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Trailblazer Ray Katz an icon for activism and leadership in SA

  • RayKatz2
She was a lawyer at a time when there were few female advocates in South Africa; a struggle activist and student leader; a community worker and a teacher in the townships; a style icon; a mother and a grandmother, but little is recorded about the life and times of Ray Katz.
by TALI FEINBERG | Aug 02, 2018

Thankfully, her daughter, Amanda Jermyn, is changing that. She recently began writing a book about her mother, who passed away on 17 July at the age of 89 in Westport, Connecticut – a lifetime away from Lithuania, where she was born in 1929, and Cape Town, where she grew up and made a major impact on society.

“My mother’s involvement in student politics was motivated by a strong sense of justice that she’d had from an early age. She always felt strongly about correcting injustices, such as those under apartheid, and this was definitely in the spirit of Tikkun Olam (healing the world),” Jermyn told the SA Jewish Report from Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

“Her passion for law was also motivated by a strong sense of justice, and I know that by the age of 14, she had already decided to become a lawyer.” Indeed, at the start of Women’s Month, Ray Katz’ life is another example of why women are celebrated as change-makers and leaders in South African civil society.

Born Ray Kriger, she came from a family that held women in high regard – her mother Riva was also a trailblazer who spoke five languages and placed an enormous emphasis on education for her children. Ray’s sister, Anne, was admitted as one of the first female chartered accountants in South Africa, and Ray as one of the first female advocates.

She was born in Rokiskis, Lithuania, and immigrated with her family to Cape Town at a young age. “At Wynberg Girls High School, my mother excelled academically, graduating at age 16. She became a prefect, and was a role model for many students. Hedy Davis, who attended the school many years later, told me she was advised by Miss Currie, the headmistress at the time, to ‘take a leaf out of the book of the finest Jewish pupil the school had ever had. No one with more talent had ever been at the school’,” writes Jermyn.

Her mother excelled at her law studies, and received the class medal for constitutional history. She was also awarded the Bertram Gesundheit Scholarship for the most promising law student in the last two years of her degree.

In addition, she was deeply involved in student life and activism at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She was elected to the Student Representative Council, became treasurer of the Law Society, and was elected Head Woman Student. Together with Zach de Beer, she founded the Liberal Party at UCT and became its Chairperson.

“As the Publicity Director of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), my mother started the NUSAS Loan Fund Scheme, which was intended for poor black students who were unable to pay university fees. As she did not want to say it was for black students, she stipulated only that the funds be given to students in need. It remains operative to this day. Of this time in her life she wrote, ‘Those were halcyon days’,” says Jermyn.

Later, Katz worked in night schools teaching black students who wanted to obtain their school-leaving certificates. Classes were held in a church hall in Retreat because white teachers were not allowed into the black townships. “The government eventually closed the night schools in about 1951, claiming that students and teachers were using them to spread anti-government propaganda. The Nationalists also believed it to be in their best interests to keep blacks uneducated,” recalls Jermyn.

Her mother was an attractive, vivacious woman who wore stylish clothes, many of which she designed herself. She got engaged to Robert Katz during the final year of her law studies, and they were married in the Gardens Synagogue on 17 December 1950, just a few days after she finished her law exams.

After being admitted to the Bar as an advocate, Katz started her own practice in criminal law. “As there was no place for a woman lawyer to put on her robes in the court building, she changed at her brother’s chambers, and had to walk through the city to the court in her robe. Women were also denied access to the court law library, so my mother had to buy books she could otherwise have borrowed. Before she began to practice, the Chief Justice called her into his office to tell her how to dress. Needless to say, male barristers did not receive this demeaning ‘advice’,” recalls her daughter.

“While she felt accepted by her male colleagues at the university, some of them changed their attitude once she was admitted to the Bar and became their competitor in the practice of law. Attitudes towards women lawyers have since changed, but at the time, my mother was very much a pioneer in her field. With her energy, charm and astuteness, her love of family and hospitality, her moral integrity, and sense of justice, my mother is an inspiring role model for our entire family.”

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