Ray Simons

Campaigner for workers' rights in South Africa
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Ray Simons joined the underground Latvian Communist Party at the age of 13 and remained a committed Communist until her death in South Africa aged 91. In her lifetime she became a legendary figure in South Africa for her dedication to workers' and women's rights.

Rachel Esther Alexandrowich (Ray Alexander), trade unionist and campaigner: born 12 January 1913; married 1941 Jack Simons (died 1995; one son, two daughters); died Cape Town, South Africa 12 September 2004.

Ray Simons joined the underground Latvian Communist Party at the age of 13 and remained a committed Communist until her death in South Africa aged 91. In her lifetime she became a legendary figure in South Africa for her dedication to workers' and women's rights.

She was born Rachel Alexandrowich in Latvia in 1913, but her dangerous involvement in Latvian politics caused her worried mother to send her to live with family in South Africa. She arrived in Cape Town on 6 November 1929 and five days later joined the local Communist Party. In 1934 and 1935 she was the party's general secretary. She became a member of the political bureau.

Soon after arriving in South Africa she was fired from a job for taking part with blacks in a campaign against "passes", the document which black men had to carry under pain of arrest and imprisonment. She lost another job for attending the founding conference of the Anti-Fascist League. Undeterred, she threw herself into organising workers of different trades into unions.

Her most outstanding achievement was in the late 1930s: she travelled through the farmlands of the Western Cape, organising coloured and white workers into what, in 1941, became the Food and Canning Workers Union. This was pioneering work driven both by her beliefs and a rare degree of courage. To organise rural workers - the poorest of the poor who were employed seasonally - was unusual at that time; to bring together "coloureds" and whites in the same union broke through racial barriers. Under her leadership the union acquired a reputation for effectiveness and militancy.

Ray Alexander, as she became known, was a natural target for the anti-Communist paranoia of the Afrikaner Nationalists when they were elected to government in 1948. Using the far-reaching powers they enacted in the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 to proscribe the party, they "banned" her in 1953, imposing administrative decrees which severely curtailed her personal freedoms. The next year they ordered her to quit as General Secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union.

Her campaigning for women's rights, which led her to be one of the founders of the multi-racial South African Federation of Women, also brought official retribution: in April 1954 she was barred from being the General Secretary within days of the organisation's founding.

In the same year she was elected to parliament as a "Natives' Representative", one of a small number of white MPs who were supposed to speak for the majority black population. By then the government had already evicted two Communist MPs and it now rushed through a law which barred Ray Alexander from taking her seat. Despite this she went to the parliament - and was pushed off the outside steps by a security policeman. She sued for assault, won and noted that the damages she was paid covered the cost of her election campaign.

In 1941 Ray married Jack Simons, as fervent a Communist as she was and a lecturer in African Studies at the University of Cape Town. He too was banned and in 1964 was prohibited from teaching. The next year they went into exile, to Lusaka in Zambia. From there they travelled to Britain, where Jack Simons had a fellowship at Manchester University. They collaborated on a book, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950 (1969).

They believed they should serve their exile in Africa and not in Europe or America. So, after two years, they were back in Lusaka and for nearly a quarter-century their home was a refuge for South African exiles. Ray Simons was seen as a mother to them. Her garden provided food for the many who passed through. She and her husband were among the first whites to be accepted as members of the African National Congress-in-exile. Ray worked for the International Labour Office, supporting the family financially, while Jack gave political education to members of the ANC-Communist Party Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) military organisation in its bush camps in Angola.

They were also among the first exiles to return to South Africa after the government opened the door in 1990. Ray Simons returned to the workers' cause, giving advice to trade unions. She and Jack also continued what they had always done, adjusting their budget to give to others: over the years they helped to educate many children, providing school fees, books and uniforms.

Her Central European accent endured to the end. So did her hairstyle - a plait across the crown of her head - which she had adopted when she was 16.

Despite her origins she said she did not think of herself as Jewish: "Because I just felt that I belong to the world. I'm internationalist." The South African Jewish community nevertheless proudly publicises her as one of the Jews who stood up against apartheid.

Earlier this year the ANC honoured her with its highest award, Isithwalandwe (the tail feathers of the blue crane, now South Africa's national bird, traditionally conferred on warriors for adornment). At the ceremony, President Thabo Mbeki praised her as "an outstanding leader of our workers and people who spent her entire adult life fighting for the freedom of our people".

Benjamin Pogrund