Phyllis Altman was born on 25 September 1919. She went to Jeppe High School for Girls. As her mother could not afford university fees she accepted a loan from the Transvaal Education Department which was conditional on her teaching after graduation. While studying at the University of the Witwatersrand she took part in student demonstrations against the Greyshirts and the bulldozing of Sophiatown. After her undergraduate degree she completed an Honours degree in History. This was followed by a year doing a teaching degree at the Teachers’ Training College in Johannesburg. Due to her political activism, the Training College attempted to expel her and three others, however, due to her outstanding loan the Transvaal Education Department did not agree to the expulsion. After three years teaching at all White schools, Altman decided to quit teaching.
Altman’s political work continued with the Springbok Legion where she worked with ‘non-white’ ex-servicemen who returned from war to find the same social barriers in place. Altman and her husband moved to London where they lived for three years. It was during this time that she wrote The law of the vultures, based on her experiences working with the Springbok Legion. The book was published in September 1952 and was well received in Britain and South Africa. It was translated into French and Russian. However, very soon after a professor at the University of Witwatersrand labelled the book as subversive which resulted in many booksellers returning their copies to Jonathan Cape Publishers in London. The book was eventually republished in 1987.
When Altman returned to South Africa in 1956 she began working with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). She researched intensively the information she used at wage boards investigations, wage improvements and fighting for better for working conditions for the black workers in South Africa. Altman took part in the Women’s anti-pass demonstration which she wrote up for Fighting Talk. In 1963, despite not being a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Altman was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. As a result she was banned from her work on the factory floor and prohibited from entering a classroom or writing for a living. Altman left South Africa on an exit permit in May 1964.
In London she worked for the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) under Canon John Collins. When the IDAF launched Kliptown Books Altman worked as an editor. As the secretary-general of the IDAF Altman ran various secret operations to send money into South Africa to pay for lawyers in anti-apartheid cases. Altman also ran an operation to send millions of pounds to families of political prisoners and an education programme for Black Zimbabweans interned in camps. Her role in the IDAF became public knowledge when President F.W. de Klerk unbanned many anti-apartheid organisations.
Altman died in London on 18 September 1999. She was 80 years old.
Murray, S-A., 1988. “An Interview with Phyllis Altman” in English in Africa, 15(1): 97-105
The Guardian, (1999), “Phyllis Altman: Exiled campaigner secretly aiding the struggle against apartheid” in The Guardian, [online], Available at www.guardian.co.uk[Accessed 28 November 2012]
Shope G.N. (2002), Malibongwe, Celebrating Our Unsung Heroines, p 86.