Marcus Solomon was born in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, on 27 January 1939. His father, a waiter by profession, was a Hindu born of Tamil parents from Sri Lanka, although his paternal grandfather was Christian. His mother, classified Coloured, was of mixed Scottish and Khoi descent and belonged to the Protestant Congregational Church.
Much of his childhood was spent in Port Alfred, near the Kowie River, which he considers as his spiritual home. He was raised in his mother’s church in Port Alfred, which was mixed Xhosa and Coloured, so he became familiar with the process of interpretation between isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Along with the Protestant values of hard work, study, and no alcohol, rugby was part of his socialization. For Solomon, non-racialism began when sports communities started playing together across colour and religious lines.
Following his mother’s death, he was raised by his aunt in Grahamstown. She had eleven children and made them all go to church. By the age of fourteen or fifteen Solomon had become a street preacher. He attended the Rhodes University College Coloured Practising School, which was established to provide both teaching training for student-teachers at Rhodes and junior certificate courses for Coloured students. Well-known local personality Mary Waters was the principal, and many of the teachers had attended Rhodes. After receiving his junior certificate Solomon began working on trains as a ‘bedding boy’.
Student and political activism
In 1957 Solomon went to Cape Town to continue his studies and soon switched his belief in God as a transformer of the world to the masses. He attended Trafalgar High School, where Ernest Steenveld was the principal. Trafalgar was a very political school with a strong ‘Fourth International’ – Trotskyist – influence. Solly Edross, Hosea Jaffe, Benny Kies, Jack Meltzer, Cosmo Pieterse and Polly Slingers all taught there, and it was during these years that Solomon became interested in politics and began attending lectures at the New Era Fellowship. During Solomon’s first year he stayed at Zonnebloem Hostel, which then allowed boarders who were not Zonnebloem High School students. There he became friends with Basil February. In school he sat next to Sedick Isaacs, whom he later met on Robben Island.
Solomon played rugby for the City Suburban Rugby Union, which was Christian Coloured, in contrast to the Muslim Western Province Rugby Union. However, over time religious divisions became less significant for the players. Solomon felt that playing sports together helped young people overcome sectional divisions and that following overseas rugby players and learning about their worlds enabled them to gain an international perspective.
Solomon matriculated in December 1958 and then attended Hewat Training College. In 1959, while at Hewat, Frank van der Horst recruited him to the Cape Peninsula Students Union (CPSU), which he found to be very intellectual, collegial and warm. He served as its librarian and treasurer and on its bursary committee. He met CPSU members such as Peter Meyer, Audrey Meyer (née Brecker), Abe Fataar, Kenneth Abrahams, Carl Brecker, Fikile Bam, Archie Mafeje and Pallo Jordan. He became friends with the Namibian Schimming sisters, Norah, Ottilie (Tillie), Charlotte and Bella, who were members of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO). Solomon and Charlotte Schimming became lovers, and through her, he joined SWAPO.
He obtained a teacher’s certificate from Hewat in 1960 and taught at Kensington High School from April to December 1961, then at Walmer Street Primary School in Woodstock. His younger sisters and brothers had been placed in an orphanage in Mthatha. He obtained their release, and they came to live with him in District Six.
By this time factional fighting within the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM) [now known as the New Unity Movement] leadership had penetrated all its affiliates, including the CPSU, which became part of I. B. Tabata’s faction. Despite these problems, however, NEUM affiliates still hosted vibrant intellectual events: Solomon first learned about the language question in a talk by A. C. Jordan and Neville Alexander, after Alexander’s return from doctoral studies in Germany.
Solomon was a founder member of the NEUM-affiliated African People’s Democratic Union (APDU) in 1960, and continued his membership the next year, when it became the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) – to include Namibia (then South West Africa). Although he soon became critical of APDUSA, he remained a member. In 1961 Fikile Bam invited him to join the Society of Young Africa (SOYA), another NEUM affiliate.
The Sharpeville/Langa massacres of March 1960 signalled the seeming failure of non-violent protest. Protest shifted from public demonstrations to small study groups and underground groups planning armed struggle, including sabotage, in the case of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and the African Resistance Movement (ARM), and attacks on persons seen as agents of the apartheid state, in the case of Poqo. The NEUM leadership, at that stage, was not interested in discussing armed struggle. In December 1961 Alexander, Kenny and Tillie Abrahams (née Schimming), Bam and Solomon were suspended from SOYA for challenging the leadership.
Cape Town had a vibrant intellectual life that included study groups and a broader environment of movies, reading and discussions. Solomon joined his first study group in 1961. This met at Ursula Wolhuter’s house and included Alexander, van der Horst and Alie Fataar. They read Capital, although at the time Solomon didn’t understand it. The study groups were dynamic and ebbed and flowed, and this group eventually faded away.
In May 1962 Solomon helped organize the Yu Chi Chan Club, a study group concerned with methods of struggle, especially guerrilla struggle. The group included Kenny and Tillie Abrahams, Alexander, Elizabeth van der Heyden, Fikile Bam, Xenophon Pitt, and Andreas Shipanga and David Hafecue, both from Namibia. It generally met fortnightly, and its programme included lectures, which were usually written, roneoed and distributed, along with suggested reading.
The Yu Chi Chan Club was dissolved in late 1962 and replaced in January 1963 by the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was intended to be a network of cells studying guerrilla warfare and its applicability to South Africa. Solomon’s cell included Kenny Abrahams, Gordon Hendricks, Dulcie September, Elizabeth van der Heyden, Lionel Davis and Brian Landers, who later gave evidence for the State.
As part of their efforts to establish a network, members travelled to different parts of the country to develop contacts. Thus, Alexander went to Johannesburg, Elizabeth van der Heyden, to Namibia, and Solomon, to the Eastern Cape, where he met with individuals in Graaff Reinet, Queenstown and East London. While visiting his uncle at Pacaltsdorp he read of Alexander’s arrest. He returned to Cape Town, where he had left political literature, then took the train to Johannesburg and met Fikile Bam. They both hoped to leave the country, and Winnie Mandela agreed to assist them. She arrived with her two young daughters and Brian Somana at the wheel. However, the authorities had been informed and arrested them up at a road block (Carlin n.d.; Drew 2015:38).
Solomon and Bam were returned to Cape Town and put in solitary confinement at Caledon Square police station. In solitary Solomon became extremely disoriented; the anxiety about what would happen to those close to him was worse than the interrogations, he recalls.
On 15 April 1964 Alexander, Bam, Solomon and eight other National Liberation Front members – in all, seven men and four women – were found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government by means of violent revolution, guerrilla warfare and sabotage and given prison sentences ranging from five to ten years. Solomon was sentenced to ten years. He and the other male prisoners were sent to Robben Island.
After solitary confinement, Solomon found prison to be a relief. He was in the general section with common law prisoners so he had contact with other prisoners. Despite the cruel conditions, Solomon recalls the positive aspects of life on Robben Island. Firstly, he and his comrades lost their negative preconceptions about other political tendencies, recognizing that despite their political differences with other prisoners, they had to respect their commitments to the struggle. From the older prisoners, they learned patience.
Other prisoners taught them to see themselves as conscious agents rather than victims. The state had not signed the Geneva Convention. They found the Prisons Act regulations regarding food, exercise, education, rehabilitation and prohibition of arbitrary beatings. They sought recognition as political prisoners and engaged in hunger strikes and other types of protests. They wrote to the British Labour Government and to Amnesty International, which raised money to pay the fees for their education, and gained international support from the United Nations. In fact, the prisoners’ families may have suffered more than the prisoners themselves because they lacked international support to counteract the hounding they experienced from the government.
While on Robben Island, Solomon completed a BA in History and Economics through the University of South Africa (UNISA). Before his arrest he had begun reading Isaac Deutscher on Trotsky, and during his second or third year on Robben Island he got a copy of the book and resumed his reading.
As a qualified primary school teacher he was involved in setting up literacy classes for other prisoners. Through their practice they learned about Paulo Freire’s teaching methods before actually reading him. For example, many prisoners wanted to learn English, but the vowel sounds of isiXhosa and Afrikaans were very different from those of English, so they switched to mother tongue teaching. They taught other prisoners to read by sounding out the words in isiXhosa phonetically so that they could read their own letters.
Although Solomon was in the general section he was put in isolation for two six-month periods, the first time because the prison authorities claimed he conspired with Sedick Isaacs to escape and the second because he and three others were accused of leading a quarry protest.
Solomon was released in 1974, then banned and house arrested for another five years, during which time he completed a History Honours degree through UNISA. While Solomon and Alexander were aware that their political organization had collapsed, they still believed that they needed to distinguish themselves from organizations aligned with the banned African National Congress (ANC) after their release from prison. Thus, they returned to the practice of study groups, which had been part of their earlier political training. Solomon, Alexander, Eugene Cairncross and Sophia Kisting formed a study group.
Solomon began working with civics and met Virginia Engel and Johnny Issel, with whom he formed a study group in Mitchells Plain. He married in 1975; his wife, Theresa Solomon, was an activist in the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee and, from 1983, in the United Democratic Front (UDF), who served as deputy mayor of Cape Town from 1995-96 and mayor from 1996-98.
In the 1980s civics became politicized around the issue of adopting the Freedom Charter. Although Solomon argued against its adoption, the civics that he worked with in Mitchells Plain voted to adopt the Freedom Charter and affiliate to the UDF, and he accepted the majority decision. Solomon thinks that a serious weakness of Fourth International organizations is their tendency to leave when they lose a debate. Similarly, Peter and Norma Gabriel were involved in a Grassy Park study group with Alexander, but they stayed with their civic when it affiliated to the UDF. Solomon believes that if a trade union or mass organization adopts a decision, then the leadership should accept it. In 1984-85 he was detained for two months on charges of public violence.
Children’s rights activism
In 1983 Solomon was a founder member of the Children’s Resource Centre, a network of more than one hundred children’s groups and more than 5000 members between the ages of 7 and 14 years. His work with children developed out of his community activism. Desmond and Virginia Engel, Johnny and Shahieda Issel, Peter and Norma Gabriel, and the Solomons all had small children and were concerned with how to develop an alternative environment for children. Unlike trade unions, which were generally male-dominated, civic organizations attracted women activists. The idea was that the youth which political organizations seek to attract come from children. Therefore, they needed to devise alternative programmes and curriculum to help children develop. They read the Russian researcher and theorist Lev Vygotsky on the importance of creating an environment for socializing children. Following Vygotsky, Solomon believes that children are the co-constructors of their worlds.
There is also the question of what constitutes the working class, Solomon contends. The notion of the working class needs to be expanded from the labour movement to the entire community, including children, in order to create a new environment. Maintaining that human beings make themselves, Marx’s main focus was how people develop. Activists need to understand how to help move people from common-sense consciousness to a broader social or political consciousness, Solomon argues.
Solomon believes that he was sometimes seen by others in the UDF and ANC-aligned organizations as a third force. Although he was not anti-ANC, he was not in the ANC, and his politics differ from those of the ANC. He believes in the need for another type of politics.
The unbanning of the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) in February 1990 catalysed tremendous changes on the South African Left as the ANC and its allies began negotiations with the apartheid state. That year Solomon attended a month-long school at the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam. The Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA) was launched in April 1990; its formation was preceded by study group discussions about forming a nation-wide socialist organization to raise working class issues. The UDF disbanded in August 1991, and the ANC took over the civics, which were transformed into ANC branches, with many civic and UDF activists becoming ANC activists.
Opposed to turning people’s structures into party structures, Solomon joined WOSA around 1993-94. WOSA formed the Workers List Party to contest elections and raise funds to promote a socialist agenda. Solomon feels that the left is constantly confronted with the problem of the lack of structures and the difficulty of carrying on an alternative socialist tradition when there are no structures.
- Allison Drew – Email to SAHO, 13 May 2019
- Research for this article was funded by the British Academy, and the author is grateful to the Academy for its support.
- Allison Drew and Lungisile Ntsebeza, interview with Marcus Solomon, Rylands, 15 June 2018.Allison Drew, interview with Marcus Solomon, Kenilworth, 21 June 2018.
- John Carlin (n.d.) Interview with Fikile Bam. PBS, Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mandela/interviews/bam.html
- Allison Drew (2015), ‘Visions of Liberation: The Algerian War of independence and its South African reverberations,’ Review of African Political Economy, 42, 143, March, 22-43.