Last updated: 08 June 2011
Lizzy (Nanna) Adrian Abrahams (born Josephs) was born on September 19, 1925 in Paarl just outside Cape Town. She had four brother and four sisters.
She attended a multi-racial school in Paarl called Bethanie Congregational School. Her mother used to work in a fruit factory while her father made bricks. As a result of ill- health, her father, Henry Josephs, was forced to leave his job and went to work in the wood industry, which he left as well as his sickness worsened. Her father was interested in politics and always read newspapers –something that had stimulated Lizzie as she always wanted to know what was in those newspapers.
When this happened, Liz realized that her mother could not cope financially as she has become a sole breadwinner. Liz later joined her mother at Premium, the fruit factory but found that racism prevailed in the factory. The factory became Langeberg later. Liz’s mother fell ill and she was forced to work full-time at the factory at the age of fourteen.
The Food and Canning Workers’ Union had just started when Liz started working at the canning factory. Seeing what is happening around her in the factory, she became actively involved in labour politics in her work environment. Soon after this, she was elected into the Food and Canning Workers’ Union organized by Ray Alexander and other unionists.
They started the first branch of FCWU in Paarl in Daljosaphat in 1941.She started in the shop floor committee but was soon in the branch executive from where she went on to become the treasurer of the union. During the early fifties, a lot of activists were banned and one of them was the General Secretary of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union. Liz was then elected as the acting secretary. After the Annual Congress of the union, Liz was elected as the official General Secretary and remained in this position until 1956. She organized branches all the way to the Eastern Cape and she was responsible for negotiations and agreements between employers and workers. She negotiated with branch secretaries whenever there were problems. She also represented the FCWU in launching the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). Liz realized the need to organize women into a progressive organization as women were much more oppressed than men.
Many unions were banned at the time- making it an extremely difficult time for the union. Liz carried on with her underground work but was continuously harassed by the security branch of the apartheid regime. In 1964 she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act for five years. At one stage, Liz was detained for almost three months at the Paarl police station and later at Pollsmoor prison.
The banning order confined her to Paarl, she could not attend gatherings, could not work in a shop or factory and could also not enter African locations.
In 1979 she still helped out with the famous Fatti’s and Monis Strike, which was as result of a factory banning five female workers. She assisted other organizers for four months and was later elected branch secretary until 1985. A few years before that, while on duty for the union, she was involved in a car accident which saw her broke four ribs, a broken leg and an injured arm. Her injuries made it difficult to work and she started working only half –days. She eventually retired from union work in 1985.
From time to time, the union still used Cde Liz for consultation on union matters. Cde Liz was a mentor to many young political activists and everyone in Paarl knew who she was. She was lovingly called “Nanna” by many.
She remained active on the political front, belonging to COSAS , the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC) and the Communist Party. In 1990 she helped started the ANC Branch in Paarl and was elected chairman and later vice –chairman of the ANC Women’s League. In 1995 she was elected to Parliament and served on the labour committee.
She retired from the National Assembly in 2000, but continued to help farm workers in the areas of Paarl. She remained passionate about politics and workers throughout her life.
She received several awards such as the Order of Baobab- bronze (2002) from the South African Government, the Freedom of Drakenstein (2005), the Elijah Barayi award from COSATU in 2006, the Ray Alexander award from FAWU (2007) and an honorary doctorate from UWC in 2007.
She passed away on December 17,2008 at the age of 83 in her Paarl home after a long illness.