An enigmatic leader and hero

2008-04-23 00:00

BY the time that Chanderdeo George Sewpershad died a year ago, he had brought together the old-school activists and young Turks of the anti-apartheid struggle for human rights and social justice in South Africa. He died of cancer in Durban on May 18.

President Thabo Mbeki will be presenting the Order of Luthuli Award, South Africa’s highest honour, posthumously to him in Parliament this week, along with awards to men and women who have contributed to nation-building.

An ordinary attorney who ran an unsophisticated legal office in Verulam, Sewpershad made a huge contribution to the fight against apartheid. Detention and house arrests were some of the perils of his political life.

Sewpershad was an enigmatic leader of the Natal Indian Congress, a patriotic front of the banned African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front, an internal resistance movement with Trevor Manuel and Patrick

“Terror” Lekota at the helm. These formations were the Congress Alliance and its leaders campaigned in concert.

Founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1894 to fight colonialism, the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) was resurrected in the seventies, placing Sewpershad, M. J. Naidoo and others in the firing line against apartheid.

Inspired and influenced by India’s independence heroes, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Sewpershad found a political home in an ideological blend of socialism and communism so that he could make his mark against social injustices at home.

After a youthful debut in resistance politics in Cato Manor, he matured into an unassuming leader, often sharing the podium with his legal colleague, Moorgiah Naidoo. Together these lawyers repositioned the NIC as the voice of Indians at the forefront of the struggle for freedom.

The NIC weathered the storms of apartheid’s political re-engineering of luring Indians into the parliamentary laager.

Sewpershad led campaigns to neutralise the conservative thrust of self-styled representatives such as A. M. Rajab,

J. N. Reddy and Amichand Rajbansi who tried to swing Indians away from the black people’s quest for freedom.

In the final analysis, Indians were saved from the wrath of a black backlash and their role in the anti-apartheid struggle gave them credibility and respect in the eyes of Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership in the run-up to the peaceful transition to democracy in 1994.

At his memorial service at Durban’s Kendra Hall, a giant collage of his fighting days greeted former activists who cherished his work and admired his leadership style, as speakers, including Judge Pius Langa of the Constitutional Court, praised one man and his life’s work.

As the new South Africa moves ahead, it is hoped that Sewpershad will be remembered as a profound thinker who was philosophical in his interpretations about the evils of apartheid, the role of lawyers in a political struggle and the reasons for the demise of apartheid, and powerful in his views on communism, socialism, capitalism and the new world order.

He is admired for his insights on the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress, United Democratic Front, Black Consciousness Movement, Inkatha Freedom Party, Nationalist Party, Tri-cameral System, Sunset Clause and the Codesa convention that led to the 1994 elections, later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was also insightful about Karl Marx’s philosophy, the concepts of freedom, revolution, democracy and the Hindu scriptures, and how to combine these intellectual tools with the political ideology to solve social ills.

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