Price of liberation

2010-10-27 00:00

SEVERAL political biographies of varying quality have been published this year. One that is particularly good but seems to have slipped under the radar is Lynn Carneson’s biography on her parents.

Red in the Rainbow: The Life and Times of Fred and Sarah Carneson has hardly received a mention by reviewers, yet it can be commended on a number of levels. When South Africa’s liberation history is fully recorded, the Carnesons will emerge as key figures.

Nelson Mandela described them as “a dynamic couple whose names will live beyond the grave.”

The Carnesons were committed members of the Communist Party, hence the title Red in the Rainbow. They were under constant surveillance by the security police, and both were banned and endured spells in detention.

Despite this they continued to play an active role in the underground structures of the liberation movement. Fred, who was one of the 1956 treason triallists, was the business manager of the now iconic Communist Party newspaper New Age. Sarah, whose parents were founding members of the South African Communist Party, was a leading trade unionist.

The author is brutally frank about the toll that being part of the struggle took on her family life. Without sentiment she captures the pain her family endured. There was her parents’ troubled marriage, her sister’s nervous breakdown, the torture her father endured at the hands of the security police and his subsequent imprisonment.

Yet for the Carnesons there was no alternative but to live true to their convictions. This is what ensured that their spirit was never broken  and  the  couple   remain- ed committed revolutionaries throughout their lives, including years of exile. There is a lovely part in the book describing their return to South Africa and an amusing account of this elderly white couple getting around Cape Town in the minibus taxis.

Of interest to local readers will be the fact that Fred grew up in Pietermaritzburg in the 1920s and 30s, part of a large white working-class Catholic family. His father worked in the railways and the family lived in the Mayors Walk area­. Fred won a scholarship to study at Maritzburg College but had to leave high school after a year to help support the family. He once said that he learnt about communism from a book on Western philosophies that he borrowed from the then Natal Society Library. He joined the Communist Party when he was 16 years old and while living in Pietermaritzburg.

Nalini Naidoo


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