January 6, 2011

Remembering a revolutionary woman

Jean Middleton, who died aged 82 of pneumonia in London last month, never did things by half. So it is appropriate that she ended her days as a member in good standing of two communist parties.

She remained a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which she had joined when it was illegal half a century ago, and of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) to which she returned after leaving South Africa in the late 1990s.

Middleton became active in her home city of Durban in the Congress of Democrats, which was set up in 1952 following the banning of the SACP, to publicise the liberation movement's goals to South Africa's white population.

She was invited to join the underground party, accepted and played her part in clandestine activities before being put on trial alongside Bram Fischer and 14 other white SACP members in 1964.

Fischer had previously been the main defence advocate in the Rivonia trials which had resulted in lengthy prison sentences for ANC and SACP leaders including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

Fischer, Middleton and their comrades were charged with furthering the aims of the party and planning to establish "a despotic government based on the dictatorship of the proletariat."

While Fischer was given life and died in jail, the others attracted sentences of between one and five years, with Middleton serving three years.

She exposed the barbarism and petty vindictiveness of the apartheid prison system in her book Convictions - A Woman Political Prisoner Remembers and in her testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 1997.

Middleton was forced to leave South Africa after she was put under house arrest and prevented from earning a living as a "banned person."

She travelled to London and took up employment as a teacher of English at Shoreditch School - a comprehensive in a lively working-class area of the borough - becoming deputy head of English.

An active member of the National Union of Teachers, she chaired Hackney Teachers Association and was NUT delegate to Hackney Trades Council.

Middleton loved the down-to-earth and multiracial nature of her adopted home, making herself at home in the Hackney Trade Union and Labour Club, enjoying Irish music in various local hostelries and frequenting local street markets.

In exile she was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement as well as her local SACP and ANC, and worked full-time from 1985-1991 for the ANC department of information and publicity (DIP) working on Sechaba magazine.

DIP approached the Morning Star at that time asking that she be given journalistic training, although her precise and evocative use of English, together with her political clarity, already made her a formidable voice for democracy in South Africa.

She was delighted to return home in 1991, actively participating in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 and working for the SACP on its publications African Communist and Umsebenzi (The Worker). She also wrote pieces on the new South Africa for the Morning Star.

In later years Middleton had problems with her health, but she remained politically active after she came back to Britain working within the CPB and supporting the Morning Star.

Emphysema and failing sight conspired to slow her down and a fall, leading to a broken thigh, was the prelude to her death from pneumonia.

The SACP noted that she had joined the movement when it was not fashionable to do so and pledged to fight, in her honour, to "defeat the creeping modern-day anti-communism which is being led by, among others, the racialised and liberal Democratic Alliance and other liberal apologists, including the mainstream media."

The ANC commended her as "a true and major stalwart of the struggle against the apartheid regime," while South Africa's metalworkers' union remembered her as a "cadre, prolific writer and journalist," and "a symbol of left-leaning and progressive journalism."

While her Britain-based comrades and friends attend her funeral this morning at Manor Park Crematorium in east London, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande will address the annual commemoration of liberation movement legend Joe Slovo at Avalon cemetery in Soweto.

Nzimande will pay tribute to her and the SACP will parade a special banner displaying her image. The SACP will also hold a commemoration meeting for her in March.

At both today's gatherings, she will be bade a traditional South African farewell of "Hamba Kahle, Jean" (Go well, Jean).

Communist Party of Britain - Members & Supporters

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