Barbara Harmel — even the children of revolutionaries have childhoods
On 5 October 2018, our friend, Barbara Harmel, died. She was one of the quiet heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle; but she came from a family and a circle of friends who were important figures from the Communist Party and the ANC. Her unpublished memoir speaks of a time when her childhood would have seemed unworldly, extraordinary to almost every other South African of that time. But for her, it was simply her childhood and it reveals the human side of those individuals.
This past week, friends and relatives of Barbara Harmel gathered to say farewell and to remember her generosity, a lifetime of fighting for the underdog, and a feisty, never-give-up-spirit as she wrestled with Kafkaesque bureaucracies such as the country’s telephone system. She loved her cats and a lovingly tended garden; she embraced her friends around the world with gusto; and she cherished the memory of parents who had fought the good, moral and crucial struggle against apartheid — the lives that had helped set her on her own path against it, right from childhood.
She became our friend as well in recent years. We talked of history, economics and politics in America and Africa; we shared mutual commiserations over health conditions that afflicted us both; and we found enjoyment in the easy small talk one can have while relaxing over a leisurely lunch in a sun-dappled garden while cats circle around, hoping for a surprise treat.
In the autumn of her life, Barbara could look back over a childhood spent with names that have since become legendary figures of South African history. Then, from 1964 onward, it was on to an academic career in Britain, and then, years more in the US, working against apartheid and for a non-racial South Africa — first at Yale University and then in Washington, DC and beyond. Returning home in 1992, she had retooled herself into being a qualified clinical psychologist.
Along the way, she had been writing a memoir of her life’s adventures. She had shared parts of it with me, wondering if any others might be interested in reading a memoir more personal — and less filled with the great deeds of the giants — than is usual from among the rebels against apartheid or from among “the red diaper babies”, as she liked to call herself and her friends.
With the permission of her family, we are privileged to offer excerpts of this as yet unpublished memoir to our readers.
47 High Road, Gardens, the 1950s
“Bourgeois” — though my father [Michael Harmel, editor of The African Communist] denounces my mother’s determination to use the inheritance [a small bequest from a usually disapproving uncle] for a house, he becomes intrigued by the idea of building one of our own. He finds an empty quarter-of-an-acre stand for sale. It is in Gardens, a suburb far north of our Yeoville home. Toni’s father Rusty [Bernstein], an architect, will design a house for us and oversee Mr Prenato, an Italian builder, in its construction.
A “ranch-style” house, with a wall built entirely of slasto in the living room; it will have two more bedrooms than our old house, one of which will be my father’s study. Rusty’s payment is one of Bunty’s pure-bred cocker spaniel puppies which the Bernsteins’ name “Muffin”.
We watch the house grow, from its foundations through the erection of the scaffolding to the roof-wetting ceremony, a source of wonder to each of us. We visit the site frequently. We are each awed by the realisation that it is to be our own. That and the busyness of preparing to move into it overtake all other concerns; there is an interlude of peaceful unity in the family.
July 1954, and at last the eagerly awaited move into our new house. In the garden the grass is almost white in its dryness under the Highveldt’s cloudless blue winter sky. The plum tree stands bare in the corner of the garden, its arsenal for pip-spitting competitions still secret. The house too is bare, stark in its naked newness, this gift of forgiveness to an errant nephew.
Inside, he stands on a ladder, painting walls, this nephew, my father. Dinu Lupatti is playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F Minor on the gramophone. But the predominant sound is still the absolute quiet of a Johannesburg Sunday afternoon.
My cousin David [Adler] is sitting on the prickling grass with me. He is a thorn in my side. My mother [trade union organiser Ray Harmel, born Adler] never tires of telling me of how well he does at school, how diligently he practises the piano, how kind he is to his mother. All the things I do not do, am not.
My mother doesn’t see that my cousin’s mother is gentle and loving toward her son, while she is not toward her daughter. There are many things my mother does not see, and many things she sees with the sharpness of a broken mirror. It will take me many decades to understand this about my mother. At 11 years old, I am too young to understand human wounding, the how and the why of it.
“Your mother was married before she married your father,” my cousin says to me.
It is not his champion he is attacking; he wants to provoke me, as my hostility provokes and rankles him.
“I know that”, I say. “I know that she had to marry a South African during the war or she’d have been deported as a foreign communist.”
“Not that”, he tells me. “There was another man, someone she loved.”
At 11 years old I am also too young to understand what I hear only as a betrayal.
I race into the house, seeking her out, demanding the truth, an explanation. Yes, there was someone, someone she was going to marry before she met my father. But he died.
My main concern is for myself, to know that my father, who she has made most beloved and I a colluder in that practice, had no rival. Not even from the grave. I need to know urgently. How? Why? She tells me that he was shot. In the Soviet Union. His name was Lazar Bach. He was never a Trotskyist, she adds, mistakes were made.
The shock of knowing there was a prior lover is overtaken by shock at what the Soviet Union did. That place is the bastion of all that is good, all that is moral, all that is to be aspired to. Certainly not where this kind of “mistake” is made. This next sense of deep betrayal is quickly followed by another: how could you have stayed in the Communist Party after that? Omelettes, I am told, do not get made without breaking eggs.
The man was Lazar Bach. A Latvian immigrant, he was regarded as a key intellectual in the South African Communist Party in the 1930s. He had been responsible for decimating the Party, so tiny to begin with, through a series of expulsions.
The bone of contention seems particularly absurd historically. Was the Party to dedicate itself to bringing about a proletarian revolution, or rather, a “Native” Republic? In the 1930s the vast majority of black inhabitants were outside the formal economy. Bach, focusing on the white working class, had favoured a proletarian dictatorship, and attacked as deviants those who disagreed with him. Ultimately, it was decided that the crisis should be presented to the Comintern in Moscow, that delegates should be sent there to seek resolution. Bach was one of those delegates. He never returned.
The revelation and its implications sink deep. But now, six months later, just turned 12 years old, I begin high school and my world expands, distracting me from concerns about my parents’ past lives. My primary school cohorts have gone to schools in different areas, and I know no one at this relatively new high school.
I’m curiously aware of this being an opportunity, a chance to develop a new persona. Leaving our dark and ugly little house in Yeoville, coming into the airy space of our new home, drenched by light, prompts an urge to change within. To leave behind the loneliness of the outsider. It’s a subterranean sense of a social self, waiting to emerge.
School is a bike ride away. Sometimes when it rains Eli Weinberg [the photographer], a “comrade” and over-the-road neighbour who has only recently learned to drive, gives his son Mark and me a ride to school. He sings all the way in a deep baritone that has earned this atheist a Saturday morning job at a synagogue as a cantor.
Mark and I, friends since early childhood, giggle at him, embarrassed by the performance of it. We are at sister and brother schools, as they are called, and wear matching royal blue blazers. Eli’s main job is as a professional photographer and he asks us to pose together to take our picture. In black and white, the photograph does not reveal Mark’s shock of red hair, but it does show my too-long blazer sleeves, hiding most of my hands. My first school blazer, insisted upon by the school.
High school means a different teacher for each subject and new subjects: French, biology, art classes. Bible history is not on the high school curriculum. We walk to different teachers’ classrooms for each subject, snaking along the corridors, ordered into “single file girls!”.
The headmistress is strict and highly respected, but not all of our teachers are held in the same regard. We snigger about some of them, caricaturing their idiosyncrasies. One is Welsh and instructs us to “shit down girlsh” after we have stood to say “good morning Mrs Jones”. Another hides sweets in the pockets of her graduate gown and sneaks them into her mouth when we have written assignments, seemingly unaware of a classroom-full of eyes greedy for a glimpse of clay feet in our teachers.
I am enfolded into a group of girls who had come as friends from their primary school. They are as pleased to have some novelty in their cluster as I am to be included. Part of a group. They call me “Bobby” as my father had started to call me, and then my mother too, easier on her Yiddish-trained tongue without all those “r’s” in Barbara.
I am still a year younger than my classmates. They invite me to a party, an evening party. I am told with particular inference that there will be boys there: we’ll dance with these boys; we’ll play spin-the-bottle with them.
Clothes to be worn at the party are discussed in great detail. I realise my wardrobe is still that of a child. I implore my mother to make me a new dress. To my delighted surprise she agrees, quickly whips one up with a full twirly skirt and even buys me a pair of black patent leather flat shoes. Shoes that are to be worn without socks. After the usual foot X-ray. Every shoe shop in town has an X-ray machine; you put your feet with the try-on shoes into it and it illuminates the fit.
The rapid cross-over to teenage culture enthralls me. But at the party I am also greatly relieved that the spinning bottle never stops in front of me. I am fearful of kissing a boy, and content when my father comes to fetch me, leaving far earlier than anyone else.
One of the girls, Penny, becomes a special friend. After school we often go to each other’s homes for lunch. Her mother is an elegant woman, lipsticked, dressed in a figure-hugging dress and high-heeled shoes. She is an Afrikaner and belongs to the Maria van Riebeeck Club, a women’s support group of the National Party. Her father is German and was interned during World War II as a “hostile alien”.
If Penny’s mother is aware of my parents’ political persuasion she shows no sign of it when I first go to their house. It is a house furnished with a living room “suite”, matching couch and chairs, and has painted portraits of the family’s two daughters on the wall. It is very different from the furniture in our house, a bohemian variety of Morris chairs and a divan with a spread thrown across it.
A fancy lunch is laid out together with a chocolate bar for each of us. Afterwards Penny shows me her collection of nail varnishes and lipsticks, things we do not have at our house.
Then it is her turn to come to our house. My father is at home and also, to my horror, members of the Special Branch in an unusual lunchtime raid. My heart starts banging. Enraged and also alarmed by this being Penny’s first experience of our house, I hastily suggest a walk. Along the way she asks:
“Who are those men?”
“They’re police,” I reluctantly tell her.
“But what do they want?” She is curious, not alarmed.
“They’re looking for banned books,” I say.
There is a long pause during which my anxiety levels soar.
Then: “Oh,” says Penny. “They haven’t been to our house yet.”
I daren’t explain why not, why they will almost certainly never go to her house.
As the 1950s continue, the arena for legal political activities is narrowing. Increasing numbers of leftists are banned from attending political gatherings, from addressing meetings. In earlier years considerable numbers of “sympathisers” and “fellow travellers” came to various social events at our homes. There were film evenings on the [Bram and Molly] Fischers’ lawn, usually Soviet movies that were fundraisers for an organisation called Friends of the Soviet Union.
It had reached its zenith during the Second World War, when the USSR was one of the Allies, and continued for a while after the war had ended. One of those films was a Bolshoi Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet with the exquisite young ballerina, Svetlana Ulanova, dancing in the role of Juliet. The film burned deep into my memory. Fewer and fewer come to these events, as the political climate grows darker. Former friends of our parents disappear from our lives.
But new ones are emerging. Leaders of the ANC Youth League, including Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, had been openly hostile to the Communist Party during the 1940s. Determined nationalists, they regarded communism as a foreign ideology and were suspicious of whites in leading positions in the communist party. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act was a catalyst, auguring the National Party government’s intention to clamp down on all political opposition.
Its effect was to unify different sections of that opposition. The Youth Leaguers have ousted their conservative national leaders and the new ANC leaders increasingly join forces with communists in the following campaigns of mass action. Now I begin to meet new black friends, not only the communists like Moses Kotane and JB Marks who have been part of my life since childhood. I go to the township of Orlando with my father on a visit to Evelyn and Nelson Mandela where they live with their small children.
After a decision was made to form a “Congress Alliance”, each of the allied organisations is split into the racial groups that were designated by the National Party government. Reasoning behind this is that it will be easier to do organisational work within each racial group by its own members. There is the black ANC, the Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats (COD). Most, but not all, of the members of the latter are communists.
A “junior” affiliate of COD, named the Young Democrats, is a group I join outside of school. This one consists of the children of “comrades”. We meet every Sunday morning, in a park at the top of Stewart’s Drive in Yeoville, a group of about 12 children ranging in age between about 10 and 13 years old. The similarity between our group and Christian Sunday Schools passes us by.
The ANC also establishes its own junior organisation, “Basupatsela”. We in the Young Democrats rarely meet up with them, but we are enchanted by seeing one another at the Congress of the People in Kliptown. Most of our parents, banned from attending gatherings, cannot be with us. It is here that the Freedom Charter is adopted.
We have “leaders” who teach us Congress songs. Some enjoin people to become part of the past 1952 Defiance Campaign: “Joina-ne-Congresse begoma Volontia”, to follow our Congress leaders: “Chief Luthuli, Doctor Dadoo, JB Marks, and Bopape le Kotane”.
Some are international. The German anti-Nazi song composed during the Spanish Civil War: “Far off is our land, yet ready we stand, we’re fighting and winning for you, Frei-heit!” From the Italian communist party we learn their version of “the Red Flag”: “Avanti popopola, alla riscossa, Bandiera rossa trionfera!”
We are taken for a weekend camp at Meer’s Farm, halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria and we walk the entire way there on the old Johannesburg Road. We are warned not to dip our feet into the river that passes through the farm, that it has bilharzia. Schisotomes, worms that live in fresh water and can bury themselves deep into human skin. Rebellious Larry disobeys and goes for a swim in it. There is no known cure for bilharzia and it costs him his life.
Three of us form a little sub-group within the Young Democrats. We have known one another since earliest childhood, each the daughter of prominent communists and born within six months of one another.
Ilse Fischer [Bram and Molly Fischer’s daughter], almost ethereally beautiful with her turquoise eyes and blonde, blonde hair, petite Toni Bernstein [Rusty and Hilda Bernstein’s daughter] and I fashion ourselves as The Big Three. My mother sews us each a white blouse with a frill at the neckline and a chequered blue and white skirt to go with it.
Toni’s mother Hilda writes an article entitled There’s nothing wrong with Rock ’n Roll – as long as we have other and serious interests. Our parents loathe the popular music we are crazy about; music Toni and I will race home after a matinee movie to listen to on the radio’s Top of the Pops where Elvis Presley reigns supreme for weeks. But Hilda is generous in accepting that this is our “culture”, as long as we also pay attention to literature and of course to politics. She asks Eli to take a photograph of us, all in blue jeans with the bottoms rolled up, and she publishes it as the cover on the magazine she edits, “Childhood”.
Toni, Ilse, and I have become aware that our parents often go out secretively in the evenings, and we are firmly instructed to never ask where they are going or why. Toni and I cannot resist phoning one another to ask: “Has your dad gone out this evening, or your mom?”
We have been told that our phones are almost certainly being tapped by the SB and that we are to be scrupulously careful. But our curiosity is overwhelming and as adolescents, we can’t take seriously that our questions will lead to any trouble.
The troubles that do arise seem to go away fairly unproblematically. One of them melted away in a singular court victory. My father and Walter Sisulu, walking along the pavement in town one afternoon were stopped and searched by two members of the SB.
This pair of cops is now very familiar to us, seemingly detailed specifically to tail my father. One is aptly named Kleingeldt (small change) a ratty-looking little man, the other, his taller side-kick, Dirker. No doubt advised by Bram, my father and Walter decide to sue the detectives for “unlawful search and public humiliation”. The judge finds in favour of the claimants and each is awarded a fine he imposes on the SB.
Another row ensues about whether the money would go to the Communist Party or to a new dining room table my mother hankers after. My mother again wins and my father orders a beautiful new table and eight chairs to be custom-made for us. A new desk too, for me.
To celebrate each of our 13th birthdays, The Big Three are treated by our respective parents to a dinner at a restaurant of our own choosing. Mine comes first and I decide on the Little Swallow, a long-established Chinese restaurant at the bottom of Commissioner Street. Toni’s family treat us to an Italian dinner, Ilse opts for a French one, which to our delighted disgust offers snails. We giggle uproariously as Molly and Bram try to persuade us to try one. Oooh no, absolutely not!
We are keenly aware that we belong to a wider “family”, one of comrades. Within it we address them all by their first names; the parents of our school friends are always “Mrs” and “Mr”. The “family” also consists of our parents’ close friends from other racial groups, and we know too that in this we are distinctly different from our school friends.
The next time Penny comes to my home for lunch my father announces that Moses Kotane will also be at lunch with us. Penny has already told me that she believes that “ ‘natives’ are different from ‘us’ white people”. She challenges my disagreement by demanding to know when I have ever seen a white man sitting on the pavement eating half a loaf of bread and a Coke for lunch. Apartheid legislation and economic gulfs are not discussed at her house; she has no knowledge of such things.
On hearing that Moses will join us for lunch, I march my father down the passage to his study where I yell at him:
“You can’t make Penny sit with a black person. Her parents will never allow her to be my friend after that! This is my home too, you know!”
Penny overhears the row which has ended with my father agreeing that they will go to other “comrades” for lunch. She asks what it was about.
“One of my father’s African friends was going to be at lunch with us. I thought you wouldn’t like that,” I tell her.
“As long he as knows how to eat with a knife and fork, it’ll be fine,” Penny says.
And so we all sit down to lunch together. Moses learns that her father is German and launches into a detailed post-World War II history of her father’s homeland, decrying the role of the “West” in its partition. Knives and forks are the least of the lunch.
Pre-adolescent, The Big Three bond tightly and have regular weekend sleepovers at one another’s homes. Each of our homes has pets, all have dogs, but mine is the only one that also has a cat. Toni and I are incurable gigglers. During one of our sleepovers we go at it for hours. My mother, finally enraged, storms into my bedroom and shouts: “If you don’t stop ‘gillgelling’ I am going to send Toni home!” As soon as she walks out of course we’re reduced to even less repressible giggles, until our tummies tighten into knots. The way our giggling fits usually end.
Sleepovers at Ilse’s home mean a formal family Sunday morning breakfast. After Theus, who has always worked for the Fischers, has brought us cups of tea while we are still in bed. Platters of bacon, eggs, fried tomato and sausages are offered to us by other members of their black domestic staff as we sit at their dining room table. Molly and Bram speak to their children in Afrikaans, the children reply in English.
The Fischers build a swimming pool and Ilse and I are commissioned in these pre-Kreepy-Krauly days to join her family in scrubbing down its walls. The pool soon becomes a draw for the “comrades”. Sundays see Molly and Bram serving endless rounds of tea and cold drinks to them. Young Paul, their nine year-old son, stomps up and down the garden swearing about the colour of his parents’ visitors. We pretend not to hear him. I’m shocked but also secretly thrilled by his rebelliousness.
I am becoming aware of Molly and Bram’s disapproval of me. At our home, unlike the Fischers’, even the Bernsteins’, there is an absence of appropriate delineations between the generations, between parents and the children. It is not that I am impolite ,but that I don’t know my place. Molly and Bram are people who grew up in conservative Afrikaner households; I am precocious, a child who does not appear to know when it is that I should be seen but not heard. Ripe before time.
At the Fischers’ house one afternoon I charge into the spare room, wanting to change into my swimming costume and thinking no-one would be in there. But lying asleep on the bed is a large black gentleman who I awaken. Aghast as he rises to look at me, I realise it is Chief Albert Luthuli, the President of the African National Congress and future Nobel Peace Prize winner who I have disturbed. I apologise profusely. He is utterly gracious and tries to urge me to stay but I am too embarrassed and ashamed and flee. Also afraid that this will incur yet further disdain from Molly and Bram, unwitting though it had been.
One evening as Ilse and I are swimming in the pool, lightning cracking in a Transvaal thunderstorm, we both suddenly feel a belt of water tightening around our waists. We rush into the house screaming but Molly and Bram aren’t particularly interested in our terrifying experience. Later on Ilse overheard our mothers discussing the incident.
“I think the water really was hit by lightning,” my mother said to Ilse’s mother.
“Yes, but I didn’t want to make a fuss,” Molly replied.
Ilse has a sister, Ruth, who is four years older than we are and already going to dances. We sit on her bed with fascinated wide eyes as she dons an off-the-shoulder gown. Paul, her younger brother, is constantly hissed at by Ilse to “stop following us around”. He is a humorous iconoclast and has the most wonderful throaty chuckle, which makes me love him to bits. His mother has to inject him daily with insulin. He is also suffering from cystic fibrosis, which threatens a short-lived life.
Toni’s house in Observatory, just down the road from the primary school we both attend, feels like a second home. By now Toni too has a little brother who refers to himself as “Clappit”, unable to pronounce his name, Patrick, a child of seemingly little interest to Toni; he has taken away the only child position she held for five years.
She has a baby sister Frances whom she adores. From our younger years when our families lived together, her parents, Hilda and Rusty, seem like my alternative set of parents.
Through the afternoons Hilda is busy both at her desk, the little ones playing on the kelim carpet near her feet, and in the kitchen. A creative and skilled cook, she collects American recipes and has what seem to me to be American gadgets for making food. Mixers, whizzers.
The pantry is always full of delicious things to nibble, corn cobs dry on their back stoep, for making popcorn. Bessie and Claud, their two domestic staffers, are always around, in the house, in the garden.
There is also a long pergola, which is heavy with macawber grapes, little black ones we pop in our mouths, suck in their sweet interiors and spit out their rubbery skins. In the winter Toni’s south-facing bedroom is icy. Their home always feels a-bustle, but relaxed.
As we move into our teens, so the tightly-knit Big Three begins to loosen. Although deeply bonded, we are each at different high schools. The government has ruled that “white” children have to attend schools that teach in their home language and the Fischers will not send theirs to Christian-National Afrikaans schools.
Ilse is sent to a private school; at her parties there are girls who wear no make-up and boys clothed in grey flannels and ties. Toni, who lives in Observatory, is sent to that suburb’s “feeder” school. Like mine, it is a government school, and at our parties, girls are starting to wear lipstick, boys are dressed in jeans and open-neck shirts. We jive; Ilse’s friends do ballroom dancing.
Increasingly we interact more frequently with our high school friends than we do with one another. But over the remaining years of high school, the fates of our respective families in the political arena will draw us back constantly to one another… DM
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved