One of the forgotten stalwarts


Very early on a cold winter’s morning on Friday, July 3, 1964, Esther Barsel was picked up by the security police at her home in Regent Street, Yeoville. She wasn’t alone. Her husband Hymie was similarly treated. They left behind three minor children, Sonia, Linda and Merle, only five months old. No prior warning had been given to them. Both were members of the South African Communist Party and with the latter’s banning in 1950 they were listed as communists after due process. These lists were most certainly known to the security police. So why were they shown minimal courtesy to make arrangements for their children?

These are stupid questions in 2008. In 1964 South Africa had in its legislative arsenal what was known as the 90-day law. It usually preceded a trial in which the detainee after months in isolation, interrogation and torture, could end up charged, a state witness or a corpse (of the latter, Joseph Mdluli and Steve Biko and nearly 100 others are prime examples).

Esther was charged after 53 days of solitary detention. To hurry the period of detention, all the women held went on a hunger strike soon after their arrest. Esther held out for 35 days, while Pixie Benjamin continued for 49 days, at dire peril to their health.

They were eventually charged and the trial was known as the Bram Fischer trial.

On trial were Fischer, Ivan Schermbrucker, Eli Weinberg, Esther Barsel, Norman Levy, Lewis Baker, Jean Middleton, Sylvia Neame, Mollie Anderson, Ann Nicolson, Costa Gazides, Paul Trewhela, Florence Duncan and Molly Doyle. On the first day of the trial Hymie was granted bail and he was able to go home to his children who had been in the care of his sister and brother-in-law.

It was the only trial during apartheid that held seven white women in detention. They later served their sentences in the sticks in Barberton.

There is a dearth of material on this trial. Why? Was it be-cause they were women? Was it because they were white? Was it because they were communists? One security police officer said: “Apartheid was intended to give our women the best life.” Why did they opt out?

Our women were rare heroines. They were modern-day Joans of Arc, lucky to return with their lives.

Even Nelson Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom did not mention Esther, nor Hymie who was in the four-year-long Treason Trial with him.

However, in the course of Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations, Esther was invited as a special friend to lunch on July 8.

She was my special friend and comrade. Where the one began and the other ended we did not check. She phoned me in Harare when my son Sahdhan was assassinated; she accompanied me when the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) awarded me a doctorate and she walked with me when my son Sha died from a medical error during our first democratic elections.

When we returned from exile in 1990 she was still on the liquidators’ list, a communist, yet she chose to work as Chris Hani’s secretary.

I have missed her e-mails, letters, our visits to each other and the phone calls from her after she went into frail care before her death on October 6.

No law could make her ashamed of being a communist. South Africa has lost a great woman.

Thank you and hamba kahle, Esther.

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