Eli Weinberg was born in 1908 in the port of Libau, Latvia. He experienced the First World War and the October Revolution of 1917 as a child, and this led to his socialist political development. Jews in Latvia and Lithuania were deported into Russia in 1915 after accusations by the Russians that Jews were a 5th column for the Germans. These deportations were massive, disorganized, brutal and led to massive numbers of deaths, a pre-cursor to the Holocaust. During the deportations, Weinberg was separated from his family. He became a waif and a stray, wandering with a mascot of Cossack soldiers who took him around. Later, he became attracted to Communism, and as a Jew, he was opposed to all forms of racism.
Weinberg’s mother, his sister and other members of his family were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
At the age of 16, he joined a trade union and soon became deeply involved in its activities. In 1928, he was imprisoned during a general strike in protest against proposed anti-trade union legislation. This was his first experience of prison life. Due to political developments in his home country, he left Latvia, and on 9 December 1929 he arrived in Cape Town. Weinberg stayed in South Africa until 1976, and considered himself a South African. However, he was repeatedly refused citizenship as a result of his trade union and political activities.
In 1932, Weinberg joined the then legal Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). From 1933 to 1953, he was active in the trade union movement in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
In August 1937, Eli Weinberg married Ray Alexander, a trade unionist. At the time, Eli was the acting Secretary to the local committee of the South African Trades and Labour Council. They divorced on 2 May 1940.
In 1950, he was one of many persons ‘listed’ in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. From 1953, he lived under a succession of banning orders. In 1960, he was detained for three months during the state of emergency and again in September 1964 he was arrested together with Bram Fischer and imprisoned for seven months. His application for bail was turned down. Weinberg was found guilty of being a member of the Central Committee of the underground SACP, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Weinberg, together with others, was responsible for putting up posters announcing that the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation (MK) had been formed and was now in existence during the night of 16 December 1961, when the first MK acts of sabotage took place in the country. On his release in April 1970, he was served with a banning order which restricted him to his house- apart from his daily report to the police station.
During the Soweto upheavals in 1976, he left South Africa illegally on the instructions of the ANC. Eli Weinberg lived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he had been granted political asylum.
Weinberg’s interest in photography had begun in 1926, when he worked part time as an assistant in a friend’s studio. He spent his first months in South Africa working as a professional photographer, and during the next twenty years he exhibited and published his work. Even during the period of his house arrest he continued to run a successful studio. Unfortunately, the bulk of his work was destroyed due to the fact that he was unable to take his negatives with him when he left the country.
Most of Weinberg’s work was shot on assignment for New Age, an independent and progressive weekly that supported the ANC. He was also awarded a silver medal at the New York World Fair in 1964 for a color slide of a group of Basotho women in the Maluti Mountains in 1962. The slide was one of 150 000 entries from 58 countries submitted. He was still under a banning order and was unable to attend the presentation ceremony.
He was also instrumental in training a number of Black photographers among them Joe Gqabi. Gqabi was subsequently imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years and later went into exile where he was assassinated.
Eli Weinberg died on 18 July 1981 in exile in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.