Born in Raguva, Lithuania on 17 October 1924, Esther Barsel (nee Levin) came to South Africa in 1927 when she was three years old. She and her mother followed her father to South Africa, settling in Middelburg, Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga), until 1936 when the family moved to Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng).
Barsel dedicated her life to the struggle of the South African people from an early age, joining the Young Communist League (YCL) at just fourteen years old. Influenced by a Jewish friend, Barsel also became a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) – later renamed the South African Communist Party (SACP). She would meet her future husband, Hymie Barsel (also an SACP member who would later stand trial with fellow activists like Nelson Mandela, Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo in the 1956 Treason Trial), while working as a secretary for the Friends of the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Their romance blossomed on the long train journeys they took together across the country as they spread the word of Karl Marx. They married on 4 December 1945.
Barsel and her husband were among the fifteen accused in the Bram Fischer Trial. In the early hours of the morning on 3 July 1964, without any warning, the couple (who were listed as communists after Hymie Barsel’s banning in 1950) was picked up by the security police at their home in Yeoville, Johannesburg, under the Suppression of Communism Act with the ammunition of the 90-day law. Without being allowed to make arrangements for their three young daughters – Sonia, Linda, and Merle – the children watched their parents being taken away and were left alone to fend for themselves. .
Barsel had been working tirelessly for the underground, serving as a link between the banned liberation movements and activists working openly. Consequently, she was detained and kept in solitary confinement. In an attempt to force the state to promptly charge or release them (it was common for detainees to be held for months on end without charge while enduring interrogation and torture), Barsel and the other women who had also been detained went on a hunger strike soon after their arrest. Barsel lasted for 35 days, while Pixie Benjamin held out for 49 days. Barsel was finally charged after being held for 53 days in solitary detention. Along with the others, she was charged on 26 August 1964 for her involvement with the SACP, which, at that time, had been forced underground.
On trial were Barsel, Bram Fischer, Ivan Schermbrucker, Norman Levy, Ann Nicolson, Eli Weinberg, Sylvia Neame, Florence Duncan, Mollie Anderson, Molly Doyle, Jean Middleton, Lewis Baker, Costa Gazides, and Paul Trewhela. Hymie Barsel was granted bail on the first day of the trial, allowing him to go home to his children who had been under the care of his sister and brother-in-law. He was subsequently found not guilty.
The unique thing about this trial is that it was the only trial during the apartheid era that had seven White women in detention. They were eventually sentenced to imprisonment at the Barberton Women’s Prison, which was notorious for its brutal treatment of its inmates, in 1965. Barsel was sentenced to three years’ hard labour. After her release, she was served with a banning order.
Following Chris Hani’s return to South Africa from Lusaka, Zambia, in 1990 after thirty years of exile, Barsel became his private secretary. She was deeply affected by his assassination and kept a keyring with his picture up until she died.
Barsel continued her active involvement in bringing about positive change to the people of South Africa up until near the end of her life. She remained committed to informing the youth about the struggle for democracy and workers’ rights and was regularly seen in action at the headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Even at the age of 81, in 2006, she was blogging information about the long-defunct Friends of the Soviet Union.
For Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations on 8 July 2008, Barsel was invited as a special friend to the private lunch – one of only 25 people to attend.
Madiba and Esther Barsel share a laugh at Mr Mandela’s birthday lunch © nelsonmandela.org
She played many roles within the movement, being a person who was willing and able to turn her hand, and heart, to any task. She committed her life to the liberation cause, and never faltered from it. This came at a cost to her family, however, as the constant harassment from the security police and alienation from their Jewish community robbed her children of a care-free childhood.
Esther Barsel died on 6 October 2008 in Johannesburg after being in a coma for three days. She was 83. News of her death was met with an overwhelming flow of tributes from comrades. One of these was Mandela, who sent a personal letter of condolence to the Barsel family which was read at her funeral:
Dear Merle and family
We have been deeply saddened by the loss of Comrade Esther. She dedicated her life to the struggle for justice in South Africa, and was a formidable and highly respected resource to the movement with which she was associated for so long.
She will be remembered as a great South African and a beloved comrade.
Please be assured of our support and solidarity during this difficult time.
N R Mandela
Barsel has been honoured for her invaluable contribution to the liberation struggle in various ways, including a twelve-foot portrait of her at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, captioned ‘rebel’, and an exhibition held at the Barberton Museum in which women activist prisoners and their experiences have been highlighted. Barsel’s cell is part of the museum as a memorial installation.
A life-long activist, perhaps the best way to sum up the philosophy that shaped her commitment to the liberation struggle is a quote she borrowed from Hashomer Hatzair (the Marxist Zionist youth movement), which is Chazak ve’ematz, meaning ‘Be strong and brave’. It is her strength and bravery, in the face of adversity, which allowed her to become an important player in the eventual dismantling of apartheid.
- Lubner, S. (2009). Comrade Esther. [online]. Available at: https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?m=7840&i=26970&p=1. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Naidoo, P. (2008). One of the forgotten stalwarts. [online]. Available at: https://www.news24.com/witness/archive/one-of-the-forgotten-stalwarts-20150430. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Nelson Mandela Foundation. (2008). Madiba mourns the death of Esther Barsel. [online]. Available at: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/madiba-mourns-the-death-of-esther-barsel. (Accessed on 4 March 2021)
- Nkosi, R. (2014). Female prisoners held during apartheid finally get a voice. [online]. Available at: https://lowvelder.co.za/547652/museum/. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Smith, J. (2008). Hani’s secretary was a brave fighter. [online]. Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/hanis-secretary-was-a-brave-fighter-419846. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Umjindi. (n.d). Female activist prisoner – Esther Barsel. [online]. Available at: https://www.umjindi.co.za/pages/menu/history/museum/exhibits/female-activists-prisoners/esther-barsel.html. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)