Leon Levy, Back to the Front: A Memoir (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2023)

BOOKENDING a life seems an appropriate approach to memoir, although in this case Leon Levy does it unevenly. Born in 1929, he left South Africa in 1963 on an exit visa and worked in industrial relations in Britain until his return home in 1997. His early South African career was as a trade union official, so successful that he became president of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was its signatory to the Freedom Charter in 1955.

Levy was one of four siblings (and of a pair of twins, his brother being Norman) who grew up in some privation in 1930s Johannesburg after the premature death of their father in 1935. Their mother showed considerable resilience and ingenuity in keeping the family afloat. Anti-Semitism was rife and Levy sought identity in the Zionist youth movement; in the anti-bourgeois Hashomer to which Joe Slovo and Baruch Hirson also belonged. Levy attended anti-fascist rallies amid opposition to right-wing developments in South Africa.

Radical politics was well-populated by the Jewish community because, Levy argues, many individuals were doubly marginalised ‒ from established white society and Jewish religion. He was a voluminous reader especially of Marxist works and this, and witness to daily racism and economic inequality, led him from 1954 into the unions; most notably the laundry and food and canning workers. He rates his early work experience in the clothing and paper industries as important; his sacking by CNA as perhaps more so.   

From his late teens he was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), in a cell with Rusty Bernstein and Cecil Williams, and sold the Guardian. There was a great deal of interest in internationalism and of the work of the Peace Committee. Levy’s work with the unions for a brief period ignored apartheid in a spirit of non-racialism, but ahead of the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956 the South African Trades and Labour Council (SATLC) split into the white Trade Union Council of South Africa and the mixed SACTU. Levy likens this to the historic split in the American union movement between the AFL and CIO.

SACTU was founded in March 1955 at the Trades Hall in Johannesburg. Levy was president for almost all its legal existence. But SACTU left conventional unionism behind and became part of a broader campaign in which unionists were now seen as freedom fighters in anti-colonial and other struggles. By 1961, SACTU had about 53 000 members in 51 unions and Levy had added textile workers to his particular responsibilities. He was also editor of Workers Unity. This was a world of clandestine activity in which corners were cut. Strikes by Africans were illegal, so care was taken during stoppages not to leave factory premises.

Levy was banned from meetings, but (surprisingly) not listed as a communist, so he could still work. When he was charged with breaking his banning order, Slovo in his defence successfully argued that he was just arranging the chairs before a meeting. The strikes in which he was involved, he describes as small-scale civil wars against angry bosses and aggressive police. One of the more successful campaigns was the potato boycott of 1959.

The broader political context was the build up to the Congress of the People held over two days at Kliptown in July 1955. Levy presents the standard picture of a widely consultative process that processed thousands of suggestions and anointed democratically elected representatives, although there are other interpretations. It ended with a long process of name and address taking organised by Major Spengler of the police special branch.

Thus, from December 1956 until March 1961 Levy was an accused (number four) in the marathon Treason Trial. Initially it involved 156 individuals who appear in a famous montage photographed (twelve rows of thirteen) and put together by Eli Weinberg. Apart from its longevity, the trial is famous for the incompetence of the prosecution faced with the near impossibility of proving a conspiracy among so many. But the charge of high treason was serious enough. In the process an enormous level of solidarity was created among the accused and their supporters. Levy was with those still on trial in March 1960 when the first State of Emergency was declared and all the accused were detained; at which point the defence lawyers walked out. Shuttling between Johannesburg and Pretoria on the Treason Trial bus for 30 months Levy reckons he travelled 36 000 kilometres.

The trial inevitably collapsed, but the atmosphere of the early 1960s was febrile and there was constant fear of arrest as South Africa took on the character of a police state. Levy was one of the first victims, on 15 May 1963, of the law enabling ninety-day detention, which Minister of Justice [sic] John Vorster threatened could mean eternity. In Johannesburg’s Fort prison Levy encountered warder Greef who was to assist fellow detainees to escape. As Levy was by now listed as well as banned, his career was effectively over and he successfully applied for an exit visa.

On his return to South Africa over thirty years later he worked for Andrey Levy (no relation) Consultants and then for twenty years at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). He extols the virtues of post-apartheid labour legislation and argues that it has established the dignity of labour. Certainly, the CCMA has a good reputation and occupies an important niche in labour relations, and Levy played a significant role in this development. He also worked for another admirable organisation, the Centre for Conflict Resolution, which has continental reach.

But this book has a number of serious flaws. While Levy correctly records the just cause waged by stalwart individuals with great dedication and much suffering on the left in the 1950s, its implicit patron was the imperial oppressive Soviet Union. His account of SACTU is uncritical, but there many analyses of it that regard is as largely ineffectual because of blurred boundaries with Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Communist Party. In other words, the freedom fighting virtues extolled by Levy inhibited its ability to struggle for workers’ causes and eventually it became just an MK recruiting agency.

It is probably this ideological slant that leads to the greatest historical fallacy in this book (surprisingly as Colin Bundy is recorded as editor). The 1973 Durban strikes are mentioned as the point of renewal of African unionism. But no admission is made that this grassroots workerism was bitterly denounced and subverted by Levy’s SACTU and the communists. Nor is any mention made of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and the headway it made over ten years in advancing the interests of the working class. Suddenly, and conveniently, it’s 1985 and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is born as a rearranged acronym of SACTU.

If COSATU is indeed a resurrected SACTU as Levy seems to believe that would explain its gradual decline to a point where it is now largely a union federation for an ANC-supporting middle class and source of dependable votes. He may be right about impressive labour legislation; but not that it has revolutionised the South African workplace. In practice most remain as toxic as ever, in some cases worse than they were in the past. Levy believes, for instance, that it’s no longer possible for a permanent employee to be told ‘pack your bags and go’. He’s wrong and I have personal experience of just that together with the pathetic protection of both trade unions and the law.

There is permissible flexibility about memoir, but it needs to be rooted in reality. And there are other deficiencies in this book. The Treason Trial cannot have started in January 1956 (p. 157); and ARM, an offshoot of the Liberal Party, was the African (not Armed) Resistance Movement and, more properly, the National Committee for Liberation/ARM.