Death of a largely unsung heroine

Posted on December 9, 2016

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Myrtle Berman (1924-2016)

Myrtle Berman, anti-apartheid activist, librarian, political prisoner, hunger striker, international management consultant and lifelong socialist, died peacefully in her apartment in Cape Town on December 8. She was 92 and did not recover consciousness following a stroke on November 25.

Mentally alert, vivacious and physically active, she was one of the largely unsung militants of the fight against apartheid. With her late husband, Monty, Myrtle was one of the founders of what became the African Resistance Movement (ARM), the first group to launch a sabotage campaign in 1961 against the apartheid state.

A fiercely honest and independent thinker, talker, yoga practitioner and keen walker, her political activism began during her teenage years. As a first year student at the University of the Witwatersrand in the midst of World War II Myrtle Canin taught, and eventually headed, the Polly Street adult literacy night school. She also conducted research into levels of poverty and violence in Alexandra township.

By far the youngest of five siblings, she learned early to fend for herself. At the age of 15, her parents left to manage an hotel north of Durban and she was given a small monthly allowance to pay for board and lodging and keep herself at school in Johannesburg.

An avid reader with an early interest in world affairs, she was introduced to radical politics while still at school and barely in her teens. In her class was Ruth First — “The only other girl who had heard of the Russian revolution” — who introduced Myrtle to her formidable mother, Tilly First.

“Much to the horror of my own mother, Tilly provided me with radical literature,” Myrtle recalled during an interview last year. So began debates that continued for years with more orthodox followers of the Communist Party of SA (CPSA).

Desperate to attend university, but unable to afford the fees, Myrtle obtained bursaries by enrolling in a course that included librarianship. This meant that, in addition to her school subjects of English and Afrikaans, she had also to master French and Zulu. But there was at least a guaranteed job at the end of the course.

She passed, obtained a BA degree in social anthropology and a qualification as a librarian. Although she had reservations about what she perceived as the dogmatic thinking of the CPSA and its allied Friends of the Soviet Union organisation, Myrtle joined the CPSA in 1945.

“Quite honestly, they were the only people who seemed to be doing anything.” she noted. Communists and some former members of the CPSA, such a the academic Eddie Roux, provided an ongoing inspiration.

When Myrtle Canin married Monty Berman in 1949, two known communists were united and, as such, both were “listed” by the new National Party government although the CPSA had already dissolved itself. This made life, especially employment opportunities, difficult. Then came the polio epidemic of 1953 which struck down Myrtle and her then two children.

They survived, but in a world increasingly in turmoil. When the Hungarian revolution erupted in 1956, Myrtle and Monty, who had joined the SA Communist Party (SACP) when it was established underground in 1953, became disillusioned with the unquestioning support of the party for the Soviet Union, and left.

But they continued with political activities that included Myrtle playing a racist white “madam” in the classic 1959 anti-apartheid film by Leo Rogosin, Come Back, Africa. Described by Time magazine as “A remarkable piece of cinema,” it introduced Miriam Makeba to the American public and deeply annoyed the South African security establishment.

So it was no surprise when, following the shootings at Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960, both Myrtle and Monty where among those detained in the subsequent state of emergency. It was in detention that a decision was made to launch a united, militant underground organisation to fight the apartheid state.

After a publicised hunger strike, the detainees were released and the Bermans were banned. However, they still helped to found the National Committee for Liberation (NCL) that they hoped would be an umbrella organisation to fight apartheid. The NCL included radical members of the still legal, but harrassed Liberal Party, the small, clandestine, “Trotskyist” Socialist League (SLSA) and the African Freedom Movement (AFM), led mainly by members who had broken away from the ANC Youth League.

In 1961, shortly after the sabotage campaign had begun and before the NCL became the ARM, Monty Berman was arrested and sentenced to a three-year suspended sentence for breaking his banning order. Both he and Myrtle were also threatened with house arrest and, being under constant surveillance in South Africa, thought they would be of more use suppling assistance from abroad.

The family moved into exile in Britain, where Myrtle and Monty shipped explosives — supplied by a former British army officer, Robert Watson, who subsequently disappeared — to the ARM. Shortly after this venture, ARM member Adrian Leftwich, who had accompanied Watson to Britain to arrange the shipment, was arrested and provided the names of most ARM members.

A series of court cases and prison sentences followed, with Leftwich the prime witness for the state. Remaining ARM members fled and the group collapsed.

In Britain, Myrtle went on to do post graduate work in social anthropology at the London School of Economics and obtained a diploma in applied behavioural science. In the process, she became a highly regarded consultant working mainly in the areas of anti-racism and the empowerment of women, something she continued to do after she and Monty returned to live in Cape Town in 1994 where Monty died in 1999.

A lover of books, music and theatre and a regular attender at political discussions, Myrtle’s sharp mind, wit and friendship will be sorely missed. She was not only much loved, but much admired by the many who knew her.

Myrtle is survived by her four daughters and six grandchildren.

Posted in: Obituaries