Ray Alexander (Simons)
1913 – 2004
“I don’t think of myself as being Jewish because I just felt that I belong to the world. I am an internationalist.”
Ray Alexander has devoted her life to the struggle for human rights and equality in South Africa. Embedded in a Marxist tradition rooted in her Latvian origins, she sought justice for workers and liberty for the oppressed.
Born on December 31, 1913 in Varklian (Varaklani), a small town in Latvia, Rachel Ester Alexandrowich grew up in a cultured home. Her father, Simka (Simon, 1858–1924), had attended a Russian gymnasium—a rare exception for a Jewish child—and her mother, Dobe (1879–1957), had spent five years in Leeds, England. Ray’s father was a teacher of Russian, German and mathematics and he also ran a heder where boys studied Talmud and prepared for their bar mitzvah. Ray was one of six children, five daughters—Cressie (1903–1992), Deborah (1909–1998), Minnie (1918–1979), Mary (1905–1926)— and a son, Isher (1904–1978), and the household also included two daughters from her father’s previous marriage. It was an intellectually rich home environment filled with books, and Ray was exposed at an early age to socialist and communist ideas.
When Ray was twelve years old her father died and his best friend, Leib Jaffe (1876–1948), who was the headmaster of her school in Varklian, exerted a great influence on her thinking. A committed socialist himself, he exposed her to further socialist ideas and raised her awareness of the importance of organizations in the advancement of workers’ rights.
At the age of fourteen Ray was invited to participate in a debate on the Balfour Declaration organized by the local Zionist organization. She declined to take part, explaining that she believed that the fight against antisemitism should be part of a broader human struggle to establish a new world order in which all humankind, not only Jews, would be free.
Because of the prevalence of antisemitism in Varklian, site of the ORT college, Ray was sent to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to further her studies at the ORT technical college. She also attended classes at a communist institution but, fearful of the consequences of Ray’s left-wing involvement, her mother arranged for her to immigrate to South Africa to join her brother Isher and sister Deborah who had already settled in Cape Town.
At the age of fifteen, Ray arrived in Cape Town on board the German East Africa liner Urbena. Within days of her arrival she became involved in the Communist Party of South Africa where she met influential members of various workers’ unions. Three years later she became Secretary of the Commercial Employees’ Union in Cape Town and, in 1935, full-time organizer of the Non-European Railway and Harbor Workers’ Union. She also became involved in activities of the Communist Party, firmly believing that the party’s non-racist vision and commitment could make an essential contribution to the democratic struggle. Her main focus, however, remained with the trade union movement and she became General Secretary of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union (FCWU) in the Western Cape, an effective and militant organization.
The transformation of a landed peasant class into a landless working class is one of the key features of South African history. State suppression of workers’ rights, however, prevented the majority of the labor force from achieving material gain or personal and political freedom. From 1909 various laws were enacted that disallowed any bargaining or strike procedures for black workers. Black trade unions were legalized only in 1979 and played an increasingly political role at a time when black political parties were banned. After the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, ruthless security legislation established a reign of terror against both the African National Congress (ANC) and the trade unions.
As the benefits of collective bargaining grew increasingly attractive to the mainly powerless and marginalized work force in a racially divided South Africa, Ray Alexander became more and more involved in the leadership of the movement. Fearful of disruptions to the status quo posed by militant black workers who constituted the majority of South Africa’s labor force, the National Party served Ray with the first of a series of banning orders in 1953 but she remained active, working underground.
Despite her opposition to racially-based politics, Ray Alexander stood as a candidate for one of the three native representative seats in South Africa’s white parliament, seeing it as a strategy for the achievement of greater ends. However on the day she was due to take up her seat in parliament in April 1954, she was issued with a banning order forbidding her to enter the premises. That same year, another banning order prevented Ray’s further participation in the Federation of South African Women, an organization that she had been instrumental in forming. Ray’s belief in the equality of all people meant involvement in the movement for women’s rights and a successful liberation struggle in South Africa had to include the liberation of women. Another banning order in 1954 forced her to resign as secretary general of the FCWU.
In 1941 Ray Alexander married Jack Simons (b. 1907), a lecturer in African Studies at the University of Cape Town and a fellow communist. He was detained in 1960 and five years later banned from teaching at the university. The harshness of the restrictions, together with constant harassment by the security police, forced them into exile, first to Zambia and then to England where Jack received a fellowship at Manchester University and Ray studied Labor Relations, Russian and German.
In exile, Ray was elected Honorary President of Food and Allied Workers’ Union and continued her work in the trade union movement by serving on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (SACTU).
Ray and Jack Simons co-authored a number of booklets and pamphlets in addition to the pioneering book Class and Color in South Africa: 1850–1950, an analysis of the effect of class and race on South Africa’s socio-political landscape. In 1990 they returned to Zambia where Jack lectured and Ray worked for the International Labor Organization and the banned ANC.
The years of exile that separated them from family and friends were very difficult and it was with great joy that they returned to South Africa in 1990. After an absence of twenty-five years they were reunited with their three children—Mary (b. 1946), Tanya (b. 1948) and Johan (b. 1950)—and the country to which they had dedicated their lives.
Simons, Ray and Simons, Jack. Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950. Harmondsworth, England: 1969.
With Jack Simons. “One hundred years of job reservation on the South African mines.” Geneva: 1987; Idem. “Job reservation and the trade unions,” Woodstock, England: 1959; Idem. “Changing conditions of labour in South African mining,” Addis Ababa: 1978.
Ray Alexander died on September 12, 2004.
Suttner, Immanuel, ed. Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists. London: 1997.
“Profile: Ray Alexander: back home after 25 years in exile: Labour bulletin interview,” SA Labour bulletin 14 (7) 1990: 76–77.
Ray Alexander died on September 12, 2004.