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Amy Rietstein Thornton

The Order of Luthuli in

Amy Rietstein Thornton Awarded for:
Her excellent contribution and unflinching commitment to the struggle for liberation and equality for all South Africans. Her bravery in the face of an oppressive regime is commendable.
Profile of Ms Amy Rietstein Thornton

Ms Amy Rietstein Thornton was born in 1932 in Cape Town. She started to fight against injustice at an early stage. In 1948, at 16 years of age, she worked with the then Communist Party of South Africa (now called South African Communist Party) and the Springbok Legion, a progressive formation of ex-servicemen recently returned from fighting fascism in Europe.

She campaigned against the National Party in the 1948 elections and in 1950 she joined the Modern Youth Society (MYS), a progressive youth movement involving mainly university students. Through MYS, Thornton was involved in night school literacy classes for African workers in the Cape Town docks.

When the Congress of Democrats (COD) was formed in 1952, she was appointed secretary of the Joint Congress Committee (involving the COD, the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress and the Coloured Peoples’ Congress). Thornton represented the MYS as part of the South African delegation to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, held in Bucharest, Romania in 1953.
In that same year she was recruited to join the underground SACP. She was active in pamphleteering against the Group Areas Act and the Bantu Education Act. She was also involved in study classes in informal settlements around Cape Town (Blouvlei and Elsies River).

In 1955 Thornton was a delegate from Cape Town to the Congress of the People. However, she was part of the delegation that was stopped by the police in Beaufort West and detained over the weekend, so she was unable to make it to Kliptown.

From the start of the Treason Trial in 1956 she served on the Treason Trial Support Committee. She did voluntary work for the Guardian newspaper (and its successors, as each successive title was banned in turn). She did research for the publication and managed the editorial work.

In 1959 she was banned for the first time initially for two years, but this was extended several times. She eventually served 14 years under banning orders, and lost her job as a nursery school teacher. In 1976 she began to work part-time for the Food and Canning Workers’ Union. In 1981, she was a founding member and deputy chairperson of the United Women’s Organisation, which later became one of the key organisations in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

In 1983 she was appointed as a patron of the UDF and was among those detained during the two states of emergency. Thornton was also a member of the Cape Town ANC regional leadership and served on the National Coordinating Committee for the Return of Exiles between 1990 and 1993. She has since retired.