By Sarah | January 10, 2011
The Guardian, 3 January 2011
As the police hammered on the door of Jean Middleton’s flat in Johannesburg, South Africa, in July 1964, she shredded a document and flushed it down the toilet. “I had been prepared to eat it,” she said 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.
Middleton, who has died of pneumonia aged 82, was one of a small group of white middle-class women jailed in South Africa in the frenetic years of the mid-1960s. She was born in Durban, 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.
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 that she was invited to join the Communist party, by then operating underground. This was a world of spray-painting and the distribution of forbidden leaflets. Their semi-public meetings were likely to be limited to COD members and security policemen in mufti. A fellow COD member took her on 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 – Middleton left discreetly once they had arrived.
She was arrested within weeks of the Rivonia trial, in which Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership were jailed for life. The apartheid government, furious at the launching of the armed struggle, were relentlessly hunting down white radicals, considered a blight on its notion of white solidarity. After a year in detention, mostly in solitary confinement, Middleton was named as one of 14 defendants, all white people, in a trial headed by Bram Fischer, the clandestine leader of the Communist party. Middleton pleaded guilty but declined to give evidence, as she did not wish to reveal the identity of her comrades.
Some of the evidence had been obtained by a police tape recorder hidden in Middleton’s flat, where the group held meetings – also where she had liaisons with one of them, Piet Beyleveld. Though the group had been infiltrated by a police spy, Beyleveld turned state witness. In her book Convictions: A Woman Political Prisoner Remembers (1998), Middleton makes no mention of Beyleveld being her lover, simply commenting that “to some of us he was a friend”. Beyleveld may have been protecting his marriage, for he did say from the witness box that he still believed in the Communist party. But the torment of this betrayal would have lived with Middleton for the rest of her life.
White female “politicals” were imprisoned in Barberton, on the Swaziland border. Middleton’s three years were harsh but, she said, nothing like the treatment meted out to black prisoners.
Her father was dead by this time and her mother did not contact her. “They tried to pretend to their friends that nothing had happened,” she wrote. When her mother died, Middleton, as their only child, inherited the family house.
On leaving prison, she was put under house arrest and banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. She could no longer teach, nor even associate with more than one person at a time. She then came to Britain, teaching English at Shoreditch comprehensive, London. Middleton joined the anti-apartheid movement and in retirement edited the ANC journal Sechaba.
After Mandela’s release, she returned to South Africa in 1991 and edited the communist paper Umsebenzi. Hers was a solitary existence and the violence of Johannesburg worried her. And she needed the NHS, now that her years of smoking had led to emphysema. She returned to England, wrote for the Morning Star, and left the proceeds of the sale of her London house to the paper and the South African Communist party.
• Jean Clarice Middleton, teacher and political activist, born 30 August 1928; died 14 December 2010