Norma Kitson was one of a generation of Jewish activists, who committed themselves to the struggle against racial tyranny in South Africa. The drive of these South African Jews was to give witness against racism and social injustice, even at great personal cost. Norma Kitson’s autobiography, Where Sixpence Lives (1986), uniquely fuses the personal and the political.
She was born Norma Cranko in Durban in 1933. Following her parents’ separation, she spent five years in a girls’ boarding school in Johannesburg, leaving school at age 14 to read through her father’s library of Marxist books and South African histories. At age 15 she absconded in secret from her mother’s house and bluffed her way into a job as a secretary on a gold mine, where she taught herself how to type and manage an office.
Early in the 1960s these skills formed the basis for her work with the underground printing press in Johannesburg of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. As a member of the technical unit of the illegal South African Communist Party, she also carried out other missions for Umkhonto we Sizwe. By this time she was married to David Kitson, a draughtsman and longstanding member of the South African and British Communist parties, and a graduate of Natal University and Ruskin College, Oxford. After the arrest of almost the entire Umkhonto leadership in July 1963, David was co-opted on to the four-person High Command. A year later, they too were all arrested, and David was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Norma was detained, beaten up and released after 28 days. With her two small children, she went into exile in London, where she set up a small secretarial business. A relationship with a South African expatriate, Sidney Cherfas, developed into marriage in 1973, David in prison having agreed to a divorce. When David was released in 1984, he and Norma resumed married life together in London, both remaining close to Cherfas.
Norma had campaigned vigorously (and successfully) for David’s transfer to healthier conditions in prison, for the release of her son Steven when he was detained in South Africa in 1982, and for the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners. The day after her son’s release, Norma’s sister Joan was murdered in her Johannesburg flat, some assume by the then South African Security forces.
Norma Kitson’s mode of campaigning – direct, non-stop picketing of the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square – was anathema to the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), which shunned any possibility of conflict with the Establishment. For thousands of visitors to London, however, the noisy picket by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group – in which Kitson was the main energizing force – provided the most visible evidence of public opposition to Apartheid, and led paradoxically to the expulsion of Norma and David Kitson from the ANC and from the AAM. She had offended her former comrades in the SACP because of her confrontational campaigning style. David was given the choice of denouncing his wife or losing the funding of his union-funded teaching post at Ruskin College: a choice he treated with contempt.
Norma memorably responded by describing her SACP opponents in print as the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society. (Whatever they couldn’t control, they buried.) After Mandela’s release in 1990, following more than three years’ non-stop picketing, the City of London Group was disbanded. It had provided a platform for expression of a wider spectrum of South African and British political opinion than the tightly controlled AAM.
Norma and David Kitson retired to Harare, in Zimbabwe. Reinstated later in the ANC and honored in South Africa as “veterans of the struggle”, they had the satisfaction of seeing two people centrally involved in their expulsion revealed (posthumously) as having been agents of the South African state.