Book review – A spirit that cannot die

2013-03-10 10:00

Amina Cachalia’s children, Coco and Ghaleb, share their memories of their mother as she shares hers of the struggle in When Hope and History Rhyme, writes Charles Cilliers.

Simple, stubborn, to the point and willing to do whatever it took to defeat injustice – that’s the spirit of Amina Cachalia that shines through most strongly in a book we’re lucky to have, considering she passed away (in her 83rd year) just weeks before its release.

Though the name Cachalia is rarely uttered as often, or in the same breath, as Mandela, Sisulu or Tambo, Amina and her husband Yusuf (who died in 1995) are a firm part of that group of ANC struggle royalty who will go down in history as global giants of their era.

They represented everything that was inspiring and hopeful about the ANC-led march to change and should function as a reminder

to the generation that has inherited their legacy about what the real point of it all was.

As her son Ghaleb (56) tells me in an interview, sitting next to his sister Coco (55), at her offices in Parktown, northern Joburg: “Amina doesn’t lecture anyone about the current state of politics in this book, but her feelings do come through.”

And they do, poignantly, as in when she writes: “What I am living through now in the early years of the 21st century is the golden age that Nelson Mandela mentioned in one of his letters to me. He had been dreaming about it all his life. Are we living the golden age? I certainly hope so, although it does not always feel like it.”

When Hope and History Rhyme was written in longhand, and her carefully spoken, reflective son Ghaleb played a big role in doing a first edit, as well as in constantly encouraging his mother to write and provide more detail on incidents that he felt she had written about too cryptically.

Coco says: “It started off quite gentle and small, after Amina turned 80, as a memoir to her grandchildren. As she went along, she realised it was a story that would resonate more broadly. It became this total project for her.”

Coco and Ghaleb’s recollections give insight into what it was like to grow up with struggle luminaries as parents.

“My father (who was 15 years older than Amina),” Ghaleb says, “was an enormously philosophical man, and debate was encouraged around the dining room table. When things began to emerge that required discussion and debate, such as gender issues, homosexuality and the like, those were things that were discussed openly”.

And for a family calling itself Muslim in Fordsburg, this, both agree, was almost taboo.

“My father came from a religious family. He only had a Standard 6 (Grade 8) education, but was a completely self-taught man. He taught himself Farsi, Urdu and Arabic. He read Goethe and Hegel. He made minuscule notes on everything he read. He made a deep study of all religions, but he was an atheist.”

Coco says: “Although in the book my mother says her identity was a Muslim one, our identity growing up was just an Indian one, which is the broadest culture in the world.”

Amina seems to take great pains in her memoir to downplay her contribution to history, with a humility that becomes increasingly charming.

She describes her central role in organising the women’s march of 1956 against apartheid pass laws in no more than two paragraphs.

After she arranged the escape of Arthur Goldreich, Mosie Moolla, Abdullhay Jassat and Harold Wolpe from Marshall Square Prison – shortly before going into theatre for heart surgery – she seemed more concerned about the escapees’ families than that authorities would connect her to the “crime”.

But underneath that sweet smile was a very tough woman. Ghaleb says: “My father was always the infuriatingly calm one. My mother was the volatile one.”

Coco agrees: “Amina had a temper, and she would lash out. Once, we jumped on her pristine, white bed covers, and she arrived home to find our dirty footprints all over her linen. She chased us around the house with a broom!”

It’s part of what made her spirit loom so large. “She was this demure, little wisp of a person, who could have been stepped on, so she had to assert herself,” her son says, with a laugh.

Coco says: “My mother was very similar to our grandmother, who lived with us in Fordsburg when Amina was banned and our father was under house arrest. This man, Van Tonder, was our personal policeman in his green Volkswagen parked outside our house all the time. My grandmother and Van Tonder had this completely adversarial relationship. My gran was even shorter than my mother.She was feisty and Van Tonder was absolutely petrified of this little woman in her long dresses.”

Ghaleb says: “When the security police would come to our door to deliver new banning orders, or whatever it was, our father would be courteous to them and ask them to sit and have tea and biscuits, but gran would shout: ‘To hell with your tea and this whole business!’”

As for a childhood under house arrest, Coco and Ghaleb say family life seemed quite normal to them, despite them not being able to make the same kinds of family outings as other families could.

“Unlike a lot of white kids, like the Fischer children, or the Slovos, who were shunned by their communities, our community rallied around us. We were completely revered, almost put on a pedestal. It always felt we were doing the right thing. We felt a sense of worthiness,” Coco says, to which Ghaleb adds: “I remember once having a fight with another kid in the neighbourhood and him asking me: ‘So what does your dad do, anyway?’ And I answered: ‘He fights for freedom.’ That’s what we believed and said.”

But both say that, personally, they decided to start withdrawing from politics in the 1980s because of petty bickering and comments that smeared their father as a man who had “gone into business”.

Coco says: “Our father was very hurt by a lot of that.” Her brother agrees, saying: “In that period, from the mid-1980s onward, as the internal struggle intensified, there were many young people who had formed various political cliques, with vendettas and personal agendas.”

But despite what seems like her family’s disillusionment, their mother remained a card-carrying member of the ANC to the end.

“On the day Kgalema (Motlanthe) announced whatever he was going to be doing (running for ANC president), he spent nearly three hours talking to Amina about the old days of the ANC, about how they both felt,” Coco says.

In the book, Amina’s forthrightness is most clear in her description of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, particularly her supposed arrogance and her treatment of her former husband, Mandela.

Amina’s close friendship with Mandela dominates much of the last third of the book.

As Coco says: “Nelson was a regular visitor to our house. All the grandchildren, when we’d tell them: ‘Uncle Nelson is coming,’ anyone else’s kids would have rushed to see and greet him, but ours just said: ‘Oh, we’ll see him the next time.’ He was that much of a regular.”

Amina last saw her old friend towards the end of last year and, according to her and the family, despite his clear frailty, Madiba was still much the same man: able to connect, share and reminisce about old times.

Coco says: “They had a conversation, completely. It was almost like he waited for everyone to leave, until he was comfortable enough to talk.” Ghaleb says: “Of course, he always had a bit of a crush on our mom.”

As our interview winds down, Ghaleb tells me: “Amina had no price. She got nothing out of the struggle except her dignity.”

Whether we are now living in Mandela’s golden age or not, as Amina wonders in the book, what is absolutely certain is that, with her passing, we have lost yet another member of a golden generation.

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