Born on 7 August 1929 in Johannesburg to Mary and Mark Levy, immigrants from Lithuania, Norman Levy and his twin brother, Leon (a founding member and later the National President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions [SACTU]) were the youngest of four children.

Levy attended the Yeoville Boys’ primary school and Athlone High School in Johannesburg and matriculated in 1946. He became an activist in his early teens, joining and participating in the Young Communist League (YCL) and, by 1946, in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).  

After the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act and the dissolution of the CPSA, Levy continued to participate in African National Congress (ANC) campaigns against the unjust laws that led to the Defiance Campaign in 1952/3 and against the introduction of Bantu Education. He was also involved in the initial meetings that led to the formal founding of the South African Congress of Democrats (COD) in 1954. By the time the COD was formally launched Levy had also been recruited into the newly revived South African Communist Party (SACP); he was part of an underground unit that included Rusty Bernstein, Ruth First, Cecil Williams and Rica Hodgson.

In April 1954, Levy assisted in the conference which ultimately led to the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). When the Bantu Education Act came into effect in April 1955, Levy, along with Helen Joseph represented COD on a regional committee of the African Education Movement (AEM). Their aim was to begin to set up Cultural Clubs which would provide a temporary alternative to Bantu education for the African children whose parents had heeded the African National Congress’s (ANC) call to boycott government schools. Levy also became prominent in the campaign for the Congress of the People in 1955 at which the Freedom Charter was adopted. In 1957 Levy went on to work for the National Consultative Committee (NCC) that had been formed to enable the various congresses to consult together, serving as its first secretary from 1957 to 1960. 

Because of his involvement in the struggle, Levy’s flat was raided by the police, and in December 1956, Norman and his twin brother, Leon, were arrested, taken to Marshall Square, and then transported to the Old Fort in Johannesburg where they were detained with 154 others prior to what became known as the Treason Trial. As a result, Levy was suspended as a teacher by the Transvaal Education Department until his acquittal along with 61 others in December 1957.

Now free, Levy married Philippa Murrell in February 1958. Together they had 3 children – Deborah, Simon and Jessica Helen (named after her god-mother, Helen Joseph). The marriage ended in divorce in 1974.

In January 1960, Levy left teaching and began to study for a degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. When the 1960 State of Emergency was declared after the Sharpeville shootings, Philippa was detained, but soon released as she had been arrested under regulations which had not yet been published in the Government Gazette. Philippa and the children spent the duration of the State of Emergency in Swaziland while Levy intermittently commuted from Johannesburg to Mbabane until the State of Emergency ended in August 1960. The family then moved back to Johannesburg.

Levy continued to work in the movement’s structures until his arrest on 3 July 1964 under the 90-Day Detention Law. He spent 54 days in solitary confinement at Pretoria Local Prison where he was repeatedly interrogated over three sessions of “standing torture” lasting 102 hours. His interrogation ended only when Peter Beyleveld, the banned Chairman of the Congress of Democrats and former President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), divulged his and many others’ membership of the Communist Party.

The trial of ‘The State vs. Bram Fischer and Thirteen Others’ began on 16 November 1964 at the Regional Court in Johannesburg. Along with Esther Barsel, Eli Weinberg, Lewis Baker and Ivan Schermbrucher, Levy pleaded not guilty.  However, eleven of the defendants, including Bram Fischer (who had by this time gone underground) were found guilty and, in April 1965, Levy was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Six days before his release on 11 April 1968, the government renewed banning orders prohibiting him from work, meetings, participating in politics and social gatherings. 

Prevented from working in his profession and restricted in his movements from dusk to dawn, Levy was forced to take his family and go into exile to the United Kingdom. 

In England he lectured at the Bromley College of Technology and in 1972 became a lecturer in history at the Middlesex Polytechnic (later renamed Middlesex University) where he taught until his return to South Africa in 1991. In the interim, he was awarded a United Nations fellowship for study at the London School of Economics and earned a PhD in Economic History.

In 1979 he joined the ANC’s London Education Committee (LEC) where, as the ANC’s education officer, he secured scholarships for students from the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SAMFCO) in Tanzania, and also for students in the “front-line states.” He gave a series of seminars and workshops to South African trade unionists that had been brought to Zambia and Zimbabwe by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). He was later commissioned by the ANC and ILO to undertake a study of population, education, manpower distribution and skills training in South Africa, to be used by the ANC government in the post-apartheid South Africa.

From the early 1980s onwards, Levy was active on a number of levels: in 1987, he was part of an ANC team that travelled to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to meet with Soviet social scientists. He became the Chairperson of the South African Communist Party's (SACP) Committee for the United Kingdom and Europe, a position he held until 1991. He attended the seventh Congress of the SACP in Cuba in 1989 and took part in a conference held jointly by the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in Harare in March 1990. Before returning to South Africa, he represented the newly unbanned SACP at the Fete de L’Humanite outside Paris, France.

In April 1991 he returned to South Africa to work in Durban on the transformation of the Public Service. He designed affirmative action frameworks for the Labour Relations Forum of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) – guidelines for “best practice” which were the first to be applied in the major cities ahead of the 1994 democratic elections. As head of the Community and Labour Studies (CCLS) at the University of Durban Westville, Levy together with a team, created programmes that successfully trained interns to fill senior positions at various departments of provincial and local government. In 1991 Levy married Carole Silver, an author and Professor of English Literature.

Appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1996 to the influential Presidential Review Commission (PRC) for the Transformation of the Public Service, he together with Dr Vincent Maphai, co-authored the Commission’s report and served as the PRC’s Deputy Chairman. At this time he moved to Cape Town, where he became Professor Extraordinary at the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape. Between 2001 and 2002 he directed a survey on Intergovernmental Relations which became a significant source of reference for Local Authority governance.

Before retiring, he served on an inter-ministerial committee of the Classification and Declassification Review Committee (2003-2004) charged with placing apartheid documents in the public domain. Soon after, he headed a ministerial task team on Balancing Secrecy and Transparency in a Democracy and edited a book by that name for the South African Academy of Intelligence in 2004. Levy continues to write and speak at conferences and forums at home and abroad.

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