The forgotten activist

2008-04-26 00:00

Before 83-year-old Kistmah Chetty, known to friends and family as Lutchmee, died in October last year, she made sure that in her funeral notice it would be stated that she was a long-standing member of the African National Congress. She also wanted the ANC flag draped over her coffin. This did not happen because the new generation of activists do not know of her and failed to turn up at the funeral with the flag.

Chetty’s political activism started in the forties. She was arrested and spent four months in prison during the 1946 passive resistance campaign. Her imprisonment did not deter her and she continued as an active member of the congress movement, turning up at protests and supporting political prisoners and a variety of campaigns.

Her only daughter, Pam, remembers her mother being contacted to be part of one or other protest, and without hesitation, Chetty would put on her sari and leave to support the cause. As South Africa celebrates Freedom Day this week, Chetty’s story is a timely reminder that the struggle for democracy and non-racism was also won through the actions of thousands of ordinary citizens — the foot soldiers who never hesitated to make their contribution despite the personal price they had to pay.

Reflecting on her life, Chetty’s family say they wish they had paid more attention to what she told them, as today they can only offer a disconnected picture of a story rich in history.

Chetty had little formal education, but she must have attended political classes run by the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) because she had a profound understanding of justice, non-racism and the rule of law. She always talked about her friendship with Dr Kesaveloo Goonam, the first Indian woman medical doctor in the country. Goonam was an active member of the congress movement and she travelled from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and other parts of Natal holding political classes for women. The 1946 defiance campaign was over the introduction of a law, which came to be known as the Ghetto Act, that restricted where Indians lived and traded. The campaign took the form of resisters camping on a piece of municipal land. Historical records show that the protesters were beaten and imprisoned.

Chetty was 21 years old when she was arrested. She told her family of being transported to jail by train and how their carriage was stoned as it left the Durban station. She was beaten in prison by the white warders and she would laugh when she recounted the hardships she endured there.

She was imprisoned with Goonam, who had shocked the local community when she returned from university in Edinburgh and smoked publicly. Goonam wanted a cigarette and Chetty had climbed up to the window to ask the cook for one. She was caught and both she and Goonam were forced to go without food for a while and spent the rest of their sentence chipping stones.

On her release from prison, Chetty married a fellow passive resister, Steven, who did not stand in her way when she continued her work in the congress movement. She would say that it was the brave actions of congress leaders that kept her going and believing that the path she had chosen was the correct one. An incident that both impressed and moved her, which she always talked about, was when leather workers in the city went on strike in the sixties. Chetty, a housewife by then, went to support the strike. She recalled the bosses calling the police, who arrived and stood with their firearms pointed at the strikers. Somebody had contacted congress leader Dr Chota Motala, who arrived and stood in front of the protesters, telling the police that they would have to shoot him first. The police apparently put down their weapons and the strike continued under their watchful eyes.

Chetty was euphoric when freedom came in 1994 and although frail with old age did her best to encourage everyone to vote for the ANC, once more regaling those whom she met with stories of the sacrifices people had made for their freedom. Lest anyone forgot, pride of place in her living room was a photograph of her with other women passive resisters and her certificate from the Natal Indian Congress, signed by struggle stalwarts Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo. The certificate carries the words: “We salute Kistmah Chetty, a brave fighter for freedom who served four months imprisonment as a passive resister … for resisting the racial colour bar policy of the Union Government ...”

Her family know that Chetty’s story is one of many. They were unable to fulfil her wish to have the ANC flag draped over her coffin, but they can make amends by telling the story of her devotion to the congress movement and the struggle for freedom.

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