Ron Press,

This is Ron Press' story of his part in the struggle against apartheid. Forced

into exile in the early 'sixties, Ron Press contributed to the struggle by providing

much-needed technical expertise. Read here how equipment and weapons were smuggled

into South Africa and how the movement's 'Technical Committee' created a variety

of devices that were used in operations against the apartheid state. Ron Press

also contributed to the setting up of secret communications networks that were

operational in the late 'eighties. Ron Press may be contacted by e-mail at:


Chapter 1 Mists and Images

Chapter 2 Images in Exile

Chapter 3 Recycled Images

Chapter 4 Coda


Ilya Ehrenberg said that he was proud to be a Jew because of those thousands

of Jews who died fighting the Nazi's. I am proud to be a white South African

because of those of us who fought Apartheid.

I remember when I was in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the then East

Germany in one of the huts there was the picture of a young Jewish girl. When

about 16 years old she led an attack on a Gestapo office and killed some Nazis.

She was captured and was imprisoned and died in the camp. It was for me a

lesson in humility and reverence. One so young could be so brave and determined.

To die so young and so beautiful. To die in the fight against fascism. For

people like these we must be humble and reasonable and not use swearwords

loosely. It is not leaders alone who make history. It is the small people

the little people whom we must honour. And these are found in all countries

in all walks of life and are the hope of humankind.

1. Mists and Images


I made my first bomb when I was at school. It was quite unconnected with anything

except driving curiosity and the demand in my nature to succeed in making things.

In this I blame my father. He did everything, from laying paths in the garden,

cutting down trees, decorating, plumbing and electrical wiring. He made a rotary

lawn mower way back in 1945. It did not hover like the modern ones but it preceded

them by many years. It worked well without accident. But then only he and I

were allowed to use it, it was deadly. The motor was a squirrel cage 240 Volt,

quarter horse, without a cover and with the lead trailing all over the garden.

The grass cuttings had to be periodically removed from the motor's innards.

The blades were of steel about twelve inches in diameter rigidly fixed to the

shaft and without a guard of any kind. I certainly received the rough and ready

training of the frontier's man in working clothes.

My teacher was, in his own way, also to blame. We students never did any experiments

in chemistry. There were no laboratory practicals and the teacher demonstrated

the various chemical reactions from time to time while we merely sat and watched.

This was not to my liking. One of the experiments was about explosives. Teacher

made the guncotton and proceeded to show how when you subjected it to a sharp

shock it was supposed toexplode. A bit of the compound was placed on an upturned

steel mortar and hit with the pestle. He banged away and to his embarrassment

and our delight nothing happened. Not to be defeated next day he returned with

some more of the supposed guncotton and this time we could hear the faint pops

above the sharp clash of iron. His problem was that he did this out of view

behind the demonstration bench. Naturally we had little faith in his success.

But he being a brother in his long black cassock and white collar made it all

the more difficult to think that he was lying.

Well, I determined to try it out for myself. We had a room in the house set

up as an electrical and mechanical workshop. There we had an electric welder,

a drill press, air compressor, steel work bench, and lots of tools. There was

no fume cupboard but that did not deter me. I proceeded to make guncotton by

treating my mother's cotton wool with a mixture of concentrated sulphuric and

nitric acids. The acid mixture gave off nitrous fumes which I wafted out of

the open window. According to the books there was no danger of explosion unlike

in the manufacture of nitroglycerine. I removed the treated cotton wool washed

it well with water and let it dry. The spent acids I flushed down the toilet.

The guncotton was slightly yellowish in colour and brittle in texture. Next

I had to test it. A small bit burned rapidly and brightly and that was a good

sign but according to the books one needed a detonator to explode it. I only

ever saw a detonator many years later. So what to do? Again according to the

books it would explode if confined and heated. I rammed the guncotton into a

threaded half inch steel pipe coupling, my dad used to call them nipples, and

sealed both open ends with steel pipe stoppers or plugs. I screwed them in tight

on the understanding that pressure alone would not set it off.

Next I took it into the yard at the side of the garage. There I set up a small

methylated spirit burner in a tin can with a cotton wick. This was then surrounded

with loosely stacked bricks. Balancing the coupling over the flame I quickly

piled bricks on top. A few minutes later it went off with a loud crack. Removing

the bricks revealed a shattered coupling and a neat hole in the can that had

held the methylated spirits. The piece of shrapnel had pierced the can and buried

itself in the earth beneath. This was dangerous. This was interesting.

The College was run by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Marist Brothers.

It was at the top of a hill in Observatory, Johannesburg . I was not a catholic

but my parents were keen on me having a good education and it had this reputation.

I never did very well at junior school. I was naughty and always argued with

the teachers, until Junior Certificate when we got a new teacher. Then I began

liking to understand things. From then on I seemed always to come second in

the class. That is one of the stories of my life. Coming second. I was however

quite bright. I won most prizes in the year prior to the matriculation. Prizes

for Geography, Science, Mathematics, second prize overall and the Valerian Bursary,

entitling me to free schooling in this my last matriculation year.

Which Side Are You On

My first revolutionary act occurred in the English class in 1946. The classroom

was in the corner of a quadrangle of classes built of red brick. The wall facing

us held a large black chalk-board. To the left were windows facing a sandy lane

lined with a hedge. On the other side of the hedge were the sports fields where

I had found that one could not play rugby while wearing glasses and that cricket

where one could, was boring. We were being taught English by the only lay teacher

on the staff. He was a neat dapper middle aged man, small and precise in manner.

He always wore a grey suit with a collar and tie. Our essays were being returned

with the usual set of comments. He handed me mine and said, "Press you write

like an uneducated coal miner." I always was, and still am, quick on the draw.

I generally regretted it later. "What's wrong with an uneducated coal miner?"

He had touched a nerve deep seated in my subconscious.

Well, he wasn't having that. So for the first time in my life I was punished

for sticking up for the poor and dispossessed. I don't say that I consciously

thought so at the time but actions reflect inner urgings. I was somehow proud

of having come from a working class family. I have never regretted this my first

act separating me off politically from the majority of my fellow pupils. Being

successful at my studies gave me the ability to stand on my own feet and not

to require too much of others. In this I was well trained by my mother and father

who were both self contained and largely self educated. The punishment was to

be sent out of the classroom to wait in the corridor at the top of the steps

leading out of the quadrangle. I remember being on an emotional high, not resentful

nor sorry, but rather confused. What if anything had I done wrong? It was also

an unusual punishment for me. I usually got the cane or the strap.

It was true that I was very poor at languages but I enjoyed examinations especially

when I knew the answers. I nearly did not write my matric at all. I had singed

eyebrows and burned glasses when a chlorate and red phosphorous mixture exploded

in the bathroom. It was a week before the examinations and I had read of how

the mixture would explode when a pellet of it was dropped. This seemed a good

thing to do in ones last year at school. It required that the mixing be done

very gently while wet. As I mixed it I got the impression that it was getting

a little dry. Wandering into the bathroom, I was about to pour in a drop more

water to keep it wet when it exploded. A bright flash set my glasses alight.

I flung them off as the bathroom was filled with smoke. The ceiling dripped

with a brown, black acid and my fingers and eyebrows were singed. It is often

said that the wearing of glasses is a bind. Well it is, but it also has it's

up side. They have so often saved my eyes from damage. This was one of my less

successful experiments. My folks took the accident with little recrimination.

They more often understood their children than chastised them. I often got beaten

by the brothers at school but never at home. The doctor was called and the school

was phoned to say I would not be well enough to write my exams. My recovery

however was so rapid that a few days later they phoned the school to say that

I would write after all. The school was more annoyed by having to re-arrange

for me to take the examinations than they were sorry for my having had an accident.

Before school was over I had prepared some of the mixture again. This time

successfully. One day in the last weeks after the exams and before we broke

up I took one of the little pellets to school cradled in cotton wool and during

a lesson threw it out of the window. It went off with a loud bang. Persistence

had paid off.

None the worse for wear I did well in the matriculation exams getting "A"s

in Chemistry, Mathematics, Geography, "B" in Latin, only a "C" in Physics and

English and a better than expected "D" in Afrikaans. I had dropped History as

being a boring list of dates and events with no logical connections between

them. In South Africa at that time History ended at the end of the first world

war. Much later I realised that this was because if more was covered the Russian

Revolution would have to be mentioned. The dropping of History meant that I

split science into Chemistry and Physics. At the time the Brothers had said

that they would give me special tuition to catch up in Physics. Because they

never took this promise seriously I never did catch up thus my rather poor "C".

The marks for Geography and Latin surprised everyone including my teachers.

The examination results opened the path to studying Chemical Engineering at

Wits. It had the right balance of intellectual and practical challenge. For

the four years I absorbed science and engineering. During the holidays we had

to undertake various trips to chemical factories such as the dynamite complexs

at AE&CI near Durban and Johannesburg. Once I was assigned to an engineering

works. There I worked with the apprentices and craftsmen making gears, gear

trains, chains and watching them harden precision parts. It was all very instructive

and interesting. I really quite enjoyed it, even the repetitive job of turning

steel bushes out of silver steel, which in their turn were made into chains.

I remember the apprentices decided that I must be initiated and they grabbed

hold of me to perform this ceremony. I decided not to make a fuss and just let

them get on with it. They took me into a passageway between two buildings and

pulled my trousers down and spread red grease all over my balls. It was very

silly, but in a funny sort of way it made them feel better and I was now initiated.

The ways of man are wondrous to God.

There was also some extra curricular activity like tennis, swimming, and listening

to classical music. For the latter I am eternally grateful to Robert Vogel,

who introduced me to so many of the great composers and their works. His family

were relatively rich and he had a great collection of 12" classical records.

But we were generally kept very busy at college. There were a few extra-curricular

lectures on the history and philosophy of science that I remember fascinated

me. I came second in the graduation year but I got a Cum Laude and a thirst

for the reason "Why?". Politics was not in my curriculum official or unofficial

and was never mentioned amongst science or engineering students. There were

no black students in the faculty to disturb us with doubts. Our intellectual

walls were precursors of white South Africa's garden walls, raised high against

any intrusion and topped with broken glass to keep our thoughts pure.

Political Philosophy

It was only in 1952 when I was doing my Doctorate that politics knocked on

the garden gate. It first enticed me with the gentle call of reason. I could

not accept God as an answer to so many of my questions? My mother asked me when

my 13 th. birthday was in the offing if I wanted a push-bike or a Barmitzva.

My father added that a Barmitzva was expensive and I would have to learn the

Haphtorah and read a portion of the Torah written in all those funny symbols.

The choice was obvious. I chose the bicycle. It was a bad choice in one way

because it was stolen from the garage a few months later. It was insured and

they paid out £13.00 which my mother kept. I still feel that was an injustice.

Even one's mother is not perfect. When I was about 15 years old my family had

decided that my sister and I were growing up and perhaps religion was necessary.

So we were trooped off to the reform Synagogue. There two things happened. The

bibles we were given in the services had one page Hebrew and the opposite page

the English translation. That was a mistake on their part. I had been to the

orthodox Synagogue before but it was all gibberish, with singing and ceremony.

Very impressive, awesome and unintelligible. Now for the first time I could

read and, I hesitate to say, understand what the rabbi was saying. He was in

essence talking meaningless rubbish. "The Lord is our God, the Lord is one,

blessed be the Lord our God..."

The second thing I remember is my Father coming home one day and saying that

he would never go back there again since all they wanted was his undoubted ability

to fix things mechanical and electrical. He refused to be used and taken for

granted. He had some years ago commented on Christians as, " Preying on their

knees on Sunday and on their neighbours on Monday." For him Catholics were "Cats

in Dreck" He had no religious prejudices.

The questions however persisted? How does it all work? Why is it so? The research

for my PhD. was into the reaction between azide ions and Iodine. It produced

Nitrogen and was catalysed by Sulphide ions. (1,2 & 3). I was developing the

system as a method for the determination of small quantities of sulphide in

solution. The work was going well and I had spare time to go into philosophy.

The books of Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Berkeley, Eddington, Russell, were scoured

for answers. The first pattern matching came when I was invigilating an examination

in the great hall. It was part of my duties as a research student to help out

here and there. Well, it was a boring unrewarding job, walking round and round

supposedly seeking miscreants. The hall was large with rows and rows of desks

seating hundreds of students. These left their notes, books and such like strewn

untidily along the floor at the back of the hall. A small pamphlet, Marxism

and Modern Science by Maurice Cornforth caught my eye. Nobody would mind if

I read it on my perambulations. I don't remember much else about the examination

but that small book matched the patterns already developing amongst my neurons

and synapses. All the other philosophers seemed very learned and erudite. They,

specially Russell, used beautiful language but they obscured rather than simplified.

Here at last was something I could grasp. I finished it before the end of the

examination and dropped it back where I found it. I never knew or thanked the

student who left it for my edification.

In the basement of the library were the "stacks," rows and rows of books and

documents. I had access to these in pursuance of my chemical research. I discovered

a shelf of banned books. It had me hooked. Lenin, Marx, Engels, lined up in

chains, imprisoned like precious jewels. But worse the jailers did not admire

their treasures. I liberated them. They in their turn liberated me. Freedom

brings its own chains but more of that later.

A fellow student asked me if I would be interested in coming to a talk by

a Charlie Feinstein, something about the Congress of Democrats or such. The

title and the organisation were not clarified. Some of us research students

used to eat and have tea in a little cafe on the corner just opposite the main

gate to the University. It was not far from the Chemistry block, cheap, friendly

and off campus so one could relax. The meeting would be held upstairs. It was

all very informal and Charlie gave a rundown on how all people were equal and

discrimination was wrong. I found it all quite interesting but clearly obvious.

At the end of it he asked me what I thought. I just shrugged my shoulders and

said I agreed with all he had said. He had clearly expected some argument or

disagreement for which he had prepared. My answer rather dampened the atmosphere

and we parted with no clear commitments on my side.

About this time I met my first African on terms of near social equality. I

was writing up my thesis. Malcolm Clarke, a mathematics professor, was helping

me with my statistics. My mother was typing the manuscript but I had a number

of graphs to draw. I was and still am not very neat. One of my weak subjects

had been engineering drawing. I easily understand the subject but I was constantly

making blots, smudges and my script was very untidy. I was advised to seek somebody

who could do the graphs for me. A Mr. Mashugane was recommended. I remember

his name because it is the Yiddish for being a bit mad. He worked in the Engineering

Department and did a great job on the graphs. He was besides being my first

experience of social contact with the opposite colour also a surprise because

he was the model of your petty bourgeoisie. I had been programmed to think all

black people were workers with working class attitudes. How wrong I was.

First Flight

I graduated with a doctorate and my father arranged a job for me with his boss

a Mr. Harmel, a Director of the Schlesinger organisation. I was appointed as

a plant chemist in their soon to be erected colour film processing laboratories

in Killarney. They sent me to the United Kingdom to the Rank film processing

laboratories in Denham. It was my first trip overseas memorable for broadening

my love and knowledge of the arts. I regularly went to symphony concerts at

the Festival Hall on the south bank. I used to go by train straight from work

in Denham, have a bite to eat at the hall and return to Gerrards Cross where

the firm had put me up in the Bull Hotel. I went to the Tate, the National Gallery

and saw the sights. On the way back to South Africa I persuaded the boss to

let me have a two week holiday. I spent them in Paris and Rome. I stayed in

a small hotel near the Arc de Triemph, visited the Louvre, the Muse De Art Moderne,

the Eifel tower, Montmartre, my eyes wide open to every sight. I went to the

Folly Bergere with a fellow South African I met by chance. He invited me to

go with him to find a prostitute but it was against my inner nature or nurture

I am not sure which. In Rome, the Vatican, the Forum, all fascinated me. In

St. Peters square I was accosted by a peddler selling mass produced tinplate

crosses. They were of exceptionally poor quality with raw sharp edges. Although

they had been allegedly blessed by the Pope I expressed no desire to buy one

so he lifted the tray and offered me some dirty pictures. This and the flying

of the red flag from a building just opposite provided a strange twist to the

nature of society. Works of art to marvel at. Music which uplifts and transports.

All done by people. Buildings and streets that inspire amazement. There are

great wonders in the world. There were even more curious contradictions.

I learnt that people are people all over the world. None are better or worse

than any other, language, culture, colour, all these things are irrelevant to

the main Humanity of people. Or rather they make up the humanity of people.

The ingredients of the stew may be different in each country but the result

is still food for the body and the soul. Seeing the old Rome, St. Peters, the

old temples now taken over by the church, I learnt of how every age is built

on the previous age. How the church took over the temples simply replacing,

Mars by Christ, Athena by Mary. The peasants and labourers just carried on being

exploited but prayed to the old gods in the new form. The new rulers did not

dramatically change everything they just distorted it to their needs. The vision

was changed but the substance remained.

I learnt how to be alone but to survive. This is necessary. We are in the

ultimate all alone. But it took me a long time to learn to combine the thought

for and concern for the future with the realisation that one's life must end

and there is no individual future. Our society does not give us a rounded picture

of life. They inculcate in us the necessity to plan for our futures. To live

our lives as if the present is not as important as the future. This is just

not true. They are linked. We as individuals have only the present and a very

limited future.

To be an extremist is very easy but to conceive of the whole picture is very

difficult even in its barest outlines. Beware those who present simplistic solutions

to the question "What is it all about." My only answer is, it is about living.

There we have no option. Here we are and we live. Make the best of it. But the

best can only be the best if it includes all of the people of the earth and

their children. And this means that the future of the people of the earth and

the earth itself are our personal concern.

On my returned I was rich. I bought a car, a Morris minor. The path of the

professional white worker opened before me. However it was not to be. I received

a request for a donation and I sent six pounds to the Congress of Democrats.

I never went to any meetings but as the end of 1953 I got an invitation to a

new years' eve party. I asked one of the lasses at work to go with me. She turned

me down. I was very old fashioned, or perhaps I was in step with the times,

but I thought one could not go without a partner. So I spent the dark of the

night walking in the rain up Louis Botha Avenue towards town feeling very sorry

for myself and enjoying it.

Joining the Human Race

The first meeting I attended is lost to me. I do however remember a meeting

at which discussion took place about the policies of the Congress of Democrats.

The liberals were there and representatives from the ANC. I did not understand

the nuances of the discussion but in the midst of it all Jack Hodgson grabbed

my arm and asked me to follow him out of the meeting. He pointed to a chap walking

in front of us and said something about a police spy. We tailed him up the road

until he went into a building about five blocks away. This seemed to satisfy

Jack that he was a policeman. I never knew why or what happened later. I was

very immature in these matters. But joining the Congress of Democrats was auto-catalytic.

I met people outside the confines of my family, they introduced me to a maelstrom

of activity. These sucked me into a larger community of all races all with the

desire to see a more rational world. Instead of discovering the wider world

confined by my own inadequacies, the world was being revealed to me by a dynamic

involvement with others. I never made friends in the commonly accepted sense

of the word. At school, at university, I became friendly with people but friendship

never survived even a short separation. There is probably only one person, Percy

Cohen, who could claim that title. Comrades I have had a plenty. They have remained

my comrades for decades. Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, the Hodgsons, the Browns,

John Nkadimeng, Wilton Mkwayi, Solly Smith, Moses Mabhida, Uria Maleka, Obed

Motshabi, Mosie Moolla, Lillian Ngoyi and so many more. One of these comrades

was a Mick Harmel whom I learned years later was a close relation of the Harmel

who was my first employer. Being a comrade is signing a contract, and I always

tried to honour my contracts.

My social life blossomed. There were parties and fund-raisers attended by

girls of my own age. There was the discussion club held at Molly and Bernie

Arenstein's house. Here we met every Friday night and had speakers from the

university, the ANC, authors, and celebrities. It was very open and expansive.

Ruth First, Rusty Bernstein, and others on the left came from time to time and

participated in lively debate. There was a talk on art by the director of the

Johannesburg Art Gallery and I said that a supersonic airplane was a work of

art. It aroused a lively discussion with no conclusion Tea and biscuits and

good company. A discussion club camp was organised and for the first time I

spent a weekend with young lads and lasses of all colours. I never had any problems

with voicing my own opinions but listening also came easily.. I had a lot to

learn of social conduct but I was too busy to recognise the difficulties. As

far as women were concerned my problem was that my pheromones and all the other

'ones' were well developed but I was always over anxious and serious, shy and

pushing all at the same time. My psyche was ill coordinated in the interaction

of the sexes.

There were the unattainable like Ruth, she was the Greek goddess destined

for the higher pedestals. To my credit such inevitability's were easy to accept.

But there were many others who while being attracted soon generated an indifference

towards me. Yet others who saw me, or perhaps their families saw me, as a good

buy. I was wary of them. If they were so keen? Why? There was one pretty young

thing, small, simple, nice, I was quite serious and I thought she was as well.

I visited her at home and had tea with her parents. In the ultimate it revolved

around my political activities. I got the feeling they were afraid. Perhaps

it was echoes of Nazi Germany. In one of my more poetic moments I quoted "Ours

is not to reason why, Ours is but to do or die." I had to reason why. They only

saw the die.

Then there was Dushka Dimovic who had left Yugoslavia as a child because Tito

had allegedly taken away their property. She had been educated at a free school.

Her father earned his living by running a bridge club. All this made her approach

to life extremely open and uncomplicated but also self contained and self centered.

She became my friend on the rebound from another member of the discussion club.

We got on famously and intimately. But I was brought up in the old school, or

rather not brought up but merely emerged without any real knowledge of the niceties

of sex. She was not serious and when her previous love became available she

returned to him. So that affair was at an end. He left her a short while later

but we never got together again. Looking back perhaps it was all for the good.

She would always be more concerned with self than with others. The relationship

also exposed inner secrets both in my family and myself.

One night mom and dad asked me to go to the Coliseum cinema with them. Dad

used to get free tickets since he was the foreman on the electrical shop of

the Schlesinger cinema empire. I asked if I could bring my girl. There was no

problem until the next day. "Ronnie," my mom said," She is a shicksa." Well

so what? I thought. But I respected my family so I remained silent. "You know

we never told you but before Issy met me he was married to a `shiksa' (gentile).

They got divorced. It never worked out." Shock! Horror!. Well, not exactly but

I felt that for the folks this was a considerable revelation. The anxiety and

concern could not but have an effect on me and my ties for Dushka relaxed. Perhaps

inwardly I was really a coward or perhaps respect for the family can overpower

weak attachments. Some years later when I was married with a child my mother

said, "You know Ronnie we were much more worried that you would marry a `schwartze.'"

(black) There are it seems degrees of racism.

There were others. The tubby lass who would have been great but her father

had had a stroke and she was determined to take over as head of her family.

Or the big bosomed dark beauty with long black hair. And the Indian nurse Miriam

who lived at Kholvad house in President Street. She fancied me but not I her.

Harry's sister Ann Barolsky? How much is chance and how much conscious design.

I assure you that with me it was mostly unconscious. But choices are made, seeds

sown and even the most uncomfortable bed with time becomes a place of rest.

The human race is bigger than you think

Politics in South Africa at this time was an adventure. As a white man I did

not have the driving necessity to be active but I had found a group of my sort

of people. For example every November the 7th. Congressites were invited to

the Soviet Consul in Pretoria. For all of us it was a great time out but for

many of the African comrades it was the opportunity to be free from the shackles

of Apartheid if only for a few hours. Booze was plentiful and the police could

not arrest them for drinking. My memory of my one and only such trip to Pretoria

is stopping at Half Way House and walking up the red dirt path from the Jukskei

river with an African comrade at my side. There were trees alongside and it

was unusually green. Elias Motsoaledi and I got to talking about Marxism. I

was delighted, surprised, and excited. Here was a fellow spirit who thought

the same as me. I remember that the emotions were not unconnected to the fact

that he was black. I too had much to rearrange in my inner thoughts about black


Sometimes these were rearranged in a rather brusque manner like the time Kathie

asked me to come down to the ANC Office. It was in a cellar in a side street

not far from Kholvad house where Kathie lived. One went down steps and the offices

were dark and unimpressive. But they were the gateway to the future. Kathe said

"Ronnie we want you to take a comrade Shadrack Rapodile to Alex." "Who?" "Listen

comrade! You had better get used to African names." Well, he was right. On this

occasion the objective approach obviated the racial overtone that could have

been exacerbated. There were other occasions when the intense hatreds and divisions

could and did enter into Congress life. But the necessity for change was overpowering.

Racism is however very complex. Take the case of the sheep. I was returning

from the Eastern Transvaal where I had driven Gert Sibande in my green Morris

minor. We had had a few successful meetings and were relaxed and readying ourselves

for work on Monday. The sun was still up but it was getting towards the evening..

I drove up a steady slope and as I topped the rise there in front of me stretched

a long straight road. No traffic in sight. Clear and uncomplicated as far as

the horizon. We coasted down the gentle slope when I saw in the distance three

sheep being driven across the road by a ragged African man. I saw no danger

and gently directed the car to the right aiming to pass the sheep as they trotted

of the road on the left. As I came up to them the shepherd suddenly realised

that a car was coming and decided to drive the sheep back to where they had

come. Too late the car and the sheep attempted to enter the same volume of space

and time. The impact was not violent but one of the sheep was dead and dung

was scattered all over the car and the road.

We stopped and I gave him my address. The car was damaged so we phoned one

of the comrades in Johannesburg and he came and took us all home and arranged

for the car to be fixed. I remember getting home in the early hours of Monday

morning and having about one hour sleep before going off to work. I really do

not recall anything of that day's activities except that I contrived at an intricate

mixture of sleeping and working.

A month later I got a summons to proceed to court where the shepherd had laid

charges. I persuaded one of the African comrades to come with me. It was a small

court with a magistrate who typed out the court proceedings as they went along.

He was clearly very proud of his typing speed. The prosecutor asked the usual

questions and in particular asked why there were no skid marks. I proceeded

to pontificate on how one could use ones breaks without skidding. How in fact

it was better not to lock the wheels as it was more efficient. I gave quite

a lecture. Nobody seemed to mind and we proceeded with further questions. It

was then after I had explained how the sheep had suddenly changed direction

that the prosecutor asked what I knew about sheep. I said, "Well they could

do anything." At this point I had put my foot in it. I was guilty. We adjourned

for lunch. I asked the African comrade to talk to the shepherd. He would receive

no compensation even if I was found guilty. Would it not be better if I personally

compensated him. He was having none of that. It was clear that he would be satisfied

if the white man was to be found guilty. It was a small measure of revenge for

all the indignities he had suffered being black.

He had his wish. I was convicted of careless driving. There was a small fine.

It was all in the course of the struggle.

I went on many such expeditions both before and after the Congress of the

People. One particularly memorable meeting was a report back on the Freedom

Charter to the people of Ermelo, Gert Sibande territory. On the way we stopped

for a bite and a bottle of lemonade. The three of us, two black and one white,

sat on the curb in the middle of the little dorp. As we chatted and ate our

buns a large white Boer looked at us but seemed too startled to comprehend a

white man and kaffirs being so familiar. We noticed him as he walked away from

us across the road. He was big with the build of a rugby prop. He was dressed

in white that contrasted with his well-tanned skin. His shorts were drawn tight

across his broad backside and he waddled like a baby hippo. He was so proud

of his physique and was showing it off to the best advantage. He appeared like

a model on the catwalk of boere-stad selling Afrikanerdom. We all burst out

laughing but as he started to look back we cut our noise. We were not looking

for trouble, it would find us soon enough and we were not in a position to educate

him at that point. It was not racism on our part but a mocking of the white

man's arrogant stupidity.

We arrived at the Ermelo location at midday. The square next to the location

was dusty and filled with people mostly Africans with a few Indians. The meeting

went very well. I was asked to speak and I went through the Freedom Charter

clause by clause. I was like a teacher engrossed in his subject and his mission.

The crowd was highly charged. Everything I touched upon was what they wanted

for themselves and their families. There was a feeling of oneness and expectation.

I felt not only part of the people but someone whom they respected and cherished.

I was a white man but that was not a problem but rather a symbol of the solution

that was possible. It was the best speech I ever delivered and the best reception

I ever experienced. It was one of those few occasions in a lifetime when all

the colours and shapes, the thoughts and actions, the hopes and desires seem

to harmonise. I had accomplished something useful not only to myself but to


Gert Sibande was great. He had my respect. He and I were very different. He

was a large well-built man with a history of struggle. He had little or no education

but he had a deep understanding of life. He was from African peasant stock,

his whole life had been one of discrimination and deprivation. He had by his

own efforts and determination risen above the absurdities and barbarism of Apartheid

South Africa. Although we were so different I had a great affinity for him.

We respected each the other for what we were and what we had accomplished in

each our own spheres. When added together we were much much more than just two

humans struggling against unreason.

Like all young people I developed my own myths about leaders. One weekend

I was with Oom Gert and an Indian comrade from Johannesburg. Oom Gert was to

address a public meeting in the location in Ermelo. His ban had just been lifted

and the meeting was a bit of a reception for him from his people. It was a very

big meeting and Oom Gert appeared to be wary and cautious as if he was unsure

at the same time as he was pleased to be amongst his own. I was on this occasion

acting as the driver and just listening. When he had finished I noticed a tension

in the crowd. Then two burly white men walked up to him and arrested him for

allegedly breaking his ban.

I had created the image of a leader to whom arrest was a challenge and taken

in one's stride. I was disturbed to see that Oom Gert was visibly shaken and

apprehensive. The specials were about to take him away when I confronted one

of them "Who are you?." He was taken aback. The crowd was pleased. He did not

know what to do. Here he was being confronted by a white man and his automatic

reaction mechanism had not been programmed for this eventuality. "Please can

I have your name?" He gave it to me and I wrote it down. It was a small success.

One up for us. The Indian comrade told Oom Gert not to worry he would immediately

get a lawyer and arrange for food to be sent in from one of the local Indian

families. Oom Gert brightened as they marched him off. He was soon released

as he had not broken his ban. My view of reality was a bit clearer. When I thought

about it I realised what arrest meant to an African. It meant beatings, brutality

and humiliation. When Oom Gert had realised that he was not alone and that the

movement was springing to his defense and assistance he felt much better. A

leader is a human being.

It also indicated that whites could help, and that they were appreciated especially

by the ordinary African people. One could even make an impact. The ANC in Port

Elizabeth was holding a big regional conference. Now PE was a big well-organised

area so the meeting would be very large. Helen Joseph, Retsi (Elias Moretsele),

two others and I were sent down by car. We arrived the day before the meeting

and I was put up at a comrades' flat for the night. The meeting was being held

in a big hall. There were marshals dressed in khaki and a feeling of good organisation

and discipline. Themba Nqota, Wilton Mkwayi, and other legends were present.

I was more used to the self organised chaos of the Transvaal. However we were

ushered onto the stage. Helen spoke. There must have been 500 or more in the

audience. It went down well. Then I was asked to say a few words. I was on a

high. I started with a loud mayibuye. Now I have a powerful voice and the crowd

was surprised. I said the usual things. But I was young enthusiastic and militant.

They warmed to me and it was fine. The in closing I said, "Those Whites do not

want to join with us will have to be thrown into the sea." It was foolish and

not Congress policy but it was what they were pleased to hear. They had clearly

not expected it from a White man. I had not intended to say it either. Emotions

are dangerous things.

We adjourned for lunch and had pumpkin, meat, and potatoes eaten on the stage.

Then we were off back to Jo'burg. I was dog tired. I slumped in the back seat

next to the window and slept with my head on Retsi's shoulder. He was large

man consistent with owning an eating house in Sophiatown, old enough to be my

father. A good man on the nationalist side of Congress. I often wondered what

he thought of the white boy sleeping on his shoulder in the night on the way

through the Veldt. It was so natural but in South Africa so unnatural.

For congressites colour was a factor of decreasing significance. It could

be and was used from time to time to gain individual advantage with the less

politically clear amongst us. A thick skin and the ability not to be provoked

were useful. The enemy was a racist that was sufficient. To further the political

struggle the movement eventually had to return to the use of arms as in the

days of Hintsa, Shaka, Moshoeshoe, but never to the use of racism. Ideologically

racism cannot be fought with racism. The movement knew this and built on it.

The big meeting in Tongaat was a case in point. Chief Luthuli was confined so

he could not easily be smuggled out of northern Natal. It was essential that

he attend so we all found our various ways to a garment factory in what was

known then as Zululand. We sat amongst the checker board of sewing machines,

in a factory owned by a sympathetic Indian businessman. It was hot and steamy.

We came from every part on the South African community. Whites, Africans, Indians,

Coloureds, workers, intellectuals, professional revolutionaries, ministers of

religion, communists, nationalists. I do not really know why I was there but

it was a proud time for me. The discussion was amongst the leaders and we listened

and learned. I learned to be part of a greater whole.

"Congress" of Trade Unions

The South African Congress of Trade Unions held its founding congress in 1955

and I served the tea and white bread rolls. This was the noble task allocated

to those members of the Congress of Democrats fired up with the desire to see

an end to Apartheid. It was a job I was particularly suited to. After all I

had a degree in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Chemistry and of more importance,

I came from a family where trade unionism was a way of life.

Father's Tales

My Father told of the days in 1913 when the white miners were on strike. As

a lad he was on the roof in the market square in Johannesburg and threw bricks

at the dragoons who charged the strikers. He told of the time when he used to

go to the market and steal vegetables to help feed the family. Of how they used

to walk the railway tracks to pick up mielies that had fallen from the trucks.

He went to work when he was eleven years old and earned one shilling and sixpence

a week. He said that he could have bought an acre of land in the middle of Johannesburg

for half a crown. When in my innocence I said in a pained and surprised voice"

Why didn't you buy it?" He said resignedly. "I never had a half a crown." He

was one of a large family of somewhere around 19. His father came from London,

England and had been a smous (a petty salesman) on the Capetown docks. His father

who was a bit of a drunkard, had evidently come from somewhere in Eastern Europe.

They were of Jewish extraction but from what my dad intimated they were not


Dad became a cinematograph operator and learnt to make advertising signs to

go outside the cinema. I remember a book of sign writing in the house and him

saying that there was heavy unemployment and he thought he would be better able

to keep his job if he could do that little bit extra. He became the secretary

of the Cinematograph Workers Union, a post he held for some 20 or more years.

He was in one of the white worker-commando's during the 1922 Rand Revolt and

was a dispatch rider. He had a big 'Red Indian' motorbike and was shot at by

the army.

Mother was a shorthand typist in the Trades and Labour Council and worked

for the secretary Creswell. She was better educated than my father and read

a great deal. She remembered when the police came to arrest Creswell at his

office in the Trades Hall, Rissick Street and he jumped out of the window and

ran across the roofs.

Later they married and I followed my sister Lydia into the world.

Dad was a battler and eventually became foreman in the electricians workshop

of the Schlesinger organisation. He was clearly a reformist trade unionist.

He cooperated with the boss to found a union for the usherettes and others in

order to prevent them from being organised by people less favourable to the

the company. I remember he got the closed shop and trade union deductions for

the new union that killed off the opposition. He battled for the workers but

never led them in struggle and never let it get to a strike.

He was in the Trades and Labour council and sided with the right wing against

the left. He evidently had had meetings with the Communists. He told how one

time he was asked to meet the general secretary who turned out to be a 'native'.

But he hated the reformers. They were the spearhead of the Nationalists in the

trade union movement whose job it was to capture it for the white racists. I

never understood a certain fear that crept into the conversation when I had

become active in the congress movement and the Nationalists were mentioned.

Only later did it come out that the Cinematograph union was in the Trades and

Labour Council and was being wooed by the communists on the one hand and the

nationalists on the other. Dad was against the communists but equally he was

against the Nats. He feared the latter since the death of Charlie Harris the

secretary of the mine worker's union whom he was convinced had been killed by

the Nats. He spoke of how one day he had been visited at home by the reformers.

Never in detail but always with fear. It was clear that the union was registered

with more votes than members on the council in order to swing the vote to the

side of the social democrats.

My dad had a number of brothers. The one he only mentioned much later, when

I had become political, was an electrical engineer in America. Dad said that

he had gone to the Soviet Union to help build the hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper.

They were in a way proud of him but also a bit scared, and felt that they ought

to disapprove of his going. In practice they signalled the opposite feelings.

Mother's Tales

Mother told me about her family that was very large. Her father was a gambler

and they had a bad time of it. She was born in Leeds, England and had come out

to South Africa in 1912. Her father was a schneider, a tailor and they had originally

come from one of the countries in Eastern Europe. I once saw an old man in an

old persons home. We took some cigarettes, Sobrani's, in a round tin to this

place and I remember the tin much more than the old man. He was my grandfather

but I do not remember on which side.

So one can say that I am the child of East European Jewish refugees. Working

class in that although the grandparents were on one side petty merchants on

the other side they were workers. My immediate parents were not only working

class but participated in the struggles of the white workers. When I was in

my formative years I learnt about trade unionism, about struggle, of poverty

and how to fight and organise. The union held meetings in the family house,

my mother typed the minutes, I helped turn the handle of the duplicator (a hand

driven Gestetner with wax masters). The duplicated pages were laid on a large

square table and we used to walk round and round collating the documents.The

arguments and battles on the executive were gone over at lunch and tea. My fathers'

friends and enemies were almost exclusively connected with his life as an electrician

and as a trade unionist. I do not remember him ever relaxing by going out to

a football match or a pub, or playing cards, gambling, or getting drunk. We

were very much a family and relaxed together and went to picnics, read books,

or made things. I helped dad in making and repairing things, all sorts of things,

and making biscuits, sewing, and cooking with mother.

We were always on the move. I think we moved to a new rented house almost

every year. The first I remember was a tall block of flats. It was not very

nice. Then I remember a house where we erected a tall radio aerial from some

pipes left by the workmen who laid the local water mains. From there we went

to a house in Joel Road that had a cellar and fruit trees in the garden. I never

forgot eating cherries, yellow peaches, apricots and plums direct from the trees.

Marvelous. The cellar was fun too and I tried to do it out as a hideaway.

I remember my aunt Becky and her son Godfrey and daughter. I had been ill

and during the spare time while recovering I made some model battleships out

of thin cardboard. They were all curved and with guns and turrets. Mom asked

me to make some for Godfrey and I recall some puzzlement as to why he could

not make his own. I was good with my hands but never artistic. I could not draw

freehand, faces, hands and such like but I could design and make things mechanical.

I first went to school in the district, near Hillbrow. The trams ran nearby.

I was not much good at school. I suppose because we often moved. I never had

any school chums or became part of any gangs. I think there was something about

us being Jewish but not being part of the Jewish community. My father evidently

called me Ronald Edwin because he was called Israel Ernest and had been discriminated

against and ribbed for his Jewish name. My sister was Lydia June.

I, like my dad, have had no friends outside the movement.

We were part of a large extended family but we seldom saw uncles or aunts

on my father's side. On my mother's side we often visited the aunts. Mother

was a twin to a sister named Lena with a husband named Sam. They had a daughter

Priscilla, with whom I was quite friendly. One aunt, Becky was married to a

jobbing builder, Fred Saber, and they became quite rich and this caused some

friction. Dad was very proud and did not like it that they always expected us

to come to them and be entertained by them. There was also an uncle, husband

to one of my mothers' sisters, in Durban with children Eric and Aubrey. They

were not the flavour of the month. Once we had an accident on the Pietermaritzburg

to Durban road, My uncle repaired the car, did us down on the repairs and stole

the battery and the tools. Or so it was alleged. They had two sons Eric and

Aubrey. Eric was a fighter pilot during the war against the Nazi's and was shot

down in flames over Yugoslavia where he was rescued by Tito's partisans.

There were two uncles on my father's side. One in Capetown who had a drapers

shop and one who worked on the mines. We seldom visited them, the reason for

which was never clarified.

Work with My Hands

I have already said the family was essentially very practical. My father always

encouraged me and bought me practical toys. One of his pleasures was to window

shop for tools. On a Saturday night we would go to town and wander around the

streets. While mom and Lydia looked at the dresses we would seek out the tool

shops. I had electric motors and lamps, switches and wires and the run of dads

tools. Once I had been given a spring driven mecano motor and took it to pieces

to see how it worked. The spring unwound and the brass cogs fell all over the

table. I could get the cogs back and set it up but I could not squeeze the spring

so that it would fit into it's housing. Try as I might I could not get it back.

I was in tears of rage and frustration and a little bit frightened when dad

returned from work. He immediately showed me how to rewind the spring using

the motor mechanism. It was really quite simple. He assembled the mechanism

with a long tongue of spring hanging out. He then merely used the winder key

to wind it in. He said that I had been right to take it to pieces because how

else could I learn.

We eventually bought a house of our own at 64 13th Street Orange Grove. It

must have been in the early 1940's. It was a big house a single story with a

corrugated iron roof. It stood at the corner on a quarter acre of land. There

were 5 rooms with the usual kitchen and bathroom. There was the Kia (the servant's

room) in the yard. We had a servant like all whites, her name was Lizzy. She

was with us for 20 to 25 years.

Uncle Fred's firm built a large extra room for the union meetings and a beautiful

face brick wall around the house. Dad and I did all the decorations and painting.

The exterior walls were lime washed with quicklime mixed with water. The stuff

boiled and bubbled and we used rubber gloves. The brushes were large and floppy

and the lime sprayed all over the place. The roof was painted red. We remade

the kitchen, knocking down the wall between the old kitchen and the larder.

We put in all new built-in cupboards with marble tops (some old cinema had been

pulled down or re-decorated and dad 'acquired' the white marble). We were not

much as gardeners.

I made a toy washing machine with an agitator, a wringer and water pump and

so on, using bits from the old Mecano set with tin plate for the tub. It all

worked, with an ecectric motor driving the the water pump, the agitator and

the wringer. I also made a telephone in tin plate. It did not work but it was

quite realistic. I did however make a radio receiver, a Hi Fi ( an all valve

affair with 6L6 push-pull output, based on a circuit in the Gramophone Magazine).

It drove a massive 12 inch dual concentric speaker in a 16 cubic foot cabinet.

I also designed and made a free standing bookshelf, easy chairs and a twin turntable

set up for the Hi Fi.

Photo of desk and chair

Later I used to repair my Morris Minor doing the brakes, rings, valves and

even the bearings on the cam-shaft. We of course did all the electrical work,

the gas for the stove and the plumbing. The old style plumbing with iron pipes,

cutting threads and hemp and paint on the joints.

We had a workshop with a Myford lathe, (which I bought with the money I earned

at my first job), a spot-welder, (made from a transformer wound and set up by

ourselves). a reciprocating hack saw made by me, an electric arc welder made

from a transformer taken from an old cinematograph projector light source, drill

press, long steel bench and all. It was great. There were two large wooden toolboxes

crammed with all sorts of hand tools. The house was supplied with town gas and

we had an air compressor so that I could do glass blowing and heavy soldering.

All the large items went when dad died and I became a wanderer.

I still have many of the hand tools and some of them are with my son- in-law

Ian. But I get ahead of myself.

Tea and sympathy

So I had the background to serve the tea and rolls with cheese and cold meat

to the assorted delegates at the SACTU conference.

Not that my parents approved. They were not "Kaffir Lovers," and my dad had

fought against the Communists on the Trades and Labour Council when they wanted

to allow Africans in! I had joined the underground South African Communist Party

in May 1955, the year of the founding of SACTU and the holding of the Congress

of the People.. Rusty Bernstein first asked me if I would like to come to some

political classes. Which I did. Then I remember a drive to town with him when

he asked me if I would like to join the Communist Party. I said I would think

about it. I felt that I should not appear to be too keen but to have given time

to and reached a considered decision. Actually there were no questions in my

mind. I joined some weeks later. In spite of all the trials and tribulations,

the mistakes and tragedies, it is a decision I have never regretted.

My folks did not suspect that I was a member of the party but my Dad strongly

disapproved of my association with the ANC. Still, we had come to a working

arrangement. My father said that I must give up my politics. I said that I would

not do so, and if necessary I would leave home. Mother said she did not want

that to happen so we settled the matter in my favour. I continued to live at

home and to continue with my political activities.

I particularly remember the first resolution on the conference agenda, what

should the name be? We youngsters were all rooting for the name "South African

Congress of Trade Unions." With the choice of name came the choice of path.

The hall was full, the debate calm but heated, People I knew by sight sat on

the platform, and in the hall. Leslie Massina, Solly Smith, Obed Motshabi, John

Nkadimeng and many others. The congress voted overwhelmingly for `Congress'.

The die was cast, the path was chosen. After that everything was an anticlimax.

I do not remember much else except that I was more deeply embedded in the struggle.

In the months that followed I worked in all my spare time representing the

Congress of Democrats on the Congress of the People Transvaal Committee. It

was an interesting committee on which amongst others sat Obed Motshabi, and

Bartholomew Hlapane. On one occasion the chairman, Retsi fell asleep during

the proceedings. We felt it would be unkind to wake him. It was also because

perhaps we did not take his contributions too seriously. His politics were not

quite in tune with the rest of the committees. We carried on without him. Retsi

awoke and proceeded at just the exact moment at which he had left us. The meeting

stuttered and readjusted itself. It was about this time that the work was being

held up for lack of cash and the ANC asked me for a loan of fifteen quid. I

do not think I expected to be repaid but for the record, I am still owed. When

I was about seven years old the barber in Twist Street charged my mother nine

old pence for my haircut. In my first job in 1953 I was earning £1000.00 per

year and I bought a car a Morris Minor for £300.00. In 1987 when I finished

working for a boss I earned about £18,000.00 per year and a car cost something

like £5,000.00. A haircut now costs me over £5.00. So I reckon the ANC owes

me at least £300.00 not taking into account compound interest on the loan.

There was no trade union representation on the committee because trade unionists

were thin on the ground. Being a trade unionist was not on my agenda but by

November 1956 I became the general secretary of the Textile Workers Industrial


Working for a living

As already mentioned my first job in January 1953, after finishing my Ph.D.

at Wits., was as a chemist for African Film Productions. Within a year I had

insulted one of the directors. I was busy sorting out a problem on the cinematograph

colour film developing machines when up he popped. He had considerable experience

but did not offer advice so much as tell me what he "knew" to be wrong. He said,

"You don't want to take advice." I replied "I do take some people's advice."

I suppose it was arrogance mixed with pride and lack of respect for high office.

When I was young I used to help my Dad. Later I did things on my own and he

used to give advice. This became irksome because I wanted to go it alone as

all young people do. It got to the stage when I occasionally burst out in anger

when he kept looking over my shoulder kibitzing. This occasion was a bit like

that. The general manager called me in and asked me, "Do you intend spending

your life working for us?" I thought that was a nonsense. How could they expect

me to predict the future? "No" I replied. I was too honest. I was looking for


It was at this time that I first became active in the Congress of Democrats.

In February 1954 I started work with the Chamber of Mines Research Laboratories.

There I learnt of the scientific precision with which they calculated the maximum

work that could be done by the African mine workers, for the minimum outlay

on their diet, taking into account the high humidity and temperatures a mile

underground. In this they pre-dated the processes of the Nazi's in their treatment

of the Concentration Camp prisoners. Africans were not human beings, only profit

margins. I also learnt of how the dust count was regularly reported by the technical

staff as being below the danger level because figures above that were generally

unacceptable to management. When identity numbers were introduced for whites

I refused to have my photograph taken and one of my colleagues drew swastikas

on the lapels of his laboratory coat for his photograph.. My next job was at

the University of the Witwatersrand. It lasted from February to December 1955.

My contract was not renewed because I was arrested for being in a location without

a permit

Actually what happened was that I had been asked by the ANC to address a Congress

of the People meeting in White City Jabavu. As per usual the Special Branch

was present taking notes. It was quite a small crowd of about 30 or 40. Sunny,

dusty, in an open space a little away from the shacks. White City was relatively

quite posh for Soweto. I followed one of the African comrades and lead off by

saying that we wanted the demands of the people for incorporation in the Freedom

Charter. One of the specials was leaning against the police car throwing peanuts

into the air and catching them in his mouth. "One of our demands will be, that

we don't want monkeys at our meetings eating peanuts." I remember a sudden tension

in the air and this big burly white man dragging me off. Things moved quickly

and I found myself at the police station being charged. In came Nelson Mandela.

He was representing me he said. The white police looked at me and then at him

and seemed to be amazed that I agreed. It was not natural that a white man could

even consider being represented by a black lawyer.

It was my first experience of the real struggle. The case was reported in

the papers, I spent a short time in the cells and found out what the Prisoners

Friend was. I also found out that Professor Bockriss my immediate boss who had

recently arrived from England was no friend of mine or of freedom. He called

me into his office and informed me that he could not ask the Nationalist Government

for research funds if there was a Communist in the department. Of course he

did not really know that I was a communist. As far as he was concerned anyone

who associated with the blacks must be a Communist. I suppose it was in the

end no loss. I could never have developed into a full-time academic. In practice

at that time I was much more focused on the Congress of the People Campaign.

This was reinforced when Joe Slovo arranged a meeting with myself, Sidney

Shall (he later became a biology professor in England) and one other on the

top of one of the mine dumps. The agenda was simply that if we did not make

a special effort the Congress would not be a success. This was my first commission

by the party. Well, it was a success and I did my bit organising for it and

at it.

Prior to the Congress I helped collate the demands that were collected from

all over South Africa. We sat in the lounge of a flat in Hillbrow and sorted

the demands into piles. Education, Passes, Industry and so on. Then we handed

them over to those who were drawing up the draft Charter. I remember one demand

that came in from a group of shop workers in Eloff Street. It was calling for

Socialism and aroused my curiosity. It seems John Motshabi was working there

which explained why it was so framed. I knew that John was banned for being

a communist. His brother Obed was very proud of him. I discussed it with Rusty

saying that perhaps Socialism should be one of the demands of the Charter. He

however said that it was not a correct demand at this stage. If we could win

the demand for one person one vote, socialism would surely follow. To put it

forward at that time would not be useful. It showed the maturity of the movement

and how the Communist Party, of whom I knew Rusty to be a leading member, understood

their role as facilitators, activists, and supporters of the fight for National

Liberation. In the decades that followed the adoption of the Freedom Charter

by the Liberation Movement there was much discussion questioning if it was a

Socialist document. The fact that it was not, enhanced it's appeal to the people

of South Africa and the world as a unifying program. Socialism in the light

of history still provides the only basis for solving the worlds problems, but

the concept of Socialism is a bit more complex than we imagined at that time.

At the Congress of the People in Kliptown I was under the speaker's platform

looking after the set of car batteries driving the public address system. In

the 1990,s I read in the literature that I delivered the message from the Peoples

Republic of China but my memory of this is vague. What I do remember is the

time when the police who had been hovering around all morning suddenly surrounded

the meeting and descended on the platform. A great murmuring surged like a wave

through the assembly. With it the pulse beat faster and the murmurs created

echoes of anger and beckoned violence. The specials and the police began to

react. Disaster loomed. Then a voice rose in song. Rapidly one section after

another took up the refrain. The pent-up anger and fear dispersed into the river

of melody. The people had won. The police were disarmed. They were no longer

in charge. If there is any reflection of my love for the African people it is

in the happiness roused in me by their voices in song. The Chairman announced

that the meeting would proceed and that we would continue the adoption of the


In the descending darkness, having hosted its historic meeting the square

began to empty. The people drained away through the bottleneck of the Special

Branch who recorded each person and took their pictures. Dozens of small fires

emerged into the growing gloom, revealing circles of comrades feeding them with

documents, notes and addresses. My help was no longer needed. It was time to

leave. I had nothing to burn. My job was done. I joined the exit queue and a

flash of light transferred my face to film.

At the next historic gathering, the march of the women to Pretoria on August

the 9th 1956, I acted as a taxi for some of the leaders. I stood at the side

of the great arc of the amphitheatre and listened to Lilian delivering her now

famous challenge in front of the thousands gathered. "You have touched the Women.

You have touched a rock. You will die." The air rang with silence.

After such moments earning a living was not living but merely necessary. My

academic career ended in December and my next job was in January 1956 with a

firm of analytical chemists, McLachlan & Lazar. While there I soon made friends

with one of the African workers who was a member of the ANC branch in Sophiatown.

I also met my first player of the stock market, my direct superior. His name

is best forgotten. In any event he must be dead by now. Every morning he would

busily consult the stock exchange prices in the Rand Daily Mail tutting and

clicking his tongue. It made my working class blood boil. The work itself was

boring but required some considerable technical skill. In a way I quite enjoyed

it when a cement analysis added up to 100.1%. When one had to repeat the exercise

day after day it no longer represented an achievement. It represented work.

Representing the Movement Overseas

It was early 1956 and I had been working at for McLachlan & Lazar for a few

months. "There is a peace conference in Stockholm. They want a scientist. Did

I have a passport? Would I go?" I do not remember even thinking about my reply.

I did however remember to ask the boss for two weeks unpaid leave. It was my

first conference where I represented the movement. I did not do a great job

but I did not disgrace myself or the ANC. At one session of the congress in

the great hall, I was sitting listening to the speeches when a side door swung

open. Into my mind jumped a picture of the Special Branch. It was a raid. No!

That was a different country a different time.

During the breaks for food I got friendly with a group of Australians and

they were great. One was a Lady something, another was a member of the Waterside

Workers Federation. During the conversation I said I would love to go to China.

They advised me to ask the Chinese delegation for an invitation to China. I

was reluctant to be so pushy but they persuaded me that it was not wrong. I

asked the Chinese delegation and they agreed. I felt that it was a bit wrong

but every-body else seemed to think it was correct. It is indeed difficult sometimes

to know right from wrong. Perhaps there are some-times situations where the

whole concept of right and wrong does not apply. There is no right or wrong

way to eat an apple or pray to God.

Before I left I sent a post card to my comrade at McLachlan & Lazar. Then

together with a group of Arabs from the Middle East I traveled by air to Helsinki,

and by train to Leningrad, and Moscow. This was my first time in the USSR and

I admired the brickwork of the History Museum in Red Square, the ingenious humor

of St. Basil's Cathedral, and visited the Lenin Museum and Mausoleum. Then on

to Omsk, Tomsk, Ulan Bator, and Beijing (then Peking). I spent a month in China

and then back home via Delhi and Cairo.

I remember Lufthi, he was a big Arab truck driver, a Muslim from Sudan. I

was an intellectual, a Jew, a small white man. But there was only the respect

and friendship of comrades in common struggle. On May Day we danced with the

Chinese in Tien an Men square and holding hands walked back to our hotel. Or

the Mayor of Shanghai whose only instruction given him by the party at the height

of the struggle against the Kuo Min Tang, was to survive. The co-operative farmers

were so proud of their straw hut, the ceiling covered inside with old newspapers.

When I asked what the revolution meant to them they looked amazed at the question.

One old man answered, "Before we drank the water in which the rice was boiled

now we eat the rice." Or of the old man in the jade carving factory who could

not work any more but was given the special place of an honoured adviser. Much

better than our western style retirement.

They laid on a dinner for the peace delegation in their major restaurant in

Peking, or Beijing as it is now called. It had over forty courses, fish, chicken,

vegetables, sea slugs, shark fin, steam bread, rice, birds nest soup, a few

speeches, green Chinese tea, and plenty of mulberry juice. The latter was very

pleasant and was served instead of rice wine or other alcoholic drinks in deference

to the Arabs in the delegation. This meal spoilt any Chinese meal I have had

ever since. It was the way they served the dishes, the care taken with the decorations,

and the fact that each dish was served straight from the cooking. We were taken

to the Opera, to see paintings, a coal mine in Hanschow, and a chemical factory.

They really did take good care of us.

Then there was the unknown boatman on the River in Kowloon. I was standing

on the balcony of my hotel. The sun was bright, it was hot and placid. The broad

river rippled as it flowed down to the sea. There alone in midstream was a boatman.

He stood in the stern, a small figure in the wooden boat loaded with goods.

With every stroke he launched himself against the two oars straining with his

whole body. The boat seemed to stand still in the current. Again and again he

strained his whole being. Slowly painfully he made headway. Life was hard but

he would win against the river, against the pitiless odds. With every stroke

he gave everything and yet found more for the next battle. In Delhi a few days

later I watched in the midday sun, as a man stripped to the waist pulled a heavily

laden cart with wooden wheels. He was harnessed in the shafts like an animal.

It was over a hundred in the shade. With every step up the hill his feet left

a pool of sweat on the hot tar. Who or what planted the devil within them that

drove them?

It taught me lessons of solidarity, of struggle, and it put this struggle

in a context. There is a top layer in society which when divorced from the ordinary

people loose so much of the meaning of life that their thoughts are froth. Their

souls are barren and their comments destructive of human values. They give up

the right to leadership, perhaps to existence. There are those who deliberately

refuse to see the people's struggle for survival and only have eyes for the

stock exchanges and money markets. They give up the right, as a species, to


When I got back about two months later, I found a letter with my dismissal

from work. I asked for a meeting with Mr. Lazar, the boss, to explain what had

happened. He granted my request. He accepted my explanations and said he would

perhaps have forgiven me "But to write to one of his Kaffirs and not to him,"

this could not be tolerated.

I was unemployed again but after a while I got a job with Buffalo Salt Works.

They had a project building a tall climbing film evaporator for the purification

and production of table salt. The system was nearing completion and final construction

was under way. The white engineer doing the fitting and welding was a work-a-holic.

He was not a bad man but hyperactive in all directions including his love life.

This did not bother me but I was unsympathetic to his treatment of the African

labourers. I started talking to them and getting on friendly terms so that they

could begin to get organised. The white engineer took the path regularly traversed

by racists. He told the boss all about it. I had only been there a month when

I was hauled over the coals. The boss had me in his upstairs office. "I don't

mind you organising the blacks. I myself read New Age," He went over to the

window and from under the shelf he took out a copy. " But I won't have you organising

my Kaffirs."

For six months I was unemployed and unemployable. It was quite pleasant for

the first month. There was plenty to catch up on and it was akin to a holiday.

Then it began to get tiresome. I had been so active and busy and now there was

not enough to do. I also found myself getting short of money and had to sell

my car.

It was at this time that, in spite of the comments of my English teacher,

I began to write with the encouragement of Ruth First the occasional article

for New Age, the movement's news paper. The first came out in June 1956. I wrote

about my trip "In Peoples China I saw Science in the service of Man." ( We were

far less conscious of women's liberation in those days.) Fighting Talk also

carried a piece on science in its October 1959 issue. I disagreed with an article

in Liberation written under the name of J. Johnson and discussed it with Jack

Hodgson. He told me that he had written it but it could not be published in

his name because he was banned. He induced me to write a reply. His thesis was

that the majority of whites in South Africa could be won to support the Congress

of Democrats and thus help to overthrow Apartheid. I was of the opinion that

this would not happen and that only at the last knockings would they accept

the inevitable end of Apartheid. This was my first venture into political theory

(a, b & d) . It is strange to read some of these scribbling nearly 40 years

later. I was so sure of myself, so confident. That confidence was not entirely

misplaced. Certainly I did not get it all right but I was traveling in the same

direction as the stream of history and the ones on science were factual and


The Secretary of Textiles

Well being unemployed lead to me becoming general secretary of the Textile

Workers Industrial Union, a job for which I had no academic qualifications.

As in most things it is who knows you and what they think of you. The secretary

of the union Piet Beyleveld was banned, they were desperate for a replacement.

I suppose the political activists in the union knew about me and my participation

in the struggle. I was elected and became a full time trade unionist.

We had our offices in Pritchard Street in the centre of Johannesburg. On the

same floor on the opposite side of the stairs, Shulamuth Muller a lawyer had

her offices. She was married to Mike Muller who had been the general secretary

of the union before Piet Beyleveld. He was banned but offered to help me. On

our side and in the same row were the offices of a number of African Unions,

Solly Smith of the Toy workers, Uria Maleka of the Furniture, Lawrence Ndzanga

of the Railway and a number of others. They were all small and struggling against

enormous repression. They were on the whole penniless and often relied like

the furniture workers on a single progressive boss, the parents of Ruth First,

for survival. The offices were small, each about three metres by four. The Textile

occupied three such offices and all the other unions two between them. Don Mateman

was the Transvaal secretary and occupied the same offices as did the African

Textile Workers Industrial Union. At that time the registered union could have

whites, coloureds, and Indians as members but, by law, not Africans. There was

no sense in such a separation so we tried to run the two unions as one.

It was quite a job. At the prompting of Mike Muller it was agreed that I do

a round trip to visit all the major centres of the union. From this trip and

from later experience I got a better idea of the structure of the membership.

In the Cape area most of the workers were 'coloured'. (That was how they were

designated at that time.) Things then became more complicated with many saying

that if differentiation were necessary they should be designated as 'so-called

coloureds'. Today the drift is towards phasing out any references to racial

differences but this will take some time. They were not the most militant or

political of the membership but the most proletarian. They had no ties to the

land. They had nothing to sell but their labour. The apartheid pill was for

them covered in the sweetness of not having to carry a pass. They were in the

historic sense, all be it "illegitimate," the sons and daughters of the whites.

They were good trade unionists but prone to walking around problems only to

find later that the problem was still stalking them. I 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.Woollen Mills. Many of the workers

we represented worked there. I found out a few years later that it was owned

by an uncle of my wife. She told me that he had helped her with money when I

was locked up during the State of Emergency. I never met him and never had an

opportunity to thank him. Although we were poles apart, him a capitalist and

me an organiser for his overthrow we somehow both felt a duty to the same person.

People are not all bad, they are more complicated than that.

I also met Ray Simons who was already a legend. That is the trouble with preconceived

visions, the reality is always disappointing. I am not sure what I had expected

but I had been told that "She will put you right." Well, she may have been a

great sculptor but perhaps my clay was of too poor a quality or the time was

too short. The visitation left me much as I had been before but a bit letdown

and more unsure of myself.

In Port Elizabeth my next port of call I met Lizzy Walton the registered branch

secretary. Port Elizabeth was however much better known for its high level of

organisation and militancy of the Africans. The ANC was widely known and respected.

The Secretary of the African Union was Wilton Mkwayi, who was also a leader

in the ANC. He immediately became one of my heroes and remains so to this day.

He was fearless, purposeful, and calm. One creates images and he was one of

mine. Thus PE had all the potential for a well organised and militant branch

of the union. It had been so in the past but somehow it never lived up to this

potentiality. PE was not a large center for textile manufacture. It was and

still is a great centre for organisation and solidity.

Durban was a major centre. Here Philip Frame one of the leading blanket manufacturers,

filled his sails with the winds of apartheid, and ruled an empire. There were

two main groups of workers the Indian and the African. The Secretary of the

registered union was Alec Wanless. I remember when I mentioned his name to my

father he warned me to be very careful since to his knowledge Alec was close

to the Special Branch. I was quite shocked when I first saw him. He was a dissolute,

disheveled and tramp-like character, gone to fat and drink. He wore a light

gray suit, his trousers tied round his bulbous stomach with what appeared to

be a piece of string. His shirt once white was now gray, tie-less and open at

the collar. The appearance with his trousers half hitched over his big belly

was of one who had lost control over his natural functions of decency and respect.

The workers in textiles were poor but they carried their poverty with dignity

and their union membership with pride. The African workers despised him. The

Indian workers had lost all faith in him and were organising to have him dismissed.

This happened a short while later.

It was clear to me that the Natal union was in difficulties. They owned a

building but it was not kept in a good state of repair. The Indian workers were

sophisticated and skilled. They were however divided. I heard of tales about

"the weavers" or "the spinners". There was no leadership. The potential was

clear but it would need a major shake-up, and reorganisation. Mannie Isaacs

would become the Secretary with R. Chin the Chairman. This was after the big

strike in 1957.

The African Union's organiser was Moses Mabidha. He impressed me greatly.

He had an authority and presence. He commanded respect. Together with Steve

Dhlamini they were the backbone of the African Union. The Union's problem was

that Moses was into everything. He was active in the ANC, in the SACTU local

committee, and the underground SACP. It is the unexplored vengeance of nature

to overload leaders and thus to divide and rule high office. The movement never

understood or solved the task of delegation of authority. It suffers from this

still. I was to learn the effects of this disease but not in such an extreme

form because I was not such a welcoming host.

So back to Jo'burg. The political and dynamic strength lay in the power and

determination of the African workers. The organisational and financial strength

lay with the registered union. Our task, my task was to weld them into a unity.

I see this only now, not then. At the time I only had crisis after crisis, battle

after battle, and some successes.

My four years as secretary of the union was crowded with activity. In December

1956, the year I started work, I was amongst the 156 arrested for high treason.

As usual the special branch came early in the morning. The warrent stated that

I was accused of treason. My immediate reaction was one of curiosity and then

a feeling that they were not being serious. I had certainly not been plotting

treason more reason, as the old Irish patriots used to say. But there you are

that is what it said. Mom and Dad took it in their stride. I had been raided

before and they had seen it happen in the twenties. The usual searches took

place and then off to Marshall Square. I note in my Prisoners Property Receipt

that I went to jail with nine shillings and a penny in my pocket, plus a Parker

pen and pencil, a hankerchief and some keys. The first few weeks we spent in

Jail. Then we were let out on bail of #250. We were banned from meetings, our

passports were taken from us, and we had to report weekly to the police. The

conditions fortunately allowed trade union activities so I was not out of a

job again. Nonetheless for the whole of 1957 I had to spend most of the normal

working day in the Drill Hall in Johannesburg attending the preliminary hearings.

The only evidence produced against me personally was a circular letter issued

by the Congress of Democrats under my signature as Chairman of the Transvaal

region. This meant that I carried on the union work early morning, at times

when the court adjourned and at week ends.

Photo of treason trialists fixing my tie

A Small Interruption

In January 1957 I married Sibyl Sack. I had met her in the discussion club,

and in the Congress of Democrats. She was a pretty little thing and quite shy.

I myself was, I suppose, rather immature in matters of the heart and had been

turned down quite a few times. I remember however that the first night out of

the cells I went to see her and we spent the night together in her flat. I asked

her if she would marry me but she must understand, "The people come first."

It was one of those dramatic, foolish, simplistic, statements of a naive young

man. The passage of the years has revealed a different underlying meaning. The

marriage was not based on passionate love. I did put the "people" high up, if

not first, on my agenda of life that is too complicated for numbers to categorise.

We announced our intentions to get married and I told the parents that we

were going to get hitched in a registry office. My mother and father had no

opinions on the matter but my mother, always the practical one, said "Ronnie

the family will not give you presents if you do not get married in Shull." So

being open to such sound advice, my mother and I went to see the rabbi of the

reform synagogue. I told him without much ado what my mother had told me, and

that therefore I wanted him to marry us. I further said that I did not believe

in all that religious stuff. The Rabbi said very little except that he would

be in touch. A week later my mother said that the rabbi had phoned. Since my

mother was a Jew, I was a Jew, according to Jewish law they could not refuse

to marry a Jew. It was a Jewish reform synagogue and we went through a reasonably

simple ceremony. I wore a suit. This was in itself a very unusual form of dress

for me. I did wear bright green socks as a protest. These were clear to everyone

as I walked up the steps to the Chupa and chatted with Sibyl. So I got my presents,

and very useful they were too about £800.00 if I remember. They were enough

to later let me put down a deposit on a house when it became necessary. We had

a small reception for family and friends in Orange Grove on the lawn at my sister-in-law's

house in Orange Grove. 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 in the big Frame factory in Durban were threatening

to go on strike against a wage cut preceded by a laying off of workers. I flew

down to Durban to lead my first ever strike. The strike was the first to be

held under the then, new regulations. A ballot had to be held before a registered

union could hold a strike. The ballot was a farce. The workers were already

determined to strike so we quickly duplicated a ballot form, set up a cardboard

box with a slit in it and the workers lined up to vote yes. It was illegal for

the African workers to strike under any conditions. Although Moses Mabidha tried

to get them to join the Indian workers the African workers knowing the retribution

that would fall on them could not agree. There was however no antagonism between

the two groups of workers. The Indian workers knew the score and accepted the

African workers decision. Both Moses and I were banned from gatherings so I

could not openly talk to him or the Branch Executive. I remember once when there

was a problem Moses and I held a conversation standing back to back surrounded

by workers. The bail conditions however specified that the accused in the trial

must report to the police once a week. They would not let me report in Durban

so I had to fly back and forth to Johannesburg

One day some of the strikers came to me in high spirits. It was marvelous.

Frame had come up to them at the factory gates and begged them to come and work.

They had had their first taste of workers power and loved it.

Philip Frame would not talk to me so I had to rely on the good offices of

SACTU. Leon Levy the SACTU President negotiated for us on the phone from Johannesburg.

He was of course also banned from gatherings. I was told he spoke with Frame

for over an hour. We had won. When I got back to court in June I was issued

with a banning order restricting me to Johannesburg. We won the strike, prevented

a wage cut and forced the blanket bosses to negotiate a national agreement.

In February 1958 3,800 African workers in the biggest organised factory, Amato

Textiles in Benoni went on strike. I was banned and confined to Johannesburg

so my participation was limited. It would take some thirty years for the African

workers in textiles to recover. The police intervened violently against the

strikers. Rufus Makaru the Chairman and Eddie Cindi the Secretary together with

over a hundred leaders of the strike were deported to the Bantustans. The strike

was lost. We received as much help as was possible from SACTU and the other

unions but they were themselves poor and struggling. The WFTU sent us a substantial


One story told to me by Eddie sticks in my memory. The Workers assembled in

the factory yard and demanded to speak to the Union Secretary. Eddie addressed

the workers. Amato who was never afraid to put his case directly to his workers

also addressed them. The workers sensed that this strike was make or break for

the union. They knew the forces ranged against them. One of the young weavers

shouted, " Burn burn." Eddie bravely argued them out of such a line of action.

I still think that young fellow was right. The Apartheid state had declared

war on the African workers. The time was fast approaching when the the movement

would have to fight fire with fire. Perhaps the young fellows call was premature

but he was more in tune with the realities than perhaps we were.

While we fought the regime on the industrial front the Treason Trial continued

in the old Synagogue in Pretoria which had been converted into a High Court.

This meant a long journey each day the court sat. There were memorable moments

when the likes of Bram Fisher gave the court a lecture on what Treason was,

or when the Judge was called upon to recuse himself. These were great intellectual


1959 a quiet year

. The treason trial dragged on. The Union work settled down to a continual

struggle to survive. We managed to continue the job of organising and agitating.

The Union brought out a few editions of a news paper, "Textile Unity" and a

history of the Union, "25 Fighting Years," text by Alfred `Tough' Hutchinson.

I had a few science articles published, "A guide to Sputnik" in October and

"Why did the Russians send up a dog" in November "New Age".(b) My aunt Lena

who was the caretaker threw us out of our flat in town. She could not allow

us to stay because I had invited Don Mateman, a coloured man, my branch secretary,

to lunch. It seemed that the neighbours had complained. We still had some of

the money from our wedding presents and we bought a small three roomed house

in Henrietta Road in Norwood Johannesburg. SACTU was very busy and the textile

workers organisers, members and branches were active in the various campaigns,

especially the "œ1 A day Campaign". I was unable to freely take part in the

committee work because of the bail conditions. I did attend one or two local

committee meetings. I 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. The money came as a solidarity gift from The World

Federation of Trade Unions. Rita his wife was also a trade unionist. They were

both staunch dedicated militants. The Special Branch murdered Lawrence in detention

in 1976. Rita's name was mentioned in dispatches as they say until the late


There were a few smaller strikes. "Shoulderpads" was a small factory in Braamfontein

where the boss was sympathetic to unions. He gave us access to the workers and

I visited it regularly to collect subs. The workers were mostly African women

and many were ANC members. There was one worker M. who always avoided paying

subs but claimed to be a union member. There was also another worker S who was

not very sympathetic to the union as much as I tried to persuade her. I eventually

found out that she was sleeping with the white foreman and thus I had no chance

of getting her to join the union. Elizabeth the shop steward, on the other hand

was great. She was bright, active, politically conscious, and a real leader.

One day I got a phone call from the boss. "Come down immediately the workers

are on strike." Now all strikes of African workers were illegal. I was banned

from attending and speaking at meetings. What could I do? There was nobody else

in the office at the time. So there I was on the factory floor talking to the

workers asking what the strike was all about. Evidently the boss had promised

them a five bob a week raise but would only give them a half-a-crown. I tried

to persuade them to take the money now and the boss agreed that he would pay

them the rest later. S was nowhere to be seen but M began a tirade against the

boss, and the Union. The Union was letting them down we should force the boss

to pay. All the boss had to do was call the police and we would all be in jail.

And here was M more militant than anyone else and demanding her say in how the

Union was to operate. I quietly exploded. "When you pay your subs you can tell

the Union what to do." Well, that sorted that out. The workers reluctantly agreed

to the two and six now and the rest later. To the boss's shame he never gave

them the delayed increase. Let us be thankful for small mercies that he did

not call the police.

There was another small factory that was owned by two Jewish immigrants. It

produced various knitted items such as bandages and sanitary towels. They were

from the old school and very sympathetic to the plight of the African people.

We had a stop order for Union subscriptions and full access to the workers.

When the government passed a law making it illegal for deductions to be made

they agreed to set up a medical aid scheme. In this way the workers would get

medical benefits and the Union would be paid for its administration. In this

way we maintained our income. There were some bosses one could work with.

1960 was not so quiet

1960 started quietly enough but the calm did not last long. The ANC pass-burning

campaign got underway and militancy of the population escalated. The police

shootings at Sharpville and the general strike that followed were heralds to

the declaration of a State of Emergency. At the end of March I found myself

back in jail. There, together with thousands of others I had to leave my trade

union and political work. Initially it was a shock, and then a feeling of helplessness

and euphoria took over.

The cell in Marshall Square was a 20 by 20 foot empty black box of a place.

There were small mesh covered dirty windows high up in the outer walls through

which nothing was visible. One side was all bars from floor to ceiling. A toilet

graced one corner with its smell. Fortunately we did not stay there long. The

Fort was cleaner and we occupied a wing of the ancient building. This was divided

into cells with a central corridor. I shared a cell with Monty Berman, and Hymie

Barsel, if I remember correctly. One midnight Monty started to moan and mutter.

We could not wake him. I started to shout and call out. "Its Monty I think he

is going to die." Panic all round. In all the cells in our corridor there was

a shouting and a banging of tin mugs on the doors. It had no effect. Nobody

came. Next morning Monty was much better. A doctor eventually saw him and declared

it was a stomach ulcer. We were different from the ordinary prisoners. We were

all comrades. We stuck together. We were in jail because we believed in the

redistribution of societies' wealth not its redistribution between individuals.

One of our group of prisoners was an old man who seemed set himself apart

from us. He was clearly known to most of the old timers. Although polite to

him they seemed to keep him at a distance. I remember one day seeing him creeping

to his suitcase like a thief, looking around to see if anybody was watching.

There he poked about and securely closing the battered old cardboard case he

looked over his shoulder and sat down, alone. I was curious. Who was this individual?

Why was he somehow set aside and avoided? What was he up to? Soon all was revealed.

It was no secret. He was merely hiding bits of food to safeguard his future.

He was Louis Joffe, the former Communist Party Secretary. I had the impression

that he was once a powerful man who carried the mantel of a miniature Stalin.

This was the man my father had so hated and feared. It seems that he now had

mental trouble and his high status was gone. Nobody was frightened anymore but

clearly he was best avoided. It was pitiful really. He deserved sympathy but

then perhaps he had not earned it.

There were no newspapers or radio and we relied on the assistance of the occasional

smuggled paper from the ordinary prisoners. What was really amazing was that

they were on the whole friendly and could not understand why we should be prepared

to go to jail for political reasons. Most of them were in jail by mistake anyway?

Like the one chap. He was caught in a friend's house. Outside was a stolen car

with his fingerprints all over the steering wheel. By his own account he was

innocent. "He was walking down the road. He had a bad foot and this car came

along and gave him a lift. The owner dropped him off at his friends house together

with the car !" But there was the honest one who said that this was his fifteenth

time in for stealing. It was almost a home for him. In a funny sort of way they

admired us.

Then we were transferred to Pretoria. Here all the white male prisoners occupied

a single large dormitory. It was previously a workshop. There were two rows

of beds, a row of washbasins at one end and cooking facilities. Running along

one side was a walled courtyard where we could play ball games. So other than

being locked up we were really quite comfortable. Although most of the accused

in the Treason Trial had been discharged from the court, it continued with a

smaller group with Leon Levy from amongst the white prisoners. So he went off

to court every now and then. One day a small pocket radio appeared. It had somehow

been smuggled in. So now we could listen to the news. We were all delighted.

Then suddenly the radio disappeared and the news stopped. It seemed that one

of the prisoners had decided that somehow he was at risk because radios were

forbidden. I later found a transistor in the ashes of the stove. I was annoyed

and saddened. It seemed such a waste and so anti-democratic to burn it like


It was here that I began to take notice of a man called Vincent Swart. He

had been brought in some time previously. He was dissolute. He looked and acted

like one of the dispossessed, dispossessed of dignity, of thought processes,

of health, of friends, one of life's mistakes. Slowly he regained the kingdom

of humanity. His colour became pinker, his cheeks filled out, his eyes began

to emerge from their dungeons, and he now and then joined with us in our activities.

Curious as ever I inquired about him. Why was he here? Well, it seemed he was

a democratic anarchist. He and a girl friend were at one time quite rich. They

lived close to Alexandre Township and being free human beings saw no reason

why they should not be free together with the Africans around them. They organised,

well organise is the wrong word, they seeded a group that met, drank, discussed,

and generally disturbed the regime of racial separation. There was no chairman,

secretary or treasurer. There were no minutes so there was no need of a secretary.

The two white participants supplied the booze so there was no need of a treasurer.

Anyone who liked it at the time could be the chairman.

There were no tangible results of their activities except the drift into booze

and drug induced poverty of our Mr Swart. It led to his arrest during the State

of Emergency. In my opinion and that of many of my fellow detainees, it was

the best favour the regime ever did for him. When he joined the slow stream

of those released he quickly relapsed. He could have been a contributor, an

asset, fate had a different destiny for him.


I decided that I had been away from science for some years and needed to refresh

my memory. Perhaps in my subconscious I felt the need for comfort and safety.

Perhaps I was not angry enough. Perhaps my revolt was more in the mind than

in the heart. I was not destined to be a full time politician or trade unionist.

I really loved science and technology. I should have been an electrician. Much

of my later participation in the struggle was to be of technical assistance

to the ANC.

We were allowed non political books so I asked Sibyl to bring me my textbooks,

Perry, Handbook of Chemical Engineering, Elements of Differential and Integral

Calculus by Granville Smith and Longley, and a few others. To my credit I also

requested and got the Complete Works of Shakespeare, one of my school book prizes.

We settled down to a routine and organised plays and lectures. I gave one

on rockets and how to get to the moon. It was quite mathematical with equations,

graphs and drawings, not normal fare for most of my cell mates but they were

very polite and appreciative. I was also in a play staged by Cecil Williams

on June the 26th.

We had Heinz 57 varieties of political views amongst us. There were liberals,

reverends, anarchists, communists, democrats, and others in various combinations.

Some were there because they were on some Special Branch list. Hymie Basner

had for example, been a member of the CP but had left in 1939 over the Stalin-Hitler

non agression pact. He had been inactive ever since. But he was on a list. So

there he was with us. Still there we all were so we determined to live together

and present a united front. A Reverend led prayers on Sundays so in the cause

of unity we communists and atheists attended. There were plenty of discussions

and arguments but all went well. Even after the decision to hold a hunger strike.

It was agreed we would not eat until we were released and the State of Emergency

lifted. It was not agreed to by the liberals, and one of the priests. This priest

said that what he had done for the struggle of the people was God's work. If

however he was to be imprisoned then that was also God's will and he would not

oppose it by joining a hunger strike. I tried to follow his reasoning but I

am afraid about half way through I lost the thread. So with about three exceptions,

we went on strike. There was talk of fasting to the death. I never found out

if this was a serious proposition but I thought suicide was untenable. All we

would take was water. The first day I was quite hungry, but after that it was

surprisingly easy not to eat. I was lucky I could always sleep, day or night.

So although hunger made me tired it was no problem I just slept. After about

5 days it was decided that to keep from serious health risks we were advised

to take a spoon of sugar each day, together with plenty of water. The first

spoon of sugar was magic. During the strike the conversation turned more and

more to food. We exchanged recipes and my maths book became the depository not

only of the genius of Newton and Leibnitz but of how to make 'Stuffed fillet',

'wine sauce', and 'potato pudding a la Issy Heymann'.....and the signatures

of the thirty-four of us and J. van Zyl, our warder.

( Which reminds me of the only time I saw Joe Slovo close to tears. We had

in the larder a half dozen eggs. I said that I knew how to make a fluffy omelet.

This clearly revived memories and aroused the taste buds of Joe. So off I went

to beat the eggs whites into a stiff consistency, I folded in the yolks and

poured it into the frying pan. Joe hovered around clearly his anticipation increasing

with each step. I brought it up to heat and the creature rose in the pan. Now

I was brought up by my mum that food had to be cooked. In our house it was never

underdone. So I placed the omelet under the grill to solidify the top. I presented

it in triumph. Joe almost cried. All his anticipation was shattered. His cultural

history was different. In his circles the whole beauty of the omelet was in

its uncooked soggy nature. He never complained but clearly it was a low point

in his respect for my cooking expertise.)

After a further five days we were summoned into the yard by the prison chief.

We were lined up and told that we should cease the strike. The women had agreed

and were breaking their fast with oranges. We said nothing. The silence lengthened.

Then Eli Weinberg spoke in a calm, loud, matter of fact voice. "We do not believe

you." Even the birds and the wind fell silent in anticipation of the storm.

It never came. The chief just repeated his statement and agreed that we could

get a direct message from the women to confirm what he said. A day later we

found that the women had indeed stopped. We agreed to break our fast. Leon Levy

had in his possession a birthday cake. We broke our fasts with a slice of rich

fruit cake, topped with marzipan and soft white icing. It was supposed to make

you ill to eat rich food after a fast. Nonsense It was excellent with no after

effects. After the hunger strike I remember Rusty saying that that was the last

time he would attend any religious ceremonies on a Sunday. If the priest could

not stand by the majority he would not sacrifice his principles and attend religious


Slowly detainees were released. My wife Sibyl was pregnant and visited every

so often. It was painful to see her and then to go back to the cells. It reminded

me of the outside and disturbed the steady rhythm of the prison. I almost got

to hate visits. One visit from someone else I remember very well. Five of the

original white prisoners were now left, Rusty Bernstein, Leon Levy, Rev. D.C.

Thompson ( not the priest referred to above), Joe Slovo and myself. We were

locked up and just doing nothing.

This became a way of passing time, just turning off so to speak. I had first

practiced it during the long hours of the trial in the drill hall in Johannesburg,

and again in Pretoria. It was a bad habit and our Council constantly advised

us against it. I remember one time when I was so turned off. My curiosity was

aroused when Council complained that the indictment had a lot of either/or's.

We were guilty of doing either this or that , and or, this or that ... This

roused my curiosity. I quickly worked out the number of possibilities arising

as being some astronomical figure. I scribbled a note that got into the hands

of Council in time and this particular absurdity in the indictment became part

of our defense. I then went back to my musings.

We were all in this state of suspended animation when we heard a door being

unlocked. There was a message for Rusty. The warder had come with the message

and had clearly made the mistake of bringing Nelson with him. I suppose he was

on his way to return Nelson to his cell. We did not think. Nelson did not think.

We all did the natural thing. Nelson walked in and shook hands all round. But

for the warder it was disaster. In the inner sanctum of Apartheid, he was witness

to the open flouting of the rules. He blustered while we carried on in mild

amusement. Then it was just too much. Nelson was whisked away and insanity returned

him to his cell. It took a bit of time for me to return to my state of meditation.

It was the closest I came to Buddhism.

Bribery and corruption?

We were still cut off from access to newspapers and radio. So it was with pleasure

when we heard that we now had a small radio smuggled in for us with the help

of Bram Fischer. This was the second one and since we were now a small compact

group we could listen to it at lunch time when we were locked up and alone.

We usually sat around the table with the radio turned on low and to preserve

the batteries we only listened to the news. As we sat eating and commenting

on the news items our warder suddenly appeared through the doorway between the

dormitory and the kitchen. There was a stunned silence. I sat with my fork halfway

to my mouth. Without so much as a moments hesitation Leon Levy, the President

of SACTU, and inveterate negotiator, said," Nice radio isn't it? We could always

leave it for you when we go."

The warder was taken aback. He took no action but after a moment left us to

our meal. Shortly afterwards I was released, so I never heard what happened.

Certainly there were no charges brought as a result of our breaking the rules.

I was called into the interrogation office. It was off a circular central

hall with a tall roof. I was taken into three special branch officers. One sat

behind a desk and the other two stood nearby. They sat me down facing them and

one of them said. "Mr. Press, Why do you want to leave?". It was so illogical

and unexpected that whereas I was usually very sharp and quick I was confused

into silence. Then I mumbled something like "I want to go back to my wife."

There were no further questions, statements, or other illogic.

I was to be released and they agreed to phone my wife to pick me up next day.

I was up early and did my packing. My books, clothes, and my overcoat. In the

pocket I stuffed one of the small pressed steel basins that usually held our

fat or sugar. I had to have a memento. Down one of the sleeves I inserted the

walking stick that I 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 prison gates, keys, an assegai, a knobkerrie, and two prison

bars. The knob of the stick was made from one of the wooden feet of an iron

bed. I had burnt out a hole in the top of the broom handle and wedged the knob

in. It bears the signatures of the five of us left at the time of my release,

Rusty, Joe Slovo, the Rev.D.C.Thompson, Leon Levy, and myself. Well, I was ready

to go. The warder came in and said my wife would be coming and did I want to

wait. There was no way that I could cool my heels within the prison walls. I

said good-bye and all agreed that they would soon follow me out. So there I

stood outside the heavy prison gates. It was sunny but cool. I had successfully

smuggled my contraband and I was no longer surrounded by walls and bars. While

I was standing there looking silly a large truck drove up . In it were the African

comrades returning from court. They greeted me cheerfully and I still feel the

embarrassment, the strangeness of being on the outside waving to my comrades

returning to the inside.

On the way out

Soon enough Sibyl arrived, she was self-conscious, happy, anxious, large in

the belly, leaning backwards, and very pregnant. Estelle was born on the 14

of September 1960. Like all good males in the sixties I was at home asleep when

it all happened. I saw Estelle the next morning. She was a small crumpled thing

with a squashed purple green nose.

I was soon back in the Union office only to learn that, in spite of Don Mateman's

efforts the Executive had only agreed to continue my employment if I took a

cut in salary from the œ60 in 1959 to œ35 per month. We were so hard up at one

time that we agreed to sell Sibyl's wedding ring. We got œ11 for it. Sibyl had

up to now worked from time to time but the arrival of our daughter made this

difficult. We were loath to have a nanny because I felt the employment of others

changed one's self for the worse. What could I do? It was true that I could

not fully perform my duties being banned and confined to Johannesburg. I now

had a wife and child. I also was not in essence an office worker or office holder,

I was a scientist always curious, always experimenting. The road of least resistance

lay before me. I looked for employment in my profession as a chemical engineer.

It was not so easy. I had resigned from the South African Chemical Institute

because they refused to allow a Chinese student of mine to join, she was a "non-European."

During my research for my doctorate I had had a reference in Japanese. I traced

a Japanese business man to the posh Carlton Hotel. He was classed as a European

although they had been the enemy during the war. The Chinese had been on our

side against fascism. Very strange? So I had no contacts in the academic or

industrial world. I looked in the usual places and got a number of interviews.

Every time I had to first write to the Special Branch asking for permission

to go for an interview. Wait for the permission that they were usually quite

agreeable to give me. Then the usual questions and probing. How could I account

for four years of my life as a full time trade unionist? I invented a business

of my Father that had gone broke. Generally the bosses were either so thick

or perhaps turned a blind eye.

At about this time my father had a heart attack and after a long two months

died in much distress in hospital. Schlesinger took over all the hospital expences

and Dad received the best of treatment. On reflection I am not so sure that

what they did was for the best. Perhaps they were ignorant but they instituted

all kinds of treartments which prolonged his life but made the lingering deathlonger

and more unbearable I re-member him in bed having had a stroke and being non

responsive to the family but suddenly smiling when we held Estelle up for him

to see.

Working at my profession

I got a job as a plant chemist at the South African Pulp and Paper mills in

Springs. I think they knew about my political activities but were still prepared

to employ me. For a short while we lived with my mother in Jo'burg and I commuted

to Springs. We tried to sell our house but this proved so difficult because

of the political situation that we just gave it to the mortgage company and

moved to Springs.

Financially we were much better off my salary having risen to over £160 per

month. I had my father's car an Opel and all his tools. I was banned and now

confined to Springs. In any event there was still a possibility for me to do

some political work. I was transferred to a Communist Party group formed around

Lewis Baker in Benoni. He was a long time communist lawyer who was also banned.

The third member of our group was a comrade Mavuso. He lived in Springs and

was active in as far as it was possible in the now banned ANC that had yet to

begin the readjustment to underground activity. He was very small in stature

and very lively. He was clearly well known and he told me that when necessary

just to get in touch with any African taxi driver to give him a message. I once

had to do this when I heard that there were to be mass raids by the Special

Branch and he should be warned to clear his house of any incriminating material.

I drove down to the taxi rank and went up to the first taxi in sight and said

I had a message for Mr. Mavuso. The driver immediately knew whom I was referring

to and was quite willing to act as messenger. Mavuso was a fish swimming amongst

the people.

A fourth member joined our group. He was a mine clerk. He had gray hair and

was a contact of the Party from the days of the Mineworkers strike in 1946.

It was a pleasure having him in our group. Sentiment perhaps but also an echo

from great struggles past.

At home I was unable to do much. My neighbour was typical. An African mineworker

came round one day and asked if he could do our garden. I readily agreed since

I was no good at all at growing things. I had proved this when I was in Norwood.

He asked for one and six a day. I said no that was too little he must have at

least half a crown. When the neighbor got to know about this he complained bitterly

that I was spoiling the Kaffirs. At work the whites were inaccessible because

they were politically not receptive, to put it mildly. Also because I was based

in the laboratory where we had little contact with the shopfloor workers. The

African workers were more political but even more difficult to contact. I do

remember however the long straight road from the mill to the town. At knocking

off time there would be a long line of Africans walking on the path at the side

of the road, and a string of African cyclists on the tarmac on the side all

dragging themselves back to the location. On the road in cars sped the stream

of white workers going back to their garden suburbs. It encapsulated in a single

snapshot the colour division in South Africa.

One day being driven home by one of my fellow workers who was a strong Nationalist

supporter we were talking about this and that when he said how much he wanted

more children but it seemed his wife could not. He wanted them because the Party

had urged the Afrikaners to assure the future of the White race. I could not

resist intervening. I asked him to sing the national anthem. He enthusiastically

launched into the theme and got to the part where it goes..."Ons sal lewe ons

sal sterwe, ons vir jou Suid-Afrika.." ( We will live , we will die for you

South Africa). I stopped him and said do you know that there are places in South

Africa where those words cannot be sung. He sniggered in disbelief. I said,

"If you are Black and live in a location you cannot sing that." We rode on in


The Party group met regularly and we had discussions on Marxism and on the

party programme and policies. Our activities were however limited. Lewis and

I were both banned and confined to our different towns. Mavuso and the other

African comrade were subject to all the problems of the usual apartheid laws

and so it was difficult for us to meet let alone act together. Whatever we did

was basically illegal. Even trying to live a normal life involved us in breaking

the law.

Lewis lived in Benoni with his wife and two children who were a bit older

than our child Estelle. We had a car so in spite of the ban we went to visit

Lewis on a Sunday to have tea, sun bathe and swim in their pool. It was good,

nay essential, to have friends and chat as normal human beings. He had a nice

house in quite large grounds. The living room had a deep pile red carpet with

grand settee and armchairs, coffee table and ornaments, spotless and neat, the

sort of room one would expect of a successful lawyer. We never sat in it. It

was for visitors and thank God we were not visitors but comrades. We sat and

talked and had tea in Lewis's study. A small crowded room full of papers, furniture

and unrelated bibs and bobs. It was homely and relaxing. Villa Lewis's wife

perhaps wished for something more akin to being the consort of a successful

lawyer but was resigned to being the long suffering helpmate of a persecuted

revolutionary. Lewis understood this and a modus vivendi had emerged which while

fully satisfying neither party did not stand in the way of respect and love.

This was a relationship not unusual amongst many couples involved in the struggle.

Religious connections

The Rev Thompson lived in Springs with his family so occasionally I went to

visit them and we had interesting conversations about the struggle and family

matters. He was a Methodist , an active opponent of Apartheid, and a friend

of the Soviet Union. I asked him if these contrasting ideologies were not a

problem. He then went into a long well thought out discussion how a belief in

God was not only consistent with Marxism and Dialectics but essential to an

understanding of it. He was it seemed part of a world wide group of priests

who understood and developed this approach to religion and democracy. Liberation

Theology was not a big thing then so perhaps this movement was one of its early


So quite often I broke the law, but sometimes in the course of duty. One day

the boss called me in and said that there was trouble at a mill in Ladysmith.

They made a form of softboard from wood pulp. It was supposed to be white but

occasionally it turned out a bright red. They had asked for the help of the

chemists at our mill. We would be going down for a few days to inspect the process

and decide a line of action. I was not sure that the boss knew what my legal

position was. If he did then he would not be asking me to go. If he did not

then I could not easily tell him without compromising my job. I decided to go

and take the consequences.

It was nice to get away. I had applied to the special branch on a number of

occasions for permission to go on holiday only to be refused again and again.

We went down by car and put up in an hotel. The first thing that confronted

me was a request to sign the visitor's book. This created another dilemma. I

had thought that if I proceeded carefully nobody would know that I had left

Springs but now I was being asked to supply irrefutable evidence that I had

broken my ban. I signed. The problem of the colour turned out to be due to certain

logs having present a strong red dye in the heartwood. The answer was clear

but the solution quite expensive. Still that was not my problem. Frankly that

was why I never made a good employee. I never could raise the slightest emotion

about the boss and his profit. The problem was interesting the economics not

my concern. We left for Springs a few days later and all my concerns about breaking

my ban were for nothing. Perhaps the Special Branch was more sophisticated than

I had thought. Perhaps they knew all about my trip but realised it was in the

course of duty to the system and this required that they do nothing about it.

Perhaps they thought I would reform given time.

I have my grave doubts that they had any compassion but they did exhibit intelligence

beyond the call of duty. Sibyl, Estelle and I had settled into a rented a corner

house in Fusion Road Springs. A month or two later a problem I have lived with

all my married life came to light. Estelle was a developing child with no problems

outside those normal to the well fed and looked after. I was not under pressure

at work and my political activity was at a minimum. Perhaps it was the reaction

to this relaxed state of affairs or to the after effects of childbirth but Sibyl

just stopped sleeping. For a week she never closed her eyes and slowly became

a sleep walker. This was no good so I shepherded her to our doctor. He almost

immediately diagnosed her problem as a mental one and made an appointment for

her at a specialist in Johannesburg who I gathered had treated her before.

There was no possibility that I could apply for permission to go to Johannesburg.

There was not sufficient time and I knew there would be a big delay before they

even considered my request. What could they do? Arrest me. Anyway if I applied

and they refused then what could I do? Well so be it. I got Sibyl and Estelle

into the car and went to see the specialist.

It seemed that the specialist knew all about Sibyl and had treated her before.

She suffered from schizophrenia. It was incurable. I was agitated and alarmed.

My immediate response to the specialist was that I was having none of the Freud

psychoanalysis nonsense, and I said so. He hastened to reassure me that the

treatment was by way of drugs. Stellazine was prescribed and she was on drugs

for the rest of her life. She was a bright intelligent loving wife but from

that time on she was never quite with it. Without the drugs her behaviour rapidly

became erratic. With them she was only half there. But that was how it was so

what could I do? If one's wife has all her faculties it is not an unequal or

unjust decision to separate but when one's partner is unwell, especially mentally,

then decency and loyalty demand fidelity. As Marx said freedom is the recognition

of necessity.

Well now that I was in Johannesburg illegally, now that I had done what I

had come to do, I phoned the Special Branch and told them. As I hoped there

was nothing that they could do under the circumstances. Perhaps it was because

the struggle had not reached the pitch of later years. I decided to look in

on some of my comrades and having found out that Joe and others were playing

tennis I went to see them. It was a pleasant reunion before going back to my

exile in Springs.

Technical matters

The struggle was also getting tougher. The ANC as well as the SACP were banned.

All legal avenues of protest were now almost impossible. The movement was being

forced to improve its underground structures and to consider embarking on the

armed struggle. This decision was taken in the upper regions of the movement

and we only heard about it later. It is in the nature of the beast that such

decisions cannot be widely debated. For me it was no great leap in to the dark.

It was clear that the opposition to Apartheid was getting restless. There were

reports and rumours of violent reaction to the brutalities of the police and

the state. I think my psyche is a contradictory mixture of left wing adventurism

and contemplative caution and cowardice and when asked I helped where I could.

This meant that technical matters became more important and since I had not

only technical training but was also experienced in making things I was more

in demand along these lines.

Some time before the banning when I was at an ANC conference in Lady Selborne

in Pretoria. The comrades called me outside and showed me some wires that they

said had just recently been strung from the telephone pole to the roof of the

hall. They were rightly suspicious since there was no telephone in the hall

anyway. Would I take a look. We entered the loft and with the help of a small

torch made our way along the rafters to the front of the hall where the platform

would be. There in the ceiling was an electronic valve with the wires coming

into it. Coming away from the electronics were a further two wires that ended

up in a small round disk held on to the ceiling with Plasticene. It was clearly

a listening device. If I had been more experienced in the politics of publicity

I would have suggested that we did nothing but immediately get in touch with

the press. I pulled the microphone away from the ceiling where it was covering

a small hole right over the platform. I pressed the Plasticene over the microphone

blocking out the sound and retreated back to the meeting. A satisfactory reply

to a rather crude Special Branch operation.

It was becoming more difficult to talk to the people so the movement started

to investigate the use of more adventurous methods. The use of radio broadcasting

was always a method being theorised about. The problems were not only technical

but also organisational. If transmitters were developed would they be heard?

If the populations have receivers, would they know where on the wave bands to

listen and when? The regime knew that broadcasting was a useful method of control

so they had installed a distributed sound system in Soweto. One could have a

loudspeaker in the house and have piped music and news. We attempted to break

into the system in the 1960's. We attached an amplifier with a tape recorder

to the speaker in one house and injected some music. A comrade listened in another

part of the township. He reported good reception. It was never followed up although

there was some talk of getting into the network at source with the help of sympathisers.

Later around 1970 when I was in exile in Bristol, I was asked to develop a

100MHz transmitter. The device was satisfactory up to a point but there were

no tests of the range or the reception. It was difficult without assistance

and with lack of enthusiasm again it fell flat. A few years later a supporter

gave us a transmitter to test. It seemed a good device though a bit large and

complex. Again we did not have the organisation to follow it up. Later when

a request came for it to be looked into again the supporter had been lost track

of. Organisational backup was always a problem. Sometimes it was the security

measures that defeated us. I was asked to make a radio receiver that could be

smuggled to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. At that time they were denied all

communication with the outside world even newspapers. The idea was to have the

receiver in a pen and have one of the Red cross visitors get it to Nelson. It

worked well. The pen was sent down to Lusaka where it was tested. The SABC came

through loud and clear. Doc Dadoo was chuffed with it. Unfortunately our contact

could not pass it to Nelson and the project failed.

Radio Pen for Nelson

In Jan 1990 the whole question was raised again but this time we were in a

better organisational position to use such devices. I was living in East Finchley,

London by now. A person in the Netherlands had made a prototype for us and I

reproduced four of them for evaluation. We tested them and they had an output

of about 8-9 watt. Things were easier now since Tim Jenkin, a comrade in exile

with me at the time, could help. When he phoned me from Finchley Central I set

the transmitter going in the flat in East Finchley, for a short time with music

from a tape recorder. He phoned me back saying that the music had come through

loud and clear. He then traveled further to Whetstone when we repeated the procedure.

The distance was now about five miles which was quite sufficient. The transmission

frequency was approximately 100MHz but was not stabilised by a Xtal oscillator.

The reception could thus drift in and out of tune. We sent them to people back

home who were in a much better position politically and organisationally to

assess their usefulness. I understand that during the immediate period prior

to the elections in 1994 it was tried in the field. Now of course Nelson not

only listens to the news but broadcasts our messages over the SABC.

To return to the late 1950's I was gaining a reputation of being of use technically.

Rusty had also once called on me to fix a wax stencil Gestetner duplicator used

for producing illegal leaflets. It was in the cellar of a house of a sympathiser

near to Rusty's house. Now in Springs, Jack Hodgson got in touch with me and

asked me to make some devices that could be used to set off explosives. This

was just prior to the start of the armed phase of the struggle. I still had

most of my Fathers tools and so I set to work. There was the well-used device

of concentrated sulphuric acid eating through a sheet of paper and then dripping

onto chlorate or permanganate. I set about trying it but I was never happy with

the system. It seemed so indeterminate. The acid strength was difficult to control

and the paper thickness and type was critical. Electronic timing devices were

not so easily available in those days and certainly the technology was not so

well-known to our comrades. I made a device based on a simple kitchen timer.

It was a question of gluing a rod onto the dial and onto the base so that the

two touched after a set time. It was simple, inexpensive, easily made from readily

obtainable everyday articles. Insert. A battery, some wires and an electric

torch bulb completed the device. The doctoring of the bulb was the most difficult

but I learned later that a gas lighter was substituted for the light bulb and

the device became widely used with MK. I devised some other methods such as

a spring-loaded sugar cube which when the sugar dissolved in water set off the

charge. These more sophisticated devices never caught on.

The Special Branch still undertook raids and I was still on their list. They

came for me one day at work and took me home to see what they could find. It

was shortly after I had sent off my experimental devices to Jack. I had by now

learned that there was nothing one could do so the best thing was to relax.

Some years earlier I had been raided. It was my first time and I was "all shook

up" as the song goes. When they left having taken a series of documents and

books I sought comfort and comradeship. I got into my car and drove off to the

Bernsteins in Observatory. They had a large house with a swimming bath and a

long drive up to the front door. I drove up through the gates alongside the

hedge only to see a black car parked in front of the garage ahead. I parked

and walked towards the front door. In full view through a large bay window was

Rusty lying on a couch reading a book. The front door was open so I brightened

up and got ready to unburden my fears and distress. There in front of me was

a member of the special branch whom I immediately recognised. He was carefully

going through Rusty's bookshelf. I had the presence of mind to turn on my heels

and disappear. The special looked up but I was gone.

This time I stood relaxed in the yard of our house in Springs while they scrabbled

around but I was clean with nothing of interest. Then one of them came up to

the leader of the raid and showing him a small white plastic bottle said, "Sergeant

what is this?" He sniffed it and turned up his nose, "It's nothing." It was

the bottle in which I had stored the sulphuric acid. But how was he to know?

The raid however did my wife's health no good. Fortunately the boss did not

take it amiss and it did not affect my employment.

I was now in a difficult position. My wife was not able to face the strains

of an ordinary life let alone the problems of a husband involved in the struggle.

I had to carry a much larger burden. Society was at the interface between the

necessity for political change and the refusal of the society to accept it.

It was decision time again and reason indicated that the era of my usefulness

was at an end. If anger and emotion had played a larger part in my decision

making processes I may not have thought of leaving South Africa. If I personally

had been humiliated or beaten up, if in my or in my immediate family's history

there had been a traumatic event wrought against us by the Apartheid system

it may have been different. My life had not been fashioned by great swings in

love and hate, beauty and horror, it had been one of even emotions and reasoned

decision making. I was not so much in love with my wife as loyal to her. In

loyalty to the movement I asked the party if I could leave. I had discussions

with Eli Weinberg our party group's contact with the centre. He told me that

my request had been discussed and agreed. He said I should not feel bad about

it since it was considered the best decision under the circumstances. The departure

of others had been agreed to (one I knew about was Percy Cohen). There would

be others. He foresaw the time when even he perhaps would have to leave.

I began my preparations and booked our passages. The boss spoke to one of

the directors of Wiggins Teape a paper concern in the UK. They in South African

Pulp and Paper, had clearly found me worthy of my hire. The Myford lathe was

sold for a song. I packed what tools I could and prepared for the cold in the

UK by buying a warm pullover. I remember I bought it on tick and I still have

to settle that account. There was an eight foot copy of Guernica by Picasso

that I could not take away with me so I gave it to one of the chemists with

the hope that it would arouse some political thoughts. I had a huge pile of

classical 12 inch records which together with a long wall mirror I gave to Comrade

Mavuso. He was so pleased because he said he at last could show his wife that

he did get something out of the movement. It should assuage her complaining.

In the midst of these preparations our group got a message that there was to

be a leaflet distribution publicising the first MK actions on the 16/12/61.

It was a week before my departure date. We had a meeting. Lewis could not help

distribute, Mavuso and the other comrade were also unable to help which left

me. It was decided that I could not do it alone especially so near to my departure

date. That was my last Party meeting in South Africa. It prompted me to sell

the Opel Cadet car that I had inherited from my father. I was sure the market

would slump after the first MK explosion. This was my first and only attempt

at insider trading.

My passport had been taken away from me prior to the Treason trial so I applied

for it's return and this was refused. They instead gave me an exit permit which

made it illegal for me to go back to South Africa. This was in February 1962.

We had to travel by train from Jo'burg to Cape Town to pick up the Union Castle

boat there. In Johannesburg there were a number of my friends to see us off.

Don Mateman was amongst them. He had to get into the station via the "Non-European

Only" entrance and then walk along the platform to join us. I was so pleased

to see everyone that they must have thought I was delighted to leave. Was it

a meeting or a parting? Many were to join us in exile in later years so it was

perhaps but an interruption in the flow of life. It was to be over thirty years

before I returned.