Ray Simons

Campaigner for workers' rights in South Africa

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform