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Shirley Ancer – the activist for whom everyone mattered



Thousands of unionists and one Jewish mommy took to the streets of central Johannesburg in 1999 in a protest march.

In fact, the Jewish mommy was also a unionist, although she belonged to a different union to the other protesters. She was a member of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW).

That Jewish mommy was our mother, Shirley Ancer, who passed away on 18 October. She was 87 years old and a powerhouse of goodness.

At the hesped, Rabbi Azriel Uzvolk, whose mother, Rachel, was a friend of our mother, told the story about Shirley’s march with the unionists.

Shirley was involved with the UJW’s Friendship Club lunches, which served meals to elderly members of the community. Many of the guests used the pensioners’ free bus service to get to the lunches.

In 1999, the Johannesburg Metro bus service announced that there would no longer be free rides. Shirley was incensed, and wrote a sternly worded letter to the city council. The letter, which was published in the Sowetan, was seen by the president of one of the trade unions. He decided to organise a march from Johannesburg Park Station to the bus company in Newtown to protest.

Only one member of the UJW was brave enough to attend that march – that was Shirley.

The bus service backed down, and elderly people could once again get to UJW’s Friendship Club lunches.

Shirley loved to nourish people, not only with food, but with love and kindness. She was a driving force behind Kosher Mobile Meals as one of the organisation’s founding members, and by literally getting into her car and driving out to deliver food to people in need all over Johannesburg.

For Shirley, Kosher Mobile Meals wasn’t just about delivering food, it was about delivering dignity and companionship to marginalised people.

That was her philosophy – every single person matters. Every person deserves to be looked after and loved.

Shirley was born in 1936. She was the oldest of four children. She lived with her parents and her grandmother in Doornfontein in Johannesburg.

Shirley’s family were immigrants from Lithuania. Her father worked as a manager of a Solly Kramer’s store, and her mother worked in a delicatessen.

The home was filled with books and people, and was always open to family and friends.

She was involved in Habonim, and spent a year in Israel on Machon in 1958. When she returned, she started studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She left Wits when she ran out of funds, and completed her degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa).

While studying through Unisa, she met Bernard Ancer, whom she later married. Bernard, who qualified as an electrician, was studying law and became an advocate.

Shirley worked as a librarian, a high school English teacher, and a university lecturer. She taught at several schools, including what was then the Indian School and the Chinese School, and went on to obtain an honours degree in English from Unisa.

In the late 1980s, she ventured into Daveyton township on a weekly basis to lecture English at Vista University campus.

She never stopped resisting the National Party, and fought quietly against apartheid under the radar, working in the Black Sash, where she forged friendships across the colour bar, and was involved in Operation Hunger and Operation Snowball, two important anti-poverty initiatives in the 1980s.

Shirley became involved in the UJW in the 1970s, leading its adult education division in the 1980s, and becoming chairperson of the Johannesburg branch in the 1990s.

In addition to being a committed and active UJW member, she also volunteered at Johannesburg General Hospital for many years and, when she was receiving treatment for cancer, she saw there was a need for a soup kitchen at the radiation department, so she set one up.

She used to take a group of Selwyn Segal residents out for lunch regularly, and arranged cakes for the children at the Johannesburg Children’s Home for their birthdays.

Shirley trained and volunteered as a counsellor for Nechama, a counselling organisation for the bereaved.

She wasn’t only a counsellor, she was a councillor. Shirley served two terms as a Johannesburg city councillor for the Democratic Alliance.

Unlike most politicians, she wasn’t attracted to power. She rolled up her sleeves and got her hands dirty. During one family meal, she received a call that the electricity of a pensioner on life support was about to be cut off. Shirley sprang into action.

She helped all sorts of people at all times of the day and night – principals, pensioners, widows, mothers with newborn babies, and even opposition party officials had her cellphone number on speed dial.

Shirley was specifically drawn to the UJW because it enabled her to work within the Jewish community and contribute to the broader South African community.

She compiled recipe books – about 10 over the years – to raise money for various causes that were close to her heart.

For her 85th birthday, she wanted to raise funds to cover 100 packs for Dignity Dreams, a non-government organisation that provides comfort and menstrual-health education for young women and girls.

She raised enough funds to buy 120 packs.

Shirley was also world famous for her eccentric soup concoctions, and would use us as her culinary guinea pigs.

Although she loved to feed us, there was a time when she forbade us to buy or eat Wilson Rowntree sweets and chocolates because of an outcry over how it treated its workers. The strike ended in 1982, but Shirley never relaxed the ban.

She instilled in us a love of reading, starting with weekly visits to Cyrildene library, and she would speed read her way through her pile of books in days. She introduced us to her loves – Anne of Green Gables, The Story Girl, Katy of What Katy Did, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and the Bobbsey Twins, and all the girls who went to boarding schools in the Enid Blyton books.

She adored John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, and loved reading “a good murder” – it wasn’t the murder she loved; it was the bad guys receiving their comeuppance.

She was proud of us, and we’re so proud of her. To honour her memory and her legacy, we’ll live by her motto, “Everyone matters.”

  • Jonathan Ancer is an author and journalist. He writes this on behalf of his siblings: Judith, Ruth, and Charles Ancer.

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