Esmé was as active as I was and we enjoyed working together. One of our early activities was helping to organise non-racial youth camps over the Easter weekends of 1954 and 1957. We felt it important for young people to be able to be together in defiance of the wrongful laws and regulations against such natural solidarity. We felt that people were going to have to defy these laws and if we could detach whites from supporting the apartheid system we would help the process of liberation from racism. Simultaneously, all of us, of all races active together, were learning how to organise, how to mobilise, and how to get people to stand up against their oppression. I fear that sometimes we better-off whites thought we should be a “ginger group”, getting people to stand up for themselves, to bear the brunt of the government’s response to protests and defiance of the system. In our defence I have to say that we were trying to realise in practice the growing militancy of the ANC as it shook off its petitioning and sometimes passive response to segregation, now in its intensified apartheid form.
In the Modern Youth Society we would go out selling the weekly New Age, (originally the Guardian newspaper, then under names like the People’s World, Clarion, Advance, or whatever the newspaper was called after its various bannings.) We would go door-to-door trying to get whites to support Congress policies. They would take one look at us and slam the door in our faces. When the Coloured Peoples Congress was formed, we would go out with them into Athlone, an area on the Cape Flats declared a Coloured group area. We carried on knocking on doors, trying to sell the newspaper and engage in discussion. Many people said they supported General Smuts, whose photograph from the war years was still on their walls next to a photograph of the British King and Queen. They still had the vote under Smuts; not so under the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, while the response to Congress was generally quite unfriendly.
So we set about trying to unite people. We also held night classes for working people to become literate - and politically literate: all activities that would raise awareness, or consciousness and solidarity. This was an area of political activity where George Peake had come along before me. He became a leading trade unionist in the Building Workers’ Union. Under apartheid separate trade unions had to be formed for white and Coloured workers. It was not illegal for black workers to form trade unions but it was illegal for them to bargain collectively under apartheid labour laws. George played a leading role against segregation in his union, insisting on the age-old and valid policy of workers’ unity, especially within a single industry. Together with Ben Turok, Mary Turok, Amy Rietstein (now Thornton), Albie Sachs and many others we tried to live out our opposition to apartheid and the increasing racial separation of people. And about this time the Modern Youth Society folded. I think it died as we grew older and the oppression intensified. Among the things I was doing then and later was to reproduce leaflets and make posters, the practical things that made the words of other members accessible to the public. Only much later did I write a few pamphlets. One in particular that I remember working on with Esmé compared the Nazi race laws with those of apartheid. We leafleted audiences at a film about the Nuremburg trials.
Having failed to complete my studies at the first go in 1953, I went to work for an engineering firm where I’d worked during each of my summer vacations. The first time, at the end of 1950, I earned a pitiful wage but I did, in the process, learn what it was like to have to get up early and work long hours in a design office. One or two of the older men were helpful in teaching me the details of structural steel construction. Now, as an almost-graduate engineer, I earned a reasonable wage, yet when I asked for a Friday afternoon off in April 1954, to get married, they insisted I take a week’s paid holiday, even though I had been there only a few months and had no leave due to me. This was fortunate: it enabled Esmé and me to be full-time organisers of our first Modern Youth Society Easter weekend camp for 300 young people of all races
This first MYS camp at Easter 1954 was important for Ez and me. Just married, celebrating our wedding and spending our honeymoon organising a political event, we were always excited and very tired. Married loving was free and careless and Esmé fell pregnant immediately. Our daughter Hilary, always Hilly, was born on 24 January 1955. That made things difficult because I was so often at meetings and Ez stayed home, very much alone, with our first baby. Then our son David was born on 24 November 1957. Like other families we found time to go to the beach to enjoy the beauty of Cape Town. We were always able to find beaches and places on the mountain where we could picnic with our friends and comrades of all races. It was great to see our kids playing together, eating butter-smeared mealies, the juices running all over their faces. But, in all honesty, I have to say that the burden of looking after the kids fell on Ez because I was always too busy. Yet I loved finding the time to read stories at bed-time to try and encourage them to catch my love of books. Again, in the daily rush of making a living, doing politics, being with the family, there was time to decorate the children’s bedroom; make nice birthday parties and take the kids to visit their friends. Sometimes I stayed home with a bunch of six or seven kids, children of our comrades, while Ez went with the mothers to some political event.
I could manage a few hours of interest but then my mind would wander to “grown up“ things and I was amazed at how the mothers found the patience to keep their minds and conversations going at the level of their immature children for hours and days and years on end. It upset Ez that I found it hard to wake up at night when the children cried because they needed their nappies changed or they had colds and could not breathe easily. She said I was not helping enough, but it was simply that I could not wake up.
Besides being active in the MYS I had also become active in the local branch of the Congress of Democrats (COD) which was founded in 1952 as the ANC wanted a grouping to invite whites to become part of the Congress Alliance. In Cape Town we coordinated the activities of COD, the ANC, the South African Coloured People’s Congress (SACPC) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) through Sunday evening meetings of our “Joint Executive Committees” or JEC. Comrades like Zoli Malindi, Bernard Huna, and Reg September, Oscar Mpetha and other comrades who were in touch with many people through their organisations led the strategic planning of protests in the years of the intensifying apartheid legislation of the 1950s. We did not stop the laws from being passed but we did build our mass organisations. Clearly the ANC was the leading organisation, which led to problems in the Western Cape. Barney Desai and some others felt that Coloured people should lead in the Western Cape because they formed the majority of the population there. Some of us, myself included, argued that the ANC was the leading organisation across the country because the deepest exploitation and greatest oppression was of African people, therefore they should lead. If Barney or others felt that the Coloured People’s Congress should be the acknowledged leaders in the Western Cape because of the historical population composition, they would have to win it by correct policies and hard work among the people. Most of us said political leadership was not a gift from above: it came through activity and policies that won the support of the people. That was our standpoint – and it wasn’t always popular.
Fund-raising was another constant problem. Even though we had no paid officials we had to pay for printing leaflets, hiring halls and so on. And organising parties: those jolly defiant events where people of all races could, illegally, entertain themselves together. Gradually we had begun to function more and more carefully; not, for instance, using a telephone because it might be tapped. What we were doing was not necessarily illegal but the Security Police constantly harassed us and we knew that they were building up their dossiers. They would go to employers and demand that activists be fired. If these were black workers they could then be ordered to leave the area because, once unemployed, they had lost their residence rights. So we tried to avoid exposing our activists and at least made the security police work harder for their information.
National Conferences of the COD were held during Easter long weekends in Johannesburg. The train journey was long, about 35 hours in each direction. But it was exciting to meet other members and be with comrades from the ANC and the Indian Congress. Every imaginable political topic was raised and discussed heatedly. Some members saw the COD as a socialist organisation rather than as an organisation allied to the ANC which wanted to liberate all non-white people and especially Africans, independent of their social class, from their oppression. It was really very difficult to unite these different tendencies and people and still maintain contact with banned comrades . The government sometimes acted outside the scope of their own laws. The courts declared that banning orders, on the grounds of some legal technicality, were invalid. The security police harassed banned opponents of apartheid but they could not always get judges to take their side. Progressive lawyers prevented the security police from riding roughshod over the hard-won democratic norms of our legal system. One such case, based on a legal technicality, allowed Chief Albert Luthuli, the banned President General of the ANC, to speak at a meeting organised by COD in Cape Town. We would not accept the right of the state to remove elected leaders of our political movements. The apartheid state also deposed him from his post as traditional leader of the Zulu people because he was an active opponent of apartheid. By his people and by us he was always recognised as “Chief”. In 1960 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first African to receive any Nobel Prize
In 1953 Professor Z.K. Matthews of Fort Hare University proposed to the ANC National Conference that a Congress of the People be organised to express the wishes of all our people in a Freedom Charter. This would point the way to a new constitution that would be democratic and inclusive of all our people in a non-racial political and legal system. The idea was adopted countrywide and organising committees were set up in many parts of the country. I was invited to join the Cape Town committee where Athol Thorne, who had great organising and political skills, was the chairperson. This was despite his being banned from political activity and that required great vigilance on our part not to expose him to the security police and get him sent to prison “for furthering the aims and objects” of an illegal organisation. Despite such restrictions, you did whatever you needed to do to carry out the campaign: speaking at meetings, explaining the purpose of the campaign, organising committees of residents and workers in factories or mines to spread the idea of the Congress of the People and what a constituent assembly would do and to challenge the apartheid government to accept humanitarian values as the basis of our society instead of political domination by naked force. The organising committee assigned me to organise in Loyolo location in
The apartheid government introduced a law allowing the Minister of Justice to ban people from political activity, from attending gatherings of more than three people, from publishing any material or working on a newspaper or magazine, for example. They would be immediately arrested if they were found taking part in any actions. That encouraged secrecy within democratic organisations that needed to operate openly. That made it difficult to recruit new members. They would often have the feeling that decisions were being made behind the scenes by people other than the Executive Committee they had elected. They were not wrong. But we on the other hand could not simply accept the unjust and arbitrary banning measures and denial of the rights of our members by excluding our banned members.
Simonstown. This was a squatter settlement in an old stone quarry, where people had built their shacks on the benches where the stone had been quarried. It was a terrible place. When it rained the water cascaded through their homes. Sometimes babies would get washed away. I don’t think today we can imagine how these people lived. There was no piped water, no sanitation, yet people found it better to live there than in rural poverty. The apartheid government wanted such settlements closed down and forced people to move into big locations or townships where pass officials and police could control the population more easily. Even though the conditions in Loyolo were so primitive, people wouldn’t move, didn’t want to move, because they would have to travel long distances and spend more money on bus fares to get to work. In addition, they would have to start all over again to build a shack. There was also resistance to government control over where they could live. I would go to this settlement every weekend to help organise the community who needed to get ready to elect their delegate to the Congress of the People and to collect little by little the money needed to cover the delegate’s costs.
At that time I was working on the railways as an engineering technical assistant. I spoke at a meeting one Saturday afternoon. The security police were there. On Monday I was fired. I was lucky. They gave me 30 days’ notice instead of instant dismissal. It was all done very secretly; nobody would admit that there was political interference, except one official, a personnel clerk, who told me that my file had disappeared, which meant there was something very politically secret involved. He insisted that I should not see him again. And of course I was not to say that he had told me what had happened. People feared for their jobs. I’m sure I was fired because I was organising for the Congress of the People. We did all we could to make the campaign a success: speaking at meetings, establishing committees in homes and factories to promote the idea of a Congress of the People as a Constituent Assembly and, of course, to attack the hegemony of the apartheid government.
The people of Loyolo elected a young woman as their delegate. At the last minute her father objected to her going to the Congress of the People. He sent for me to explain why she was not worthy of representing the community. She had had a baby, he said. It was not unusual for unmarried women to have a child and we all knew about her baby. In my youthful enthusiasm I failed at first to understand her father’s objections. He was a traditionalist and she was a modern woman in the city. He objected to her not bringing the child home to the family to be looked after. He had only just heard that she had the child and that it was being cared for by a foster mother who was also the baby’s wet-nurse. Slowly I grasped that it was that he felt robbed of his grandchild, not that the baby’s father was not known to the family. I could not shake him. The people’s choice of delegate was overruled and she did not go. Ironically, our chosen delegate from Loyolo was saved from a weekend in jail by her father’s decision. The security police stopped our truckload of delegates from the Western Cape and held them in jail on some transport technicality to prevent them from getting to the congress. On 25 and 26 June 1955 some 3000 delegates from all over South Africa gathered at Kliptown in Johannesburg. On the second day the apartheid police raided the congress to cut short this “provocative” event. However, the Freedom Charter had been adopted and it became our political compass for the next 40 years until apartheid was defeated. It lives on in its influence on the Constitution of the new, democratic South Africa, adopted in 1997
The Freedom Charter was a marvellous document that really captured the voice of the majority of our people. The mass of the people actively participated in drawing it up and that makes it quite unusual because such documents are usually written as manifestos by a small group of political thinkers who set down what they think the people should have! The opening words of the Charter are stirring: We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people….
The ten clauses of the Freedom Charter proclaim what was necessary to create a society that would be inclusive of all our people, thus challenging the exclusivity that existed under apartheid. Line by line the sections of the Charter define in broad terms the opposite of the inhumanities of apartheid in a quite poetic political statement. In brief this historic document said: “The People Shall Govern!” All the people must be free to elect their representatives, and not just the white minority. That would already begin to change our social, political and economic reality. It meant that all laws based on race, or on national groups would have to be removed from our laws so that “All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!” Unless all could have equal rights how would we be equal? Economic exclusion had to be overcome and so we had to ensure that “The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth!” A great deal of controversy arose over this clause. Did it mean nationalisation of all factories and mines, for example, or no private property, or other ways to include the excluded majority in the mainstream economy? It was left open for debate without driving away any particular tendency.
The theft of the land by the colonial conquerors was a particular sore point among the African people who demanded that “the Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!” Africans were prohibited from owning land and were low-paid agricultural workers or share croppers. So this was a crucial demand. But did it mean distributing state-owned land, buying land for redistribution, cooperative farms or seizing all the land for collective farms or state farms or restitution of land? Again, this was left open for future debate and decision. Black South Africans and Africans in particular were ill-treated by our laws and our legal system and they demanded that “All Shall be Equal before the Law!” This and the next clause are logical consequences of equal political, social and economic rights. Judges and presiding officers often presumed black people to be guilty before they had even heard the evidence because a white policeman had charged them and that was sufficient. There were also special laws affecting each national group to the detriment of African people in particular. The pass laws were the most notorious. To achieve this new South Africa our people said “All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!” to organise, publish, meet to form political parties and the like. Equality must mean that people can earn a living and not be excluded from the economy by laws and regulations and thus the demand was that “There Shall be Work and Security!” The economic system deliberately both excluded Africans from the economy and included them in controlled ways to ensure cheap labour in the mines, on farms, in industry and wherever workers were needed to do menial work. This had to change.
Social security payments for the elderly, the infirm and incapacitated would have to be paid to all and not only to a minority. Education is a key requirement in a modern society and therefore “The Doors of Learning and Culture shall be Opened!” All our people had to have equal rights to education and not separate education systems with great inequality for the oppressed because without education the other rights to learn and earn and develop one’s talents could not be realised. Languages and culture had to be treated with respect because without that there can be no dignity. The squalor of urban slums and rural poverty had to be overcome and so “There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!” The enormous inequalities that compelled millions of people to live in awful conditions would also have to be overcome so that the historically oppressed would not forever live in shanty-towns. But also the right not to be arbitrarily raided by the police was demanded. Despite all the harshness of life under apartheid and its denial of dignity, our people said “There Shall be Peace and Friendship!” Our people wanted to live in harmony, based on mutual respect and dignity and an end to the domination by apartheid South Africa of its neighbouring states.
The final words: Let all people who love their people and their country now say, as we say here: THESE FREEDOMS WE WILL FIGHT FOR, SIDE BY SIDE, THROUGHOUT OUR LIVES, UNTIL WE HAVE WON OUR LIBERTY .
These ideas have been the driving force of my life. How could I take part in organising the Congress of the People, which produced such a stirring call to realise such a wonderful vision, and then not continue to be involved? Our Congress Alliance organised thousands of political education classes to explain the meaning of our collective vision for the future. The whole campaign and its follow-up work was exhilarating and created a direct challenge to government. Membership of the ANC increased and its leadership of the oppressed was clearly established, even though the Pan Africanist Congress, under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe, broke away because they said they objected to the words “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. They said it belonged to Africans only. It was strange that many essentially white organisations and groups supported the PAC against the ANC which said that they have the right to live in this country. I believe it was more about Cold War attitudes and anti-communism that led them to this position, as well as a clause that said “the people shall share in the country’s wealth” that frightened them.
At the beginning of December 1955 the apartheid government arrested 156 people, including almost all the leaders of the Congress Alliance organisations and charged them with high treason. A Special Prosecutor, Oswald Pirow, was appointed to lead the State’s case. Pirow was not only a right-wing Afrikaner nationalist, he had been a pro-Nazi activist in the time of the Third Reich. In a trial that lasted four years all the accused were found not guilty. Nelson Mandela really came to the fore at that time. He was the main witness for the defence and explained the policies of the ANC with outstanding clarity and conviction. Large sums of money were needed to pay the lawyers in the defence team and to sustain the accused and their families for the duration of the trial. Understandably our fund-raising was in itself a highly political activity to mobilise mass support for the Congress Movement. The “Stand by our Leaders” campaign was an outstanding success. Hundreds of thousands of people attended rallies to show their opposition to the apartheid government that found the Freedom Charter a revolutionary threat. I was sadly disappointed by the young white professionals who had been my classmates at the University of Cape Town, a supposedly liberal institution. They refused to give financial support for the defence of the accused. The lawyers among my former fellow students said that the accused must be guilty because the government said so; and since the government also said the accused were communists my former friends refused to contribute to the costs of a legal team. The usual social democratic and liberal belief in the assertions of “innocent until proven guilty”, and the rights of an accused to a proper legal defence by trained lawyers, plus the duty of lawyers to provide that defence, had no influence on these people who would have said they were liberal in their political beliefs. They were particularly hostile to any whites who were involved in the liberation struggle of black South Africans, saying that all the accused should be hanged. I wonder what they felt when the last of the accused was acquitted.
Patrick Duncan, a leading member of the Liberal Party in Cape Town rather opportunistically tried to woo elements who were once close to the Unity Movement. Kenny Hendrickse lived near me in Lansdowne and he became Patrick Duncan’s Kremlinologist for the Liberal Party paper Contact. Kenny’s opportunism was based on both of them being strongly anti-communist, anti-Soviet, anti Congress of Democrats (the White group in the Congress Alliance) and therefore very anti-ANC. In Kenny’s case this was all predicated on a Trotskyist view of the struggle in South Africa being determined by capitalist oppression of the working class with no place given to the national struggle. Another element among Trotskyists in Cape Town included Kenneth Abrahams. He later married a Namibian woman, Otillie Schimming, They were the first to distribute a SWAPO news sheet in 1961. They were among the first members of SWAPO and belonged to the political wing of SWAPO in exile. They left SWAPO in 1963 and joined SWANU and then SWAPO-Democrats. They moved even further away from their original beliefs ending with views akin to those of Emil Appollus, as Kenny Hendrickse did by joining Patrick Duncan’s team.
For Kenneth Abrahams, Kenny Hendrickse and other Trotskyists their attitude to Congress was sometimes crudely stated as: the Congress movement always leads the people to defeat, but if one day we should be successful in overthrowing apartheid, then they would join us. We were not impressed by their attitude. To protest against the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Congress called for a country-wide “stay at home”. The Unity Movement actively opposed the call by Congress. “Boycott” was their weapon yet now they were boycotting the mass movement! When South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth before it could be expelled for its racist policies and laws, Prime Minister Verwoerd called for a referendum on a new Republican Constitution. The issue for the ANC-led Congress Alliance was not that South Africa would be a republic, but that the basic premise of the new constitution was that there would never be equality between white and black in church and state. Of course there was racism built into the Union of South Africa Act, the British law that established the status of South Africa in 1910. But this new constitution was a direct rejection of the growing demand for a one-person one-vote system of full equality, expressed in the Freedom Charter.
Instead, this was to be a white South African Republic. The ANC called for a stay-at-home and the Unity Movement in Cape Town issued leaflets calling on people to go to work. Again they were boycotting the mass movement. We thought this was the most terrible betrayal. Many Unity Movement members also saw the absurdity of campaigning on behalf of the apartheid government and joined the Coloured People’s Congress. It also signified an ideological shift in the relationship of the Coloured People’s Congress and the ANC and Communist Party. The relationship of the Indian People’s Congress and the ANC was also moving to greater cooperation. All of these things were going on at the same time.
At the end of 1955 I returned to university to submit new laboratory and design theses and was awarded a BSc degree in Civil Engineering in December of that year. In 1957, at the invitation of my comrades, I joined the South African Communist Party without any hesitation because it had a fine record of resistance to injustice in South Africa. It seemed to me to embody an understanding of both racial oppression, in the form of national oppression, and the relationship with economic exploitation. This came in a complex set of laws, social practices and instruments of control of the population – together with apartheid’s over-arching and awful belief in racial superiority that sanctioned a grossly inhuman system. The newly re-organised Party was functioning again, having dissolved itself in 1950 ahead of the coming into force of the Suppression of Communism Act, which made it an illegal organisation. I was excited to become part of it. And, as I describe later, in 1961 I joined the underground liberation army allied to the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, MK for short, (Spear of the Nation) to take part in the armed struggle against apartheid.
We can survive prison
First experience of prison 1960
The ANC had planned a massive anti-pass campaign to take place in 1960 but, in the midst of a heightened political atmosphere, the PAC jumped in ahead. On 21 March 1960, 20 000 people protested against the pass laws at Sharpeville and in neighbouring townships 50 kilometres south of Johannesburg. The peaceful demonstration mounted by the Pan Africanist Congress ended in a massacre. Police killed 69 Africans most of them shot in the back, and a further 180 had bullet wounds. In Langa township in the Cape that same evening, three people were killed and scores wounded when police opened fire. A general strike of African workers ensued. Chief Luthuli, President-General of the ANC, called on the people of South Africa to observe 28 March as a day of mourning, resulting in a massive stay-at-home and protests throughout the country. Whites were in a panic and the government declared a state of emergency on 30 March when 30 000 African residents of Langa marched on Parliament which was then in session. This effectively led to the immediate suspension of the normal workings of legal guarantees against arbitrary action by the police and then to the Unlawful Organisations Act under which the ANC, PAC and other organisations were banned: declared illegal.
Police and military units surrounded the townships in major cities. In Cape Town we had a meeting of our Congress Joint Executive Committees to plan to provide food for the strikers who were holed up in the various locations (townships) around Cape Town. I was arrested with many others and held in preventive detention for four months. Removing the political leadership was the government’s answer to resistance to injustice. I returned home from that meeting on 30 March and was arrested at about three in the morning. I was taken to Caledon Square police station in the heart of the city and was joined by other comrades, among them Bernard Gosschalk and Gerald Goldman. When we were taken to the charge office the next morning to be properly booked in, the police sergeants shouted “Hier kom a klomp wit Afrikas!”: “A group of white Afrikas are coming through!” because we were a defiant bunch who shouted “Afrika!” (the ANC greeting, given with a clenched fist) at every opportunity. The black criminal prisoners who saw us coming did, I must admit, look at us as if we were mad.
The prison in Cape Town was grey and depressing. We slept on the bare floor and had to get used to the arbitrary behaviour of the officials regardless of their rank. On one occasion I was taken to the office of the head of the prison and noticed to my astonishment a black prisoner crouched in front of me under the officer’s desk, polishing his shoes. They also put a prisoner who was quite unknown to any of us in our cell. That dampened our conversations because he was without doubt there as an informer. During that 1960 stint in prison I saw for the first time the effects of sleep deprivation on a detainee. Johnny Morley-Turner, already in his 60s, appeared at the door of our exercise yard while we were on parade for morning inspection. He was grey under the skin, his clothes stained yellow with urine from the waist downwards. He appeared on the point of collapse. I broke ranks and went to support him, embracing him and taking him past my fellow prisoners on parade. The Sergeant’s jaw hung open and he angrily called to me. I ignored him and got Johnny to the showers, fetched him clean clothes, demanded hot water so that he could shave properly and washed his clothes for him. He had been forced to stand until delirious from sleep deprivation and his body functions continued. He seemed ashamed and I suspect that he had said more than he would otherwise have done.
After graduating in the 1920s from the elite Bishops School in Cape Town, Johnny had gone to Sandhurst Military College in Britain. From there as a young sub-lieutenant he had been sent to Ireland in the “Black and Tans” to deal with the uprising by the IRA in its quest for Irish independence. He learned about imperialism and colonialism and, Anglican that he was, he chose to become a Catholic to show his support for the Irish liberation movement. He was shot and wounded by men of the IRA who, on realising that they had shot a sympathiser, carried him to safety. He was invalided out and received a life-long military pension from the British.
Johnny’s experience opened his eyes to racial and economic oppression in South Africa. During World War II he insisted on joining the army, even though he was half-blind in one eye and over-age and still had a bullet lodged in his leg from the incident in Ireland. But he used his old school tie connections to join a famous Cape Town regiment, the Dukes, and saw service in East and North Africa. By this time he had become a member of the Communist Party, as the only serious party opposed to racism and exploitation in South Africa. He became a sergeant and led his platoon into action with a red flag at its head. That was the symbol of his total commitment to defeating the Nazis. His platoon wiped out an enemy machine-gun post and Johnny was “mentioned in dispatches” for his bravery. He trained his African troops, who were supposed to be unarmed auxiliaries, to use fire arms. His motive was clear: every bit of fire power was needed against the enemy and perhaps the men he trained would one day head a revolutionary army to bring freedom in South Africa
Of course, he was stopped from doing this because white officers hated the thought of armed black soldiers. Johnny later also joined the Springbok Legion, a progressive organisation of white soldiers, many of whom were communists. Johnny told me he had persuaded General Dan Pienaar (known as the “soldiers’ general”) to write the editorial for the first issue of Fighting Talk, their journal. Johnny was removed from active soldiering to become a guard in a prisoner of war camp where the Italian prisoners of war named him “sergenti sozialista” because he insisted they sing Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag) or the Internationale before they could be served their main meal of the day. I talk about him so much because he was an inspirational figure for whom no task was too menial if it would advance the struggle for freedom. He really tried to live his beliefs within the confines of a society that disliked dissent.
My mother was held during these post-Sharpeville detentions in the women’s section of the same prison as me and, because I was insistent about checking up on her health, they brought her to visit me. I think we both tried to outdo the other to say how well we were coping. I should not have worried so much. Sarah Carneson, who was with her, told me she was a marvellous companion who worked hard to keep up the spirits of the women she was with. Esmé was the one with the greatest burden of attending to the needs of both of us, for clean clothes and visits and a bit of pocket money. This became even more difficult for her as we were sent to separate prisons. She visited me in Worcester 130 kilometres from Cape Town twice a week and my Mum at Bien Donne, near Franschhoek, also twice a week, some 65 kilometres from Cape Town, and on different days. She also had to work to support our children. Esmé managed somehow to be cheerful and to look after all of us. She even found a way of getting news to me through a kiss when I found a small something popped into my mouth. Later, when I was back in my cell, it turned out to be a “newsletter” written in tiny writing with waterproof ink on paper enclosed in a waterproof tip of a condom. My friend and comrade Alf Wannenburgh had done the writing.
This was an especially sad time for Esmé. My brother and his wife told her they would not look after our children if she was also arrested. This led me to break from my brother who understood the nature of our struggle and yet was too afraid even to look after his niece and nephew if it should become necessary. What hurt even more, Esmé said, was that they were prepared to take in our dog. My brother also could not bring himself to visit Mum in prison, which would have given Esmé a bit more time to work and be free of long-distance driving. It was painful to refuse to have any contact with my brother. I simply ignored him and my sister-in-law when they came to take Mum to their home to mind their children when they went out. I suppose I should have told my brother why I rejected him then. Over 30 years later he and his wife wanted to know why, but I refused to discuss such old matters because they were too painful.
Esmé told me that she and Andra Goldman, Gerald’s wife, had had an amusing but stressful moment. The list of detainees was published in the press as required by law. However, our two names had been combined to be Denis Goldman (or Gerald Goldberg). They were reluctant to get the matter rectified, fearing that one of us might disappear. Esmé suggested that they share the one that had been named, but Andra protested that with her luck she would get the half that eats. All in all, we were a cheerful bunch in our prison. With us was Harry Bloom, a lawyer who represented the South African Non Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) in their attempts to get our country expelled from international sport because of its racist policies. He was a good companion and at first had the only book amongst us, an action thriller, from which he read a few pages aloud each evening to entertain us all. Harry was also a published novelist and was able to spend his days working on the manuscript of a second novel. There was an amusing situation too involving Jack Barnett, a noted architect, and his two staff members, the architects Bernard Gosschalk and Gerald Goldman, who were locked up together. Because Jack had government contracts to design a provincial library and a hospital, they were permitted to bring in their drawing boards and instruments to continue with their work. That kept the practice going and meant Bernard and Gerald could continue to earn their living.
For those who had to service mortgage bonds on their homes, being locked up was a very trying experience. They really feared they would lose their homes if they failed to pay on time every month. I am not sure how it was arranged but I believe the International Red Cross, through the South African Red Cross, persuaded the government to declare a moratorium on bond payments for those who were being detained under the emergency regulations. That was still a time when the local Red Cross was prepared to stand up to government to do its humanitarian work. They organised payments of small sums of money to needy families of all races. We organised political discussions, with Jack Simons as an outstanding leader. Some others, who shall remain nameless, were less pleasant companions. Everyone in prison has some or other habit that others will find irritating. Being in a communal cell with a dozen people together makes for many tensions. Some took out their frustration at being locked up by turning against their comrades because there is not much you can do against your guards. Not much else “happened” during that time in detention. We expected to be interrogated but few were and it seemed to be more about getting their records straight than seeking information, though some were tortured. We once went on hunger strike in protest at being locked up without trial. Bernard fainted one morning on getting out of bed. Ever since, I have doubted the ease with which characters in the movies pick up wounded companions. My experience was that they are like a dead weight and lack lifting handles! We were able to pass to our visitors a signed statement about the hunger strike. The report appeared in the press but unfortunately there was no way the leak could have come from the prison officers as the letter to the authorities was locked away in the CO’s office when it appeared in the daily newspapers. That put an end to contact visits. We spent the time reading, debating political policies and theories and exercising. I made toys for my kids out of the wood of fruit boxes and coffee tins and so the four months passed. We were released a few at a time. When I ask myself if that experience prepared me for my long imprisonment from 1963 onwards, I have to answer: “Yes and no.” Most of us realised that we could sustain being imprisoned and would continue with our activity against apartheid.
But prison after we were sentenced in 1964 was a different kettle of fish with much harsher conditions that went on for years and years - and the duration of the imprisonment certainly makes a difference, especially when there is no date for it to end, as with a life sentence, Some of our comrades left the country after the end of the State of Emergency because it seemed we were in for much stronger suppression of protest. In the early 1950s people spoke of South Africa under Afrikaner Nationalist Prime Minister D F Malan as “Malanazi state.” Now, ten years later it was becoming ever more true. Being banned from professional activities meant that they would not be able to earn a living. They felt they had no choice but to go, and some had been harassed enough. I am not too critical of them because I was beginning to feel that people give what they can of themselves at various times in their lives: courage and commitment are fluctuating things.
Take Sam Kahn, a lawyer, a communist, and a former Member of Parliament who was elected by black South Africans in the Western Cape Province to represent them in the “whites-only Parliament”. I recall him speaking at public meetings, tall, well-built and impressive, accompanied by Johnson Ngwevela, who was equally impressive and worked as Sam’s clerk, interpreter and political comrade. Sam spoke in English and Johnson in Xhosa with such mutual understanding that the two languages flowed together as in a simultaneous translation, with anger and humour being faithfully rendered and points made virtually at the same time. There were always debates about whether we should accept the token representation of Africans by a white MP. It was agreed to and I actively participated in the election campaign because Members of Parliament had a platform to expose the injustices of apartheid. Sam was an outstanding representative who spoke on every possible topic, getting daily headlines during parliamentary sessions on wages, the pass laws, on workers’ compensation and race laws such as the Group Areas Act, the Mixed Marriages or Immorality Acts. He always had something pertinent to say. He was expelled from Parliament in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act passed that year. He fled to Swaziland during the State of Emergency in 1960 to avoid arrest and from there made his way directly to London and exile. His wife Pauline, a medical doctor who had lived in our house when she was a student, left for London to join him when the emergency was over. Esmé and I went to say goodbye to her and their children on board the ship that would take them to Britain. I don’t think Pauline was too happy about leaving because she urged me to join her going into exile. She said I would soon be arrested and should leave. She offered to pay for my ticket if I just stayed on board. It was a tempting offer but Ez and I had discussed this previously and felt it would be wrong to leave when there were probably another three or four years of activity possible before the clamp down became too severe. We felt that we had come so far with our comrades and, as we’d come through the State of Emergency intact, we would stay. We got that estimate right: this was 1960 and I went underground in 1963, three years later.
What did happen to me after the detention was that I lost my job, thanks to the Security Police. At the time I was working for a construction company building the Athlone power station next to the Langa location in Cape Town. A bomb had exploded at my home shortly before the State of Emergency was declared. I believe it must have been done with the connivance of the Security Police who regularly kept an all-night watch outside. The explosion was reported in the press and a manager in the company I worked for expressed his concern that the workers on the construction site might be less productive because they would think of me, with my political beliefs, as too easy-going. My response was that they would respect me more and therefore be just as productive as before. On the day of my release I went to the construction site to see when I could start work again. It pleased me when just about the whole African and Coloured work-force downed tools to welcome me back. If the Security Police had locked me up then I was their hero. However our Chief engineer told me I had to see the Resident Engineer who on behalf of the owners coordinated all the many contractors and ensured with his staff that the work was of high quality. He had ultimate control over the works. The Security Police towards the end of my four months in detention had written to him to say that I was a security risk and should not be allowed to work there again because I might blow up the works. The Resident Engineer informed me of their confidential letter but said he could not show it to me. He then excused himself leaving the letter on his desk where I could easily read it. The Security Police cleverly established that the letter was “legally privileged” because they had been asked for their professional and official opinion as to whether I was a security risk. I thought about seeking damages through a court action and discussed it with Jack Simons. He said that if I sued the police the State lawyers would attack me as a revolutionary. To persuade the Judge that I had been prejudiced by the Police I would have to deny my deeply held beliefs about the right of oppressed people to win their freedom, by force if necessary, thus denying my opposition to apartheid and all my political beliefs in a socialist egalitarian society. To kow-tow to the apartheid authorities for the sake of damages in the form of money would make me a collaborator with their policies and even then there was no certainty I would succeed in such an action. I gave up the idea. My employers gave me alternative work for a limited time until I found a new job.
I was fortunate in those hard times after the state of emergency because I was able to find work in my profession. Generally there was greater harassment of political activists by the security police. Charles Mokholiso, who lived in the Khayamandi location in Stellenbosch and had worked for many years at a factory nearby, was an example. He was charged in the Treason Trial and found not guilty. His employers showed no loyalty to him and he was fired. I got him taken on at the construction site where I worked. The charge hand, a Coloured man who told me he was deeply religious and a deacon in his church, went out of his way to get Charles fired for being too old and weak to do the excessively hard work he gave him. I don’t think that this was a case of Coloured -black racism because the same man fired a Coloured worker whose hands were covered in blisters from working without gloves smoothing concrete and having to scatter cement on the surface. Instead of finding him alternative work, the charge hand fired him. It was near Christmas and the worker in desperation came to me for help. I was able to arrange medical care and wages under the Workmen’s’ Compensation Act, but when he returned to work, the charge hand without any compassion gave him the same task of working with cement when there were several other options.. Brutality takes many forms.
After I was fired, Jack Barnet introduced me to Basil Kantey, a consulting civil engineer, who gave me a temporary job working in Namibia on the preliminary work for the construction of 100 kilometres of road between Mariental and Assab. It was quite courageous of Basil because his work came mainly from government and there could have been repercussions. We would start work at 6am or earlier when it was cool until 11 a.m. when because of the light shimmering from the heat I could not continue. In those five or six hours we might see two cars, or a truck and a bus. Why build the road? Of course, as an engineer you know that once there is a tarred road there will be more traffic because driving is easier and economic development depends on roads for access. But it was also clear that these roads were being built on the route from South Africa towards the Angola and Botswana borders, or towards the border with Zimbabwe. The apartheid government wanted to be able to move police and military vehicles quickly. It was long-term planning by the apartheid state. They were also building the Hardap Dam at that time near Mariental. The attitude of the German contractors towards the contract labourers was outrageous. Racism at its worst, paying wages that no one could live on. I went to visit the site and one of their top engineers complained that the workers did not work hard enough and were stupid. I asked the engineer: if he were paid those pitiful wages, would he work? Of course he wouldn’t. But, he said, they had signed the contract! Well, they signed the contract because they were ordered to sign it. Interestingly, white South African engineers were better in their labour relations with Ovambo contract workers than the German construction company were. In the evenings, when I sat in the hotel having a drink, I would be verbally abused by South African commercial travellers. They said they knew (I wonder how) that I had just come out of prison and they knew my politics too. They said that I should know I would be among the first to die if the blacks were to rise up.
I designed a short stretch of road that ran through a military base at Cape Town’s former Wingfield airport. Driven there by a naval petty officer I and a Government Engineer passed without trouble through cursory security checks. Sitting in a huge aircraft hangar filled with military hardware we resolved security problems with an army Captain. Bends in fences had to be removed. Machine guns cannot shoot around corners so additional machine gun and searchlight posts would be required and that was expensive. Design alterations were agreed upon and he handed me a plan showing every detail of their security arrangements. I had to take it home but fortunately the Security Police did not raid our house that night. It was a relief to stash it away in the office files the next day. I became the Resident Engineer when construction started and had interesting security functions. The contractor needed a night watchman to stop military personnel from stealing tools from their encampment. Having arranged this with a naval petty officer, he insisted on showing me their security arrangements which were a seemingly complex arrangement of keys hidden in various obvious places when a hard kick would have broken down the door to their gun room. He offered me one of the automatic rifles so that he could show me how it worked. I kept my hands behind my back so that I would not be tempted to leave my fingerprints on the oily surfaces. Was he just being friendly as one “white man” to another or was he setting a trap? But not even the Security Police had that period of my work in their dossier. Such inefficiency we taxpayers were paying for!
On one occasion I had the opportunity to give the commander of the air force base a lecture on security when he complained that we were inconveniencing his men who repeatedly opened a security fence that we had to securely close at night. I relish the moment when as a member of the MK Regional Command I chastised an Air Force Colonel for his men’s lack of discipline. I was still working for Basil Kantey’s firm in 1963 when I disappeared into the underground. I can now reveal that I told him that I might suddenly have to appear to leave without warning but I assured him that my paperwork was up to date. Brought to give formal evidence against me in the Rivonia trial he simply said I had disappeared one day but did not say that I had done so previously when there was a threat of a police raid and I had to be “unavailable.” Cross-examined by Bram Fischer, he gave me such a glowing testimonial that Bram jokingly remarked I should use the trial record as my reference when looking for a job as an engineer.