Monty’s war

2010-03-08 00:00

THE fifties was a defining moment in the quest to build a nonracial society because so many things that had gestated before, came to fruition. One of the most important was the coming together of the Indian congresses with the African National Congress. Quickly moving beyond paper alliances, it forged a bond in the furnace of struggle — the 1952 Defiance Campaign where Indian and African, white and coloured sought to confront the system in public forms of civil disobedience. This came a few years after the 1949 riots and made the scenes on the streets of Durban all the more remarkable. It was the perfect antidote to the project of apartheid which was to foster division and suspicion between African and Indian.

We were in awe of the willingness of people to seek jail terms — Monty Naicker, Fatima Seedat, Billy Nair and Ismail Meer were among the first volunteers — and the thousands who gathered to support the volunteers in the 1952 campaign. Durban had seen nothing like it, as Red Square was lit up by the courage of those who chose to resist.

From then on, the decade took on a swirl and speed that many of us now remember as a blur. The Freedom Charter, the long years of the Treason Trial (Monty and my husband Ismail were among the accused), the mass stayaways, and the optimism in the population at large that change was in the offing.

I was witness to these years of struggle. And I was witness to the comradeship and friendship of Monty Naicker. In fact, Monty was present at my maiden political speech. I was just 17 at the time and it was in support of the 1946 to 1948 Passive Resistance Campaign. Monty presented me with a photograph of me speaking, with very complimentary words on the back.

A medical doctor, Monty sought the front lines of struggle. He was at the helm when the Natal Indian Congress was wrested from the clutches of a conservative leadership, and he was at the front line of the 1946 to 1948 Passive Resistance Campaign and the 1952 Defiance Campaign.

But Monty was more than a political leader. He always carried a boyish fun with him, trying hard to ensure that the afflictions of the apartheid regime were worn with some laughter and irreverence.

Both Ismail and I were banned in 1954, and so was Monty. I was three months pregnant at the time. Monty, as Ismail recounts in his autobiography, sought to make light of the bannings, and called me on the phone as soon as he learnt of them. He pretended to be the chief of the Security Branch and asked in a deep voice: “Have my men served you with your banning order? Do you understand it?” It was Monty’s style to poke fun at the state’s heavy hand. This time there was a twist as Monty’s voice quickly returned to normal: “Oh, Fatima, sorry, they have come for me as well.”

That was Monty.

Another thing I remember about Monty is how he brought Thirukutu — the six-foot dance — to the city hall in the early fifties. It was the first and last time that this dance graced that august hall. For months, Monty raved about this great South Indian heritage. The entire congress executive was marshalled to honour this shining contribution to Desi excellence. Thirukutu was to be staged in all its purity. It was, but not in the purity to which Durban’s sedate audience was accustomed. The dancers from the sugar plantations of Mount Edgecombe ran riot on the city hall stage with their pornographic jokes and spontaneous time schedule. There was no restraining them as they nipped backstage for a cane spirit refresher, and reappeared, bawdier than ever, with their bar room jokes that raised the well-groomed hair of the specially canvassed Durban gentry. The Congress executive blushed, but Monty enjoyed the bawdy brawl.

For a while, I thought that Monty’s life, which inspired so many freedom fighters, would be lost to history.

How wonderful then to read the biography of Monty Naicker by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed. How moving to read the life of Monty in all its dimensions. More than that, how beautiful to see the stories chronicled of so many people who gave so much — Dawood Seedat, Billy Nair, George and Vera Ponnen, Kay Moonsamy, Kader Hassim, Phyllis Naidoo and so many others. The photographs are just stunning.

The strength of this book is that it pays attention to the structures but does not lose the person inside the detail. It shows that while we know that we try to change things in the context of what is given to us by the past, it is still people who make history. Monty was part of a group that made history. His style of leadership, his approach to life, his integrity and humility are the qualities that we need more than ever in South Africa.

The book comes at a time when the Congress Alliance is being torn apart by a “sound and fury that signifies nothing”. People like Monty and Yusuf Dadoo and Albert Luthuli and Moses Kotane were pioneers of that alliance. Under the most difficult circumstances, they welded nationalist and communist, Indian and African, into a fighting alliance that laid the basis for the eventual defeat of apartheid.

Now, when the struggle for a better South Africa seems to have reared off course, we should return to the voices of the fifties and capture the spirit that moved a people. And as we commemorate 150 years since the first Indian indentured labourers arrived, let us rejoice but also use the time to reflect on the politics and organisation needed at this juncture in our history. In this endeavour let us not be sectarian and dogmatic, but display a genuine openness to different points of view. If Monty was around I suspect that’s what he would have done — with aplomb and style and lots of graciousness.


* Monty Naicker, Between Reason and Treason, by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, is published by Shuter and Shooter.

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