Villa Baker was born on 12 March 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, while World War I was still raging . She grew up in Brakpan, East Rand Transvaal (now Gauteng). A month earlier, on 12 February, her father was killed in a heroic attempt to save a fellow miner’s life. Her young mother later met and married her step-father, Robert Jefferson Webster, who adopted her. They had three other children, Iris, Eva and Robert Jnr.

When she was five years old, the 1922 miners strike took place. Her father participated in this strike. Her political activities were shaped by events in the Miners Union.

Her biological father`s estate provided money for high school at Potchefstroom Girls High Boarding School, where she was educated.

Baker was politically active from early adulthood. She was the local shop steward for the National Garment Workers Union. It conflicted with her employment possibilities, although she was the head of her department.

She was previously married. She met her second husband Lewis Baker who handled her divorce. He was a civil rights lawyer and a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP). They continued their political activities after they were married.

During the Second World War they strenuously opposed the Ossewa Brandwag, an Afrikaner nationalist movement that strongly opposed South Africa’s involvement in World War II and later the National Party under Dr. D. F. Malan. In 1949 with the arrival of their first child, they decided Lewis would continue to be politically active, but she would devote herself to the family.This did not stop her from being active in the women’s’ organisation, Black Sash. She marched, in Pretoria, with Helen Joseph and other white women, who joined the march against the pass laws. She was declared an `enemy of the state` and placed under observation by the Special Branch.

In 1961 before South Africa became a Republic under the Verwoerd government, a State of Emergency was declared.  Lewis went underground for a while. Villa’s situation became precarious. She had many socialite friends, but they deserted her, with one exception. Lewis was eventually arrested and detained without trial for 90 days, later charged and tried in the Bram Fischer trial.They lost all they had, status and financially, and she suffered grievously at the hands of her friends. Following Lewis’s release from prison, he was immediately placed under house arrest, banned from practising law, allowed only one visitor at a time, and placed under permanent police surveillance.

In 1970 the family went into exile to the United Kingdom. Lewis went first, and Villa and Beryl (his daughter), went at the end of the year after Beryl had matriculated. By this time her son was married and independent from the family and so stayed behind. The family was split, but the bond continued over the sea.

Lewis continued his political activities, and following his death in 1979, Beryl took up Lewis` mission.

In 1983 Villa was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radium treatment and surgery. A born fighter, she beat the cancer and visited South Africa the following year.

In 1992 at 75, Villa returned home to South Africa for the 1994 elections and the commencement of the country for which she had sacrificed so much. She moved back to Benoni, Transvaal (now Gauteng) where she joined the SACP local branch and went about making new friends, and renewing her old friendships.

In 1996 Villa had the honour of being invited by President Mandela to his birthday party, the official one at the residence of the President in Pretoria. Her son accompanied her to this Salute of the Veterans. She was very proud and displayed the invitation in a place of prominence in her lounge for all to see. It remained there until she died.

Villa was attacked in her home in 2000. She was abused and strangled. The attack left her shattered and she never walked again after this. She was confined to a wheelchair. The villains were apprehended, almost immediately, and charged. Later in true Villa tradition, she dropped all charges. Her health went down from here.

The death of her daughter Beryl, who served in the first democratic government, in 2002 from cancer, affected Villa and she never recovered from the loss. It affected her health negatively.

Following a stroke, from which she never recovered, Villa passed away on 25 December 2004 in Benoni. She was 86 years old.


Steven, B., Villa Baker - Eulogy to a fallen Comrade, from South African Communist Party, [online], Available at [Accessed: 24 March 2014] 

Collections in the Archives