Last updated: 08 June 2011
Rachel “Ray” Alexander
Rachel Alexandrowich was born on 12 January 1914 in Latvia, a Baltic country in Northern Europe.
While she was at school she displayed little fear in challenging authorities. She learnt various languages such as German, Russian, Yiddish and Latvian and English. She loved reading and soon became interested in politics by reading articles on anti-Semitism, Communist and Socialist ideologies. At the age of 13 she became active in the underground Latvian Communist Party. She finished school in 1927 but was not allowed to attend the local university due to anti-Semitism. Ray displayed a keen interest in learning and her sisters agreed to pay for her tuition at ORT Technical College in Riga in 1928. Here, she started working for an underground communist organisation that assisted political prisoners. She started mobilising support amongst students and participating in demonstrations. It is also during this time that she received a copy of the “Communist Internationale” in June 1928 where she first read about the ANC, the CPSA and the oppressive laws in South Africa at the time. She eventually faced arrest, but decided to go in exile.
She arrived in South Africa on 6 November 1929 and describes herself “thrilled” to see Table Mountain, which she had only seen in photographs from friends and relatives previously. She soon realised that many workers in the Cape Town area and in the rest of the country was not organised into unions. Five days later, on 11 November 1929, after meeting Cissie Gool and lifelong friend John Gomas, she joined the Communist Party of South Africa, aged 16. In the same year she had already lost her first job for taking part with Blacks in an anti-pass campaign.
She was involved with all facets of the Party's work, and after being dismissed from a job for attending the founding conference of the Anti-Fascist League, became increasingly involved with trade union activity. She started organising workers in 1930 and was arrested for her role in the Tram and Bus Workers’ strike. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labour and suspended for two years.
Ray was the Secretary of the Communist Party in 1934 and 1935, when she recruited many women. She helped organise workers in many different trades, but the union that became synonymous with her name was the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU). Founded in 1941, the FCWU spread through the fruit canning industry of the Boland and up the west coast among fishing communities. It recruited Black, Coloured and White workers, men and women, and earned the reputation of being both effective and militant. In 1942, FCWU branches decided to form a national FCWU.
In the 1950s it played a leading role in the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Ray wrote a regular column on trade union matters in The Guardian, a newspaper affiliated to the Communist Party of South Africa. In September 1953 she was served with the first of a series of banning orders. It was issued by Justice Minister Swart, forcing her to resign as general secretary of the FCWU. The union recruited Black and White workers, men and women, and earned the reputation of being both effective and militant. In the 1950s it played a leading role in the South African Congress of Trade Unions. Ray wrote a regular column on trade union matters in The Guardian, a newspaper affiliated to the Communist Party of South Africa.
The union president issued the following statement at the time: "We and our members fully understand that Ray Alexander has been expelled for... lifelong devotion to the cause of the oppressed. The men who have done this are the representatives of the rich and employing class... Nothing that they do — the Swarts, the Schoemans and other enemies of the workers — will destroy what Ray Alexander has built up, or uproot her from our hearts". In April 1954, together with Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Florence Mkhize, she helped found the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), which fought for women's rights. She participated in drafting the pioneering Women's Charter. Her FCWU banning precluded her joining the famous 1956 Women's march to the Union Buildings, but it was an event she had helped to organize. Through Ray's agency, about 175 women from Cape Town participated. Another banning order, in April 1954, forced her to resign from FEDSAW.
Ray married Professor Jack Simons in 1941, the day after she formed the Food and Canning Workers Union. Together they were some of the first non-Africans to join the ANC. Jack Simons, a devoted communist, was also a powerful imparter of ideas. As a lecturer in African Studies at the University of Cape Town, he introduced generations of students to the rich textures of African law, culture and society. Jack Simons was banned too, first in 1961, and then again in December 1964, when he was barred from lecturing. On the 6 th May 1965 Ray and Jack left South Africa for Zambia, and they were to remain in exile for 25 years until 2 March 1990. From Zambia they went to England, where Jack got a position at the Manchester University.
Together they wrote the classic labour history Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950, a pioneering analysis of the relationship between class and race, and how these have shaped the South African political and social landscape. They returned to Lusaka in 1967. They were the first Whites to be accepted into the African National Congress (ANC) in 1969, and Jack Simons lectured in the bush camps in Angola. Ray continued doing underground work with the Movement, and lectured on the position in South Africa. In 1990 she attended the Malibongwe conference in Holland that was a follow up to the 1984 women's conference. They were amongst the first exiles to return in 1990. Ray and Jack had two daughters and a son, all resident in South Africa. Jack died in August 1995. After her return, Ray advised various trade unions, as well as the ANC and SACP, and worked on a book on her involvement in the FCWU.
In 1976, Ray prepared leaflets calling on workers to strike in solidarity with students. In 1978, she joins MK as part of the Women’s Battallion. From 1981 –1983 she wrote articles for the African communist under various pseudonyms. In 1986, she was elected life president of FAWU.
In 1993, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Western Cape. In 1994, South Africa had its first- ever democratic elections and Ray declined to stand as ANC Member of Parliament. In 1995, she received the Walter Sisulu Honorary Life Membership of ANC Women’s League. In 1999, she receives the Bambanani award for women veterans of the struggle. In the same year, President Mandela presents national orders and she receives the Order for Meritorious Service. In 2000, she received the Freedom of the City of Cape Town and an award from the South African Jewish museum. In 2002, she receives the Moses Kotane Award in recognition of Outstanding Contribution to the SACP.
Today Ray Alexander remains honoured for her contributions to organisations like the Communist Party, ANC and FEDSAW, Unions, SWAPO and the New Women's Movement. In 2004 the ANC's National Executive Committee bestowed the ANC's highest honour of Isithwalandwe on this liberation movement stalwart. The specific wording on the award is: "The people of South Africa dully express their sovereign will do hereby through the African National Congress proclaim Ray Alexander Simons Isithwalandwe Seaparankoe in recognition of her outstanding and heroic service to the Nation". She is the third woman to receive this award, and some of the previous 18 recipients are Chief Albert Luthuli, Father Trevor Huddleston, and Yusuf Dadoo in 1955, Lilian Ngoyi in 1982, Nelson Mandela and Helen Joseph in 1992. Literally translated, Isithwalandwe means "the one who wears the plumes of the rare bird".
On 12 September 2004 Ray Alexander died at the age of 91. Some tributes to her follow: Then South African President Thabo Mbeki described her as "an outstanding leader of our workers and people who spent her entire adult life fighting for the freedom of our people", and a "Giant of Non-Racialism".
The ANC Women's League said of Ray that she:
“lived a fulfilling and glorious life. She provided hope and restored the confidence of many whose lives have been made meaningless by apartheid. She was an outstanding communist, veteran trade unionist, matchless fighter for women's liberation and a giant of non-racialism. ... the ANC Women's League wishes to record our gratitude for her leadership, dedication and lifetime commitment to the total emancipation of women. Together with Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Amina Cachalia, Ray formed the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and launched the Women's Charter on 17 April 1954 as the first attempt to establish a broad-based women's movement. Bringing together over 230 000 women from all over South Africa, the founding conference of the Federation pledged its support for the general campaigns of the Congress Alliance. … She will be remembered as an outstanding fighter for the rights of women. … Her legacy for her children Mary, Tanya and Johan, the women of South Africa, the workers, her comrades in the ANC and the ANC Women's League, the SACP, the ANC Youth League and all South Africans is her matchless integrity, her exemplary work ethic and her great love of our country.”