156 Hands that built South Africa — the 1956 Treason Trial
by Phyllis Naidoo (self published)
(First published: September, 2006)
One of the critical events in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle was the treason trial of 156 men and women which began in Johannesburg’s old Drill Hall in December 1956. It was, and remains, the largest trial for treason conducted anywhere and it provided, in the form of the accused, an iconic image of opposition to the racist divisiveness of apartheid.
The trial, which dragged on for four years, with 30 accused remaining to the end, came in the wake of another critical event in the anti-aparthed struggle: the mass anti-pass march by women on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. But while the women’s march has received deserved recognition this year, the golden anniversary of the treason trial that did so much to shape the country’s political destiny has been virtually ignored.
So when it was announced last month that a book detailing the biographies of the treason trialists was about to be launched, there was more than a frisson of excitement among struggle veterans and those with an interest in our recent past.
For those in the dock in 1956 provided a fairly accurate reflection of the colour, class and gender realities of the anti-apartheid activists at the time. These were also the people who had played various roles in promoting and supporting the Congress of the People, in Klipown, Johannesburg the previous year at which the Freedom Charter had been adopted.
Despite its contradictions and areas of vagueness, this much quoted document acted as a rallying point for opposition to the apartheid system and state. The 50th anniversary of its adoption was celebrated in some style at Kliptown last year. The women’s march and the treason trial were examples of the militancy fostered by that Kliptown congress and the state’s hamfisted reaction to it.
Something of the background to the trial and some of the personalities involved is available in the now out of print South African Treason Trial, written in 1957 by trialist Lionel Foreman who died before the trial ended in 1961 and trade unionist Solly Sachs, father of constitutional court judge, Albie Sachs.
Another of the trialists, Helen Joseph, produced her diary of the trial, If this be Treason, in 1963. It was reprinted in 1998 and contains the profiles of the 30 trialists, including Joseph, who remained in the dock througout the four years before the state’s case collapsed. This book remains the best available documentation of this historic event that I know of.
But nowhere is there a comprehensive and up-to-date biographical record of the 156 individuals who played such an important role in the country’s recent history. To provide such a record was the task taken on by long-time activist and former exile, Phyllis Naidoo.
A large format, self published 470-page volume, 156 hands that built South Africa has now arrived. It is an impressive sight and weight. But while the design is admireable, the content is more than disappointing. Much of the text reads as if taken from the author’s notes; a reflection more of a work in progress than of a finished manuscript.
Here is a book that was clearly in need of the firm hand of a good editor. There are also often glaring gaps in the research and the absence of proof reading is painfully obvious.
But Phyllis Naidoo must be commended for having embarked on this project. Nobody else took up the task. Yet it needed to be done, but to be done properly perhaps required greater resources than Naidoo could muster.
The fact that she notes in her list of acknowledgements: “I am responsible for errors here and apologise for same. It is well known that I am old bag 78 at last count and disintegrating rapidly. With old age, loss of memory is inevitable…. (sic)” does not excuse the standard of the research or the writing.
Nor does the book live up to the claim in an epilogue by Max Singh, that it is “much more” than “boring biographies, stripped of the human faces behind the names”. The fact that Singh uses a claimed Marxist interpretation of literature becomes doubly puzzling when he goes on to paraphrase the German philosopher, Georg Hegel: “All facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.” He notes that this applies to the treason trialists.
But this is the very paraphrase used by Karl Marx who went on to note: “He [Hegel] forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Such comment seems hardly applicable to the treason trial or to the people who stood in the dock and were immortalised in the historic photo montage by the photographer Eli Weinberg to whom Naidoo dedicates her book.
Admittedly, as Singh also notes, this is a “very personal journey of the author” into the lives of the 156. But it is a journey that fails to reach its proclaimed destinations.
Some personal remarks jar; a few seem quite offensive. Writing of Ruth First, for example, Naidoo notes: “Ruth a vibrant product of a Communist family marries a Communist. How lucky can you be?”
Or, in the profile of Elmon Malele who was arrested by black security policemen and who died in police custody in 1977: “Those today who are married to the notion that all Africans contributed to the struggle. They should also know that they were the majority of state witnesses in the political trials. Do not forget the homeland leaders who frustrated our struggle for democracy, for more than 30 pieces of silver.”
Of the late Fred Carneson, Naidoo correctly notes that he had to leave school and start work at age 14. She then adds: “Academia was not his forte.”
And where and by whom is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela known as “Oom Nel”?
What is puzzling, given the errors, omissions and often trite personal comments in this tome, is the fact that it carries a foreword by “Zanele and Thabo Mbeki”. The foreword also includes a classic quotation from Hegel, but one showing the German materialist philosopher to have been a racist.
Perhaps the foreword was written without knowledge of the epilogue. And perhaps the same applies to sight of the finished text. For how else can it be explained that our decidedly literate first couple could write: “Clearly, this book is one of the most important media we must use to tell carry (sic) the truth about South Africa”?
This is, sadly, an immensely worthy project that falls far short of its potential. It is only to be hoped that another edition, better researched, edited and proof read, together with an essential index, will be produced. The 156 deserve no less.