Through the window

2009-03-24 00:00

A memorable moment in my writing career was when I attended the All-In African Conference in Edendale where the first president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, made his last speech in 1961 before he disappeared underground, to be arrested a year later in Howick facing charges of treason. My colleagues and friends never knew that I was among the 1 400 delegates from all over the country present at this historic meeting.

I was rewarded later when Rob Haswell, the city manager, heard via the grapevine that I was among the few people living today who were at that all-important conference. Haswell arranged in l995, when Mandela was given the freedom of the city, that I should share my experiences of that historic occasion with the then-president at the very same Arya Samaj Hall in Plessislaer where that meeting took place.

It was a bleak Saturday afternoon in March 1961, with dark rain clouds hanging over the city. My passion for politics and writing took me by public transport to the conference, which was to have taken place at the Local Health Committee

Hall right opposite the Edendale Hospital.

On my arrival at the hall, I saw a big crowd standing outside and was told that the hall had been bugged by security police and an alternative venue had to be found. There were no suitable halls in the near vicinity of the Local Health Committee Hall and the closest was the Arya Samaj Hall in Plessislaer.

At this stage, nobody knew who the keynote speaker for the conference was going to be, except that he was a big name and a lawyer from Johannesburg. It was a long trek from Edendale to Plessislaer but it was fun, dancing and singing in the rain as we walked, some shielded by their brollies.

At the hall a celebration was in progress for the birthday of Lord Krishna. Dasarath Bundhoo was the chairman of the Arya Samaj in Plessislaer and did all he could to ensure that the delegates were made comfortable; he did this despite the fact that he risked attracting the attention of the brutal security police who could arrest and hold people in jail for three months without a trial. The fearless Bundhoo was a trade unionist himself, chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Leatherworker’s Union with a membership of more than 15 000 workers locally and nearly 50 000 nationally.

Not only did Bundhoo and his colleagues get more benches, but they also went out of their way to provide supper and, early the next morning, breakfast with the help of the large Indian community who spontaneously rallied to the call.

I had been tipped that the keynote speaker had arrived at Dr Sililo’s place in New Scotland Road and dashed off there. When I got there, I saw the place buzzing with police officers, security police and the special branch — but no keynote speaker. I dashed off back to Plessislaer, and found the place choked; there was no way one could get in. This did not deter me. I had to make a plan. I had hot on my heels my friend Creina Alcock, a journalist who was covering the event for an afternoon daily and who had arrived late and could not get in either.

I led Creina to the back of the hall and found a window ajar. I pried this open and pushed her up and through the window. She then pulled me up. As we entered the hall, there was loud cheering as people thought we were part of the contingent from Johannesburg. Creina, being a white woman, received preferential treatment and was given a chair at the main table, while I made my way to the front of the crowd and managed find a seat on the benches.

The huge crowd broke into sporadic dancing and singing and the unknown speaker eventually emerged after midnight. It was

Nelson Mandela, who called for nothing less than “one man, one vote”. As quickly as he had emerged, he disappeared.

The last meeting of its kind

Historian John Wright, writing in The Natal Witness in 1998, described the All-In African Conference as “not an event of profound import, but it can be seen as a moment in the political history of this country, and particularly of this city, which deserves to be more widely known.”

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the government declared a state of emergency in many districts, banned the ANC and PAC and arrested their leaders.

Eighteen thousand people were detained. In October, white voters gave the go-ahead for the government to declare a republic.

African opposition leaders began trying to regroup and decided to hold a national consultative conference in Pietermaritzburg. The conference, held at the Arya Samaj Hall in Plessislaer, was chaired by G. S. D. Nyembe of Dannhauser and 1 400 delegates debated through the night.

Its main decision was to call for a national convention to draw up a new and representative constitution and a national council, with Mandela as secretary. If the government failed to respond, the council would call for a three-day stayaway by black workers.

As expected, there was no response and the stayaway went ahead. It was abandoned after a day because of a massive show of force by the government, and a few weeks later the ANC and its allies made the decision that there was no alternative but to turn to armed struggle.

The All-In African Conference was the last national meeting organised by black opposition leaders in South Africa until 1990.

Shan Pillay

As a young man in the sixties with a passion for writing, I became a “stringer” for most daily and weekly newspapers in KwaZulu-Natal. My biggest concern was that Pietermaritzburg’s black community was being overlooked. The Durban papers thought there was no place called Pietermaritzburg. So I sent every little happening in the community to the dailies and, of course, the stories were used.

Eventually, I became an accredited correspondent for Jim Bailey’s Golden City Post and later joined the Sunday Times Extra under the guidance of seasoned journalist Brian Rudden. In 1973, I was offered a full-time job with the Argus newspapers when they roped in Golden City Post and called it the Post. I was a manager at a shoe factory at the time, and the Post offered me a brilliant salary of R450 per month with an exciting car allowance of R30 per month and R10 as a camera allowance.

Later on, I wrote an Indian, African and coloured affairs column for The Natal Witness. Today, I am still working as a freelance journalist and photographer.

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