Lodge on Kirkaldy, 'Everyday Communists in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: The Lives of Ivan and Lesley Schermbrucker'

Alan Kirkaldy
Tom Lodge

Alan Kirkaldy. Everyday Communists in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: The Lives of Ivan and Lesley Schermbrucker. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements Series. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022. 404 pp. n.p. (e-book), ISBN 978-3-030-83921-5; $139.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-030-83920-8; $39.99 (paper), ISBN 978-3-030-83922-2.

Reviewed by Tom Lodge (University of Limerick) Published on H-SAfrica (June, 2022) Commissioned by Janeke D. Thumbran

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57758

Were they, Ivan and Lesley Schrembrucker, such ordinary or “everyday” Communists? To be sure, generally they were not engaged in the decision-making of the clandestine South African Communist Party (SACP). They did what they were told to do and did not ask questions. They belonged to the party for twenty years mostly as rank-and-file members, until the destruction of most of its networks inside South Africa in 1965. They only joined the SACP’s Central Committee toward the end of this period when key people were imprisoned or had fled South Africa. Generally, it is true the Schrembruckers did not belong to the party’s inner circle nor did they contribute significantly to its intellectual life. In that sense, they were followers, “‘ordinary’ Communists,” as noted by the series editors in the volume’s preface (p. vii). But they were unusual, atypical even, among South Africa’s Communists all the same.

They were exceptional among white members of the party for their fluency in speaking African languages, in Ivan’s case isiXhosa and in Lesley’s isiZulu, legacies of growing up in black South African communities in the Transkei and KwaZulu where in both cases their parents managed trading stations. Their backgrounds marked them out among white Communists: they were born into rural, politically conservative families, fostering, at least in Ivan’s case, a “sense of rootedness” as a South African, a fourth-generation descendent of a politically distinguished Eastern Cape settler lineage (p. 39). Both grew up poor, though. Ivan’s family could not send him to university after his matriculation from Umtata High School. Lesley trained as a physical education teacher in Johannesburg. That is where Ivan and Lesley met after the Second World War in which he had served as a signalman, in North Africa and Italy. Contacts with Italian partisans and friendships with Brian Bunting and Fred Carneson prompted Ivan to join the Communist Party at a time when the party was welcoming and open.

There is no evidence of either Ivan’s or Lesley’s engagement in the kind of rigorous ideological schooling that had guided apprentice Communists in earlier decades and both later would hold back from theoretical discussions. From the start, they laughed about “the straight line from Moscow” that their comrades took so seriously (p. 62). For both, the party’s appeal was its relaxed interracial camaraderie—its “easy mixing”—and its postwar vision of a better life (p. 110). Their upbringing in countryside African communities equipped them with a particular social empathy, Alan Kirkaldy thinks, making them especially “sensitive to the plight of ordinary black people” (p. 326). Lesley was in the party’s youth wing when she met recently demobilized Ivan; they started their courtship by accompanying each other to meetings.

Ivan worked briefly for the Chamber of Mines, giving up his job shorty before the 1946 mineworkers strike. During the strike, he translated pamphlets into isiXhosa and may have been involved in other ways, Kirkaldy suggests. Later his isiXhosa fluency and his familiarity with the Transkei helped him form a strong friendship with Walter Sisulu, whom he recruited into the party, cementing its alliance with the African National Congress (ANC). For most of the next twenty years, his main contribution to the party was as a fundraiser. He managed an undertaking called Arnold’s Christmas Hampers (named after its trade unionist founder, Arnold Selby), a subscription service that provided five thousand annual festive parcels as well as weekly deliveries of a succession of Communist edited newspapers. It brought in a profit of sixty thousand rand a year, the main source of finance for the party press. Ivan took no salary and Lesley earned the family income, running her exercise studio, initially from their crowded one-bedroom Yeoville apartment. The Christmas parcel business was an extensive operation, staffed by six people in an inner-city office and at Christmastime deploying hundreds of agents in the townships, delivering the hampers. Ivan also solicited donations for the paper and the party, mainly small sums collected regularly from Jewish and Indian shopkeepers. He was acknowledged among his comrades as a talented manager and a dedicated organizer, one of a small number of people with the networking skills that the SACP’s clandestine formation so badly needed.

These skills placed him at the center of the party’s secret bureaucracy after 1960: with the prohibition of the ANC and the SACP’s decision to help Congress set up an armed group, Ivan became “the main contact point for the underground,” securing money, hiding places and transport, and helping families of detainees (p. 147). Neither he nor Lesley was engaged in any Umkhonto activity; she seems to have had reservations about it. Increasingly, as well, he was called upon to make the arrangements for people to cross South Africa’s borders, facilitating an exodus of the leadership. The Schrembruckers themselves rejected the option of leaving; they refused to do so again and again and felt abandoned by those who did. As in the case of Bram Fischer with whom they worked closely especially after joining the Johannesburg-based leadership, they believed that the exiles were mistaken strategically, that there remained political opportunities, and that internal structures could be revitalized. They may have been right in this, for as late as 1965, while helping to hide Fischer, Lesley was using a mailing list with five hundred names of underground members.

Ivan was arrested in mid-1964, Lesley a year later. Both belonged to committees and attended meetings that included police agents. Ivan was among the first white Communists to be tortured; he signed an anodyne statement incriminating nobody. He was sentenced to five years for his role in the party. Lesley was convicted twice, once for refusing to give evidence against Fischer, and again for SACP membership. Kirkaldy’s review of both the trials makes compelling reading, informed as it is by insights into the legal strategies used by defense lawyers. In prison, Ivan was a comforting presence for his fellow “politicals,” the “go-to” person for people who became depressed, a mediator of disputes, a “shop steward” among the Communists, building bridges across sectarian divides. Lesley spent two years in prison, nearly half of that time in solitary confinement. Kirkaldy has rich material on the uncomfortable daily prison experiences endured by both Ivan and Lesley and he uses it effectively. On his release, Ivan returned a one-way air ticket sent to him from London. Instead, he asked his old comrades there to find him something to do in Johannesburg. He was told his contribution was over, he had done enough, a response that only deepened his contempt for the “leavers.” For the remaining ten years of his life, reunited with Lesley, while working for Anglo Americans, he returned to his fundraising vocation, finding ways to support political prisoners and their families. Lesley stopped thinking of herself as a Communist, losing her convictions because, she told Kirkaldy, “people are not like that” (p. 309).

Kirkaldy’s moving biography is about ”everyday” lives in a different sense from the ordinary. It is about the private and the personal, not just the political and the public actions of his protagonists. Supported by his access to a generous family archive, Kirkaldy illuminates Lesley’s and Ivan’s everyday experience: their residences; their bill paying; their child rearing; the friendships they made and broke and kept; the ways they enjoyed themselves; and of course their love and confidence in each other, for it is very much a book about a marriage. His heroes may be ordinary enough people, but in the way they lived their lives, they achieved “a triumph of the everyday” (p. 340).

Citation: Tom Lodge. Review of Kirkaldy, Alan, Everyday Communists in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: The Lives of Ivan and Lesley Schermbrucker. H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57758

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