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Sarah Carneson: A lifetime dedicated to SA’s freedom struggle



At the ANC’s 103rd anniversary celebrations in January this year, Sarah Carneson – then 98 – was honoured for a lifetime in the struggle against apartheid. She died on October 30.

Carneson was born into a family of Jewish immigrants. Her parents, Zelic and Anna Rubin, were founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Sarah joined the Young Communist League at 15 and the party proper at 18. During World War II she was an active member of the League against Fascism and War and worked in the CPSA’s Johannesburg offices. In 1936 she moved to Durban, where she was involved with the National Union of Distributive Workers, the Tobacco Workers’ Union and the Sugar Workers’ Union.

In 1940 she returned to Johannesburg, married fellow communist Fred Carneson in 1943 and moved to Cape Town in 1945, where she later became general secretary of the South African Railways and Harbour Workers’ Union.

The couple were listed as communists under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and, by 1954, Sarah had been banned from all the organisations she was associated with and restricted from attending public gatherings for two years.

The CPSA had been dissolved and began reconstituting itself, underground, as the South African Communist Party. Fred, one of the party’s key organisers, was arrested and charged in the mammoth treason trial that began in 1956.

Sarah, in her own words, became “a single parent with three children”, but also helped raise funds to support the families of those on trial.

In 1960, however, she was detained for six months under the State of Emergency and had to “foster out” the children.

Sarah was soon served with harsher banning orders, which confined her to the magisterial district of Cape Town, where she was required to report to the police once a week.

In 1965, Fred was arrested, tortured, and kept in isolation for 13 months. “When he was arrested,” writes their daughter Lynn McGregor, “Sarah could not find out where he was in prison. She was banned, under house arrest and not able to move far … Their savings were frozen and she had to earn a living under constant surveillance … The house was bugged and constant raids and almost total isolation made life almost impossible.”

Fred was sentenced to five years and nine months in jail. Sarah saw him only once in the seven years between his arrest and her later departure from South Africa.

In 1967 she was jailed for contravening her banning order and a year later went into exile in Britain, where she worked in the trade union movement. She was joined there by Fred upon his release in 1972.

The couple retired in 1980, but in 1991, after the liberation movements were unbanned in South Africa, they returned to the country and campaigned for the ANC in the first democratic election of 1994.

Fred was elected as an ANC representative to the Cape Town metropolitan and Cape regional councils. He died in 2000.

The Carnesons’ lives and work feature in the exhibition Red in the Rainbow, showing until July 2016 at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town.

Information provided by Lynn McGregor and SA History Online

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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