Obituary: Sarah Carneson, feisty communist harassed and exiled for her beliefs

08 November 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron


Sarah Carneson, who has died in Muizenberg, Cape Town, at the age of 99, joined what would become the SACP when she was 18 and from then on gave her life to the struggle against poverty, racism, injustice and inequality. She was born Sarah Rubin on June 17 1916 in Johannesburg. Her parents, immigrants from Lithuania and Russia, were Marxists and founder members of the SACP.She tried to read Marx's Das Kapital when she was 10 to impress her father and discussed politics with the great Moses Kotane, soon to be general secretary of the party, who was a family friend.She was "born involved in politics", she said, although such a life was not for the faint-hearted. There was never anything faint about her heart even if she did have a heart murmur, which kept her at home reading books while her sisters partied.story_article_left1At some point she decided to forget about her condition and live life to the full even if it meant dying young.Her Russian mother, Anna, was an astute businesswoman and so the family lived relatively well. But these were the years of the Great Depression and Carneson saw enough raw poverty to charge her batteries for a lifetime.After leaving school she worked full-time for the party in Johannesburg. When it ran out of money, she got a job with an organisation that offered correspondence courses. She soon realised how underpaid and exploited the staff - in this case white Afrikaans women - were, began organising them into a trade union, and was promptly fired.She decided that working with trade unions was the way to go. She started with the South African Railway and Harbour Workers' Union, where an old Irishman in the laundry department told her before he died that until she got involved in political work, her life was meaningless.In 1936, she was working for the People's Bookshop in Johannesburg, which sent her to Pietermaritzburg to buy copies of the Moscow News. She heard there was someone there who wanted to set up a Left Book Club and offered to help. He was a skinny 16-year-old by the name of Fred Carneson. She did what she could and then forgot about him.During World War 2 one of her jobs was to send books to the troops in North Africa. She received letters from soldiers asking for book lists. One of them was Fred. They began corresponding and in 1943 decided to marry.She was Jewish, he was Catholic, and her mother was furious. His parents were not at all happy about him marrying a communist Jew, either. His father hated Stalin, who he thought was as bad as Hitler.When Fred came back from the war he joined the national executive of the SACP and started bossing her around. She was only 1.5m tall but extremely feisty and independent. If he wanted to use her as a dish rag he could leave immediately, she said.When they discussed politics he would tell her she didn't know what she was talking about until she quoted Marx and Engels at him which, once he had looked up the quotes, kept him quiet for a while.When their first child was still a toddler she found Fred had been having an affair, packed her suitcase and walked out, leaving him holding the baby.A friend fixed her up with a UN job in Paris organising young war orphans. She returned to her husband after six months.Back home, the security branch also found she was no pushover. When the Suppression of Communism Act was passed in 1950 she and Fred were listed and became regular targets for harassment.They were served with banning orders for the next 14 years, their bank account was frozen and finding jobs to keep the family going was a serious challenge. He edited the party newspaper . She worked for the Cape Town Eisteddfod and ran a guest house at their large home (bought for them by her mother) in Oranjezicht, but the security police were constantly trying to scare away their guests or pressure them into spying on them.story_article_right2Meanwhile she campaigned against the pass laws and helped to organise the women's anti-pass marches in 1956. She helped the ANC organise strikes and mass demonstrations and knocked on doors to explain the Freedom Charter.A high point was having ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli to lunch.In 1960, soon after the Sharpeville massacre, she was arrested at 6am, leaving children of seven, nine and 16 at home alone because Fred was in hiding. She was held until the end of August. In 1965, Fred was arrested, held in isolation for 13 months, badly tortured (he never quite recovered) and jailed.She was hauled away from a New Year's Eve party in 1966 by six burly security policemen. After her trial the security branch warned her to leave the country or face a 10-year sentence if she broke her banning order again.In 1967 she was given an exit permit (meaning she couldn't return) and put on the SA Vaal to England.She had already sent her badly traumatised younger children to join their elder sibling there.In England she spent 15 years doing administrative work on the communist newspaper Morning Star. Fred joined her after his release in 1972. They returned to South Africa in 1991 and helped the ANC organise for the elections.Fred Carneson died of a brain tumour in 2000.Carneson is survived by their three children.

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