Rebecca Lan was born in 1933 in Cape Town and grew up in Oranjezicht and Athlone. Her parents were immigrants from Lithuania who arrived in South Africa in 1928. They had been involved in left-wing political groups in Lithuania, and Rebecca grew up hearing much political discussion at home. Her parents ran a second-hand furniture shop.
The family lived near Athlone railway station before moving to Hazendal, a whites-only complex. In 1945 they moved again, this time to Pinelands, where Rebecca remained until her marriage. She was educated at Rustenburg Girls High School. From a young age she was a member of Habonim, a Zionist youth movement. There were four main Zionist youth movements in South Africa in the mid-20th century: Bnei Akiva, Betar, Hashomer Hatzair, and Habonim. Each movement had a slightly different political slant. All but Habonim were affiliated with an Israeli political party. Habonim is Hebrew for “The Builders”. It was originally modeled after the Scout movement, but it became increasingly Zionistic after World War II. After learning about the movement in England, Norman Lourie founded Habonim in South Africa in 1931. Unlike the other movements, it remained politically unaffiliated, although it leaned towards Socialism. Though financially independent, it received great support from the South African Zionist Federation. With a membership of 3,618 in 1966, Habonim was responsible for over half of all South African youth affiliated with a Zionist youth movement. Habonim aims to educate young people about Zionism with the ultimate goal that this will enable them to build the state of Israel through aliyah (immigration to Israel). More specifically, Habonim, indicative of its Socialist tendencies, promoted aliyah to kibbutz, a communal settlement. It saw Israel as the solution to the Jewish problem and the kibbutz as the solution to the injustices of the capitalist society.
In 1949 Rebecca registered for a social science and social work degree at the University of Cape Town. Through this, she became a member of the Modern Youth Society, a left-wing political discussion group that encouraged young people to take part in the various campaigns which were organised in Cape Town.
In 1950, she was sent into ‘the field’ on the Cape Flats to do social research into poverty. Rebecca believed that change in South Africa could only be attained through political work. She was in contact with Ray Alexander to discuss working for the trade union movement but was advised by Ray to finish her studies. Following this advice, she graduated in 1952 and worked for the university’s Board of Studies. However, when Ray was banned in 1954, she asked Rebecca to work as acting General Secretary of the 12 600-strong Food and Canning Workers Union (F&CWU).
Rebecca acted as General Secretary until her own banning later in 1954, when she was barred from attending meetings (only listed communists were banned from organisations at this stage). However, she tried to continue with the administrative work of the union, particularly the Medical Benefit Fund.
In 1955, Rebecca was charged with breaking her banning order by attending a meeting. Although she had been sitting in a car outside the meeting, she was found guilty and given a two-month sentence. When she appealed against the sentence, it was only suspended. As she had been convicted, the state could now list her as a communist.
Her father’s illness that year added to Rebecca’s problems, she was under pressure from her family to take over the family business. The Union’s medical fund was now looked after by Iris Festenstein. In 1956, Rebecca married Dr. Ben Sacks and they had two children. During the 1960 State of Emergency, she expected to be arrested and so the family fled the country and settled in the United Kingdom.
- Kegel, T. 2003. “Effect of the Zionist Youth Movement on South African Jewry: Negotiating a South African, Jewish, and Zionist Identity in the mid-20th Century”. Haverford College.
- Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town.