Ronald “Ron” Press

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Ron Press

Synopsis:

Chemical engineer, member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), South African Congress of Democrats (COD) and uMkhonto weSizwe (MK)

First name: 
Ronald
Last name: 
Press
Date of birth: 
1929
Date of death: 
28 October 2009

Ron Press was born in 1929.  His father a cinematograph operator became the secretary of the Cinematograph Workers Union, a post he held for over 20 years.  He was in one of the White worker-commando's during the1922 Rand Revolt as a dispatch rider. His mother was born in Leeds, England and had come out to South Africa in 1912.  She was a shorthand typist in the Trades and Labour Council and worked for the secretary Creswell. Later they married and had Ronnie and his sister Lydia.

In his formative years he learnt about trade unionism, about struggle, poverty and how to fight and organise. Trade union meetings were held at his home, his mother typed the minutes and a young Press helped to duplicate union literature.

He first went to school near Hillbrow, but in the early 1940's the family moved to 13th Street in Orange Grove, Johannesburg.  He attended a school run by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Marist Brothers.  At school he won most many prizes, one, the Valerian Bursary, entitled him to free schooling in his matric year. After matriculating he studied Chemical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand where he obtained his degree, Cum Laude.   In 1952 he enrolled for his Doctorate in Chemistry.

As a research student he was invigilating an examination when he came across a pamphlet, Marxism and Modern Science by Maurice Cornforth.  To pass his time he began reading it and finished it before the end of the invigilation period.  By the end of it Press’s interest was aroused.  At the University library, he discovered a shelf of banned books by Lenin, Marx, Engels and other such authors. 

A fellow student invited him to a talk by Charlie Feinstein at the Congress of Democrats.  At the end of it he was still non-committal.  He graduated with a doctorate and his father arranged a job with his boss Mr. Harmel, a Director of the Schlesinger organisation. His first job in January 1953, after finishing his Ph.D. was as a chemist for African Film Productions. Ronnie was appointed as a plant chemist in their colour film processing laboratories in Killarney. They sent him to the United Kingdom to the Rank film processing laboratories for further training.

At this time he became active in the Congress of Democrats (COD). This was when he met and became friends with Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, the Hodgsons, the Browns, John Nkadimeng, WiltonMkwayi, Solly Smith, Moses Mabhida, Uria Maleka, Obed Motshabi, Mosie Moolla, Micheal Harmel, Lillian Ngoyi and many more.

In February 1954 he started work at the Chamber of Mines Research Laboratories. His next job was at the University of the Witwatersrand. It lasted from February to December 1955. His contract was not renewed because he was arrested for being in a location without a permit.

Before and after the Congress of the People (COP), Ronnie was involved in report back meetings on the Freedom Charter to the people of Ermelo.  Ronnie worked closely with Gert Sibande in Ermelo. The South African Congress of Trade Unions held its founding congress in 1955 and Ronnie was part of the catering committee serving tea and rolls. He joined the underground South African Communist Party in May 1955 at Rusty Bernstein’s invitation. 

In the months that followed, during his spare time, he worked representing the COD on the COP Transvaal Committee. In November 1956 he became the General Secretary of the Textile Workers Industrial Union.

The ANC asked him to address a COP meeting in White City, Jabavu.  The Special Branch was present taking notes. One of the Security police was leaning against the police car throwing peanuts into the air and catching them in his mouth when Press said, "One of our demands will be that we don't want monkeys at our meetings eating peanuts." Suddenly a big burly White policeman dragged him off to the police station. Ronnie was saved by Nelson Mandela who said that he was representing him.  The White police looked at him amazed as it was unusual for a White man to be represented by a Black lawyer in those days.  It was his first real ‘struggle’ experience. The case was reported in the papers.  He spent a short time in the cells.  Immediately after that Professor Bockriss his immediate boss, who had recently arrived from England, informed him that he could not ask the Nationalist Government for research funds if there was a Communist in the department. As far as Bockriss was concerned anyone who associated with the Blacks must be a Communist.  His academic career ended in December and Ronnie’s next job was in January 1956 with a firm of analytical chemists.

Prior to the COP he helped collate the demands that were collected from all over South Africa to draw up the draft Charter. At the COP, in Kliptown, he was under the speaker's platform looking after the set of car batteries that powered the public address system. At the Women’s March to Pretoria on August the 9th 1956, he acted as a taxi driver for some of the leaders.  

In early 1956 he was approached by the ANC to attend a peace conference in Stockholm. It was his first conference where he represented the movement. After the conference he travelled to Leningrad, and Moscow. From here he travelled to Beijing (then Peking) where he spent a month.  He then returned home via Delhi and Cairo.

He was unemployed again but after a while got a job with Buffalo Salt Works. A fellow White engineer told the boss that Press was organising the African work force.  Again, he was unemployed for six months.  It was at this time; with encouragement from Ruth First he began writing the occasional article for New Age, the movement's newspaper. The first came out in June 1956. He wrote about his trip, the article was titled ‘In Peoples China I saw Science in the service of Man’.

Later he became the General Secretary of the Textile Workers Industrial Union, as the previous secretary of the union, Piet Beyleveld, had been banned. At the prompting of Mike Muller (General Secretary before Beyleveld) it was agreed that Press do a round trip to visit all the major centres of the union.

In the Cape area he 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. Wool Mills where many of the workers they represented worked. He found out a few years later that it was owned by an uncle of his wife. She told him that he had helped her with money when Press was locked up during the State of Emergency. In Port Elizabeth, he met Lizzy Walton the registered branch secretary. The Secretary of the African Union was Wilton Mkwayi, who was also a leader in the ANC.

In Durban, he met Indian and African workers. The Secretary of the registered union was Alec Wanless who the workers dismissed a short while later. The Indian workers were represented by Mannie Isaacs, the Secretary and R. Chin the Chairman. The African Union's organiser was Moses Mabhida. Together with Steve Dhlamini they were the backbone of the African Union.

In December 1956, he was amongst the 156 arrested for high treason. He was Accused No. 60.  After a few weeks in jail they were released on bail of £250. They were banned from meetings, their passports taken and they had to report weekly to the police. The conditions fortunately allowed trade union activities so he was not out of a job again. The only evidence produced against him personally was a circular letter issued by the Congress of Democrats under his signature as Chairman of the Transvaal region. This meant that he carried his union work in the early mornings, at times when the court adjourned, and on the weekends.

In January 1957, Press married Sibyl Sack. 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 at the Frame textile factory in Durban were threatening to go on strike against a wage cut preceded by the lay off of workers. He flew down to Durban to lead his first ever strike. The strike was the first to be held under the then, new regulations. Although Moses Mabhida tried to get them to join the Indian workers the African workers knowing the retribution that would fall on them would not agree. There was however no antagonism between the two groups of workers. The Indian workers accepted the African workers decision. Both Moses and Press were banned from gatherings so he could not openly talk to him or the Branch Executive. The pair were once forced to hold a conversation standing back to back surrounded by workers.

The bail conditions specified that the Treason Trial accused had to report to the police once a week. They would not let him report in Durban so he had to fly back and forth to Johannesburg.  The owner, Philip Frame would not talk to him. Leon Levy the SACTU President negotiated on the phone from Johannesburg. He was also banned from gatherings. When he got back to court in June, Press was issued with a banning order restricting him to Johannesburg. The workers won the strike, prevented a wage cut and forced the bosses to negotiate a national agreement.

The treason trial dragged on and the union managed to continue the job of organising. The Union brought out a few editions of a newspaper, Textile Unity and a history of the Union, 25 Fighting Years.  The text was by Alfred `Tough' Hutchinson. Press also had a few science articles published in the New Age, ‘A guide to Sputnik’  in October and ‘Why did the Russians send up a dog’ in November.

Around the same time, Press’s Aunt Lena threw Press and his wife out of their flat in town. She would not allow them to stay because Press had invited Don Mateman, a Coloured man, his branch secretary, to lunch. It seemed that the neighbours had complained. They moved to a small three roomed house in Henrietta Road in Norwood Johannesburg.

Press was still able to continue his union work in Johannesburg, according to his bail conditions.  He 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. Money, as a solidarity gift, came from The World Federation of Trade Unions. The Special Branch murdered Lawrence in detention in 1976.

In 1960, the police shootings at Sharpeville and the general strike that followed led to a State of Emergency. At the end of March Press was detained at Marshall Square after which he was taken to The Fort, in Johannesburg.  He shared a cell with Monty Berman and Hymie Barsel.  Among the prisoners was Louis Joffe, the former Communist Party Secretary. In prison he was also in a play staged by Cecil Williams on June the 26th. Whilst in prison a small radio was smuggled in for them with the help of Bram Fischer.

With about three exceptions, all the prisoners went on strike. After about five days it they were advised to swallow a spoon of sugar each day with plenty of water, to keep them in reasonable health. After a further five days they were summoned by the prison chief and told that they should cease the strike. The men learnt that the women prisoners had stopped their strike and agreed to break their fast.

When Press was released he managed to smuggle out a walking stick that he 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 knob of the stick was made from a wooden foot of an iron bed which bore the signatures of the five of them left at the time of his release, Rusty Bernstein, Joe Slovo, the Rev.D.C.Thompson, Leon Levy, and Press.

Press went back to the Union office, but his salary had been cut from £60 to £35 per month. The Press’s were so short of money for a time that they were forced to sell Sibyl's wedding ring for £11.  The Press’s daughter Estelle was born on the 14 of September 1960 and to support his family Press looked for employment as a chemical engineer.  It was not easy as he had resigned from the South African Chemical Institute because they refused to allow a Chinese student of his to join as she was a "non-European."

Press then got a job as a plant chemist at the South African Pulp and Paper mills in Springs. He was banned and now confined to Springs. Press was transferred to a Communist Party group formed around Lewis Baker, a long time communist lawyer who was also banned, in Benoni. The third member of this group was a comrade Mavuso who lived in Springs.   The Rev Thompson also lived in Springs with his family.  Occasionally Press went to visit them; Thompson was a Methodist, an active opponent of Apartheid, and a friend of the Soviet Union.

Later, Jack Hodgson, approached Press in Springs, asking him to make a device that could be used to set off explosives. This was just prior to the start of the armed phase of the struggle. He made a device based on a simple kitchen timer. A battery, some wires and an electric torch bulb completed the device. The doctoring of the bulb was the most difficult but he learned later that a gas lighter was substituted for the light bulb and the device became widely used by the MK (armed wing of the ANC).

The Special Branch constantly harassed Press.  His wife became quite ill and required medical attention. Press asked the SACP if he could leave South Africa. He held discussions with Eli Weinberg an SACP contact. He was informed that his request had been discussed by the SACP and agreed upon.

His passport had been taken away from him prior to the Treason trial and he had to apply for its return. This was refused. The authorities issued him an exit permit which made it illegal for him to return to South Africa. This was in February 1962.  He went into exile in Bristol, England.  He was a secretary to the Bristol Anti Apartheid Movement at a stage and was made a life member of the Bristol Trades Union Council.

Much later circa 1970, Press was asked to make a radio receiver that could be smuggled to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. The idea was to have the receiver in a pen and have one of the Red Cross visitors get it to Nelson. The pen was sent from England to Lusaka where it was tested and worked successfully. Unfortunately their contact could not pass it to Nelson and the project failed.

Ronnie Press passed away on 28 October 2009 in Bristol, England.


References:
• To Change the World Is Reason Enough ”“ Ron Press ”“ his story [online] Available at: www.anc.org.za [Accessed on 5 November 2009]
• Email from: communist-university@googlegroups.com; on behalf of DomzaNet [Dominic.Tweedie@gmail.com]  [Accessed on 5 November 2009]

Last updated : 09-Jul-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 28-Feb-2013