An unassuming veteran: Sheila Weinberg

Obituary by Raymond Suttner in The Mail and Guardian, 19-25 November 2004, p.36

Sheila Weinberg has suddenly died. She has been 'around' in the liberation struggle for decades. Growing up with politics, the daughter of Eli and Violet Weinberg, politics always surrounded Sheila and at an early age she was involved in illegal work, painting slogans and other activities after the banning of the ANC and SACP. She was one of the early detainees in the 1960s, held when she was 19.

Sheila endured her fair share of tragedy. During her childhood, her brother died in an accident. Both parents were detained and her father was imprisoned. Later both Eli and Violet were exiled, where Eli died. Violet only returned in the 1990s and was not well.

In 1974 Sheila gave birth to Mark, who she loved dearly and who grew up in an environment of house arrest and police harassment. Until the 1990s Sheila's life was always marked by bannings and police visits and attacks on her home. She bore all of this cheerfully and with humour. In the tense periods of repression during which Mark spent his boyhood, Sheila was both intensely involved and simultaneously able to relax and provide an environment of warmth, love and tranquillity.

A veteran of the struggle, a freedom fighter for many decades, Sheila never flaunted her 'veteranism' or 'seniority'. She never sought or expected to be rewarded or to be offered any particular position. All she wanted was to work for the movement to which her life was devoted and she was prepared to do so in the most difficult conditions as well as to take that work into the most relaxed situations.

When the ANC was banned in 1960, many people looked for reference points, people who could connect them in later years, to the struggles that preceded the ANC's banning. Sheila joined later generations to the rich history, which she had lived in her home background and in her relations with many of the famous figures who had been jailed or exiled or killed by the apartheid regime.

Sheila was one of the best known and most loved white activists. What is the significance of mentioning her being white? It has a special significance now, because many of the people who were struggling with her in the 1980s have retreated into dinner table recriminations or mutterings about how things have turned out. Others have emigrated.

Sheila was never uncritical of what was happening, but she was clear that what was required was a contribution, not carping. The new South Africa had to be built in various ways by all of us. It would not simply emerge on one day with our vote. It needed hard work of various kinds and Sheila was prepared to do that work.

She believed in and lived her non-racialism. Sheila took active steps to ensure its consolidation.

On a personal level she was a warm, caring and very kind person who could be counted on to be there whenever someone needed assistance. She will be missed. One cannot say that others will emulate what she did, for there was something unique and very laid back about Sheila's way of relating, of practising her political beliefs. But certainly others will learn from her selfless dedication and willingness to serve without thought for honours.

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