Radical Objects

Radical Objects: My Mother’s Saucepan

This is a photo of my mother’s saucepan, I grew up in South Africa. In 1956 156 people, members of the opposition movement (the African National Congress and associated organisations) were arrested and put on trial for treason. Those arrested included Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada, Ben Turok, Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein, Z K Matthews, Ruth First, and many other luminaries of the struggle against apartheid. The prisoners were held in prison in Johannesburg and bussed to Pretoria each day for a trial that lasted five years before all charges against all accused were finally quashed, the old Pretoria synagogue having been converted into a court room.

The state made no provision for feeding the prisoners at lunch time so a group of white, liberal women from Pretoria, including my mother, Polly Epstein, made a rota according to which they would arrive at the old synagogue at lunch time with food for the prisoners. My mother used to pick me up from school sometimes, which finished at lunch time, to accompany her to the synagogue both to help serve the lunches and because she thought, rightly, that it would be educational for me.

This saucepan together with some other large ones from my mother and the other women involved, held the large stews that tended to be the lunch menu. When my parents left South Africa in 1963, two of these saucepans came with them. I’ve chosen to photograph the larger of the two, with the name ‘Epstein’ written down the side as this is the one from which I remember offering food to the prisoners.


  1. This is a wonderful story on lots of levels–but one of the things that strikes me most is that the government didn’t feed the defendants.  That seems astonishing, and actually kind of cack-handed on the part of the regime. Why would they want to create a situation in which the liberal white women of Pretoria were interacting with ANC luminaries every day?

  2. What I can’t remember is if this went on the whole five years of the trial. I think not because I know I was young when I went with her. So I think that the government did catch on that they were doing something particularly stupid and started both to feed the prisoners at lunch time and to exclude the women who had started the rota from interacting with them.

    1. Coming back to this after listening to the audiobook of Nelson Mandela’s
      autobiography, the mystery is resolved–the defendants were not in
      prison but rather on bail. They were living at home and had to travel to
      Pretoria every day. Mandela describes how the trial was moved to Pretoria to maximise the disruption to their lives. Thus, the state didn’t claim the responsibility for
      feeding them, at least not in the early stages of the trial–perhaps they were imprisoned later.

  3. I wonder if this is mentioned in any of the writings of the people who were on trial.  Lots of them wrote memoirs, so it might be.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Small details of positive human interaction like this make the difference. Stick your neck out just a little and maybe that will be the tipping point! Heart hearth and Home in one pot! Helen

  5. Maybe some if my SA political friends will know the answer to the conundrum. I do think that Ad Hain (Peter Hain’s mother) may well have been on the rota. Maybe I’ll email and ask her what happened. Ad, by the way, is famous for having heckled Peter during the Iraq War with the comment, “Peter, what happened. You used to be a radical”. I think both she and he are now somewhat embarrassed by this … Knowing _ Ad from a long time ago, she probably couldn’t contain herself.

  6. This saucepan is part of history! It should be preserved and should be taken care of…It would inspire a lot of people to look back in the past! This picture and your story is very inspiring!

  7. A radical object which unites my academic research into the non-kitchen resonances of pots and pans (see recent Venezuelan disturbances with pro- and contra-Maduro pot-banging, and the early modern skimmington’s ‘tinging of saucepans’), with connections in my partner’s family, to Izzy Maisels, one of the lawyers at the treason trials.
    A perfect object to undermine the notion that there is such a category as an ‘everyday’ thing.

    1. I haven’t looked at this site for ages, and just saw this comment from Sara Pennell. Izzy Maisels was a friend of the family — my parents certainly knew him but my Johannesburg uncles were much closer friends. Networks within networks.

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