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Saraha Carneson

Sarah Carneson was tiny. Deep into her nineties she still had an impish smile and a cheeky glint in her eye that told you she was no push-over. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind but never in an aggressive or bombastic manner. To friends she would raise critical concerns over the direction of today’s ANC-led alliance. But her criticism was not that of an outside observer, nor was it ever tinged with the bitterness of former members turned apostates. She simply believed in her practical, down-to-earth way that the Communist Party, to which she still belonged, could and should be doing better. She was right.

Born Sarah Rubin in Johannesburg in 1916, her parents were immigrants. Her father Zelic was from Lithuania and her mother Anna from Russia. Zelic worked as a tailor and, unusually for the time, he employed Coloured and Africans along with whites as apprentices in the workshop in the backyard of the family home at 297 Bree Street. In later years Sarah recounted how “the house was always open. Everyday there would be about fifteen of us at the dinner table, comrades of my parents, students, artists, and unemployed.” She would also recall how in her school years she wrestled with the ambivalence of two worlds, the world of her family home where, later, regular visitors included Moses Kotane, and a very different whites-only, often bigoted world of school friends and their families.

When the Communist Party of South Africa launched in 1921, Zelic and Anna were founder members. Aged 15, Sarah joined the Young Communist League and at 18 she became a member of the CPSA. Later she would insist that she had thought twice about this, determined to make up her own mind and not simply follow her parents. Once she had decided, however, it was to be a life-time commitment. Sarah was thrown directly into practical work, teaching adult literacy classes to workers at the party night school.

For the next three and a half decades Sarah was involved in a whirl of organisational activity. She worked full-time for the League Against Fascism and War in Johannesburg, and then full-time in the CPSA Johannesburg office. In the late 1930s she moved to Durban where she was involved with the National Union of Distributive Workers, she was secretary of the Tobacco Workers Union, helped organise the largely Indian Sugar Workers Union, and served on the Durban CPSA district committee. Then in 1940 it was back to Johannesburg with another full-time stint in the CPSA office, followed by work in the People’s Bookshop.

In 1943 she married Fred Carneson, a fellow communist party member with whom she had worked in Natal. At the time Fred was a serviceman on leave from the North African campaign. With the war over, Sarah and Fred moved to Cape Town in 1945 with their first-born, Lynn. Fred was secretary of the Communist Party in Cape Town and in 1946 he was elected as a Native Representative to the Cape Provincial Council. In 1949 Sarah became secretary of the South African Railways and Harbour Workers’ Union with a majority African membership. Activism for the Carnesons had never been without harassment, but things were about to get a whole lot worse.

In 1950 the recently elected National Party government enacted its first piece of repressive legislation – the Suppression of Communism Act. Sarah and Fred were both listed as communists and in 1953 Sarah was served with banning orders. She was forced to resign from the Railways and Harbour Workers’ Union. Indeed, the banning order, as she remembered “listed a large number of organisations that I couldn’t be an office bearer or member of.” The list included the Peace Council, the Federation of South Africa Women, the Congress of Democrats, and the Guardian Cooperative. Even the South African Institute of Race Relations and The Christmas Club were listed. In 1956 Fred was one of the 156 arrested in the Treason Trial, and Sarah put her energies into a fund-raising committee for the families affected. The Carnesons now had three children, with John and Ruth being born in 1950 and 1952.

Things became tougher and tougher. Fred was to be detained no fewer than 60 times over the years. In 1960 Sarah was detained for six months during the state of emergency and was forced, as she put it, to “foster the children out”. In 1965 Fred who had been on the run was arrested, badly tortured, held in isolation for 13 months and finally sentenced to five years nine months. Sarah was now under house-arrest in the family home in Oranjezicht. The family savings were frozen, the house was bugged and there were constant raids. Sarah tried to make a living by running the home as a guest house. The security branch bribed and threatened guests and staff to inform on Sarah. At one point shots were fired at the house, narrowly missing John’s head.

In 1967 Sarah was again arrested for a breach of her banning order. With the threat of a ten-year jail term if she breached the banning order again, and with the pressures of social isolation and the effects of stress on the children, Sarah finally went into exile in the UK in 1968. There she worked in the trade union movement and in the financial department of the Morning Star newspaper. On his release in 1972 from prison, Fred joined the family in London.

Sarah and Fred returned to South Africa and Cape Town in 1991 and remained active in their local ANC and SACP structures. Fred died in 2000.

Earlier this year at the ANC's 103rd anniversary rally I was seated near to Sarah up in the stands of the Cape Town Stadium. Sarah must have known she was probably attending her last ever public rally. The venue was overflowing with some 50 000 ANC supporters from all over the country, most of whom, I imagine, would never have heard of Sarah Carneson. As I watched Sarah, I was thinking about the dominant version of the so-called South African rainbow miracle, the fable that South Africa's breakthrough to a non-racial democracy in 1994 was the work of two or three individuals. Someone got a message down to the podium on the field. The loudspeakers announced that a 98-year old veteran of the struggle, a Sarah Carneson, was in attendance. "If not for her and people like her, we would not have a non-racial society", the loudspeakers said. The live TV coverage cameras scanned the crowd but couldn't find Sarah. It didn't matter. She was content to be among generations and generations of South Africans, young and less young, black and white. Things might not be perfect in the new South Africa, but an amazing struggle journey had nonetheless been waged. And not in vain.

Sarah Carneson, born Rubin, died last Friday in Cape Town aged 99.