Vernon Celliers Berrange

Names: Berrange, Vernon Celliers

Born: 25 November 1900, Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng)

Died: 14 September 1983September 1972, Swaziland

In summary: Banned person, member of the Springbok Legion and the South African Communist Party, human rights advocate, Queens Counsel and recipient of the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver.

Advocate Vernon Celliers Berrangé was born on 25 November 1900 in the Transvaal (now Gauteng). His lived and worked all his life in Johannesburg, having been admitted to the Bar in 1924.

He was involved in the Springbok Legion a sort of an auxiliary body, although he was not in the army. Since soldiers were not supposed to make public political propaganda, they used to do it though this body. Berrangé got involved in this, and according to Hilda Watts (Bernstein), he was a left wing radical.

Berrangé joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in Johannesburg of his own free volition. At the time that he joined the CPSA, he was of the opinion that it was an organisation, which expressed in practice economic and social theories, which appealed to him. He was allocated to the Central Branch of the Communist Party in Johannesburg. Most of the time, Berrangé served as an ordinary member, except for a period when he was put on a Committee dealing with Industrial Legislation and Trade Union Work.

He stopped taking part in the activities of the CPSA when it was dissolved, after the Government published the Unlawful Organisations Bill, subsequently known as the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. The government appointed a 'liquidator', a certain Mr J de Villiers, under the Suppression of Communism Act, who requested more than fifty former CPSA members in the Johannesburg area to show reason why they should not be 'named' in a list of Communists compiled the Government.

Many members of the CPSA who had been contacted by the 'liquidator' came together in Johannesburg to discuss a common response. A committee, comprised of Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo, Bram Fischer, Michael Harmel, Rusty Bernstein, and Vernon Berrange, was elected to draft a reply to the 'liquidator'. Except for Berrange, all of the committee had been members of former CPSA Central or District Committees. Once the reply to the 'liquidator' was drafted and sent, the committee members, viewing themselves as "an elected body with some sort of a mandate from a substantial number of former Party members who could give substance to a claim to be legatees of [the] Party's past traditions and prestige," undertook to create a new communist party.

Four members of the ad hoc committee had participated in the Central Committee meeting that had decided to dissolve the CPSA. Kotane, Dadoo, and Fischer had supported the decision to dissolve the CPSA, while Harmel had opposed it. Neither Bernstein nor Berrange had been members of the Central Committee and thus had not been directly involved in the decision to dissolve the party. Nonetheless, his name appeared on the Liquidator’s List, having been informed shortly after the Suppression of Communism Act was passed. Joe Slovo, who had also not been on the central committee, but who had been a leader of the student group at Witwatersrand University that had established a new underground communist organization, was co-opted to the ad hoc committee.

Berrange applied to the Courts for his name to be removed from the Liquidator’s list on the basis that he was no longer, was not for many years been, a communist and had not taken part in any Communist activity for many years now. He supported his statement with the fact that when his “banning” order expired in or about 1955 it was not renewed and that towards the end of 1959 a tourist passport had been issued to him by the authorities, with the approval of the Security Police.

He stated, further, that he had not for many years been, a member of any political organization, although his sympathies were with all organizations that endeavoured to establish democracy in the country.

A reconstituted communist party, now known as the South African Communist Party (SACP), commenced operations. From 1953 onward, the SACP successfully operated as a clandestine party in accord with the guidelines laid down at its inaugural meeting. Apparently, no one who was a member of the SACP revealed its existence and no one was prosecuted for membership in the SACP.

Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, following their arrest at Lilliesleaf Farm, escaped from the Fort prison in Johannesburg while on remand, after bribing a prison guard. After hiding in various safe houses for two months they escaped to Swaziland dressed as priests with the aid of Manni Brown who posed as a tour operator as a cover to deliver weapons to the ANC. From Swaziland, Vernon Berrange was to charter a plane to take them on to Lobatse, a small town in southeastern Botswana.

Banning orders were served on him and he left for Swaziland. He often returned to South Africa to receive medical treatment. The Security Police kept him under constant surveillance on such occasions.

When Berrange visited Johannesburg, he stayed in a house in Berea. A Security Police officer, Paul Erasmus, who applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) for amnesty, would obtain a skeleton key and enter the house as soon as Berrange would leave the premises. He examined notes and addresses, looked for documents and pamphlets rearranged clothing to make it obvious that he was under constant surveillance and that the police could enter the house whenever it pleased them. Erasmus tried to make his stay as uncomfortable as possible. He swopped labels on medicine bottles but did it in such a way that it would be obvious e.g. put the label for pills on a bottle containing liquid. He had no intention to harm or kill Mr Berrange but wanted it to be obvious that there had been tampering with the medicine. The objective was to make him suspicious and to discourage him from returning to the South Africa, which in fact resulted.

Amnesty was granted to Erasmus in respect of acts related to the entry of the premises where Berrange stayed and the tampering with his clothing during 1981 at Berea, Johannesburg.

Advocate Vernon Celliers Berrange (QC) passed away on 14 September 1983 in Swaziland.

On 27 April 2010, the South African Government conferred (posthumously) The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver on Advocate Vernon Berrange for his contribution to the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa.

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