Jeanette Levinson Carlson was born on 21 June 1929, in Muizenberg, Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape Province). She was the youngest of Israel and Rebecca Levinson’s six children. Her parents founded a predominantly Jewish boarding school in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng), Hillel College where she was raised. Carlson did not question the South Africa of her youth, given that she grew up in a privileged Jewish family who had black servants to perform all the menial tasks around the house.

In 1949, she qualified as a preschool teacher. Her first job was in Johannesburg with young black students who were from low-income families. Here she first encountered the injustices that black people confronted daily as a result of the white nationalist government’s imposition of apartheid on the country in the late 1940s. She saw the importance of questioning the apartheid government and became involved in the restoration of human rights for those denied their rights.

Carlson shared a lift with a woman who was carrying a cake. The woman told her that she was selling a cake to raise funds for the Black Sash who mobilised various silent protests against the apartheid government and its unconstitutional disenfranchisement of Black people– the sash symbolised the death of the constitution. Carlson joined the organisation and joined the weekly Black Sash demonstrations on the streets near the University of Johannesburg. Subsequently, she became the leader of Black Sash’s Johannesburg chapter,

In 1953, she married Joel Carlson, a lawyer who was one of the few lawyers who advocated for the rights of poor blacks, who were forced to work on farms as virtual slaves after being caught in cities without passes in the South African courts, and who was opposed to the apartheid state. He was at law school with Nelson Mandela, whom he later represented, and worked for Winnie Mandela, while her husband was imprisoned on Robben Island. The Carlsons fought the apartheid government for over twenty years, even as they raised their four children, Meredith, Gabrielle, Jeremy, and Adam.

Jeanette organised meetings, seminars, and advice centres for black individuals who were being harassed by the authorities. Her husband utilised political trials for exposing the various injustices such as the secret detentions, torture, and other barbarities under the apartheid state. He saved 37 Namibians from the death sentence for opposing South Africa’s jurisdiction over their country.

The Carlsons experienced harassment by the security services, received death threats, and were attacked. In 1971, their house was firebombed and they were forced to flee to the United States of America (USA). Joel was facing imminent arrest. He flew to Israel that night, while his family were given a month to leave or be deported. Jeanette was detained for questioning before she departed from South Africa, and she assured the security police that her family would never return. She stayed true to her word by never returning to the country. In 1994, Joel returned to South Africa as an observer of the first free elections.

They lived in Long Island, New York, USA.  Joel attained a position as an assistant district attorney in the borough of Queens. In 2001 he died of leukaemia. Jeanette continued with her public advocacy as an active member of Mothers (and Others) Against the Vietnam Draft and other non-violent resistance groups. She moved to Maryland, USA in 2017 to live with her daughter, Meredith Carlson Daly and her family.

Jeanette Carlson passed away on 18 August 2020, at the age of 91 years.

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