TRIBUTE | 'Gregarious, charming and fearless': Labour court judge remembers her mother Joan Rabkin

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Joan Rabkin with her daughter Hilary Rabkin-Naicker. (Supplied)
Joan Rabkin with her daughter Hilary Rabkin-Naicker. (Supplied)

Labour court judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker remembers her mother Joan Rabkin who died in November, describing her as mischievous, charming and fearless. 


My mother Joan Rabkin (nee Ells) was born in Newport, Wales, in 1923, the eldest daughter of a Jewish family with roots in Poland. But it was to be in Cape Town that she and her sisters, Pat and Liz, spent their childhood. Joan arrived by ship during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The family eventually settled in Sea Point.

A very spirited young Joan attended Ellerslie school, where she was often reprimanded for bringing in sand from her early morning adventures on the beach. At fifteen, she met her future husband Gerald Rabkin. Both of them donned uniform in the second World War. While Gerald served in Egypt, Joan was stationed between Robben Island and Signal Hill. Joan's indelible mischievous streak meant that she remained at the rank of 'Bombardier’, a title we would go on to fondly apply to her in her plucky and intractable old age. After the war, she and Gerald married and had two children, my brother David and me. 

Move to London

Although she was counted among the white population, apartheid fundamentally affected Joan’s life. My parents decided to leave South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre. We settled in London, where Joan trained in group therapy and spent time as a therapist for the women incarcerated in Holloway Prison.

Although my parents had emigrated in the hope of removing their children from a sick society, this was not to be. My brother David returned to Cape Town with his wife, Sue, after he graduated. In 1976 they were arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act.

David was sentenced to 10 years in prison. During his incarceration, Joan and Gerald involved themselves in advocacy work alongside the parents of other political prisoners and assisted the ANC in whatever way they could. While I was unable to enter the country, they visited my brother in prison whenever permitted to do so, and took his children to see him there. Their home in Hampstead was an open house, and many activists sought warmth and hospitality there, including Ruth Mompati with whom Joan shared a strong bond and friendship on their return to South Africa.

David's imprisonment and his later death in 1985 while training in Angola with Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the loss of Gerald to cancer earlier in the same year, left Joan with enduring personal pain. But in time, her spirit and joy of life resurfaced and were indomitable. She returned from exile with me, my husband Pragasen, and our two small children in 1991.

Back in Cape Town, she found succour with old friends and comrades. She was fearless in the tense atmosphere of the times, insisting on being in the midst of the protests in Cape Town on the day that Chris Hani, who had given her support at her son's funeral, was killed.

For several years, Joan was active on the board of the Etafeni Playgroup Project, which was established in 2001 to care for vulnerable children in Nyanga, and which continues to serve the community today. Up to the time of her death, she made regular contributions to the Homestead Children's Project, which was also close to her heart.

Fighting spirit

In the decades following our return, Joan also made the most of the fun side of life with her close friends Amy Thornton and Jill Pointer (or ‘Les Girls’, as she called them). They were rarely to be found at home, and I confess to spending some sleepless nights waiting to ensure they had returned safely from their hectic social schedule.

Gregarious and charming, Joan made friends wherever she went, and was often greeted by name in shops and restaurants around town. Unlike most people, she became more radical as she grew older, and despite my occasional efforts was not to be tempered. She was a voracious reader of both books and newspapers and had an avid interest in art, cinema and current events.

She adored her four grandchildren, Job and Franny Rabkin, and Tamar and Kamil Naicker, and they her, and was an involved and exuberant granny to them all. She was thrilled to welcome her great-grandchildren, David, Charlie and Londiwe.

In her last years, Joan suffered from dementia and increasing frailty, but up to the end her sharp tongue and wit and her fighting spirit remained as her core.

Even in her late nineties, she would express her desire to travel and attend the theatre, and would suggest to her carer that they 'call down for a couple of cognacs' from the care centre restaurant. Amid her long illness she was still, vividly, there. 

Hamba kahle Ma, I will miss you.

- Hilary Rabkin-Naicker is a Labour Court judge.


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