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Hani's secretary was a brave fighter

Published Oct 12, 2008


Esther Barsel died quietly this week after being in a coma for three days. Her keyring revealed much about her.

Though Barsel had three daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, all of whom she adored, the picture inside the plastic keyring frame was of Chris Hani, the assassinated South African Communist Party leader.

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Barsel, who was herself a lifelong communist, had been Hani's private secretary after his return from Lusaka and 30 years of military exile in 1990.

Two months ago, in a conversation about him, she spoke of how she loved him as a comrade and how desperately she still lamented his decision to give his bodyguards time off on the Easter weekend he was killed.

"We told him, don't go out alone," Barsel said, shaking her head. "But you couldn't tell him what to do."

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Her death this week at 83 was met with sadness by the ANC, the SACP and their respective youth leagues. A death notice remarked on how "an incredible woman had stood by her convictions until the end".

Her many comrades have honoured her this week, and there is a corollary to that: her death is an opportunity to celebrate the legacy of so many of her friends and compatriots who were in the dock with Hymie Barsel, her husband and fellow communist in the 1956 treason trial.

A group of 156 black and white activists - including Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu - were put in the dock after a countrywide crackdown following the adoption of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in Kliptown at the end of 1955.

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The group represented almost the entire executive of the then all-African ANC, the white Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Together, they were known as the Congress Alliance, and they were stoic as the state charged them with high treason and conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the government. The punishment was, of course, death.

It was an extremely difficult period for the trialists and their families, yet many of the friendships between black and white activists that were struck there carried on throughout people's lives.

The trial was packed with Reds. And Esther Barsel, who would 10 years later be imprisoned herself for her ideology, was one of the most relentless supporters of them all.

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Undoubtedly, Barsel's commitment made for an interesting but tough life for her three daughters Merle, Sonia and Linda. In the 1960s, when they were children growing up in Yeoville, Johannesburg, it was certainly not the most popular thing for a white child to have communist parents, who were either behind bars or under house arrest. The Barsels experienced both more than once and the mat at the door of their small Regent Street house saw the boots of some of the great intellectuals.

When Hymie Barsel met Esther in the 1940s, she was already a member of the Communist Party, having been influenced by a Jewish friend, whose immigrant family had left Eastern Europe for South Africa.

Esther worked as a secretary-cum-bookkeeper for Friends of the Soviet Union where she met Hymie, the co-ordinator of the project. They got married in 1945, their romance having blossomed on the trains as they travelled around the country, spreading the word of Karl Marx.

Esther was arrested during the state of emergency in 1964 when she was working tirelessly for the underground while also being a mother to her children.

She had been the link between the banned liberation movements and activists working openly, and it was an unprecedented shock for the family when she was detained and then kept in solitary confinement.

Esther and other communist women went on a hunger strike, hoping this would compel the police to charge or release them. Finally, they were charged and convicted and sent to the remote Barberton Prison for three years in 1965.

"My father was a broken man," recalled Merle Ruff, their youngest daughter. "He was so lonely, but … we spent a lot of time together and made a scrapbook of political events for mom so that when she came out of prison, she could catch up."

The children always knew what their parents were doing. They survived regular disappointments and fears and the alienation from their own community.

"We were always having to pretend that she was just a normal person," said Ruff, "especially because, in the Jewish community, you could so easily be shunned.

"People would think you were a criminal, but we always knew that what kept us together was more important. It was the love and absolute commitment to ideals, between my parents."

Barsel was an important person in Nelson Mandela's life. She was one of only 25 special friends invited to his private 90th birthday celebrations in July this year, and he sent a personal letter to the family on Monday night before Esther was buried, according to Jewish tradition, within hours of her death.

An entire generation of bravehearts is passing on, leaving memories of insurrection and the superiority of non-racialism.

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