Born Ruth Löwenthal in Fürth (near Nuremberg) in 1924, Ruth Weiss fled with her parents and sister to South Africa in 1936 to escape rising German persecution. Too poor to study at a university, she became a self-taught expert on African economics and then a journalist. She was declared persona non grata by the white regime because of her critical reporting and “sanction busting” stories.
She moved to The Guardian in London where she continued her anti-apartheid work, counting amount her friends many of the pioneers of the anti-apartheid movement and writers of the time. This includes her close friend, the Nobel Prize winning author, Nadine Gordimer. She continued her work in Lusaka, Zambia and then in Cologne, Germany, as an editor in the Voice of Germany’s Africa-English department. She was co-founder of the Southern African Economist. As an invited staff member of the Zimbabwe Institute of Southern Africa (ZISA), she facilitated secret meetings of white and black South Africans, ahead of official talks that led to the dismantling of apartheid.
Starting in 1992 she wrote on the Isle of Wight for a decade and then moved to Germany in 2002 where she continued her research and writing of historical novels on anti-racism themes. She now lives in Denmark with her son and grandson where she continues an active writing and speaking schedule.
Friends of Ruth Weiss
It was in the early forties when I first saw Nadine Gordimer walk into the bookshop, where I worked. A delicate striking beauty, self-possessed and on her way to fame. Her short stories were already known and respected, then in 1953 the novel ‘The Lying Days’ were to cause a stir in the world of letters. I, an overawed girl Friday, made no effort to approach her, except to serve the cup of coffee I always had ready for customers. Nadine was monopolised by both my bosses, especially Hans Weiss, with whom she was to discuss not only literature throughout the decades. During the fifties, we met frequently, as she had married Reinhold Cassirer in 1954, an offspring of the one-time Berlin Jewish upper-class Cassirers, a good friend of Hans Weiss, also the sprig of a Berlin Jewish bourgeois family. The Cassirers were two of the few guests to celebrate my union with Hans. I remember my first visit to their Parktown home, where Nadine lived till her passing, for I admired what I thought was a great copy of a Daumier painting, only to learn it was the original, just as was another by Toulouse-Lautrec that graced the living room! The Cassirer family’s famous collection of expressionists had the good fortune of having been lent to the Louvre in the 30s, thus escaping the Nazis.
I was to discover Nadine’s warmhearted, generous personality hidden under her disciplined manner. Somehow we came closer and finally confidantes. Contemporaries, we were both married to older Central European men, Nadine part of a patchwork family, I in a childless marriage with a manic-depressive partner. We trusted each other with confidence and supported each other as friends do. She, whose marriage like her career was successful – she called it a wonderful marriage – helped me during a distressful time. When I was sent by my paper to Southern Rhodesia, to be then prohibited from returning, we never lost touch. We corresponded throughout her life. I was a guest when she was awarded a doctorate in Oxford, she visited me in Zambia, London, Zimbabwe. When I was permitted to enter South Africa for a few days after De Klerk’s February speech in 1990, I stayed with Nadine, as I did on later visits. When one is allowed to reach an advanced old age, one inevitably mourns the passing of friends. Nadine’s departure in July 2014 was particularly painful, leaving a vacuum in my life. A remarkable woman, she was a friend who is always remembered.
In 1963 my good friend John collected me from Livingstone airport to whisk me off to a huge United National Independence Party (UNIP) rally: after the 1962 break-up of the Central African Federation, Northern Rhodesia was on the brink of independence and in the throes of an election campaign. Later the three speakers and myself went to John’s house, where we all stayed overnight after an animated dinner. It was my first meeting with Reuben Kamanga, Sikota Wina, Dingiswayo Banda, later government Ministers. The following morning I left for Lusaka where I interviewed UNIP’s Mainza Chona, a future Vice-President. Kenneth Kaunda – Kenneth David Buchizya Kaunda – UNIP’s leader was asleep, after his return from the Copperbelt where he had met striking miners. A few days later I was in a car with Kaunda’s entourage during his election campaign through the country, listening to him and others such as Simon Kapwepwe rallying the people, sometimes from an antheap. A highlight was a stop in a Bemba village, where Kaunda visited his mother and finally emerged smiling broadly, with the old lady on his arm to introduce her to us.
I was not to know that it would be the start of a friendship. When I later lived and worked in Zambia, I was to interview President Kaunda – KK – numerous times. So much so, that his photographer once collected the many photos he had taken of the two of us. Sadly, as so much of my belongings, these were lost in the course of my many moves, I only was able to retain two pics of KK, which his adjutant happened to have with him, one with his wife, which he had signed with dedications for me during an official dinner. Thus, when later I was one of the journalists accompanying Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, KK called me to him and told his visitor: ’You haven’t brought a German but a Zambian journalist with you!’ My last photo was on a visit to Lusaka in 2009, when I met him in his then town office, where he was busy with his AIDs charity. Incidentally: before that nostalgic meeting, I had interviewed the then President Rupiah Banda. I hadn’t been in Zambia or at State House for almost 20 years. After I had gone through security, the elderly official who handed me my handbag said to my astonishment: “You bag, Mrs. Weiss”. When I asked how he knew my name, he said: ‘Madam was a regular visitor at State House!’
In 1980, during Zimbabwe’s transition to Independence, I was again on a Zambian visit, which included an interview with KK. After this, he told me that he had invited the Frontline States to a meeting, as he wished to add an economic alliance to supplement the political partnership. I said it was a splendid development and added it would be great if an economic journal could be published to accompany this, as it was difficult in one southern African country to learn of the economic situation in another. The result was that some months after the establishment of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC), later Southern African Development Conference (SADC), KK sent me a message to ask how my plans had advanced! I was then on my way from London to Zimbabwe, but was able to interest my friend Antony Martin in the project, who had returned from a post as economic consultant to the government of Papua New Guinea. He was able to raise the finance, so that we were able to launch ‘The Southern African Economist’ in Harare, with the Zambian Dominic Mulaisho as editor-in-chief, staff from different SADDC countries, the near genius and never forgotten Antony Martin as consultant, myself as trainer.