Sylvia Brereton Neame (also known as Sylvia Neame-Jahn) was born in 1937, one of four children. She had two older brothers, Peter and Graham, as well as a twin sister named Jennifer. She grew up in a sheltered home, but her interest in politics first revealed itself when she was fifteen years old.
After joining the Liberal Party (LP), Neame, supporting the aims of the Freedom Charter, then joined the Congress of Democrats (COD). When the COD was banned in 1962, she decided to become a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) – later renamed the South African Communist Party (SACP). Although her first choice would have been the African National Congress (ANC), at this point, the ANC did not allow membership to people of other races, until 1969.
After completing high school, Neame obtained her BA in History and Social Anthropology in 1961 at Rhodes University, Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province). Neame received a bursary to study at the University of the Witwatersrand. As a result, Neame relocated to Johannesburg, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng). However, her involvement in politics meant that in 1963, while still a student, she was detained for the first time under the 90-day detention law, for forty-five days.
Neame had been dating fellow activist, Ahmed Kathrada, for two years when he was arrested at the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Gauteng, on 11 July 1963, leading to the famous Rivonia Trial where he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Although this brought an abrupt halt to their relationship, they continued communicating with each other through letters, and at one point, during the trial, Bram Fischer and his wife, Molly Fischer, smuggled their letters in and out of prison. However, Neame was herself detained shortly afterwards and the police used their relationship as a tool to torture her, constantly threatening to hang Kathrada. She became physically ill, unable to eat for weeks.
Neame was again detained for a second time under the 90-day law, but this time spent fifty-four days. She later made a statement from the dock and described her time in detention as “the most gruelling experience of my life” (Neame in Nkosi, 1965:48).
She was held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, allowed out for only an hour each day.
During these periods of prolonged solitude, I was completely battered emotionally. I developed an intense feeling of being cut off. I no longer belonged. I couldn’t recognise any continuity with my past, my present and my future. When I was released after forty-five days into a strange world the reaction was even more severe. I could not adjust myself to a strange environment of people, faces and places. I mistrusted everybody, recoiled from all human contact” (Neame in Nkosi, 1965:49).
The psychological ordeal that she endured during her first detention was so traumatic that she tried to escape during her second time in detention. Consequently, she was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.
Neame was among the fifteen accused in what became known as the Bram Fischer Trial in 1964, in which Fischer and thirteen other activists were accused of being involved with and furthering the aims of the SACP, which had been forced underground. In addition to Fischer and Neame, the other accused were Ivan Schermbrucker, Norman Levy, Ann Nicolson, Eli Weinberg, Florence Duncan, Mollie Anderson, Molly Doyle, Jean Middleton, Lewis Baker, Costa Gazides, Paul Trewhela, and Esther Barsel. Hymie Barsel had been the fifteenth person arrested, however, he was found not guilty. Uniquely, this was the only trial during the apartheid era that had seven White women in detention.
Neame, along with most of the other accused, were held for long periods under the 90-day law before being eventually brought to trial. During their detention, many of them were subjected to cruel treatment and torture. This consisted of extreme isolation and keeping the detainee under interrogation standing within a small square chalked on the floor until he or she complied or collapsed unconscious from the strain.
Charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, Neame was convicted and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in 1965, of which two years were to run concurrently. Directly after being sentenced and while waiting to be transferred to a long-term prison, Neame was taken to the North End Prison in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha), Eastern Cape Province, where she was served with additional charges of being a member of the then-banned ANC and its military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which were all fabricated. She was further accused of addressing an ANC meeting in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), Eastern Cape Province, in February 1961.
Despite the fact that she had been living in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape), and White people were not yet allowed to be members of the ANC at the time of the Grahamstown meeting, Neame still stood trial for almost three months in Humansdorp, Eastern Cape Province. Although there was evidence that she was teaching in Cape Town at the time, she received another four-year sentence nonetheless. However, on appeal, she was eventually acquitted.
After her release in April 1967 from the Barberton Women’s Prison, Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) – notorious for its brutality towards inmates – Neame, who was then 29 years old, went into exile. She left South Africa on an exit permit to live in Britain for four and a half years. For part of this time, she studied at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, before moving to East Germany in 1971 where she completed her PhD at the Karl Marx University (now the University of Leipzig) in Leipzig and was also awarded a ‘Diplom’, which is equivalent to an MA. Her doctorate was awarded in 1976, after which she joined the staff of the University.
In the 1980s, Neame married Gerhard Jahn. She returned to South Africa in 1993 with her husband but returned to Germany after some months. Again, she returned to South Africa for one and a half years from 1999 to 2000, and again returned to Germany.
Her contribution to the liberation struggle has been highlighted by the Barberton Museum which held an exhibition in 2014, shining a spotlight on the numerous women political activists who were held at the prison during apartheid.
Some of her published works include Imprisoned: The Experience of a Prisoner Under Apartheid (2018) –she wrote the manuscript immediately after being released from jail – as well as a three-volume history entitled The Congress Movement: The Unfolding of the Congress Alliance 1912-1961 (2015).
- David O’Sullivan in conversation with political activist Sylvia Neame. (2018). Kaya FM, 16 October. [online]. Available at: https://iono.fm/e/614731. (Accessed on 10 March 2021)
- Historical Papers Research Archive. (n.d). Sylvia Neame Papers, 1935-2011. [online]. Available at: http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/?inventory/U/collections&c=A2729/I/6364. (Accessed on 9 March 2021)
- Naidoo, P. (2008). One of the forgotten stalwarts. [online]. Available at: https://www.news24.com/witness/archive/one-of-the-forgotten-stalwarts-20150430. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Nkosi, R. (2014). Female prisoners held during apartheid finally get a voice. [online]. Available at: https://lowvelder.co.za/547652/museum/. (Accessed on 2 March 2021)
- Nkosi, Z. (1965). The ‘Fischer’ trial. [online]. Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/archive-files/Acn2265.0001.9978.000.022.1965.7.pdf. (Accessed on 9 March 2021)
- South African History Online. (n.d). Kathy the gallant. [online]. Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/2B_gallantNEW%5b1%5d.pdf (Accessed on 10 March 2021)
- Umjindi. (n.d). Female activist prisoner – Sylvia Neame. [online]. Available at: https://www.umjindi.co.za/pages/menu/history/museum/exhibits/female-activists-prisoners/sylvia-neame.html. (Accessed on 9 March 2021)