Umsebenzi Online, Volume 19, No. 23, 4 December 2020
Trade Unionist, Soldier, Fundraiser, Community Activist, author
Celebrating Cde Fred Carneson, Centenarian of the Communist Party
“All the Party without exception, by the time you joined the Communist Party, there was no doubt about your attitude on the race issue.” So said Comrade Fred Carneson, reflecting on the advanced consciousness expected of members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Comrade Carneson, born on 13 March 1920 in Goodwood, Cape Town, actively organised workers and activists from all races into a non-racial and class conscious force, fighting against “colonialism of a special type” and for the South Africa of the Freedom Charter. 64 years of his 80 years life, having joined the Party at 16, were devoted to building the Party and trade unions, organising the forces for liberation and taking on whatever revolutionary task the conjuncture required of him.
He was the sixth of nine children of Anthony and Annie Carneson, both almost illiterate. His father, a coach painter for the railways in Salt River, Cape Town, was transferred to Pietermaritzburg railway workshops in 1924. Cde Fred Carneson was raised as a devout Catholic, serving as an altar boy and was devoted to his studies, winning a bursary to Maritzburg College, where he gained a first-class Junior Certificate, equivalent to today’s Grade 10. He was the first in the family to be educated to this level, but due to financial pressures, he was forced to leave school. He began working at 14 as a messenger in the Post Office, and then later trained as a post and telegraph assistant working in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Port Shepstone.
Cde Fred Carneson joined the CPSA at the age of 16, having been influenced by young Communists that he shared lodgings with, and by books he had found in the library. His family was not a politically active family and it was his work experience, his friends and his reading that consolidated his political activism at this young age. In 1936 he met Cde Sarah Rubin, daughter of a leading Communist family, and in 1938 they established the first CPSA group in Pietermaritzburg.
He, as did so many Communists, enlisted in the army to fight in the Second World War, having been part of the Union Defence Force over the years, where he served as radio officer and saw duty in East Africa and Abyssinia, Ethiopia, from 1938 to 1945. When the South Africa army was under siege in Tobruk in 1941, Cde Fred Carneson defied the order to surrender and escaped across the desert in a van, stating that “you can fight fascists from a prison camp”. He was badly injured at the Battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942.
Wherever he was deployed in the war, he established contacts with Communist Party structures. While stationed in Italy, having been secretly provided with a classified document on the Afrikaner Broederbond, Cde Carneson “liberated” some petrol for a printing machine of an Italian underground printer, who printed 200 odd copies of a pamphlet headed “Know Your Enemy” for circulation to South African soldiers to fully understand the Broederbond as a key political force in South Africa and where it stood in relation to world fascist forces.
On a boat going to the Suez during the war, Cde Carneson met Cde Brian Bunting, beginning a very close friendship and comradeship that lasted throughout their lives.
While he was on leave during the war, Cde Carneson travelled back to South Africa and married Sarah Rubin on 31 March 1943. Their first-born Lynn came in 1944; John was born in 1951; and Ruth in 1953, all three of whom are activists in their own right.
While still stationed in North Africa and Italy, along with another Communist John Morley, he had been involved in the formation of the Union of Soldiers to address the issues that they knew soldiers would face when they got home after the war, a strong statement that they would not be incorporated into the British ex-soldiers organisation in South Africa, a clear statement of anti-colonialism. They then heard about the Springbok Legion, started at the same time by progressive soldiers such as Communist Cde Jack Hodgson, who had found themselves already back home. From then on Cdes Morley and Carneson signed up a number of soldiers from their unit and other units for the Springbok Legion right there in North Africa. How appropriate that on his return to South Africa after the war, he worked full-time for the Springbok Legion, a left oriented organisation of war veterans.
The Carnesons moved to Cape Town where Cde Fred served as the full-time secretary of the Western Cape CPSA in 1945. From late 1945, Cde Carneson also worked as manager, fund-raiser and editor of the Guardian, and then editor of New Age for ten years. Once a week, the Carnesons stood on street corners selling the Guardian. When they returned to South Africa in 1991 and helped to build the Party structures in the Western Cape after the unbanning, Cdes Fred and Sarah actively promoted the distribution of Party propaganda as integral to Party work.
By 1946, Cde Carneson was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSA. When asked about his political work in the late 40s, Cde Carneson said this:
“Well, the usual – organisational work, right – keeping your branches and your groups together, giving them political guidance, not me personally but acting on behalf of the district committee – campaigning amongst the people on general political issues but also on basic political issues as well – problems that were cropping up for the people – this was just after the end of the war, so rationing, for instance, was still in existence, I think, for certain items. One of the first jobs that I undertook, for instance, was to help to organise the women who – in the food lorries – food vans used to go around – it was a hangover from the war. There was a shortage of rice and still a shortage of a lot of basic necessities there, and during the way the government, to stop or counter as much as it could, black markets developing. Would develop a system of food vans which used to go along to the working class areas and used to sell say in certain basics like sugar and rice, oil and things of that nature at set prices – much cheaper than you could get on the open market, and certainly much cheaper than on a black market – And long queues used to form at these various spots where the vans came along, so there was a problem of organisation – organising the crew, then making sure that things went smoothly there – the women had all sorts of complaints about the vans so one would take these up and then the vans were going to be withdrawn – we had contact with through John Morley, particularly had a lot of contact amongst the women, used to sell The Guardian there and so on.
And we had these women’s committee formed and we campaigned and it was taken up later in Johannesburg and Durban – we started a campaign in Cape Town against the black marketeers withholding rice - jacking up the price of rice – because rise was a big staple food amongst the coloured people, as it was amongst the Indians, and the bloody merchants were hoarding the rice, so we started a hell of a big anti-black marketeer campaign, which ended up with the women actually organising raids on the shops where we knew they had the bloody rice, and forcing these people to disgorge it, and then we would take over and sell it to the people at the regulation price. But there (it) was a big campaign that – they – if you read the papers of those days you’ll read it was a hell of a big campaign. Well that was one of the sort of activities that we went in for – organising the elections – the Communist Party at one stage in Cape Town had four Communists on their Cape Town City Council. Other issues were growing – arising there – the question of the Coloured Vote, vote for Coloured women, and then at a later stage of course when the Nationalists came in, there was the issue of train apartheid, bus apartheid – well, all sorts of political issues like that….” (Interview with Julie Fredericks 1986)
How highly appropriate as we salute Cde Fred Carneson in his centenary year, to be reminded of the obligation of Communists to organise around the issues that are directly affecting the working class. Now as we fight hunger in the Red October Triple H plus Water campaign, let us learn from Cde Carneson’ s generation as to what it really means for every Communist to be a community activist! Cde Carneson was one of those four Communists – elected by an overwhelming majority as Representative for Native Affairs for the Cape City Council in 1949 until 1952 when black people were disenfranchised.
Cde Carneson was targeted by the regime from 1946 until he left the country in 1972, and even in exile in London both he and Cde Sarah were targets for assassination named on the “Enemies of the Apartheid State” hit list. His first arrest was in August 1946 on charges of sedition under United Party rule, when he and other communists were charged for wanting to overthrow the government as part of their anti-communist campaign. Altogether, he was arrested over sixty times for political activities.
He and Cde Sarah both received their first banning orders in 1952, repeated in 1954, and both he and Cde Sarah were severely restricted through banning orders, his last ending in 1968. The banning orders effectively prohibited them from working for trade unions and other related organisations, being in a gathering of more than two people, and printing, publishing or teaching.
The couple were frequently arrested for breaking their banning orders, and their house was under close surveillance. During this time, snipers fired into their home, narrowly missing their young son, John’s head. Cde Fred was among the 156 arrested for treason in 1956, and was acquitted in 1961.
In the State of Emergency following the Sharpeville massacre, Cde Fred went into hiding, Cde Sarah was arrested on 8 April 1960 and was released from prison on 31 August 1960, and a month later Carneson returned home from hiding. The impact of this repression on the Carneson family was significant and stressful, particularly on the children. The Security Police arrested Cde Fred again on 8 December 1965 and he was tortured, kept in solitary confinement for 13 months, charged, found guilty and imprisoned at Pretoria Central Prison. The Carneson family was forced to go into exile to London, and when Cde Sarah applied for permission to visit her husband in prison, she was threatened with arrest if she re-entered South Africa.
Cde Fred continued to serve on the SACP Central Committee attending the 1962 Conference that adopted the South African Road to Freedom, and was active in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe as a political commissar for the Western Cape. At this time, he was still editing New Age, until it was banned in 1963. It was for his work in MK, that Cde Fred was arrested, and his trial opened on 28 March 1966, with charges of sabotage and contravention of the Suppression of Communism Act on three counts.
On 25 May he was sentenced to a total of five years and nine months imprisonment, having opted to plead guilty and spare his comrades from being forced to give evidence—or refuse to give evidence - against him. He was acquitted of sabotage as the state could not prove that he was the owner of the bombmaking equipment that had been found. He was sentenced to five years nine months on the other counts.
When he was released from Pretoria Central Prison on 24 February 1972, he left South Africa to join his family in London. He was a member of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and this assisted him to find a job with the National Union of Teachers. He later worked for the mental health charity, Mind, at the same time as making a forceful contribution in exile politics. He became active in the SACP becoming an international representative, helping to raise funds for the SACP and the African National Congress, and representing the SACP at numerous conferences. Ever a revolutionary trade unionist, he was elected to the Chair of the Anti-Apartheid Trade Union Committee.
The Carnesons returned to a massive airport welcome in Cape Town on 19 May 1991. They re-settled in Plumstead and both became founding members of the Southern Suburbs Branch of the SACP. From 1991, Cde Fred served as the SACP Western Cape Provincial Treasurer. Both the Carnesons were active members of the ANC Wynberg branch. Cde Fred was nominated as the ANC representative on the transitional Cape Metropolitan Council and the Cape Regional Council until 1995, and also served on the Reconstruction and Development Programme Committee. The first democratic election campaign in 1994 saw both Cdes Fred and Sarah campaigning tirelessly for the ANC
After a long illness, Cde Fred passed away on 8 September 2000 in Cape Town and was cremated on 16 September 2000. He left behind his wife, Cde Sarah who died on 30 October 2015, at the age of 99, their three children and grandchildren.