Sheila Weinberg was born in Johannesburg in 1945, the daughter of Eli and Violet Weinberg who were both members of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Her father was an anti-apartheid activist, photographer and trade unionist.
Together, the Weinberg family made a significant contribution to the building of non-racial democracy in South Africa. In 1929, Weinberg’s father came to South Africa from Latvia, after the First World War and the Socialist October Revolution of 1917. In 1932, he joined the Communist Party of South Africa and from 1933 to 1953 he was active in the trade union movement in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
By 1948, when Weinberg was three years old, her father was restricted from carrying out his trade union work and supported the family by taking up photography. From 1953 onwards, he was placed under further banning orders. He could not be a delegate to the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955, so took photographs from nearby houses. Weinberg, then only seven years old, attended this historic event. When the State of Emergency was declared in 1960, both of Weinberg’s parents were banned and her father was detained for a period of three months.
Weinberg was involved in her parents’ activism from an early age. She painted slogans and was involved in ANC and SACP activities after the organisations were banned in 1960. Both parents suffered periods of detention and exile for their political activities and during this time the young Weinberg was looked after by another activist, Helen Joseph.
In 1964, Weinberg was detained for the first time and held at the Johannesburg Fort prison under the 90 day Detention Act. At 19 years old, she was the youngest detainee in South Africa at the time. With her mother in a cell close by, Weinberg was held for 65 days and released without charge. She later served a jail term for painting a pro-ANC slogan on a public building.
Weinberg’s father was later arrested together with Bram Fischer, detained for seven months and imprisoned for five years after a lengthy trial over Central Committee membership of the banned SACP. On his release in 1970, he was banned and put under house arrest for five years. In 1964, her mother was called upon to serve on the Central Committee of the SACP. In November 1965 her mother was arrested and interrogated non-stop for 70 hours concerning the whereabouts of Bram Fischer.
Weinberg had a brother, Mark who was deaf as a result of head injuries sustained in a car accident while a young child. He died in 1965, aged 24. Both their parents were in jail at the time so the responsibility of dealing with his death rested on the shoulders of 20 year old Weinberg.
In 1976, Weinberg was served with a banning order that restricted her to Johannesburg and confined her to her home at night, on weekends and during holidays. At the time, she was secretary of the Human Rights Committee which based its objectives on the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote a bulletin detailing apartheid repression but it was banned in South Africa.
In 1976, at the height of the Soweto uprisings and at the ANC’s bidding, her father left for Tanzania. He was later joined by her mother and they lived in Dar es Salaam where he died in exile on 18 July 1982. Weinberg chose to remain in South Africa with her young son, and her mother returned to South Africa in 1991 after the bannings of political organizations were reversed. She died a few years later.
In February 1977, Weinberg was accused with fellow activist, Jeanette Curtis (later Schoon) of breaking their banning orders by speaking to each other, and not long after this she was convicted of 'attending a pre-arranged social gathering’. She was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, which was suspended for 3 years. She appealed against her conviction but although the Transvaal Division of the Supreme Court reduced the sentence, it upheld the conviction.
In 1983, as a leading member of the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (Jodac), she popularised the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the liberation movement in her constituency. In the 1980s, Weinberg was also central to the activities of the Transvaal branch of Black Sash and the 5 Freedoms Forum – all dedicated to building broad support for the liberation movement among the middle class and activating White resistance to apartheid.
Weinberg was also a founder and a Board member of the Administrative Training Project, which provided training and support to civics, trade unions and the UDF in the 1980s. Her work for the Henk van Handel Trust is also significant in this regard. In addition, she was a founding member of Friends of UDF, which raised funds for the UDF when it was restricted.
Until the 1990s, Weinberg’s life was marked by bannings, police visits and attacks on her home. In 1996, she testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about the fire bombing of homes and interference with vehicles that had taken place against White activists such as herself during the apartheid years.
After the ANC was unbanned in 1991, she worked for the ANC's North East Johannesburg branch, which was later renamed after her father.
At her Norwood home, Weinberg would regularly accommodate those in need. During the Delmas trial, she visited defendants such as Mosiuoa Lekota and Popo Molefe, travelling three hours each way to take them food and books. Her son Mark accompanied her during school holidays. He was 11 years old at the time.
In December 2001, she helped lead protests with other South African Jews and Muslims during vigils to protest violence in the Middle East. The Johannesburg and Cape Town vigils were called by The Coalition of Women for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, to which she belonged.
Weinberg served as a member of the Gauteng legislature from 1994 to 2004 and took particular interest in emerging farmers in her constituency in Westonaria, and the rights of the disabled. After retiring from active politics after the general election in April 2004, Weinberg pursued her interest in pottery, and opened up a pottery studio in her home.
She later became involved in the More to Life Programme of the Kairos Foundation, a personal development programme which, in her own words, “enhances your sense of your own humanity, and hence allows you to relate in a more real way with others”.
On 11 November 2004, Weinberg suffered a brain aneurysm and died two weeks later. She was 59 years old.
Biographical contributions by Gail Nattrass, Mary Metcalfe and Charlene Smith | ‘De donkere kamer van Eli Weinberg ”“ Sheila Weinberg’ [online] Available at: www.vpro.nl [Accessed 26 August 2009] (link to site only)|‘Jews in the SA struggle’, address to 42nd Biennial Conference of the SAJBD Gauteng Council [online] Available at: www.jfjfp.org [Accessed 26 August 2009] |Sheila Weinberg [online] Available at: www.anc.org.za [Accessed 26 August 2009]