Ray (or Taube, her Yiddish name) Harmel was born in Lithuania in 1905.  Strongly influenced by some of her six brothers, she joined the-then illegal Lithuanian Communist Party.  She eventually had to flee the political police and escaped, via Germany where she was detained for six months for illegal entry into that country.  In 1928, Ray arrived in South Africa, with little formal education and no English, although she was fluent in Yiddish, German, Lithuanian and Russian.  The only skill she had acquired was at the sewing machine, and so her life as a seamstress began, at first in a so-called sweat-shop. The Depression was about to set in, and  for a long period, she and a fellow immigrant with whom she shared a room, survived on sharing a loaf of bread for a week.

Ray soon joined both the Jewish Workers' Club, a socialist organisation, and the Communist Party of South Africa.  She also became an active member of the Garment Workers' Union.  She served for many years as a shop steward in the various factories in the 'rag trade' - or garment industry - in which she worked.  She soon became engaged in bitter fights within the Union.  Solly Sachs, then Head of the Union, favoured a policy of racial segregation of facilities - separate lifts, separate washrooms, and so forth, for black and white garment workers.  Sachs believed it was the only way to woo increasing numbers of white Afrikaner garment workers into the union. Sachs was ultimately ejected from the Communist Party for that policy.  Ray, utterly opposed to any form of discrimination, was often the public target of personal attacks on her by Sachs for her stance.  She tried valiantly to persuade leading Afrikaner women, like Anna Cornelius, to join her in oppoosing Sach's policy, but with little success.  Cornelius ultimately became a National Party Senator.  

In 1940, Ray married Michael Harmel, then District Secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa.  She continued her trade union activities in spite of threats - and in some cases these were carried out - by her bosses to fire her.  Michael Harmel worked for most of his life as a poorly paid member of the Communist Party, leaving Ray as the sole breadwinner for her family. But Ray was a born fighter, and never succumbed to intimidation.  When one of her bosses offered her several perks if she would cease 'inciting' her fellow workers, Ray angrily rejected his attempts to bribe her.  At times jobless, she would turn to making children's clothes to earn a living.  In 1958 when Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikezela, he asked Ray to make her wedding dress - now seen in their wedding photgraphs, wedding, which were taken in the Harmel's home, by Eli Weinberg.  Thabo Mbeki, then a young student in Johannesburg, was a frequent visitor to Ray and Michael's home.

Eventually Ray left factory work and opened a small dress shop in Bree Street, above street level.  In the early 1960s, hers was the first dress shop in which black women could try on garments before purchasing them.  At this point the political security net was drawing tighter around struggle activists. Shortly after her husband Michael was placed under house-arrest, the by-then illegal South African Communist Party instructed him to got to London to continue his editorship of the Party's (illegal) quarterly journal, the African Communist.  In 1963 Ray followed him into exile where they were both also actively engaged in the British Anti-Apartheid movement.

Ray Harmel died in exile, in 1998, at the age of ninety-two years. She never ceased her support of the African National Congress and the Communist Party.  Never one of either of those movements' luminaries, Ray always accepted whatever role she could in the service of both organisations. She worked in the ANC's London offices, doing menial tasks, alongside many, like Gill Marcus and the Pahad brothers, who later took leading roles in the post-1994 government.  At her funeral, Cheryl Carolus, then High Commissioner for South Africa in London, noted that Ray had been one of those women  who had so early in the struggle laid down the groundwork for future generations of women.  Apart from those who knew her well, as a fierce fighter, as an untiring, and by no means an easy woman, dedicated to racial equality and the rights of working women, Ray remained an unsung hero of the struggle. 

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