Gill Marcus was born in South Africa in 1949; her parents had also been born in South Africa, but her grandparents had immigrated from Lithuania. Her parents were members of the South African Communist Party, and from an early age Marcus was made aware of the inequities of apartheid. When her family had to leave the country in 1969, Marcus became involved with the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC) in London. Despite violent attacks on ANC offices in the city, Marcus worked for the party’s information-gathering department as deputy secretary for information and as the editor of a news bulletin covering events in South Africa. When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Marcus returned to South Africa and ran the party’s Department of Information and Publicity until 1994. She was later elected to Parliament where she served as the Deputy Finance Minister in 1996 and then Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank in 1999.
“While I am not religious, I’m certainly very conscious and proud of being Jewish. Perhaps there is more of an awareness now of the traditions and rituals. But for me, the essence of my Jewishness is in trying to live a life that has value.”
In her service to her country and the contribution she has made to the functioning of a democratic society, Gill Marcus has certainly lived a life of value. Both in London and in South Africa, her adult life has been devoted to the cause of justice and democracy and her vigilance and constancy have done much to further those ends.
Early Life and Education
Gill Marcus, who never married, was born in Johannesburg in 1949. Her grandparents were from Lithuania but her parents, Molly and Nathan, were born in South Africa. Both her parents were members of the South African Communist Party and from an early age Gill was made aware of the iniquities of apartheid; the Marcus home, open to people across the color line, was very different from that of the average white South African household.
Marcus enrolled for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg but did not become involved in student politics “because it didn’t seem like it could achieve anything.” Her studies were interrupted when she left South Africa for London in 1969 together with her parents, two sisters, and a brother, but she completed her degree by correspondence with the University of South Africa.
Political Activism With the ANC
In London Gill ran the family salad bar in Knightsbridge. She joined the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC) and worked for the latter’s information-gathering department, becoming deputy secretary for information and, for fifteen years, editor of a news bulletin covering events in South Africa. Agents of the South African government were active in London, engaging in hit squad activities and acts of sabotage that included the bombing of the ANC offices in London.
When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Gill Marcus returned to South Africa after spending twenty-one years in exile. She was among the first ANC members to return, having been asked by the organization to help set up structures, particularly a communications infrastructure, to prepare for the transition to democracy. She ran the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity until 1994 and played a leading role in determining media policies for the ANC in the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994.
Career in Parliament
Marcus was elected to Parliament in the April 1994 election. After twenty-five years in communication and information, she wanted to do something different, something more practical in the area of delivery. Moving from the political to the economic arena, she became chairperson of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance in the National Assembly. Under her leadership, the Committee developed a reputation for accessibility, transparency, and fearlessness in criticizing departmental and individual inefficiency.
Having proved herself in the erstwhile male arena of finance, Marcus became Deputy Finance Minister in 1996 and then Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank in 1999. Her success in this area in a very male-oriented society was significant in promoting gender equality in the early years of democracy in South Africa. Although committed to the principle of gender equality, without any taint of tokenism, she is not an overt activist in the field.
After her five-year position at the South African Reserve Bank, Marcus became a professor of Leadership and Gender Studies at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. Later, in 2007, she became the chair of Absa Group and Absa Bank. In 2009 she returned to the South African Reserve Bank as Governor, a post she held until 2014.
Legacy and Jewish Identity
In all her political and public activities Gill Marcus established a widely respected reputation for her extremely conscientious approach to her work and her efficient and effective administrative abilities. With a very deeply held belief in the potential of South Africa and its people, she is totally committed to the development of a flourishing civil society that protects the right to differ without incitement to violence or racial hatred.
While conscious and proud of her Jewish heritage, Gill Marcus is not religious in any active sense. She has always understood the Jewish tradition to be on the side of humanity against oppression and the essence of her Jewishness lies in trying to live a life that has value by making a contribution to others. The Holocaust had a profound effect on her from an early age, and she believes that, although individual racism cannot be eradicated, institutional structures can prevent that racism from becoming too destructive or dangerous.
Pitock, T. “‘A Life of Value’: Gill Marcus Talks to Tod Pitock.” Jewish Affairs 48 (4): 1993: 21–25.
Suttner, Immanuel, ed. Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South Africa Jewish Activists. London: Viking, 1997.