Taffy Adler was born in 1950 and grew up in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg. His parents were from Lithuania and arrived in South Africa in the early 1920s. His father was a communist and, for Adler, getting involved in opposition politics was a natural progression. After matriculating from Athlone Boys in 1967 he studied at the University of Witwatersrand where he joined the Human Rights Society, which was on the radical left of university politics. He also became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and was appointed the organisation’s local chairperson. He became president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) in 1971 and led the last legal march in Johannesburg and the first illegal march in Johannesburg.
Adler graduated from Wits and went to Sussex where he failed to earn a master’s degree, abandoning academic studies and an academic career for trade union organising. He returned to South Africa to lecture and then become a trade union organiser in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), which was the predecessor to COSATU, and the National Union of Automobile Workers. He left the union movement in the late 1980s to set up the Land Investment Trust (LIT), and in 1994 set up the Johannesburg Housing Company (JHC) – a social housing company providing affordable accommodation in reclaimed buildings in the Johannesburg Inner City, and then the Housing Development Agency, a state owned company acquiring land for development by various government agencies. He remains involved in various development projects.
In this interview Taffy Adler talks about growing up in a politicised Jewish family and the important influence his brother, David, who was banned for educational activism in 1977 as well as his aunt, Ray Harmel, who worked in the garment industry and was involved in trade union activity, had on him. He discusses his progression into opposition politics, his role in the student movement in the 1970’s and getting involved in the trade union movement from 1976. He describes the work he did as a union organiser and how the union movement developed in an environment that was politically hostile. He also provides insight into the relationship between the union and employers who started to recognise and work with the unions, and sometimes even sided with the union against the security police. He discusses how some of the unions began to make contact with the ANC and how COSATU started to move much more into the political arena. He describes his relationship with Judaism and his position on Israel and reflects on his experiences in opposition politics and how these experiences shaped him [Written by: Jonathan Ancer].