Trade unionist, member of the SACP, political activist, political prisoner, banned person and exile.
Sarah Rubin, later Carneson, was born in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) in 1916. Her parents were both immigrants; her father, Zelic Rubin, was originally from Lithuania while her mother, Anna, was from Russia. Zelic Rubin worked as a tailor and, unusually for the time, employed Coloured and Africans along with Whites as apprentices in his workshop in the backyard of the family home (297 Bree Street, Johannesburg). Carneson’s parents were founding members of South African Communist Party (SACP), and in 1931, at age 18, Carneson joined the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA). By 1934 she was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), teaching labourers to read and write at the SACP's night school.
For the next three and a half decades Sarah was involved in a whirl of organisational activity. She worked full-time for the League Against Fascism and War in Johannesburg, and then full-time for the CPSA Johannesburg office. In the late 1930s Carneson moved to Durban where she was involved with the National Union of Distributive Workers, was and also occupied the position of secretary of the Tobacco Workers Union. Furthermore, Carneson helped organise the largely Indian Sugar Workers Union and served on the Durban CPSA district committee. In 1940 Carneson moved back to Johannesburg for another full-time stint in the CPSA office, and following that, she worked in the People’s Bookshop.
Sarah met her prospective husband, Fred Carneson, while they were colleagues in KwaZulu Natal. Following her marriage to Fred Carneson – who was also a staunch supporter of the SACP – in 1943, the couple had Their first child, Lynn. At the time, Fred was a serviceman on leave from the North African campaign. With the war over, Sarah and Fred moved to Cape Town in 1945 with their first-born. Fred was secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in Cape Town. In 1946 he was elected as the Native Representative to the Cape Provincial Council.
In 1949 Sarah became secretary of the South African Railways and Harbour Workers’ Union which had a majority African membership. However, in 1950 the recently elected National Party (NP) government enacted its first piece of repressive legislation — the Suppression of Communism Act - and Sarah and Fred were both listed as communists. In 1953 Sarah was served with banning orders, forcing her to resign from the Railways and Harbour Workers’ Union and other organisations in which she was involved.
When Carneson’s husband, Fred, was arrested in 1956 as one of the 156 accused in the Rivonia Treason Trial, Sarah put her energies into a fund-raising committee for the families affected. By now the Carnesons had three children, with John and Ruth being born in 1950 and 1952.
Fred was detained 60 times. In 1960 Sarah was detained for six months during the state of emergency . Fred had been on the run from police, although he was again arrested and detained in 1965. He was severely tortured, held in isolation for 13 months and was finally sentenced to five years and nine months’ incarceration. Sarah was now under house-arrest at the family home in Oranjezicht, Cape Town. The family savings were frozen, their house was bugged and they were subject to constant raids. Sarah tried to make a living by running the home as a guest house, although the security forces bribed and threatened guests and staff to inform on her. At one point, shots were fired at the house, narrowly missing her son’s head.
In 1967 Sarah was again arrested for a breach of her banning order. With the threat of a ten-year jail term if she breached the banning order again, and with the pressures of social isolation and the effects of stress on the children, Sarah finally went into exile in the United Kingdom in 1968. There she worked in the trade union movement and in the financial department of the Morning Star newspaper. On his release from prison, in 1972, Fred joined the family in London.
They returned to South Africa in 1991 and settled in Cape Town. Fred became a local councillor and the treasurer of the SACP in the Western Province, and both remained active in their local African National Congress (ANC) and SACP structures.
Fred Carneson died in 2000, and Sarah Carneson died on 30 October 2015 in Cape Town, aged 99.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.