The soul of the struggle

2010-03-05 00:00

HOW did nonracialism become a central tenet in the liberation struggle of a country deeply divided by race? This is one of the many themes explored in a nuanced and multilayered new book by authors Ashwin Desai and Goolam­ Vahed.

Desai and Vahed have cemented their reputation as historians of note in their monumental work on the arrival of Indians in South Africa: Inside­ Indenture: A South African Story 1860-1914. Their latest offering, Monty Naicker: Between Reason and Treason, takes readers on a tour of the political history of Indian South Africans. This is a timely book, coming in the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa. It is also relevant because, 16 years into our hard-won democracy, so much of the soul of that struggle seems to have been lost or glossed over.

In telling the story of an all-but-forgotten struggle hero, Dr Gangathura Mohambry “Monty” Naicker, the authors offer a retrospective look at a system that promoted white privilege and the repressive, sometimes brutal methods used to protect it at all cost. They remind the reader that the liberation the country enjoys today was built on personal sacrifice, broken dreams and families torn apart. This is not only the story of Naicker but a whole cast of characters who also paid the price for freedom and whose names may never again grace the pages of another history book. Desai and Vahed must be commended for not just concentrating on Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and African National Congress politics, but for including other­ players as well. There are interesting­ vignettes on the Non- European­ Unity Movement (NEUM), an early influential force in resistance politics and its breakaway grouping, the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA). It was wonderful meeting indomitable Maritzburger Kadir Hassim in the pages of this book. The history portrayed would have been all the poorer without a record of the place Hassim, his brothers and their families played in South Africa’s resistance politics.

In a world of crass materialism, Naicker’s life stands out as a beacon of what it really means to care for your fellow human beings. Naicker was born in 1910 to a life of privilege. His wealthy father, a successful banana exporter, sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. There he met with two other South Africans who would also become major players in South Africa’s liberation history, Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Kesaveloo Goonam.

From his diary entries it is clear that Naicker’s life of privilege continued in Edinburgh from the clothes he was able to buy and the parties he attended. However, it was there that he was also exposed to a host of different experiences. As his biographers note: “Edinburgh society had a huge impact on his life. There he discussed the struggles against British imperialism with fellow students, especially those from India, and debated the most effective ways of challenging colonialism and white supremacy. He became receptive to new ideas and tolerance, even of embracing persons of other cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds — a characteristic which distinguished him from his father’s generation and even others in his own social circles­.”

Armed with a medical degree, Naicker arrived back in South Africa in the thirties, but conditions had changed drastically in his absence. The British colonial government was determined to repatriate Indians back to India. Their underlying stance was to make life as tough as possible in the colony so people would opt to leave. However, many had been born here, had formed family networks and knew no other life. Naicker found himself offering medical care to the poorest of the poor who lived in the most appalling conditions and with no hope of any improvements. It also became clear that the NIC, which had been formed by Mohandas Gandhi, was being run by conservatives who were ineffectual in their dealings with the colonial government.

Naicker with Dadoo would form the leadership of a new breed of young activists, fearless in their challenging of the authorities.

According to Desai and Vahed, this younger leadership contained a “mixture of professionals, like doctors and lawyers as well as factory workers who had cut their teeth in the fledgling trade union movement. The latter grouping had limited access to formal education but their ranks were filled with great public orators and theoreticians. Their ‘schools’ and ‘universities’ were the organising of trade unions and the political education classes of the communist party.”

They led the passive resistance campaign of 1946 to 1948 against the Pegging Act (a forerunner to the Group Areas Act), which sought to restrict Indians to living and trading in certain areas. The campaign saw hundreds of resistors being thrown into jail, but not before they were beaten up by white thugs who assaulted them while the police turned a blind eye. As one resistor said, the hardest part was maintaining your passive resistance and turning the other cheek while you were being soundly beaten up. There is an excerpt where Goonam describes one of her incarcerations where she was taken to a cell late at night in the darkness. The floors were slippery with vomit and she found the walls smeared with excrement. In the end she found a clear patch and stood propped against that section of the wall for the entire night.

The young activists fought a bitter struggle to oust eventually the old guard in the NIC. Desai and Vahed­ call it a local war without the shooting, “a battle marked by biting invective and much drama, which spread from public confrontation into court battles and back again”.

It was a battle fortuitously won. It was these young radicals who, through their own friendships with Africans across the factory floor, at universities, and in their reading and study groups, were able to see the invidious hand of the divide-and-rule policies of government.

In 1947 Naicker, together with Dadoo of the Transvaal Indian Congress and Dr Alfred Xuma of the ANC, signed a joint declaration of co-operation, which became known as the “Doctors’ Pact”.

The Indo-African violence that broke out in 1949, known as the Cato­ Manor riots, was a testing period. Naicker said at the time: “The venom of anti-Indian propaganda, the preaching of race hatred from high places … was bound sometime or the other to throw the country into a racial conflagration. The frustrated, badly housed and most neglected and exploited section of our population, the Africans, gave vent to the resentment against all these injustices by attacking the least protected section of the population — the Indian people. The tragic happenings have turned the wheels of progress backwards. Fortunately the African and Indian leadership was not wanting … The basis has been laid for genuine cooperation. We must see that this foundation is built upon soon. The task before us is great and grave.”

Naicker and his fellow activists were subjected to imprisonment and hard labour for months at a time. In her autobiography titled Coolie Doctor, Goonam notes that she went to prison 17 times. Naicker once chose to go on the run and spent time disguised as a Muslim priest complete with false beard. His biographers say that there are some wonderful photographs of him cheekily smiling at the camera.

An ardent follower of Gandhi, Naicker did not join fellow comrades like Billy Nair when they became part of the armed struggle, nor did he become a member of the Communist Party, like Dadoo. He was a lifelong friend of Alan Paton and Chief Albert Luthuli, and as one of the 156 accused in the 1956 Treason Trial, formed firm bonds with his fellow accused.

The book offers, in retrospect, some hilarious accounts of the efforts­ of the ragtag group of early saboteurs. Most soon found themselves imprisoned by a system that was becoming increasingly sophisticated in its methods of repression.

After the 1956 Treason Trial, Naicker­, like many, was subjected to numerous banning orders. His bannings were continuously renewed and lasted over 14 years. It was a system that imprisoned a person in their own home. They could not travel out of the magisterial district, had to report to a police station at specific times daily and could not socialise with more than one person at a time.

Struggle veteran Phyllis Naidoo recalls in the book that she was late one day reporting to the police station­ because her son, a toddler, had an asthma attack. She received a week-long prison sentence. Naicker, whom his biographers say was a person who enjoyed life to the full, and who loved entertaining and an occasional flutter with the horses, described being banned as becoming part of the living dead.

He was unbanned in 1974 and re-entered the political scene. In 1977 he was elected to head the anti­-South African Indian Council Campaign. This was a campaign to mobilise communities to reject the three-tier (tri-cameral) Parliament for whites, coloureds and Indians. Naicker died in 1978, at the age of 67, after a short illness. At his funeral­, Paton described him as “jollity personified”.

Fatima Meer, in a blurb on the biography, says it is analytical without­ forsaking the anecdotal; “both these qualities lend to the book’s charm and academic excellence­”.

 

• Monty Naicker: Between Reason and Treason will be officially launched in Durban tonight.

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