Anti-Apartheid activist and trade unionist
Lives of Courage
Lizzy Adrian Abrahams (nee Joseph) was born on 19 September 1925 in Paarl, in the Western Cape. She was born into a large family of 8 children, and attended a multi-racial school in Paarl called Bethanie School. Her father, Henry Josephs, who worked at a butcher, became ill with tuberculosis. When a doctor suggested that the climate in Paarl was not good for his health, the Joseph family moved to Cape Town where he worked as a gravedigger in the Observatory cemetery.
The family was only in Cape Town for a short while, as Henry Joseph soon died and the family had to move back to Paarl. Obligated to assist her mother as the sole breadwinner, Abrahams dropped out of school at age 14 in 1940, after finishing standard 6. She went on to work with her mother at a fruit factory- where working conditions were poor and racism was rife.
When Abrahams’ mother also fell ill, she was forced to work full time at the factory. It was around this time that she became actively involved in labour politics and joined the Food and Canning Workers Union, established in 1941. Organized by prominent leader Ray Alexander, she started as a member of the floor committee, but was soon promoted to the branch executive.
During the early 1950s a large majority of South African activists were banned by the Apartheid regime. One of these activists was the general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union, which lead to Abrahams being elected as the acting general secretary in 1956.
After the Annual Congress of the Union, she was elected as the official general secretary. Her duties included organizing branches in the Eastern and Western Cape and negotiating with branch secretaries. Abrahams then went on to become the Treasurer of the Food and Canning Workers Union.
While working for the Union, Abrahams was also the Western Cape secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and belonged to the Coloured Peoples Congress (CPC) and the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). As a CPC member Abrahams was not a member of the ANC, but often attended ANC meetings.
In February 1963, the ANC asked Abrahams to help four of its members that had been arrested. Abrahams was told that Archie Sibeko, Chris Hani and two others had not actually committed any crimes, but were arrested and had skipped bail. Abrahams was made responsible for Sibeko, who recalled in his autobiography (1996):
“My controller was Liz Abrahams, who ”¦ was responsible for me for at least a month. It was a risky job because had she been discovered she would have been imprisoned for long years. She moved me frequently, mostly keeping me in farm worker compounds, but once I was in a house in a canning factory compound, right opposite a police station. Liz arranged for [my wife] Letitia to visit me”¦ She had evaded the police when coming to Paarl, but they picked up her trail later and followed her, hoping to be led to me. When they realised I was no longer around they detained her for months and then expelled her from Cape Town. Liz continued to hide me until the message came for me to proceed north. She was the last of the Western Cape leaders to see me before I left home”.
In 1964 Abrahams was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act for a five year period, and soon many other union leaders were banned as well. This made it a difficult time for the Union. In fact, Abrahams was banned a month before the Unions conference which she had organised. She recalls this story:
“I had prepared everything. It was very difficult so we held the conference upstairs and I was downstairs so they could run up and down. I was confined to Paarl area, and I couldn't be in a crowd of more than three people or it'd be an illegal gathering”¦.”
“In the 1960s our union was the hardest hit of all the unions because all our organizers, all our secretaries and all our presidents were banned. At the time almost all our people were banned from top to bottom because they said that our union was a red union, we were influenced by the communists, just because we won't hide anything from the workers, just because we discussed any law that affected the workers in our meetings. Of course, the employers didn't like it and the government said we are a union that is near to the Communist people”.
Although banned, Abrahams remained an activist, operating underground, and still faced continuous harassment from the Security Branch. When the five year banning order was over, Liz was asked to resume her work in the Union. She agreed, but continued to work undercover with one or two union members from home- to avoid being banned again.
Abrahams came out into the open again in 1979 when she helped organize the strike at Fatti’s & Moni’s in Bellville, which lasted for seven months. The grueling seven month strike paid off when White bosses eventually called Abrahams and others in to conduct negotiations. All the workers who had been fired because of the strike were reinstated and given leave. During this time the company provided them with transport, food and other things for them to take home to their families.
In 1983 Abrahams was involved in a serious car accident. She suffered four broken ribs, a broken leg and an injured arm and spent 14 days in Malmesbury Hospital. After the accident she carried on working for two years but her injuries eventually became too much and she retired from the Union in 1985. However, she continued to remain active in other capacities.
In the 1980s she assisted Ray Alexander while in exile, and hid MK soldiers in her home. She also continued to help FAWU (the Food and Allied Workers Union) to organise farm workers in the Noorder Paarl and Pniel branches.
When the United Democratic Front (UDF)was formed in 1983, Abrahams became involved with the organisation. She assisted the UDF civic with setting up street committees, and on 12 June 1986 she began making night time house calls. The next day, on 13 June 1986 she was detained for almost three months, first in Paarl and later in Pollsmoor Prison.
In the 1990’s Abrahams continued to be actively involved in politics:
“In 1990 we started the ANC branch in Paarl and I was elected as the interim chairman. The next year, after the conference, they elected the executive and I was re-elected as chairman. I was the chairlady of the ANC Women's League in Paarl but I said they should get other women involved and we should build up their confidence. Once they have confidence they will take the lead. I was vice-chairlady of the ANC Women's League, a member of the Communist Party, and assisted the civics with problems and deputations and marches and so on. So I was all over. I was retired but I was working harder than when I was working for the union”.
When a democratic Parliament was elected in 1994, Abrahams took her position among the leaders of the new nation. She was elected to Parliament in 1995 and served on the labour committee. She remained a Member of Parliament until 2000.
In 2002 she received the ‘Order of the Counselor of the Baobab’ in bronze from South African President Thabo Mbeki. In 2005 she was awarded the ‘Freedom of Paarl’, and in the same year her biography, “Married to the Struggle” was published by the University of the Western Cape, to mark her 80th birthday.
In 2007 FAWU awarded her the Elijah Barayi Award at COSATU’s national congress, but due to her failing health, the award was handed to her at her home.
Liz (Nana) Abrahams died on 17 December 2008 at the age of 83. A memorial service was held in Paarl on 23 December, where current finance minister Trevor Manuel was the keynote speaker (see tributes).
• SAHO library online book: \'Married to the Struggle\' (Nanna Liz Abraham’s autobiography).
• SAHO feature on National Orders and awards. sahistory.org.za