Amy Rietstein (now Thornton) was born in 1932 in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape). Both her parents were actively involved in the struggle, and it did not take long for Thornton to follow suit, taking part in her first campaign in 1948 when she was just sixteen years old. She worked with the Communist Party of South Africa (now known as the South African Communist Party (SACP)) as well as the Springbok Legion, a progressive organisation made up of former soldiers who had recently returned from fighting against fascism in Europe, campaigning against the National Party (NP) during the 1948 general elections.
In 1950, she joined the Modern Youth Society (MYS), which was a progressive youth movement made up of mostly university students. It was through MYS that Thornton got involved in night school literacy classes for African workers at the docks in Cape Town. In 1952, when the Congress of Democrats (COD) was founded, Thornton was appointed secretary of the Joint Congress Committee, which included the COD, the African National Congress (ANC), the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC), and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC)
In1953, as part of the South African delegation to an international youth organisation called the World Federation of Democratic Youth which was held in Bucharest, Romania, Thornton travelled to Romania as the representative of MYS. In the same year, she joined the SACP, which had since gone underground (it was banned by the Apartheid government), where she actively campaigned against the Group Areas Act and Bantu Education Act. Furthermore, she was also involved in study classes held in informal settlements around Cape Town, namely, Blouvlei and Elsies River.
In 1955, Thornton was part of a delegation that was stopped by the police in Beaufort West on its way to Kliptown, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng). She was a delegate from Cape Town to the Congress of the People, however, when the police stopped them, they were detained over the weekend, which meant she could not make it to Kliptown.
When the Treason Trial began in 1956, Thornton served on the Treason Trial Support Committee. That same year she was one of the organisers of the historic 9 August anti-pass laws women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. In addition, she also did voluntary work for the Guardian newspaper (as well as its successors, as every successive title was banned one after the other); she did research and managed the editorial work for the publication.
She was banned for the first time in 1959 for two years, but this was extended multiple times until she eventually served a total of fourteen years under banning orders. Part of her banning order meant that she was not permitted to be involved in anything to do with any educational institution – consequently, she lost her job as a nursery school teacher. Moreover, she was not allowed to attend any social gatherings, had to report to the police every week and was restricted to the magisterial district of Cape Town, greatly restricting her movements.
In 1976, after getting married and having four children, she started working for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union part-time. In 1981, she became a founding member of the United Women’s Organisation (UWO), which she also served as the deputy chairperson. Later, this organisation was one of the key organisations in the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. The UDF was instrumental in organising consumer boycotts and stay-aways and it played an important role in bringing about a fundamental change in the country’s political landscape. Thornton was appointed as a patron of the UDF in 1983 and was among those who were detained during the two states of emergency.
She was also a member of the ANC regional leadership in Cape Town and served on the National Coordinating Committee for the Return of Exiles between 1990 and 1993.
She was recognised for her unwavering commitment to the liberation struggle, devoting her life to achieving a free and equal South Africa for all, with the National Order of Luthuli in Silver in April 2016. This award, which is one of the highest that the country bestows on South African citizens and prominent foreigners, is given to South Africans who have contributed significantly to the struggle for freedom, the advancement of democracy, nation-building, human rights, peace, justice and conflict resolution.
Thornton’s contribution to numerous organisations throughout her career of activism played a notable role in the movement for liberation in South Africa. Her bravery, like so many other women in the face of the struggle, is an inspiration to all South Africans. She is now retired.
- 1001 SA Stories South Africa. (2016). Amy Thornton, [online video], Available at: https://youtu.be/MDL4EHT7OXo. (Accessed on 21 May 2020)
- Mohedeen, N. (2016). Mount View gets into the spirit of Africa Day, [online], Available at: https://www.athlonenews.co.za/news/mount-view-gets-into-the-spirit-of-africa-day-5219557. (Accessed on 21 May 2020)
- South Africa. (n.d). Amy Thornton- South African Women Activists Celebrated, [online], Available at: http://southafrica.co.za/amy-thornton.html. (Accessed on 20 May 2020)
- South African Government. (2016). President Jacob Zuma: 2016 National Orders Awards Ceremony, [online], Available at: https://www.gov.za/speeches/president-jacob-zuma-2016-national-orders-awards-ceremony-28-apr-2016-0000. (Accessed on 20 May 2020)
- The Presidency. (n.d). Amy Rietstein Thornton, [online], Available at: http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/amy-rietstein-thornton. (Accessed on 20 May 2020)