Ladies and gentlemen:
I am much pleased to address this historic gathering aimed at honouring the memory of one of the greatest revolutionaries in the history of our nation’s fight for liberation, comrade Ray Alexander-Simons. Furthermore, it is historically apt that the memory of this inimitable revolutionary is institutionalised in the context of socio-economic development, one of the key ideals that underpinned comrade Ray’s life.
Consequently, I wish to commend the Food and Allied Workers Union and African Spirit for initiating the Fawu Gugulethu Development Project 2020 Vision two years ago. I believe it incorporates a comprehensive developmental plan to deal with the destructive legacy of apartheid and transform Gugulethu from a racially defined dormitory township to an integrated suburb of the City of Cape Town.
I also note that in order to break down the barriers of apartheid spatial segregation, many facets of the plan will include surrounding areas such as Heideveld, Athlone, Rylands Estate and Nyanga. This latter objective, the objective of breaking down the barriers of apartheid, sharply finds resonance in this act of memorialising comrade Ray through the unveiling of the Museum and Heritage Square.
In its essence, this project seeks to further contribute tangibly to the task of rebuilding our society based on the vision of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, just and democratic society defined and underpinned by economic prosperity. For Fawu, I believe that this latest development is thus the logical next step in its established commitment to the community, which started when it set up its headquarters there more than two decades ago.
As I understand it today marks the public launch of the Fawu Gugulethu Development Project and in particular, the sod-turning ceremony, the unveiling of the logo and the naming of Trustees for the Ray Alexander Simons Memory Centre. This represents the first phase of the project.
Let me also congratulate the people behind this initiative. It is a much needed, positive contribution that will propel us forward as a society.
Today sees 81 years since the arrival of Comrade Ray Alexander-Simons in South Africa. In itself, therefore, this day is historically evocative. It is thus to the credit of the organisers of this event, Fawu, who have deemed her fit to be turned into a monument.
We cannot claim to be heirs to the great ideas, values and thoughts of the crop of historical luminaries such as comrades Ray Alexander-Simons and her husband Jack, Ruth First, Alex la Guma and Johnny Gomas, among others, if we do not accord them the plaudits they deserve. It would also be a betrayal of our movement, the African National Congress and our Alliance broadly, if we do not eternalise their memories as a tribute to the immeasurable sacrifices they have made.
It is these sacrifices that constitute the historical lesson handed down to us today which history’s imperatives oblige us to cherish, preserve and above all live out in our daily lives. One of these lessons is the fact that comrade Ray made a choice to struggle together with the African people for liberation.
Embracing this struggle indicated her non-racial outlook, which was rare in South Africa at the time given the prevailing colonial attitudes and their racial dogmas. By the same token, this leaves us with the challenge to further deepen the roots of non-racialism in the soil of our country, and thus lead by example as the inheritors of this great ideal.
Comrade Ray represented not only the harmony of our principles and values (unity, non-racialism, non-sexism, and progress) but also, importantly, the unity of our Alliance. When she and her comrades organised workers, they did not just set their sights on the growth of the trade union movement. Instead, the canvass of their sights was broad enough to include recruitment into the CPSA and the ANC.
They understood only too well the underlying relations between class exploitation, workers’ rights and racial oppression. Equally, they appreciated the need to harness these three prongs of the struggle into one impregnable common front. Had she so elected, in her early days, she could have taken the path of least resistance by luxuriating in the racial paradise that was South Africa for people of European descent.
But her impulse for justice and for a society predicated on human-centered value system could not allow her to avert her eyes to the sea of injustice engulfing the country she chose to call her home.
Instinctually opposed to injustice, it did not take long for comrade Ray to take a plunge into the South African liberation struggle. She noted that the thick air of human oppression was choking off our indivisible humanity, and immediately set to work against this noxious condition.
Arriving in South Africa on 6 November 1929, she set about organising african workers the same year. To this end she joined the Communist Party of South Africa, a party avowedly orientated to the ideals of a human-centered society. This was to be the launching pad of her contributions to the birth of a society based on justice. Most notably, she joined the Communist Party of South Africa only five days upon her arrival in South Africa, at the tender age of 16.
What does this extraordinary episode in the life of comrade Ray say to us about lifelong commitment to human freedom, and being a citizen of the world? She has left us much that we should be proud of. Of the aspects of her life that we need to learn from with due assiduity is the combination of theory and practice in our daily lives.
Comrade Ray was involved in the CPSA not only as a theorist but also an activist in the classical sense. Hence she lost her very first job for participating in the anti-pass campaign. She could equally juggle her activities in the CPSA and the trade union movement, both as a hard-core activist and an intellectual.
It is this Alliance, of which Fawu is an important part as an affiliate of Cosatu, which is today leading the charge for the much needed reconstruction, development and prosperity of a democratic South Africa.
Actually, at the bar of history, a case can be made without batting an eyelid that she was one among a few revolutionaries who had cast their lot with the fate of the South African working class, not only through supportive political ideology, but by personally bearing the torch of leadership.
Among others, her name had become synonymous with the Food and Canning Workers Union, Fawu’s predecessor. Many of Food and Canning Workers’ Union leaders, including such luminaries as Oscar Mpetha and Elizabeth Mafekeng, singled her out as their source of inspiration and mentor.
This form of commitment, where a revolutionary would found a trade union, mentor and nurture its nascent leadership into matured and theoretically sharp visionary leaders, is the ultimate index and standard to which later generations should necessarily look for as they face up to the challenges of their generation.
Together with her husband, Professor Jack Simons, they dedicated their lives, including their marital partnership, to the struggle for liberation, including class liberation. Today the whole progressive world draws inspiration from their seminal work, Class and Colour in South Africa, academic in nature but marked by revolutionary underpinnings.
Both were intellectuals, writers, unionists, communists, liberation fighters, qualities that need to be emulated at all times by cadres of our movement. We are indeed able to learn from all these areas of the struggle through the example of these giants of our revolution.
Comrade Ray’s untiring efforts to usher in a society in which there is no exploitation and in which the working people lead decent lives continue to inspire our current struggle for a better South Africa.
Her sterling contributions were and are pulsating in formations such as the South African Communist Party, the African National Congress, FEDSAW, the Trade Union Movement, the South West African People’s Organisation and the New Women’s Movement.
She is also the recipient of Isithwalandwe Seaparankwe, the ANC’s highest honour.
Establishing a museum and heritage square in her name will reflect history back to our people, especially the up and coming generation. It is a positive step and should serve as a precedent for countless other comrades who are fading into historical amnesia after their selfless contribution to our freedom, often at a great cost to themselves. The contents of this museum will bring our past back into life to remind the present and future generations that the present did not appear from nowhere.
The present is the outcome of the past and therefore the incubator of the future. Often the clutter of the moment blinds us to these historical realities, of which comrade Ray was part of the agency that generated them. As such this museum will be exhorting us to value the treasure inherent in a lived state of democracy without the tempting complacency to view it as a natural entitlement. One other crucial aspect of this event is the triumph of history over the demon of xenophobia.
Comrade Ray descended on our shores from Eastern Europe, leaving behind tragic human episode of pogroms and other forms of persecutions. This must be a lesson for all us: that people who come from outside our borders are our brothers and sisters, and that there is much we can learn and benefit from them.
I therefore thank you for considering this stalwart of our struggle deserving of this honour, fully optimistic that her memory will further serve to galvanise more efforts for a better South Africa.
I am confident that the two historical entities, the Ray Alexander Museum and the Heritage Square, will teach and inspire many others from now onwards.
Similarly, I am optimistic that this site will, both figuratively and literally, communicate the eternal values personalised by comrade Ray Alexander-Simons, so that these values flourish and take on permanence as we go forward. We owe this to history and the future.
I thank you.