An optimist and a fighter

2008-05-23 00:00

Many people, both locally and nationally, associate the midlands town of Richmond with political conflict and violence. It reminds them of uncomfortable events from apartheid history they would rather not remember. The luxury of not remembering is seldom available to those whose names give form and content to that history, for they lived it. Often it still lives in them. One such person is Andrew Ragavaloo, speaker of the Richmond council and principal of Richmond Combined School.

Meeting Ragavaloo was both predictable and unexpected. I expected to find a seasoned politician — which I did — with impressive “struggle credentials” and a charming public persona, which I did too. What I did not expect was a committed family man and teacher who constantly quotes poetry.

Born in Dundee in 1951, the fourth of nine children, Ragavaloo was raised in a family of activists. He describes himself as “a real South African”, a descendant of indentured Indian labourers on his father’s side and of mixed-race descent on his mother’s. “Because we grew up under apartheid and were teenagers in the sixties, we were always anti-establishment. We were raised to question, find solutions to problems and seek freedom. My parents were both involved in the South African Communist Party in the late fifties. I remember in 1961 when South Africa became a republic, my family discussed how it would make things difficult for us.”

Ragavaloo says growing up in a big family taught him to co-operate with others and be part of a family team, a skill which obviously stayed with him. “I learnt that everyone has a role to play, even those who just ‘stand and wait’, as Milton’s poem says. In later life, I would not have achieved the things I did without the co-operation and help of others.”

After matriculating at Dundee Secondary, he went to M. L. Sultan Technical College to train as a physical education teacher. He was a student leader and a member of the Black People’s Convention so was suspended for his role in the 1972 student demonstrations. He then studied part time through Unisa and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in history and economics. He later completed a Bachelor of Education degree. He first taught at Dundee Secondary before moving to Richmond in 1981 where he taught at Richmond Indian Primary. In 1991, he was promoted to head of department of Brackenham Primary in Richard’s Bay before moving to Berg Street Primary in Pietermaritzburg. In 1998, he became the principal of Richmond Combined School.

In 1974, Ragavaloo married a Richmond resident, Jenny van der Byl. He is very proud of “my success in my family life. We are very close-knit.” He and Jenny had three children, Delmarée, a teacher, Dwayne, a Richmond businessman, and Dwight, who died in 1998 after a motor vehicle accident. They have four grandchildren: Delandre, Teayler, Deneal and Darne.

Political activity was a way of life, so when Ragavaloo moved to Richmond he continued his work as an activist. He had been an underground member of the African National Congress from his student days so when the party was unbanned in 1990, he automatically became a member. That year he was also elected to serve on the executive of the Richmond ANC branch. He says: “My involvement in politics in Richmond was incidental. It came from my experience of apartheid. We naturally associated with others who aimed to rid themselves of apartheid.”

In 1996, he was elected as the first mayor of Richmond, a part-time position. He served as chairperson of the Mayor’s Forum in the province and was deputy chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Local Government Association (Kwanaloga). In December 2000, he became the first speaker of the Richmond Council, a newly introduced, part-time position. He is currently serving a second term as council speaker and is also the chairperson of the ANC Kenny Gains Branch of Richmond. Ragavaloo’s children have continued the tradition of activism and he says with obvious pride: “Both my children are currently active members of the ANC.”

Ragavaloo says his involvement in education and politics is inspired by the desire to “improve the lot of humankind. I read widely and I’ve been inspired by philosophers and poets who write about the pursuit of happiness, which is most people’s aim in life. I know I’ll meet St Peter one day and I want to make sure I’ve done my best to help others achieve that goal. It gives me joy to work with others and to help us all achieve happiness. I would like to be remembered as a person who did what he could to contribute to the development of others.

“In education you do not see results immediately. It is a long-term thing. You can look back and see what the people you taught have achieved. That gives you joy.”

He readily admits that his political involvement put stress on his family: “They were all supportive and very resilient, even when their lives were threatened. They put no pressure on me to leave Richmond or to pull out of politics. That is one of the facts that made me able to go through that period.”

The period he refers to is what defines Richmond for many people: the political violence of the nineties. Two names are largely associated with that period: Ragavaloo, who was mayor, and Sifiso Nkabinde, regional leader of the ANC. A self-proclaimed warlord during the conflict in the area in the early nineties, Nkabinde was expelled from the party in April 1997 for being a police spy. He is believed to have started the violence that bedevilled the town after his expulsion. He was killed in 1999.

Ragavaloo believes his greatest achievement was working with others to bring about peace in Richmond after the violence. “Creating peace and normality in an abnormal situation was a tremendous challenge.” For his efforts, in November 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open International University of Sri Lanka.

As Ragavaloo describes it, contemporary Richmond is a place of contradiction and contrast. On one hand he says: “We have successfully eroded the image of Richmond as ‘the place of violence’. It’s a picturesque village starting to develop because people can see there are good things here. Local politicians have worked hard at reconciliation and people live in harmony. I’ve had teachers afraid of taking up posts here, but they come and see we are a town like any other. My hope for the future is that people will be able to tolerate ideals and ideas that are opposed to theirs and work together to fulfil everyone’s dreams.”

On the other hand, he says: “The fear of violence is always present here and Richmond is still an anxious, sad community. Forgiveness and closure only come with revelation. Closure is unlikely because there are no answers, only questions: ‘Do the criminals who did these things still lurk among us? Could they start the violence again at any moment? Last year a rock and two petrol bombs were thrown at my home, and my dog was poisoned. Who did these things? Why?’ The fear of violence remains.”

For himself, Ragavaloo says: “The struggle goes on. It’s a process. We have freedom but it has to cascade down to the people. Now we work for a better life for all. The landscape has changed, what we want to achieve and how we do it have changed, but we continue to be activists.”

An inside story about richmond

From May 8, 1997, to January 1999, 120 people were killed in Richmond. Ragavaloo explains: “The first was my best friend and brother-in-law, Rodney van der Byl, an African National Congress councillor. The police have solved 22 of those cases, but 98 remain unsolved. It is still a mystery to us how our son, Dwight, was killed. He was in a police vehicle, but we don’t understand why. The police held an inquiry into the accident, but never told us what they found.

“It was truly what poet H. D. Carberry called ‘a time of broken hearts and twisted minds’ because the killings created lots of sadness in Richmond and it must have been people with twisted minds who carried out those crimes. There was a savagery about the killings we could not understand. This overkill said a lot about the perpetrators.”

During the troubles, Ragavaloo scrupulously kept notes and a diary. “I never thought about writing a book, but I often relived the trauma once it was over. In 2002, I decided to put it down on paper to record the details. It turned into 46 chapters about the inside story of the violence, a catalogue of greed and lust for power. Those are the key ingredients that led to violence here. It was a mixture of politics and crime.

“It took me about 18 months to write, during the silence of the late night and early morning. It was refreshing and cleansing. It was not my aim, but it was a catharsis as I often ended up crying. It helped me to recover from the trauma. I began to share some chapters with my wife and the idea of turning it into a book developed.”

Ragavaloo hopes that: “People will read it and understand what happened here, and take measures to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I also want to teach people about tolerance and acceptance.”

• Published by STE Publishers, Ragavaloo’s book, Richmond: Living in the Shadow of Death will be launched later this month.

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