices into a community and detentions advice centre. A prime focus of her work was always on training others to impart skills.  This meant that her work was able to continue despite her detention.

In March 1986, Janet, a fluent French speaker, was chosen to represent the ECC at an SOS Racisme conference in France. Hours before her departure she was arrested on a 'drugs' charge despite never having touched drugs in her life. After two days she was released when police could find no evidence against her. She immediately left for France and was able to address the conference. 

Since arriving in Port Elizabeth she has faced a series of mysterious attacks with  the purpose of intimidating her into leave Port Elizabeth. On at least ten occasions her car tyres have been slashed. One tyre was dangerously overinflated while her car was parked outside her house. Her car has twice been firebombed while parked outside her house or office.

In June 1986, her office was broken into and all her literacy files were removed.  On 22 August 1986, Janet was detained by the security police while visiting Cape Town. She was transferred to Port Elizabeth and was held in the North End Prison there.  She was held in solitary confinement for over two months, but later shared a cell with Sue Lund, the Grahamstown Rural Committee co-ordinator who was detained on 22 November. The only visitors Janet was allowed were her family, who lived in Cape Town and found it difficult to travel to Port Elizabeth regularly. She was allowed no letters other than those from her family.  During her detention Janet received significant local and international support.

In November 1986, she was adopted as Prisoner of the Month by Amnesty International. The ECC also received over 500 overseas letters of support for Janet –from church groups, peace organisations and individuals from four continents. Senator Edward Kennedy, Bishop John Walker of Washington DC, Bishop Paul Moore of New York and numerous prominent individuals and groups wrote to President Botha calling for her release.

An application for Janet's release was rejected by the Port Elizabeth Supreme Court in June 1987.
In recognition of her work as a young activist, Janet Cherry was one of the first recipients of the Reebok Human Rights Awards in 1988. In the early 1990s Janet Cherry worked for human rights and democracy organizations before moving to Grahamstown to lecture in Political Studies at Rhodes University.

In 1996 and 1997 she worked as a researcher for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since 1998 Janet has been lecturing on Development Studies at the University of Port Elizabeth. Janet continues to be involved in human rights work, and holds a PhD in Politics from Rhodes University.

Janet is currently a senior lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, in the Department of Development Studies. She is also a trainer for the Centre for Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) based in Belgrade, Serbia. She has been involved in research for, among others, the Human Sciences Research Council (Democracy and Governance Programme), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the International Centre on Human Rights Policy. Her main areas of research are human rights, democratic participation, social history, gender and development.

She was a keen tennis player, an accomplished artist and singer and a former champion show jumper


References:
• South Africa - Freedom in our lifetime. A Force More Powerful [Online]. Available at:aforcemorepowerful.org [Accessed 25 February 2010]
• Women in the struggle: Janet Cherry [Online]. Available at: disa.ukzn.ac.za [accessed 27 January 2010]
• Janet Cherry's Bio Info. Z Space - The Spirit of Resistance Lives [Online]. Available at:zcommunications.org [Accessed 11 February 2010]

Last updated : 15-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011