Bengal Tiger did it his way

2011-12-30 00:00

THERE’S a popular quote by Amichand Rajbansi, affectionately known as the Bengal Tiger, that has been spun into a variety of jokes over the years. In one version, Rajbansi is deemed to be an infamous floor-crosser with rumours spreading that the Tiger was to leap again. When asked if there is any glue to the gossip he replied: “I will double-cross that bridge when I get there!”

Searching through the archives of Rajbansi’s life in newspaper headlines, he emerges as the consummate politician embracing the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny of politics.

Yes, there are phrases like misuse of public funds, doctoring files, forming secret committees, blocking promotions and various property scandals — mostly listed in the James Commission in 1989, which investigated alleged irregularities in the House of Delegates. However, Rajbansi was able to smile and toss all that aside as he meandered his way through the landscape of South African politics, personifying ethnic politics.

Today, when people remember the toupeed Tiger, they think of the man who visited the Verulam market and attended primary school sports days, who had Chatsworth as his stomping ground and who could fill the Chatsworth Stadium with thousands of supporters during rallies for his party, the Minority Front (MF).

Lesser known facts are his involvement in doing away with the Mixed Marriages Act, his lobbying for the legislation that removed the ban on Indians in northern Natal and the Free State and as the man behind solid low-cost housing for the Indian community. He also played a key role in securing the KZN Constitution in May 1996, by mediating the conversation between the IFP and the ANC, for which effort an ANC member of parliament was quoted as saying that the Minority Front leader had “saved democracy”.

Rajbansi received accolades for his work as the sports and recreation MEC for KZN and in January 2009 he received a lifetime achievement award from the India International Friendship Society in New Delhi.

Born in Clairwood, Durban, on January 14, 1942, Rajbansi died just weeks before his 70th birthday. He was admitted to Umhlanga Hospital on October 26. Towards the end of October rumours flitted through social media networks that Rajbansi had died, to which his second wife, Shameen Thakur, responded that he had severe bronchitis and was recovering, expecting that he would be discharged in a couple of weeks. However, three weeks ago, he relapsed after being moved to a general ward where it was detected that he had contracted a hospital-acquired infection.

He has been described as the “India rubber man”, a “political cat with nine lives” and the “comeback kid”, after rising from the James Commission Report that pinned him as an “inordinately ambitious man obsessed with a desire to achieve personal power, and … ruthless in its pursuit” and “unfit for public office”.

He made his way into politics in 1974 when he was elected into the SA India Council (SAIC) and became a member of its executive. He resigned in 1976 in protest at the council’s decision to take part in the Cabinet Council, which excluded Africans.

Rajbansi also served on the Southern Durban Local Affairs Committee, but was expelled in 1977 for not declaring a financial interest in a matter under discussion.

He stood for the SAIC when the body was reconstituted in 1981, and was returned on an eight percent poll. He then formed the National People’s Party (NPP), which took control of the council, and Rajbansi became the SAIC’s chair.

In the first tricameral elections in August 1984, Rajbansi won the Arena Park seat for the NPP, which obtained a majority in the House of Delegates. He then became chair of the Delegates’ Ministers’ Council, and declared in a newspaper interview at the time that he worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on behalf of the people.

He invoked Gandhi and Pandit Nehru to justify his participation in the tricameral system.

Towards the end of 1984 he was appointed minister without portfolio in P.W. Botha’s cabinet.

In 1985 his house was bombed by an ANC recruit, Derek Naidoo, who was jailed in 1987. In May 1990 Rajbansi was quoted as saying that he would not object to Naidoo’s release if it contributed to permanent peace. Naidoo later received an amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

After Rajbansi was found unfit to hold public office in 1989 by the James Commission, Botha sacked him from the cabinet and the Ministers’ Council.

Rajbansi underwent heart bypass surgery in May 1989, but the following April he bounced back to politics, cancelling his resignation as parliamentary leader “with immediate effect” and was reinstated as national leader of the NPP.

In June that year he was convicted on two counts of fraud related to the use of “fronts” to obtain premises for his businesses when he was a member of the SA Indian Council, and fined R10 000.

He was also ordered to pay a former Delegates MP, Pat Poovalingam, R50 000 plus costs for circulating a defamatory letter describing Poovalingam as a “gutterish liar” after he had accused Rajbansi of taking bribes and of corruption in property deals.

On live television in 1993 Rajbansi became the talk of the town for the toupee-flying slap he received from Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader Eugene Terreblanche, when about 3 000 paramilitary right-wing Afrikaners stormed the Codesa talks in Kempton Park World Trade Centre.

After South Africa’s transition to multiracial democracy in 1994 the National People’s Party (NPP) became the Minority Front (MF) and continued to draw support from the Indian community, winning a single seat in the KZN Legislature.

In 1996 and 1999 the party won two seats in the KZN Legislature and one seat in the National Assembly. In 2004 the MF won two seats in the National Assembly. According to his office, Rajbansi formed the MF “because he wanted to be elected by the people he served, and not piggy-back on bigger parties”.

Ten years later, after the 2004 elections, Rajbansi made an alliance with the African National Congress and became sports and recreation MEC for KwaZulu-Natal.

Rajbansi was formerly married to Asha Devi, with whom he had five children. The couple separated in 1998 — with alleged paranormal activity and evil spirits in their marital home being cited among the reasons for their separation — and divorced in 2000.

Rajbansi met former president Nelson Mandela in 2002 to discuss Mbongeni Ngema’s “Indian hate” song Amandiya (Indians), which contained the message that Indians were not prepared to change because they still voted for white political parties and exploited Africans to get rich.

Earlier this year Rajbansi was outraged by Julius Malema referring to Indians as “makula”, a term loosely translated to mean “c**lies”. He offered to invite him over for lunch at his home to show him that Indians are tolerant and good-natured and urged the ANC to take steps against Malema.

He continued building up his Minority Front party, and while he remained on friendly terms with the ANC he was highly critical of the Democratic Alliance, his key opposition on his home turf of Chatsworth.

He caused many an uproar in the KZN Legislature while criticising the DA. In an outburst in May this year he called DA provincial leader Sizwe Mchunu “a phony leader sitting here as an ornament on display to the outside world — because he is a darkie”.

That was Rajbansi, who played the role of a political buffoon to the hilt playing the race, ethnic and every other card and still having people smile when they said his name, Rajbansi, The Raj, The Bengal Tiger.

Related story: "In His Own Words"

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