Maverick Life


Back To The Front — Leon Levy’s first-hand account of resistance politics in SA

Back To The Front — Leon Levy’s first-hand account of resistance politics in SA
The reviewer writes that Leon Levy embodies Jewish tradition of tikkun olam through a life dedicated to social justice, liberation, and public service. (Image: Supplied)

Treason Trial accused Leon Levy is one of the giants of South Africa’s liberation Struggle, and in ‘Back to the Front — A Memoir’ (Jacana) he reflects on his life fighting injustice and racism.

In the Jewish tradition, the concept of tikkun olam refers to efforts to repair and improve the world. This could be achieved through laws as expounded in classical rabbinic literature or it could be mystically focused on “repair” as in Kabbalistic circles.

In modern times, however, the emphasis has shifted to the pursuit of social justice or “the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world”.

As a child growing up in Johannesburg, Leon Levy would not have known — at least formally — about tikkun olam. His home was secular, albeit rooted in Eastern European Yiddish culture and aligned to left-wing activism.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Norman Levy: A passionate champion for liberation, public service, and for the humanity in everyone

Leon’s Lithuanian-born father, Mark, whom he lost at the age of six, appears to have dabbled in left-wing activism associated with the progressive Jewish Workers’ Club. He supported the Birobidzhan Project, a planned Jewish homeland in the far east of Soviet Russia; but formal religion was absent from the Levy home.

With hindsight, however, Leon’s entire life — his remarkable and praiseworthy efforts on behalf of the marginal and oppressed — exemplifies the notion of tikkun olam.

Leon and his three siblings (famed anti-apartheid twin brother Norman, and an older brother and sister, David and Goldie), were raised by their Lithuanian-born widowed mother, Mary.

Like her husband Mark, she too engaged in progressive causes and was inclined towards the politically left. Mother and children moved from house to house in Johannesburg. Invariably boarders were taken in to make ends meet; but, notwithstanding difficult conditions, a sense of home was maintained with a bookcase and piano taking pride of place.

Most importantly, Mary Levy inculcated an ethos of care and concern for the less fortunate. Leon has maintained her sensitivities till today, always fighting for the underdog and challenging injustice.

As a child Leon had a passion for books, reflecting, at least in part, his mother’s love of literature. In addition to reading the British, French and Russian classics, Leon also waded through the collected works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as well as VI Lenin’s Imperialism — The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

His intelligence and passion for learning were clearly evident as a young child. Add to that his mother taking him at the age of 11 to the Commodore Hotel in Berea to listen to activist Hilda Watts (who subsequently married Rusty Bernstein), and discussing J’Accuse…! — Émile Zola’s famous exposure of Jew-hatred behind the incarceration of Alfred Dreyfus — and we have a revolutionary in the making.

Leon joined Hashomer Hatza’ir, a left-leaning Zionist youth movement in his teens where, besides learning to reject “bourgeois class values and conventions, especially attitudes to material possessions and property”, he engaged in Zionist intellectual challenges that sharpened his fine mind.

Focus on South Africa

Like so many other graduates of Hashomer Hatza’ir (including Joe Slovo and Baruch Hirson), Leon’s gaze soon focused on South Africa. In particular, he awoke to creeping fascism that he monitored carefully.

Burgeoning antisemitism in the 1930s and 1940s — exemplified in the paramilitary Ossewabrandwag — Ox wagon Sentinel — and the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War also focused his mind. He vividly recalls the postwar Nuremberg Trials that resulted in the execution or imprisonment of leading Nazis.

But, in the final analysis, it was the South African reality that galvanised his political conscience and efforts. “My radicalisation”, he writes, “was a direct reaction to the daily racism and the economic inequalities so prominent in South Africa”.

At the age of 18, Leon joined the Communist Party of South Africa (three years before it was dissolved in anticipation of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950) and at 24 engaged in full-time trade union work. Soon he earned the nickname “Tsaba Tsaba” meaning “here, there, and everywhere”.

Leon was at Kliptown in 1955 where the Freedom Charter — a seminal event in the liberation Struggle — was adopted by the Congress of the People. In his estimation, the gathering was “one of the most important, well-considered and truly representative events in the whole turbulent history of the 1950s”.

In 1956, Leon was Accused No 4 at the Treason Trial which ran for five years. Here, he and his co-accused brother Norman further cemented relations with the best and the brightest in South Africa’s liberation Struggle. The brothers were among the 23 whites (15 of whom were Jewish) constituting the 156 defendants charged with treason.

In an absorbing account of these years, including his detention, legal twists and turns in the trial, and daily travails faced by the accused, Leon illustrates the importance of the Treason Trial in the forging of friendships and deepening commitment to the Struggle.

Camaraderie and the quality of the brave co-accused men and women are highlighted — no doubt enriched by the daily journey from Johannesburg to the Old Synagogue in Pretoria where the trial was held. Helen Joseph estimated that they covered 22,000 miles.

Activism, exile and career

From his early activism, Leon went on to an illustrious career. He served on the District Committee of the Communist Party; the National Executive Committee of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was subsequently national president.

From 1951 to 1961 he served as secretary of the South African Peace Council and, in addition, managed the Johannesburg Discussion Club, a serious left-wing talk-shop. Leon was among the first South Africans to be detained under the 90-Day Detention Act.

In 1961, Leon met Lorna Borkum, a trade union activist in her own right, whom he married a year later. Both Leon and Lorna went into exile in 1963 as the grip of the state security legislation tightened. While in England, Leon divided his time between industrial relations activism and university study. As a result of a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, he was able to pursue his interests in personnel and industrial relations.

Although Leon does not deal in detail with his decades in exile, what does emerge is his passion for labour relations and a deeper understanding of the economics of exploitation. This served him well on his return to a free and democratic South Africa where he was immediately welcomed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and was a part of their team that “provided evidence to the TRC on the impact of apartheid on trade unions affiliated to Sactu”.

Subsequently, Leon worked for a labour consultant and thereafter became a full-time commissioner in the new Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), one of the gems of the new South Africa.

In 2015, Leon received the Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Human Rights Award: “You stand tall amongst those brave men and women of all races and creeds who took a stand against injustice, and whose vision and sacrifices made possible the birth of a free South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it”, noted the citation in a fitting tribute.

As Leon moves into the twilight of his life, inequity in the new South Africa is apparent to all. Much work remains to be done. But Leon Levy can rest assured that he has, throughout his life, done his best to undo injustice and racism. He is among the giants of the liberation Struggle and has left a mark on South African history.

Back to the Front should be read by all those interested in a first-hand account of resistance politics in South Africa, as well as labour struggles in the land of apartheid. DM

Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies at UCT.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mervyn Bennun says:

    Thank you, Prof. Shain, for this tribute to one of those who helped so selflessly and so bravely to build the freedoms we enjoy today. The book is worth reading, for to understand the present one must understand the past. Leon and Lorna Levy are part of that history, and you do well to draw attention to them. The struggle continues — endlessly!

  • Mervyn Bennun says:

    ……..and I add this: South Africa certainly has terrible problems, and they must be solved for us to flourish. I ask those who sneer so readily at our failures: people like Leon Levy sacrificed yesterday for today’s potential— what did you do, and what are you doing, for the freedoms which you now take for granted?

    • ST ST says:

      Haunting question…what indeed have I done. What can I do now? We soon forget. Its been hard not to forget, thinking and hoping that the struggle is over, waiting for help to continue. When we realised help is not coming, we wallowed too much in our misery, in the betrayal of the people who claim to represent our liberators, only in name. Their weakness weakened us. It’s up to us now. If nothing else, a vote in a better direction will do.

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