A working-class hero

2008-10-30 00:00

Seventy-nine-year-old South African Communist Party (SACP), trade union, African National Congress and Natal Indian Congress activist, Billy Nair, will be buried in Durban today in an official provincial government funeral. Below is part of a much longer interview he gave to SACP Politburo member, Yunus Carrim, a few years ago.

So how did you become politically aware?

It was not a sudden political awareness. My family was poor. I had to sell newspapers twice daily while I was at school. I had to leave school after Standard 6 and go to evening classes. My family situation influenced me. I attended Natal Indian Congress (NIC) meetings in Red Square during the Passive Resistance Campaign. Later, I attended Communist Party evening political classes.

When did you become a member of the NIC and how old were you then?

It was 1950, I think. I was 21.

What drew you to the Communist Party?

I attended SACP public meetings and political classes. What I heard and read tied up with my own experience. I also became active in the unions. Marxism expressed my own experiences and I felt through it I could understand the world better.

So when did you actually join the party?

In 1953. When the party was revived as an underground structure, I became part of a four-person cell. I was soon made part of the district committee.

Who were some of the people active in these cells?

MP Naicker, Steven Dlamini, Moses Mabhida, Kay Moonsamy, Errol Shanley, Roley Arenstein, Gladman Nxumazo and Solomon Mbanjwa.

So how did this cell system work and what did you do?

Three to four members made up a cell. We paid monthly fees based on our income. We attended political classes regularly. We had cells in all the key areas where the NIC and ANC were active. We also had cells in the unions and we tried to influence their direction.

Tell us about your trade union activity.

In 1951, I was working in a dairy. The workers were very badly treated. So we got together and formed a union of mainly Indian and black workers. Within six months, I was fired. So I became the full-time secretary of the union. We also linked up with other unions and formed the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in 1955. I was a Natal secretary and a national executive committee member of Sactu.

Tell us about your family life. How did you meet your wife, Elsie?

My sister, Joan, and Elsie lived next door to each other in a block of flats. Joan and Elsie used to accompany me to the train station on my way to the treason trial in Johannesburg. Elsie became active in the Progressive Garment Workers’ Union. Our friendship grew into marriage. We married in December 1960.

But the regime hit hard and the ANC was banned in 1960. You were detained during the state of emergency. You were released. Banned. Then you joined Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). How did that happen?

It happened naturally. Many of us felt very strongly that we should prepare for an armed struggle. It was clear that we had no choice. The violence in Zeerust, Pondoland and rural areas of Natal showed the people’s mood. Sharpeville made it final.

Who approached you to join MK?

We had a two-day meeting in Stanger. All the Congress Alliance organisations were there. About 40 to 50 people. We decided to launch MK as a separate structure. I was part of the Natal High Command. The others were Curnick Ndlovu, Solomon Mbanjwa, Ronnie Kasrils and Bruno Mtolo.

But weren’t you worried about being killed or imprisoned?

My life didn’t come into consideration at all. I was quite prepared to lose my life. I expected the worst, the way they were torturing us. In the cell above me in Pretoria, Comrade Looksmart [Ngndle] was killed. I knew my turn would come. But I was not prepared to utter a word to the police. They could go to hell.

What armed activity did you engage in?

We raided the armoury in Mariannhill and stole dynamite. We sabotaged power pylons, railway lines and so on.

You got caught on July 6, 1963. How?

Mtolo sold us out. Curnick Ndlovu, Ebrahim Ismail, Nathoo Babenia, Riot Mkhanawazi and others were also arrested. Kasrils escaped.

How often did you see Elsie while you were in prison?

Initially, twice a year, but then once a year. There was no money. She worked in a clothing factory. To save money to visit me she had to take an extra job at night. I think the women made the greater sacrifice. We were relatively secure and supported each other in prison. The women were isolated and had to fend for themselves.

You were released on February 27, 1984. And you immediately plunged into United Democratic Front (UDF) activity.

Outside Durban prison, when I was released, journalists asked if I was going to give up politics. I said, “No, I can’t. I have no choice as long as the apartheid system continues.” Within a week, I addressed meetings. I was also elected to serve on all the UDF structures.

It was a new mass movement you came back to. A major part of the union movement was critical of the Congress Movement. What did you make of this?

It was good to see all this activity. Indian and coloured people were opposing the tricameral system. The ANC was becoming dominant again. We worked hard to move the unions towards the ANC. We had major general strikes around the demands of the ANC, UDF and SACP.

But you were constantly harassed by the police and detained – and holed up in the British Consulate for three months with other leaders. What was that like?

In some ways it was more challenging than prison. There were disagreements on how long we should remain in the consulate. We got public support, including several bags of mail from all over the world.

After your release, when did you link up with the ANC and SACP?

Soon. Comrade Mabhida from Lesotho and then Swaziland sent transport for Elsie and me to leave the country. I refused. I felt the struggle should be intensified inside the country.

What of SACP structures underground?

They became stronger from the mid-eighties. We had cells in the unions and in UDF structures. In Cape Town there were eight different groupings claiming they were party structures. I had to intervene.

You attended the eighth party congress in Cuba in 1989.

It was nice to meet party comrades from exile and inside the country. Those of us from inside were in disguise, but it was good to be able to discuss issues openly without worrying about the police. I remember saying at the congress that the next congress would be held in the country. I asked more of our comrades from outside to come into [this] country for periods of time. By then we had good support and safe routes for them.

And Cuba?

I spent three months there. Did military training. Lived in the lap of luxury. I had a chauffeur–driven car. I even had to tell them to reduce the food in the fridge. The Cuban people are wonderful. The children hug and kiss each other when they meet. They have a very open lifestyle. Their music, art and culture is all like that.

The ANC and SACP were unbanned in February 1990. Were you expecting it?

I was not surprised. All the ingredients were there. We had the biggest mass demonstrations in the history of the country openly under the banner of the ANC, UDF and SACP. We were in close contact with Nelson Mandela and knew about his negotiations with P. W. Botha and others.

So what do you make of post–1994 transition? What are some of its strengths and weaknesses?

We have a good Constitution. Despite hostility from various quarters, the government has been able to deliver. Sixty percent of the budget is allocated to education, health and social services. A major problem though is corruption.

What is the relevance of Marxism today?

It remains relevant. But we cannot be dogmatic. We have to find a way out of capitalism as it is today. The world is not a better place today. Capitalism is a disaster for many people around the world. We will have to find our own approach to socialism.

As a communist, how do you see the future of this country?

I am convinced that the future lies in socialism. The wealth of this country must belong to the people as a whole. Until that happens the struggle has to continue. There are no ready-made solutions to our problems. We have to be practical. We can’t apply our theory in a vacuum. We have to engineer new methods to make it work. It is through the interaction of theory and practice that we will evolve new ways of solving problems. And over time we will find the answers to our challenges.

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