Riva Joffe, anti-apartheid campaigner was defiant to the end

Activist sent defiant parting message to Keir Starmer before her death

Thursday, 7th October 2021 — By Andrew Feinstein


Riva Joffe

RIVA Joffe, who passed away on September 21, was a stalwart of the Labour Left in Camden, with a fascinating life story dominated by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and a lifelong commitment to antiracism and world peace.

Riva died as she had lived: with dignity, courage, honesty, and a remarkable strength of will.
She was born in South Africa in 1940 to parents whose families had fled pogroms and persecution in Lithuania.

Her mother and father were active, committed members of the nascent South African Communist Party and lived in as non-racial a manner as was possible under apartheid.

Her father, a GP, was interned during the Second World War because of his Communist sympathies. Astonishingly, he was jailed in the same camp as Nazi sympathisers.

Riva suggested her ebullient father was never quite the same after this experience.

On his release he was served with a banning order by the newly installed neo-Nazi regime, causing the family to emigrate to the UK.

The Joffe home in West Hampstead quickly became a safe haven and meeting place for ANC members, resulting in the teenage Riva interacting with some of the most important figures in the liberation struggle: Albie Sachs, the freedom fighter and later Constitutional Court Justice; legendary radical economist Vella Pillay; General Secretary of the SACP, Moses Kotane; Chair of the Party, Yusuf Dadoo, and many others.

Unsurprisingly, Riva grew up to be a feisty antiracist activist: she was always engaged in the struggle to liberate South Africa.

In the UK her activism spanned not just antiracism, but global justice and peace, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, fighting inequality and poverty, as well as passionate support for the NHS, born out of her professional work as a much-respected therapist.

She received a letter from the Labour Party investigating her for alleged antisemitism. It arrived a couple of weeks before she passed away. Her defiant response was a parting message to a party she had come to despair of under her local MP, Keir Starmer.

She explained her family history of multiple exiles, initially fleeing antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, and how she was now exiled from the party that had gone “full McCarthy”.

In a coruscating lecture on internationalism and antiracism, Riva wrote trenchantly: “Failure to hold Israel’s government to an equally anti-discriminatory standard that you expect of Britain is deeply patronising. And if it is done out of fear of being accused of racism it is also cowardly and racist.

“What is it about those of us you are ‘processing’?  Can it really be our views about Palestine that terrify you? Yes – we oppose most strongly Israel’s government’s oppression of the Palestinians, but then we campaign for justice for all minoritised people.

“We also want urgent action on climate change. We oppose the arms trade and consequent ‘foreign wars’. We are working for a safer, greener and more peaceful world. We are probably on the right side of history.”

These honest, searing words serve as a political epitaph to someone whose whole life was spent “on the right side of history”. In her final text message to her comrades she exhorted us to keep up the struggle, to never waver in the pursuit of a better world.

As news spread of Riva’s passing the outpouring of messages from all over the world, was testament to how much she was loved by so many, to the profound impact she had on so many lives.

She is survived by her brother, Mike, her beloved son, Stefan, and his two children, her daughter and her three children. Riva’s adored partner of many years, Aziz, passed away three years ago.

Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP, an author and a member of Camden Labour

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