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Jeanette Carlson, Fighter Against Apartheid, Dies at 91


Jeanette Carlson, an anti-apartheid activist who with her husband fought against the racist South African government, and who with her family was eventually deported, died on Aug. 18 at her home in Silver Spring, Md. She was 91.

Her daughter Meredith Carlson Daly confirmed the death. She said her mother had a bone marrow disorder.

In her native South Africa, Mrs. Carlson was a leader of the Black Sash, an organization of white women that protested the disenfranchisement of the Black majority. Its members wore black sashes as a sign of mourning for the death of constitutional rights, including the right to vote, for nonwhites at the hands of the government.

Mrs. Carlson led one of the Black Sash chapters in Johannesburg, rallying against apartheid nearly every week outside courthouses and on roadsides. She expanded her chapter’s work to include educational seminars and pro bono legal work.

And she joined forces with her husband, Joel Carlson, a civil rights lawyer, who used political trials to expose the government’s practices of secretly detaining and torturing Black people who were caught without the identification papers required of them under the pass laws, as well as political prisoners, whose only crime was opposing the government. Among the prominent opponents of apartheid he represented were Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Mrs. Carlson often accompanied her husband on secret errands intended to outwit the security forces. The Carlsons received numerous death threats from government supporters, and in 1970 their home was firebombed.

“The security police came to investigate, but you never knew if they were investigating or planting more bombs,” Mrs. Carlson often said, according to Ms. Daly.

The next year, Mr. Carlson learned he was going to be arrested under the Terrorism Act for opposing the government, and he fled the country. The security police then ordered the deportation of Mrs. Carlson and her four children, ages 3 to 13, giving them a month to leave.

Mrs. Carlson assured the police that she would never return — an easy promise for her to keep.

“I put that part of my life behind me, happily,” she said years later, according to a 2014 essay by her daughter. “It was so disgusting to live in that kind of environment where people were treated so badly. I had no intention of revisiting that.”

Jeanette Levinson was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, on June 21, 1929, the youngest of six children. Her father, Israel Levinson, and her mother, Rebecca (Davids) Levinson, founded and operated Hillel College, a Johannesburg boarding school with a rigorous Jewish identity.

Jeanette grew up at the boarding school. In 1949, she earned a teaching certificate and became a preschool teacher.

Her first job was teaching 40 Black students in a low-income school in Johannesburg, where she came face to face with the injustices they confronted on a daily basis. This convinced her of the importance of questioning the government and helping to extend basic human rights to those denied them.

She met Mr. Carlson through their anti-apartheid activities. They married in 1954.

After fleeing South Africa, the Carlsons lived briefly in Israel before moving to the United States in 1971 and settling in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island. While Mr. Carlson became an assistant district attorney in Queens, Mrs. Carlson worked as a bookkeeper and office manager as well as a professional driver and personal assistant.

Her husband died in 2001. In addition to Ms. Daly, Mrs. Carlson is survived by another daughter, Gabrielle Carlson; two sons, Jeremy and Adam; and three grandchildren.

Mrs. Carlson remained politically active, becoming a member of Planned Parenthood and Reach Out America, which responds to disasters. She also joined a mothers’ group opposed to war and taught English as a second language to immigrants.

The major difference between activism in the United States and activism in South Africa, she said in a 2013 video interview on the New York television program “Eldridge & Co.,” was that in South Africa, “there was always the knowledge that you could be arrested at any time, your phones — everybody’s phones — were tapped, your mail was opened.”

Even worse, she said, “you never really knew which of your friends was an informer.”


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