- All My Life And All My Strength
'Another icon of the struggle' was how one news-reader described Ray Alexander, when she died in 2004. Her autobiography, published shortly afterwards, will reinforce this status. It tells the story of her life, from her birth in Latvia to the indignities of old age: a mugging in the city bowl, a fall from which she suffered concussion, the loss of independence that moving in to live with one's child signifies. But primarily, of course, it is the story of an activist who played a prominent role in political and trade union organisation in South Africa.
'Icon' is also a peculiarly apt term for someone whose photograph was displayed at all important meetings of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), the union she founded and of which I became General Secretary in 1976. The term derives from an image of a Jesus figure that was used ceremonially and venerated in the Orthodox Church. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ray was venerated in the rural towns of the Western Cape where the FCWU had its most enduring presence.
The outlines of her story are by now fairly well known. After being born in Latvia and recruited into the communist underground as a teenager, Ray fled to South Africa in 1929, where her brother and sister were living. She attended her first communist party meeting a day or so after her arrival. A few days later she joined, and became actively involved in the party. She also became involved in organising a number of trade unions. Then, in 1941, she established FCWU, and became its first General Secretary. Together with its African counterpart, the AFCWU, the union was to be the most important affiliate of the SA Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). [End Page 97]
In 1951 she was listed as a communist, and the following year banned. She nevertheless stood for Parliament as a so-called 'native' representative. She was elected, but prevented from taking her seat. When the communist party was re-constituted underground, she became a member. However faced with the prospect that government was to force her husband Jack Simons from his post at the University of Cape Town, the couple went into exile in 1965, leaving their children behind them. They were the first of the exiles to return in 1990.
What lessons is the reader to draw from her story? In a recent article Raymond Suttner, who edited the book, berates the 'white left' for its retreat from politics in the post-1994 period, and its failure to embrace Africanism. Ray together with Bram Fisher and others are held up (icons, again) as examples of non-Africans who willingly embraced the cause of the African majority. The concluding sentence of the book, also emblazoned on the cover, reinforces this kind of populist sentiment 'For me, the finest cause in the world is the struggle for freedom and a full, satisfying life for all our people'.
But if the struggle for freedom had a concrete meaning before the 1990s, what does it mean now? How does the workers' struggle relate to the popular struggle, in a context in which the ruling elite is increasingly avaricious, HIV/AIDS is rife and close to a majority of the population is unemployed? How do non-Africans embrace the cause of the majority without simply being relegated to the role of being cheer-leaders for the ruling party?
One could not expect this book to address issues such as these. Ray was after all 77 years old when she returned to South Africa, in 1990. What one does look to is for inspiration in dealing with the issues of the day, and some sense that in doing so one is continuing a proud tradition. The energy and courage Ray brought to a wide range of issues is indeed inspiring. Yet this book left me with a sense of disappointment. I attribute this to its failure to frankly acknowledge the difficulties and failures alongside the achievements, and its absence of...