Middleton Jean

Jean Middleton

She was born Jean Clarice Middleton in Durban on 30th August 1928, the daughter of an English-speaking father and a mother of German extraction. After Durban girls' college and an MA in English at Natal University, she became a teacher. She married, and soon divorced, Harold Strachan, who was later imprisoned for his vivid descriptions of prison life recounted in the Rand Daily Mail.


Jean herself acknowledged that her first inclinations towards Communism derived partly from reading Dickens’s novels. Mainly it was the author’s sensitive pointing out of the “gap between wealth and poverty (which) was most painfully described”. She also recalls reading of the effects that literature denouncing tyranny and advocating equality and respect had on the political development of comrades such as Chris Hani, the first General Secretary of the South African Communist Party after the end of apartheid, who was so savagely and tragically struck quickly down by an assassin.  


Moving to Johannesburg, Middleton was active in the Congress of Democrats (COD), the white, mostly Communist, sister grouping of the African National Congress. They would meet at small `tea parties’ and it was at one of these in the earlu 1960s that she was invited to join the Communist Party, by then operating underground.


She joined the Communist Party since, as she put, “it seemed to be the most effective form of protest at that time but we protested against Government policy, we gave out pamphlets and leaflets illegally of course, we put up illegal slogans …”


A fellow COD member took her on as a teacher at his private college after she lost her job when the police called on her at the state school where she taught. On one occasion, Nelson Mandela, then on the run, met his wife Winnie and their daughters at her flat – Jean left discreetly once they had arrived.


In July 1964, three weeks after Nelson Mandela and others in the ANC leadership were sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia trial, Jean was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. The apartheid government, furious at the launching of armed struggle by the ANC, had begun to hunt down white radicals relentlessly.


As the police hammered on the door of her flat, Jean shredded a compromising document and flushed it down the toilet. "I had been prepared to eat it," she wrote later. "I knew that would be difficult, because I'd eaten a piece of paper once before to prevent its falling into the hands of the police. It had been quite a small piece of paper, but I'd found it hard to get down." When the police finally broke in and heard the toilet flushing, they threw her across the room in anger before they arrested her.


She was prosecuted with fourteen others including Bram Fischer, the clandestine leader of the Communist Party, and Esther Barsel. Middleton pleaded guilty but declined to give evidence, as a precaution against the possibility of revealing the identity of comrades still uncaught by the apartheid state.


She was a year in detention, mostly solitary, and three years in a string of prisons, including the notorious jail in Barberton; a story subsequently recounted in her book "Convictions: A Woman Political Prisoner Remembers" (1998).  


She was then a Johannesburg schoolteacher and a member of the banned Congress of Democrats, a home for white members of the Congress movement. Jean had flushed a dangerous document down the toilet when she'd heard police pounding on her door, and they'd thrown her across the room in anger; but, as she wrote, "I had been prepared to eat it, if need be. I knew that would be difficult because I'd eaten a piece of paper once before, to prevent its falling into the hands of the police. It had been quite a small piece of paper, but I'd found it hard to get down."


A copy of Otto Kuusinen’s `Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism’, found inside a brown paper cover and labelled `Fundamentals of English Syntax’, was used as evidence in Jean Middleton’s trial to show that political prisoners were cunning and dangerous. But much of the evidence had been obtained by a police tape recorder hidden in Middleton's flat, where the group held meetings. Whilst the group had also been infiltrated by a police spy, Piet Beyleveld, who had even had an affair with Jean, who had to be tormented by this double betrayal.


Jean was held in detention for a year, mostly in solitary confinement, and eventually imprisoned with other white female `politicals’ in Barberton, on the Swaziland border. On leaving prison, she was put under house arrest and banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. This prevented her from participating in most normal activities and she was unable to obtain work after her release. Having no source of income, she was obliged to leave the country. She could no longer teach, nor even associate with more than one person at a time.


She moved to Britain where she became active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in the British National Union of Teachers. She then came to Britain, taught English at Shoreditch comprehensive, London.


From 1985 to 1991 Middleton worked full-time for the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity (DIP) on Sechaba magazine. and eventually went to work for Sechaba, the African National Congress's journal.  In the end, she felt she'd done more for the struggle in exile than at home, where she returned in 1991 to edit the Communist paper Umsebenzi.  


Jean Middleton gave evidence to the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding her imprisonment.


Suffering from emphysema, he returned to Britain, wrote for the Morning Star, and left the proceeds of the sale of her London house to the paper and to the South African Communist Party. Jean was a stalwart campaigner against apartheid and, in South Africa and a Britain, a member of the appropriate Communist Party. She died of pneumonia aged 82, in Britain on the 14th December 2010.


Sources: Archie Dick “Censorship and the reading practices of political prisoners in South Africa, 1960-1990”

J Middleton, J. (1998) `Convictions: a woman political prisoner remembers’, Randburg: Ravan Press;

Innovation, No.35, December 2007



Guardian 3rd January 2011








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