About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

29 Mar 2002: Pillay, Ivan

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POM. Our time before was so limited, I would like to go through the phases of your life, where you were born, your family background, how you became politicised and the way that worked, how you became involved in the ANC, the pivotal role you played in Vula. Could you start talking about where you came from?

IP. I suppose my parents were typical Indian parents. They were born on a farm in the south of Natal at a place called Sawoti. The family line is from indentured labour.

POM. They came to Sawoti?

IP. Sawoti. They moved into Durban, into the environment of Durban – no, I had not been born by then. I'm playing. It was a year before, it was 1953. My father was an insurance salesman, he sold insurance. He was very religious, a vegetarian, but ultimately we were five boys and two girls. I think there were another three, I think two died in childbirth or just about there. One actually died when he was about 30. I understand my father was a bit of a tartar, very strong on discipline, not necessarily always logical.

POM. You say 'you understand', why do you say you understand?

IP. By the time I was five or six years old my father was no longer the leading role player in the family. He had a stroke after my brother's death and he actually moved with some difficulty. Later on he actually became bedridden so my brothers began to play a more important role in the family. I was the youngest. There's quite a big gap. My oldest brother now is probably 62.

POM. In Durban where did you live?

IP. I was born in this area that my parents moved to called Merebank and we actually lived there right until quite recently. It was around that period that an African family lived with us, that came with us, I say with us, but with my parents, from Sawoti.

POM. They would be like domestics?

IP. Not exactly. They didn't actually work as domestics. They probably worked I would say more maybe with or maybe even for my father on the farm in southern Natal. Yes, I would say they worked for my Dad on the farm in southern Natal. They came with the family and what actually happened is then, I remember saying this to you the last time, is that you have other family members or part of the extended family beginning to also move into (the city). It also happened with the African family as it did with my family.

. Anyway, to get back to myself, as far as I can remember it, I understand, I don't remember it myself, but it was a mixed situation. There were Indians, there were coloureds. There was this one African family, there were a few others but I don't think there was a big number of Africans. I think there was no mention of any whites living there. It was not a built up developed area. At that time I think there probably were not any tar roads or any electric lighting and so on. I think this would be one of those freehold areas of that period, as long as there's space you could come up and build something. If somebody else owned the land you then spoke to them and rented it from them.

POM. Did you live in a shack or in a house?

IP. It was a wood and iron house, more than a shack. The impression one has of a shack is that it's really lopsided, etc., and so on, but this was a well built wood and iron house. Now my parents lived in two homes in Merebank before we moved into what then became the township. Both were wood and iron structures and I remember my brother saying to me that they actually built the structure in a day so it could not have been a very sophisticated structure.

. When the township was completed in 1959 it was your normal township, four roomed houses, semi-detached, so you would have two families living in a block. Four roomed, that's two bedrooms, a lounge and a kitchen, asbestos roofing, plastered on the outside, not plastered on the inside, an internal toilet which was quite new I believe for people at that time. But as happened elsewhere and later too these townships were built without facilities. No real shopping centres, no community hall and no swimming pools, no proper bus service, bus shelters, etc.

POM. Did anybody in your family consider anything that was going on unusual, that you were being discriminated against or was it just taken as this is how it is?

IP. I think we've got to remember that the township situation in a sense was an improvement from our wood and iron structure. The tarred roads were an improvement, the electricity was an improvement. I think we've also got to remember with my family that we were in Merebank. There were other families that came into the township and they had been removed from areas to the north of Durban, for example the area around Cato Manor. For example, my neighbour came from Cato Manor, the Group Areas Act there, so families had to pack up. It would be different experiences for different people.

POM. So when something like that happened to your next door neighbour whom you knew did you take it for granted as one of these things that happens without any real sense of outrage or being done wrong to be shuffled around?

IP. You've got to remember when we moved into the township house, that's in 1959, so I was six years old, I don't have any memory of discussions around those issues, I don't have any memory of people feeling that they were discriminated against. What I do know is from discussions afterwards which was that I think just like anywhere else there was resistance to the Group Areas removals and there was even an attempt to mobilise and to stop people moving into these townships.

POM. In high school?

IP. In the high school yes, I would have heard that in high school. This was a new community now, people coming from all over and finding their feet. The other thing to remember is that I say 1959 but by 1959 the whole township had not been completed, parts of it had been completed, certainly the part that we were in. Other parts people moved into later. There was an exchange of experiences and of views that we later had built into some view or views of - (break in recording). I was certainly not conscious at that time of this and I think we must remember again that the 1960s, although a period of high activity, 1960/61/62/63, I know nothing of it. I can't remember anything of it.

POM. Was there any discussion of – I probably asked you this – Gandhi and the role Gandhi had played in India and the marches he had led across from Natal into what would be the Transvaal? Who were the first, as you were growing up, who were the first heroic people that began to develop in your mind?

IP. OK, there were some discussions about Gandhi but I wouldn't say very profound. I know my Dad had some interest in politics. The Indian Opinion, which was a paper that Gandhi started and which continued, I remember seeing copies around – and these were copies, I can't remember when they had been published but there were copies around.

POM. Indian Opinion?

IP. Yes it was called Indian Opinion. I know my Dad had a few old friends who visited him. As I said, he was not that mobile. Then I wouldn't say it was liberation politics, most probably South African and the British colonial role.

POM. It had a wider compass.

IP. Compass, yes.

POM. In which they expressed their opinions. It wasn't confined to just the Indian in SA, it was about Indian liberation and what happened after India got liberation?

IP. Yes. Or maybe another way to put it would be that they were not, I think, accurately sensitive to the African issue in SA. There was the Indian issue but given the way Indians had been coming from indentured labour and all of that and that they were in a foreign place and certain things but were prepared to accept it as their fate. I think that would be another interpretation of it.

POM. So how would the African family that came with you, how in relationship to your family were they, I don't want to use the word 'structured', as less than equals? You know exactly what I'm saying.

IP. Sure. I don't think they would have been treated as equals. I know my family was very grateful because during the 1949 riots they saved my family and they certainly said, "Come to our home."

POM. There were things going on.

IP. By then we have been alerted by this family, this African family, and then fled together with the children into the fields because this was not a built up area, it's an area with bush and a bit of cultivated land here and there but bush and this was at night. They said to the Impi that, "Look this is our place." And so the Impi then retreated and left them. We were very grateful, we had a very close relationship with the family but I don't think it was an equal relationship. Now that family had to go back to Sawoti when that area had been declared an Indian area. I don't recall that that experience had actually traumatised my family as such. When they recounted the past it was not about even us moving into the township, it was not about the fact that that family had to leave and go back. The ties with that family were maintained. I have met all the sons of that family. From time to time they've actually come, even when we were living now in the township house they'd actually come and stayed there. From time to time the old man, Delwa, I remember his name, had come to our place and stayed there. So those ties continued right up to even the 1970s when I now started working, the sons used to still come and I remember the one son explaining to me how he survived because he could not be legally in the Durban area. Those were the days of the 'dompas'. So he would not have the stamp on his dompas so he would explain to us that he would be very well dressed and he would carry a newspaper and pretend that he was an educated African who could read, etc., and he would not be bothered by – I think the police at that time they were called the Black Jacks, these were African policemen dressed in a black uniform. These were the people that checked.

POM. African, again the irony of African policemen checking their own brothers and sisters whether or not they had a pass?

IP. That's right. Amongst the things that I could remember about any individual having some impact, I think it was John F Kennedy who made some impact with my brothers and when Kennedy came to SA, the brother, Robert –

POM. Robert Kennedy came to Cape Town.

IP. And Durban, he came to Durban very briefly. I can't remember what year that was. (It was 1966.)  My brothers went to the airport to welcome him and so on and there was quite a big crowd there and then I think he then went to the University of Natal and he made a speech there. I remember a bit of a buzz about that but I must be very honest, I don't remember anything about Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu or Billy Nair or anybody like this.

POM. One thing I just want to go back on, it fascinated me when you said at the beginning that your family was living in the same place until very recently. I just want to find out, you were born there or you might have been moved there or whatever, but do people there develop a sense of community and homeship? If you moved into an urban area, into a nice posh condominium – well it's nice and posh and it's a condominium but there are none of my neighbours around, I can't go next door and talk to the person, I don't have a sense of community, I'm not at home. So it's the difference between living some place and what is homeship.

IP. I would say that over the years, from that period, from when the township started which was around 1959 and people coming from different parts, but certainly the bulk of the people were from Merebank so there was a sense of continuity.  My neighbour on the left hand side, across the road, was somebody who lived with us in the old Merebank and was my father's friend and all of that. And so two or three houses below. So there was a sense of community.

. But there would have been, as I say, my other neighbour was from the Cato Manor area. So you had an infusion. What I would say is that over the years throughout the sixties and by the early seventies you get a sense of community. Now what would have made that sense of community? I think one would be the fact that probably the largest part of the families were from Merebank. These little struggles that began, and they probably began, I can't remember too well, but they probably began around the seventies, from 1969 maybe 1970. One issue was that people wanted to buy their houses and I don't think this factor was taken into consideration. I think there was an assumption that people would rent these houses for the rest of their lives so there was a battle to convince the authorities that some of us want to buy our houses and therefore we needed to be given this option. Then when that was agreed the second issue then was –

POM. Was that agreed by demonstrations or by withholding of rents or by negotiations?

IP. I would say it was through negotiation, through submission. I think we've got to remember that in the late sixties and early seventies the main mode of engagement would be letter writing and trying to impress on the other side about fairness and about the reasonableness of our case, not really in terms of boycotts or mass action or anything like that, certainly not.

. We then got them to agree on the sale of the houses. Then came the question of the price of the houses and, I can't remember the detail now, but at issue was the price which depended on how they calculated the interest and after a number of submissions and when the authorities, which was the Durban City Council, did not agree then came what for the community then was probably the highest form of action that they could take which was to say, all right, we will take the City Council to court. They then litigated.

POM. This is the Indian community, the Indian township on its own?

IP. On it's own. They then litigated. Now this was quite a step. You needed about, I think, I can't remember but I think R7000 or R8000 at that time to be able to fund this exercise. Now R7000 or R8000 was a lot of money at that time, a lot. We collected this money from the community and we did it in two or three ways. The main way was to go door to door, explain the issue, collect whatever money people would give you and we did this on a weekly basis.

POM. But you are getting ahead with your story, you haven't gone to school yet. You get to school, it's an Indian school. Was there anything to make you think anything is abnormal around you? You go through high school, you matriculate. Are there any problems or do you go right through? If you went to an Indian school I would assume there was an Indian school built by Indians? An Indian school as distinct from a state school? Am I right or am I wrong?

IP. The first school I went to was a primary school which was about three to four kilometres away from my place which I walked to and walked back from. It was a school which had two sessions, a morning session and an afternoon session. The school, it was called 'a state-aided school' which meant that there was some money from the state and some money from the community to keep it going. The actual building, interestingly enough, was a former concentration camp for Afrikaners during the Anglo/Boer war. I remember it as a school with big buildings, with big blocks rather than bricks, big blocks whitewashed. There's very little that I remember politically except the fact that we had to walk and so on, the school was quite far.

POM. Were you reminded that there had been an Anglo/Boer war and that the Boers had fought the British?

IP. Yes.

POM. Did that become part of the way history was taught in the school?

IP. Yes.

POM. When you grew up, with what sense of history did you grow up with as taught in the school you went to?

IP. Well there was nothing about the liberation struggle. It was about the Anglo/Boer wars, of course there was something about the Kaffir wars and so on and the frontiers. There was nothing about the sixties and nothing about the fifties and a lot about European history.

POM. Could you identify with the Brits are always the bad guys?

IP. No, no.

POM. You got them out of India after a long struggle and they'd indentured you here and they fought the Boers and everybody was fighting against their kind of imperialism? Did that come across in what you were taught?

IP. No it didn't come across in what we were taught. I think it was still very, very mixed. I'm still talking about primary school. I think there was also a sense that India was a huge place teeming with a very big population, a very poor place. I remember quite a few people saying, quite a few students saying, and they probably got this from their parents –

POM. This is in primary school?

IP. Primary school - that we were better off being in SA than being in India. So, again, I wouldn't say that there were any sort of deep discussions or even strong feelings. I don't think it actually factored. Look, the only thing – I had a teacher called Asmal (the same as the minister) I am quite sure that he's a relative of Kader Asmal, I actually think he's a brother, he looked very much like him. This was Standard 4 and I must have been 11. He was somebody who certainly wanted to open our minds so one of the things he did was that he would read the newspapers to us. He would make the class contribute some money and we bought a newspaper, I think it was called The Natal Mercury, it was a morning paper. He would spend maybe 20 minutes or so just going through the newspaper, reading a few things, to get us interested in what is happening around us. But I suppose he knew the limits too and was quite careful.

. Afrikaans was introduced at this time and we had great difficulties with Afrikaans. I wouldn't say it really made us anti-Afrikaner or anything like that. We had great difficulties, it didn't help very much that we had an Afrikaans teacher.

POM. So before you were being taught in an Indian dialogue?

IP. No, no, in English. The medium was English. We were taught now Afrikaans language as a subject. The teacher was an Indian person who came from the Cape so he knew Afrikaans. He was not a likeable person and he really beat the hell out of us.

POM. He sounds like an Irish Christian Brother, beat the knowledge into them.

IP. So that didn't make us favourably disposed towards Afrikaans but I still don't think it had political connotations. All it did was that when I got to high school, and that was in 1967, we still had a choice between Afrikaans and Latin.

POM. Latin, that's the same as the Irish, Gaelic and Latin and English. So I learned Latin through Gaelic. I learned my Latin through Gaelic so everything I knew about Latin, I can speak Latin and Gaelic together but Latin and English together and I'm lost.

IP. So when I got to high school I did Latin, not because I would say out of a strong political consciousness, I just couldn't navigate my way through that language.

POM. Through Afrikaans?

IP. Yes. And the teacher who had taught us this language made us hate it, and then Merebank being this place in Natal where Afrikaans was not spoken – there was very little you could do that stimulated your interest in the language. I would say there's a little bit of political consciousness developing at high school and a consciousness of our surroundings. I think we began to see that we're in an area between two oil refineries, the environment quite polluted. We were situated next to an airport and so the landing planes just fly over.

POM. This is in Durban?

IP. Yes.

POM. Still does.

IP. Still does, yes. So every half an hour, 45 minutes at that stage, probably more frequent now, you're going to get a plane going over and if you're listening to the radio or you are in class the teacher has to stop because you can't hear anything and sometimes depending how big the plane is the window panes rattle and so on. I remember one teacher, but then he was not a very likeable person, but he swore profusely on some occasions when these planes went over but nothing else, nothing more than that.

POM. What was your sense of history as you were developing? Did they teach you any political consciousness about things? At what point did you become aware that something was radically wrong here? Don't skip, go back, I want to see how your mind develops so every little bit is important, like the airplane is important because the man was making a statement. He didn't know he was making it just through his swearing.

IP. What I am trying to actually say is that there's a very gradual process. There's no sudden – a gradual process and I didn't certainly in myself experience something directly even up to that time I would say in a confrontation, something about racism or anything like that. In high school I begin to move around, I go into town, I go to cinemas, I'm aware that there are Indian cinemas, there are Indian buses. If you go to a park there are park benches for non-whites and there are park benches for whites. There are facilities for non-whites and whites. The sense that we were categorised as a group and limited in our facilities, I think that comes through.

. I think probably what has an equally important role is actually the role of Indian education. The Indian Education Departments were very organised by the regime at that time. The heads of Indian Education were white of course, the upper echelons. I remember there was a key fellow called Zweigelaar. Those Indian schools were actually run very, very tightly. Teachers were very afraid to talk any politics. Teachers who sucked up to the system were the ones that were promoted. So the sense that we're not in a free environment, that everybody is being very careful, we're living in an Indian area, the coloureds that we lived with were removed into a neighbouring township called Wentworth.

. So there is this consciousness that we are being organised into separate entities but probably the more real sense of oppression is actually the regime at school. Very tight regime, you couldn't come late, obviously so, but if you were late you were disciplined.

POM. But you were being disciplined by Indian teachers?

IP. Indian teachers, yes. All the teachers were Indian. They still used corporal punishment. Great attempts were made to teach us the anthem, the Afrikaans anthem. The history and all of that was rewritten history. Very little about black people, a lot about Europe, etc., and the history that was there about SA was about how the white people and black people came to SA at the same time. I'm sure you've caught that.

POM. I know I'm going back on a point but was there any emphasis that Indians and Afrikaners had a common enemy and that enemy had been Britain and that the Afrikaner had to free himself through the Boer wars and the concentration camps and whatever, their history and any parallel with what was going on in India and the struggle for independence in India?

IP. No, there wasn't anything like that but in any case India had already been independent by then.

POM. 1948. Yes, and this is in the sixties.

IP. Yes. There was a sense, Indians felt that Afrikaners were afraid of them, especially their commercial skill. You must understand that the centre of Durban had been declared white. Now the merchant class would come from India to service initially - the Indian indentured labour had progressed and now had shops in the centre of town and all of this had been declared an Indian area. Now they –

POM. It's still running?

IP. It is still running, yes. There were specific laws, I think there was a Land Pegging Act, if I remember, that was a law specific to trying to constrain and retain Indians to particular geographical areas. There was a sense that the Afrikaners had passed these particular laws, that they were scared certainly of our commercial skills. There were all sorts of things that had come up. Some of the Indians in order to retain their business had actually nominally sold their business to certain whites who fronted for them and they continued to run their business and so on. I wouldn't say that the history that they taught us or their attempts at trying to get Indians to be sympathetic had won them many friends. In fact there was still a sense – certainly I would not say a sense of solidarity with Africans but a sense that we also were being discriminated against. In my own engagement with people, people were also afraid of Africans so there was also a sense that, yes, we are discriminated against by whites but if the whites were not in power we would be in real danger from the Africans. Now you must know that 1949 –

POM. 1949 was the big thing.

IP. The big thing, yes. So it's not a simple process, it's a complicated process. This sense of being limited, of there being not enough freedom for us, I think we've also got to understand that this takes place now, we're talking about the late sixties, it takes place when a lot of things are happening in Europe, it takes place when people start wearing long hair and so on.

POM. The hippie era.

IP. I also wore slightly long hair which was a big problem in school and children were disciplined for this.

POM. They were disciplined all over the world for that. That's the one thing we all have in common.

IP. So again the sense of there not being freedom. I remember, and this was in 1967 or 1968, there was a football tournament and, I think I said this to you the last time, we had a club that we entered, I played for this club and it was called 'Freedom's Children'. There was another club where some of my friends were and that was called, 'The Peter Hain Five', this was five-a-side soccer tournament. Now Peter Hain was the guy who organised the boycotts, sports boycotts and of course the authorities came in to say you can't have a club called the Peter Hain Five. Of course they warned the soccer tournament and of course they then promptly changed the name to 'The Banned'.  So we tried to do something, the school had come in to stop us and we think we actually succeeded. The Club had warned the tournament and changed its name to 'The Banned' and we had done one of those big blackboards at the assembly when the awards were to be given which was, 'Up The Banned', which you could take to mean the attempt to change the name from 'Peter Hain Five', but I think it could have broader connotations because people were aware that people were being banned and house arrested.

. The authorities continued to make an issue of the Afrikaner anthem and in a community which is not at home with Afrikaans they insisted on this so every school occasion now we've got to sing this song and of course we don't sing. They give us the song sheets and we do silly little things like tearing it into bits and littering the place.  I would say in the last year, and this is towards the end of the year, we have this sort of assembly where you have an Inspector, his name actually coincidentally was Pillay, I think it was RG Pillay, same surname as myself, obviously to be an inspector he must have sold out and sold out very well and he was a frequent visitor to the school.

POM. Do you think he knew he had sold out?

IP. Yes, oh yes.

POM. Is that post-consciousness or just maybe what might have been habitual at the time?

IP. Look, you see one of the difficulties in working this out is, it's simpler in the African community, it's more difficult in the Indian community because of a sense of being wedged in between actually creates a justification for some, that it makes more sense to throw in your lot. But I would say he was somebody who consciously sold out because the one thing that sticks very much in my mind is this guy at one of these occasions gave us a speech on integrity, etc., etc., and he gave us this whole speech. I discovered afterwards that he actually cribbed this whole thing from the Readers Digest, so we were crazy to read this Digest and find this there. I don't think as an individual that he was anybody, that he was somebody with integrity anyway. I would advisedly say then, yes, he's somebody who consciously sold out.

POM. You've proved the case.

IP. So he was going to come there and Zweigelaar was going to be there, this was our last year and so on, and we had organised stink bombs. Now these are little capsules which when you crush stink up, organised for tomatoes to be thrown and we had organised that the anthem will not be sung and it will litter the place.

POM. That's against him?

IP. Well, no, I wouldn't say against him. It was against –

POM. Afrikaans being – ?

IP. Against the regime in school. I wouldn't say it was against the SA government but I would say it's against the regime in school.

POM. Which had now got to implement the teaching of Afrikaans.

IP. Right. The teaching of Afrikaans as a subject and forcing the anthem on us and running generally a very, very tight regime which didn't give you leeway for expression, give you leeway to wear your hair the way you wanted to wear it or call your club the name you wanted to call it. I certainly wouldn't say it was rebellion against the government but certainly it was an act of rebellion against the school regime. We didn't do this, we didn't mobilise the school, we networked a few people, friends in the class, maybe the next class and that's it. So I don't want to say we went out and mobilised the school, it was nothing of that sort. It was an individual act or acts of a few individuals who wanted to say something about the school regime. It didn't really come to much because the plot had been discovered and there was a teacher who we had a lot of time for. He treated us like adults generally and he was our form master and he came to us, he called us in and he said, "Look guys, there's two to three hours to go before the ceremony takes place and I'm aware that you guys are planning to do these things." He talked about the stink bombs, wanted to talk about it, "Who's going to talk about it?" So he went out of the room and said, "Look all of those things that you have in your pockets as you pass my desk", and he was out of the room, he didn't want to know who was trying to do this thing, "Just leave it on my desk and that's fine", and he went away. And that's what we did.

POM. It sounds like going through an airport.

IP. We respected him and the way he handled it was acceptable to us. So that put paid to that but we went on with the attempts.

POM. So he diffused the situation.

IP. He diffused that part yes.

POM. But you also respected him?

IP. Yes, yes. Then there was no witch hunt, he didn't say, 'I know it's you', and he didn't say, 'I'm going to take you into the Principal and you're going to be punished.' We went on with disrupting the singing of the anthem and we went on with the attempts to throw tomatoes. I think two tomatoes were thrown. Unfortunately they didn't hit the target because of the way in which the podium was set up. It was very, very awkward, and we had placed people on the second floor in the science block to throw through a window. Now it might be that the location of that podium was done deliberately because they had some idea.

POM. This is hindsight.

IP. This is hindsight.

POM. It was just the way it was.

IP. Yes. So we didn't hit them, it landed on the roof. It was like this, you see they had the podium like this and there were people standing here and there was a roof so the guy threw it up from the second floor and it actually landed on the roof. Anyway. We didn't have enough sense then to say that we didn't even plan this that well, that if it's going to be like this then you've got to go train a bit. We did get our best thrower, somebody who played cricket.

. I remember the class below us, more junior to us, and later on some of them did get involved, had heard that we were doing some things and asked if they could join us and we said no, no, no.

POM. You … like a plot?

IP. Like a plot rather than an attempt to mobilise. Then came the end of school. I didn't go to university.

POM. You matriculated?

IP. I matriculated. I didn't go to university.

POM. You were obviously going back home every day, from home to school and school to home every day so you were a commuting student.

IP. Travelling, a day scholar. I should say just about the school that there was one individual who is still a great buddy of mine. His name is Coastal Govender. He was more aware than all of us. He was aware of the liberation struggle. He talked about Mandela during those times. One of the things that he did was to quote Mandela's prison speech, he was rebellious. We got into scraps where he did things like, for example, the Peter Hain Five and The Banned, that was his idea. So we got involved in support of him. He was also a guy that wore purple shoes and this freaked out the school and there were many attempts to get him to dye his shoes. I remember that they wanted to throw him out of class once and we said to this teacher, "You're not throwing him out of the class." And he insisted and threw him out of the class and then half of us walked out of the class also. The feeling of solidarity, being engaged in some little struggle starts, not more profound than that, I can't remember that.

. We were conscious of the community, that we are short of these facilities. It's a working class community, there are people out of work, that there's a welfare society trying to cater for the needs of some of the families that cannot afford – we're becoming aware of these things. When I leave school we then begin to engage on these fronts.

POM. Now you leave school. Do you get a job? Are you unemployed? Where do you fit?

IP. For six months I was without a job and so were many of my friends. This friend of mine, Coastal, he didn't pass matric, he failed, so of course he couldn't go to university anyway even if he wanted to. Another friend of mine, one who died in the Matola raid in Mozambique in 1981 I think it was, he also didn't pass. Now he wrote Afrikaans, he studied Afrikaans, we studied Latin.

POM. What was his name?

IP. Krishna Rabilal. I've got his photo in my office, it's on the wall there. Now he failed matric because he failed Afrikaans. If you failed Afrikaans you failed everything so he couldn't go to university either.

POM. But you could?

IP. I could have, yes. I didn't want to.

POM. Why at that point had you reached that decision that you didn't want to since that would have been one highest priorities for an education?

IP. Yes. I know it sounds - what is the right word? I sensed I was not happy that there were problems. I wanted to do something. I wasn't quite sure what I should do and so I needed some time out. Fortunately, as I say, my father who was still alive, he wasn't the head of the family, and my brothers who were heading the family gave me the leeway and my mother who I was very close to gave me the leeway. I actually spent that six months quite intensely involved in trying to do some community work.

POM. Was your mother in any way political? Just looking after the family was enough?

IP. Yes. You know the one thing about my family is there was a sense of values about fair play, about honesty and that would be the prism through which they would see things and so as long as I was involved in doing something that worked towards those values I don't think they had a problem. If I was just smoking around the corners and loitering around I think there would have been a huge problem. All of us, this is sort of eight or ten of us as a core grouping, we had time on our hands and we met regularly, we were friends and we got involved as friends. We got involved with the effort of the Ratepayers Association in this struggle on the selling price of homes. We got involved with the local Child Welfare Society. We got involved in the struggle to get basic amenities like a good bus service and bus shelters and community centres. We got involved in – I really cannot tell you why except that we felt we needed to communicate with the community so we started a newsletter which we issued to the community free of charge. We collected donations and we printed this, we got it printed and at that time I think it cost something like R50 to print 3000 issues of this newsletter which we gave out. The newsletter was called The Sentinel and it's not that we felt we had ideas to communicate as such but we felt that we needed to communicate some ideas certainly but we needed to communicate what these other organisations were doing.

POM. Now people like Mac had worked for, he worked for a newspaper called The New Age. Did you hear of that, know of that?

IP. Nothing.

POM. Nothing, so you're kind of almost doing this in isolation.

IP. Yes, reinventing the wheel.

POM. That's OK but you're inventing. You knew the wheel was invented and you invented it.

IP. We issued this newsletter up to 1977 and it did get a lot of support from the community organisations, it gave them a mouthpiece. We got involved in all sorts of issues. The price of bread went up and we tried to campaign against that. When the prices of bus fares went up we tried to campaign against that. The bread thing was more nebulous. Certainly there were other communities also protesting against the price of bread so then there was sense that of course there were other people doing it and we were at one with them. So we painted slogans and issued our newsletter on this.

POM. The authorities took no direction on the thing?

IP. Not serious. What I am forgetting is that in 1971, which was the year after matric, was the tenth anniversary of the Republic of SA and there was an attempt by the regime to celebrate this and to get us to celebrate it. So in schools and so on there would be the hoisting of the flag and the singing of the anthem and so on and we organised around that, I think 31 May was the day, and we got somebody to steal the flag from the high school so that the flag could not be hoisted and we had our own community meeting two or three days before the 31 May which basically said we have nothing to celebrate. Now we did this again, not in isolation, Mewa Ramgobin, who is today an MP, he was then married to Ela Ramgobin who was the great granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. They actually lived in Phoenix in the same house that Mahatma Gandhi lived in and Mewa had been banned in the sixties and his banning order had just expired during that time. He immediately got into action and formed what he called anti-republican committees. Meetings were held in different places certainly in Natal.

. We organised this meeting in a cinema, we by then had a cinema, a shopping centre had been built and there was a cinema there. It was called the Natraj Cinema and we had four of five speakers there, Mewa Ramgobin spoke, Tim Dunne who was the head of the SRC University of Natal, there was a lady called Paula Ensor, I think she must be the sister of Linda Ensor who is a journalist. Paula Ensor spoke, she was in the SRC. We had an African advocate. We didn't get a full house but it was the first political meeting in that community, the first outright political meeting. The Special Branch were interested, they were there, they had let down the air on some of the cars of the people who had come to the meeting and so on and after the meeting they had certainly picked up Coastal Govender for interrogation. I was the chairman of that meeting, the convenor.

. So although there was a political awareness and we did express it, the political awareness at least was developing and we had begun to express it. We hadn't begun to express it organisationally. We had expressed it through our involvement in the community and the community organisations.

POM. So there was nothing overtly political about it at that point?

IP. No, and I would say that we did it consciously because of the fear in the community and the fear amongst us. This was the time when, the late sixties and early seventies, when whenever you started to say anything political people would warn you, "You guys are going to end up on Robben Island." So we moved in this way and we actually avoided, I would say, an outright confrontation.

POM. Pushing things to the point of where you'd be picked up, detained, charged, sent off.

IP. Yes, that didn't happen. We then got involved with the Natal Indian Congress, we formed a Natal Indian Congress branch. I think you needed to have 25 people. We actually utilised the branch mainly prior to congresses but we didn't really act as a branch. You'd send messages or directives to the community organisation telling them we were Congress Branch Merebank, but it was basically the same people, we were the people in the community organisations, we were the people in the Ratepayers Association, we were the people in the newspaper and we were the people in the branch. You see all told in the community at that stage you'd probably have ten or twelve core activists. It's not like we succeeded in mobilising a whole lot of people but when you had meetings, when you had campaigns, whether to go house to house, you'd probably swell the numbers by up to another fifty or so but your core group were ten or twelve people.

. It was also the time when the Black Consciousness Movement begins to form and begins to spread. There was also a BCM branch in the Merebank area. Now you must know that the University of Natal Medical School campus was only three or four kilometres from where we were, the campus was in Wentworth next to the oil refinery. The medical school was actually a black medical school, there were no whites in the medical school.

POM. When you say black?

IP. It means Indian, coloured and African. That was a hotbed of political activity. They there observed the main heroic days of the struggle, December 16th and so on, so the SA Students Organisation, I would say, had a very strong base there and later on when the Black People's Convention was formed, which was around 1973, the branch that was formed was a branch that encompassed the University of Natal Medical School and Merebank and Wentworth. In fact my older brother at one stage was chairman of the branch. He's now in exile in Canada.

. That's actually reminding me that in all of these things, my bigger brother - there was an eight-year difference between us - he was socially conscious, politically conscious and he joined us in some of these things and we utilised his knowledge and his skills and certainly I utilised his car to do a lot of organising work, but he wasn't a key part and that's because of the age difference and because he was working and that was because for quite a time he was working as a teacher and he was working in a school in southern Natal which was about 30 or 40 kilometres away from Merebank so he travelled daily. He actually spent a lot of time travelling and at school. He played his role in most of those organisations. He was involved before we were in trying to set up some sort of youth club that was more a debating society but also which some of the members became involved in the Ratepayers Association, etc. So that was a generation slightly older than us, a few of them had some involvement but really speaking it was the generation that I was part of –

POM. You were part of the sixties. Were you a part of what one calls in the broader sense the hippie generation, wearing different kind of clothes, letting your hair grow?

IP. Jeans and T-shirts.

POM. Jeans and T-shirts and all of that, so you were – that's interesting.

IP. You see we had this contact with the University of Natal Medical School. We also had contact with the University of Natal's Howard College, that was white at that stage. I think there were very few students of colour there. You could only go there if you were studying a subject that was not catered for in the Indian university which was University of Durban Westville. Prior to that it was an Indian university again but the campus was in Salisbury Island.

POM. What was the difference between the university in Durban itself and the Westville campus?

IP. Well the Westville campus was all Indians, only for Indians.

POM. Whereas the –

IP. University of Natal was for whites.

POM. But as an Indian you could go – could you?

IP. Yes, you could go to the University of Natal but only if you were doing a subject, a course that was not catered for, then yes.

POM. Could an African go there too?

IP. Again only, and this came later on, but only if what you wanted to study was not catered for anywhere else. Some people would go just to use the library and that's it. But I'm talking about a sprinkling of people. You had at the University of Natal a very active NUSAS, National Union of Students Association.

POM. That's where Mac went.

IP. Yes. They were very active. They were mainly white students who were active and they had their own publications. I think the SRC Durban, for example, had a publication called Dome and then of course you had the black students at the medical school. These were places –

POM. When you use black, do you differentiate between black being encompassing of Africans?

IP. That's right it encompasses. We must also understand all of this happens in a period where apartheid is trying to entrench itself or the regime is trying to entrench apartheid so they start interfering in sports. We had, I can't remember very well, but up to the early seventies we had a mixed soccer federation, a few white players but mainly African, Indian and coloured players. That history is interesting because before the mixed federation you actually had racial federations, you even had South African Africans playing South African Indians and so on. Wisely the leaders of the community stopped this because it actually led to racial incidents. I think before my time, some time in the sixties when these games were played they actually ended up with people fighting each other. So they formed an African Soccer League headed by sell-outs of course, a guy called George Thabe and huge sponsorships were given to the African League.

POM. From?

IP. From the private sector.

POM. The white private sector?

IP. Yes, huge sponsorships to draw African players out of that League.

POM. To draw them out of the mixed League?

IP. That's right. Today's teams like Orlando Pirates, Moroka Swallows and so on which were in the mixed federation moved over to play in the racial federation. So many of these people who are active in so-called soccer today actually have their roots in racial soccer. This is why there is so much trouble there. But anyway!

POM. How interesting.

IP. Of course there was the Group Areas. You could actually play soccer wherever you wanted to play. Your problem is that if you needed to go into an African  area you needed a permit to be in an African area. Secondly, you couldn't have any alcohol in any of these places because there was a law passed that people of different races could not drink alcohol together.

POM. A lovely law! I could drink alcohol with a white person but I couldn't drink alcohol with an Indian person?

IP. Yes. Actually speaking also there was a law which forbade Africans now from buying spirits.

POM. Only beer?

IP. You could only drink beer, the African beer in the Bantu beer halls that there were, so it was this beer that was – you know you would drink out of a huge tin like this.

POM. This is one of the things I missed!

IP. I don't know if you saw the film for which Slovo's daughter wrote the script? What was it called?

POM. I did yes, of course I did.

IP. I don't know if you remember there is this scene, people sitting together in a party and when there's going to be a police raid they start pouring all the alcohol into one huge container and the whites could still drink whatever they were drinking, it wasn't a problem, but any non-white there would then have to be drinking water or cool drink, a non-alcoholic beverage. Anyway! So they did all of these things in order to prevent this.

. The Soccer League, one of its main homes, the mixed Soccer League, was Currie's Fountain in Durban and they weakened that League. In the early seventies it was quite weak. It then began to grow in 1974/75/76. It then got weakened again later. Just as around soccer there was a struggle, there were struggles around swimming. Morgan Naidoo was the head of the SA Non-Racial Swimming Federation and he had been banned for five years for his activities in promoting non-racial swimming. Part of it was that part of his work was being in touch with Peter Hain and trying to get the international authorities to bar South African participation in FINA.

. So you're getting an atmosphere in which now there's a struggle being taken on but on a wide variety of fronts. This is also, this seventies period is also the period where you get the awakening of the labour movement again. Africans were not classified technically, I think as employees, and the way the law was written you could only be a member of a union - I don't know if I'm remembering it exactly but it's something like that. They passed these laws in order to break the influence that SACTU had so what you had then is TUCSA, I think it was, Trade Union Council of SA which was white, Indian and coloured and you then had hardly any unions –

POM. No black, no African –

IP. No African trade union. The white students actually with a few Indians actually, but mainly white students, played a seminal role in this need for them to be organised and they used various subterfuges. I think one of them was to form something like a benefit fund and so on and Africans could belong to this benefit fund and they would pay subs and that would cater for legal battles, funding for legal battles and for other things. Then we had in 1973 a huge strike action. In Natal 100,000 African workers, mainly African workers but there were also Indian and coloured workers, went out on strike.

POM. Are you becoming now more involved yourself? These things are happening on one level and you're here. There's this path going on, here are you walking alongside, when do you start walking alongside?

IP. Start crossing over. Yes, now, you see obviously the crossing over starts with, say, the University of Natal and the Medical School.

POM. That's because when you weren't attending either you were just doing community work and getting involved with other people.

IP. That's right. But this was six months and then after that I started working. I worked in the construction industry, did some clerical work. During the strikes I was working in a furniture shop, I was a despatch clerk in a furniture shop … getting us to also go on strike.

POM. That's Billy Nair right?

IP. No, no, he was still in prison. Some of the prominent people – there was someone like Alec Erwin who was a lecturer at university and Judson Khuzwayo was there. I start making all sorts of crosses but my main focus remained Merebank and remained with community work but even in the community work we began to reach out. We began to reach out through the big Indian township called Chatsworth. There was another Indian area called Clairwood which had been declared light industrial but was an Indian area.

POM. Which one did – because I interviewed him?

IP. He came from Claremont.

POM. That's right, I visited him in his home there before he died. That larger picture.

IP. Though not a Black Conciousness – let me put it this way, I flirted with the BCM. I was never really convinced but I participated because I had a close friend also from the core group called Roy Chetty. Now he was a leading member of the BCM and I remember in 1973, maybe 1974, travelling the country with him. We went to Johannesburg, we went to East London, we went to Kingwilliamstown, we went to see Biko, so I began to expand a little bit.

POM. Did you meet Biko?

IP. Yes but I didn't really discuss very much with him, Roy discussed with him. Biko was banned at that stage.

POM. But you were saying Black Consciousness, if I'm right, had a bigger influence on you then since you had no connection with the ANC – so far in our conversation you haven't mentioned ANC. That's the important point is how did the development again from being here, watching, how did the transfers happen?

IP. Quite simply I would describe it – my approach was still very much rooted in the community, the focus was on the community and it was on community work. The Black Consciousness propagators that were there, and though I had the deepest respect for say Roy Chetty and he was part of –

POM. Is he still alive?

IP. He's still alive yes, he's in Durban. Their direct involvement in the community, certainly in our community and communities we knew were limited and we saw them as people who spent a lot of time posturing and positioning and so on.

POM. Did you see them as African consciousness rather than Black Consciousness?

IP. No, we saw them as genuinely Black Consciousness.

POM. Embracive.

IP. Embracive, yes. There were certainly very prominent Indians that played a key role in developing the BC philosophy in SA, who were very, very prominent.

POM. Where is Saths? I used to interview him years and years ago?

IP. He's a psychologist.

POM. I've interviewed him four or five times in the early nineties but then I lost touch with him.

IP. I think it's a sad thing. I think one of the problems we have is that we are not embracing enough. When Saths had begun to shift from the BC Movement probably some time in the eighties after coming out of prison and he began to shift, I would say the UDF at that stage didn't embrace him and I think we even now are not embracing. I think he has a lot to give but he couldn't find a role for himself.

POM. He lost his space.

IP. Yes. So my criticism was mainly that they were not dealing with the bread and butter issues at that stage and I think it's understandable, they were intellectuals, they were students and the emphasis was on how a change in consciousness would bring about change.

POM. Identity?

IP. Yes.

POM. Was identity important?

IP. Identity was important, assertiveness, that was important but their linkages to community organisations to trade unions was weak. They began to try to address that when the Black Allied Workers Union was formed. There was an attempt to start to address that but again they allowed their philosophy to put such an imprint on it that it actually didn't make for good organising because they didn't organise people into different unions.

POM. Who were they?

IP. The General Workers Union.

POM. Would I be correct in saying they were more ideological rather than like something that you're working at, intellectuals across the top and they're on the top but they're not moving, building a pyramid horizontally down to the people on the ground?

IP. That's right, yes.

POM. Would that be fair?

IP. That would be fair. What they said and their publications and so on was way above the heads of the ordinary person. Nonetheless when the Black Allied Workers Union was formed in Durban I helped out in small ways with them. When the BCM took on the state after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in solidarity with Frelimo I supported that and joined in those demonstrations and a few hours before. There was a lot of hype about Frelimo leaders coming to SA to address that meeting, which didn't actually happen but it stirred the government into banning all such pro-Frelimo rallies. That meeting was banned, the police came there and they made their announcement and they asked us to disperse. We didn't disperse and they attacked the crowd with batons. Then they arrested all the key BC leaders. I was present when they arrested them.

. You see when we fled from Curries Fountain we then regrouped in the offices of the BCM. I was very happy about doing it, about going there, but I was with a friend from out of town, his name was Menzwe Mbeu. I've lost total contact with him. I believe he's still somewhere abroad.  We went to the offices to find out what would be the next stop. In the offices were Brigitte Mabandla, now a minister, Reverend Castro Mayetula(?), some of the other people I can't remember all of them. Saths Cooper wasn't there because he was already banned and he was playing a role behind the scenes. The SASO offices were upstairs, we went into the office upstairs. People were regrouping, phone calls were being made.

. As soon as I could get away from there I got away and I came down the steps with Menzwe and we were speaking to some reporters when the police came in and they surrounded the whole property. Nobody could move. They sealed off the door and I wasn't in the offices as such, I was just outside the offices. They told us not to move, they took photographs, one shot of all of us. They asked us who we were. The journalists said, "We are journalists, we are here to interview these people", and they took me to be a journalist. Then they went into the offices and they took these people out one by one into waiting vans and off they went.

. You see it might have been different if I were African so the African cadre might have a different experience because he would have gone into a situation where he or she would very quickly know that they are the bottomest rung of the ladder and the degree of suppression and oppression was greater and they would have had more incidents, lack of the big ticket or … forced removals.

POM. Tim Jenkin told me all about communications systems to such a degree nothing, OK. I'm just simply trying to make sure.

IP. Somebody in the family or they themselves being in a strike and strikes were illegal, trade unions were not legal for Africans, so the very fact that you had to carry a dompas and that so many Africans over the years had been charged for being in the wrong place. You would have a very different development to political consciousness on the African side, I would say an easier development to consciousness of what is happening and an easier decision to make as to get involved. Maybe even you don't make much of a decision in that you are in a situation where you have to respond or you don't respond at all and you're aware that you are less than –

POM. Obviously less than equal.

IP. Yes, yes. And you've accepted that. The role of Indians and whites and coloureds, although there are different degrees within that, is different. For most of those who were involved it's a slower development but it's also a development where they have to overcome certain prevailing opinions and views within that community so they've got to rise above, they've got to build and build and rise above and see, yes, they are for particular communities but there are other communities and they've got to begin to understand all those interactions.

POM. So they have to educate themselves out of their own prejudices to get on top of them.

IP. Yes. And that in itself is part of the struggle. The struggle is not just a struggle against apartheid, the struggle is a struggle first to have an understanding and to find your way through that. That in itself also gives certain consequences. It means that when you've arrived, if and when you've arrived, you have a much more solid base and deeper roots. It's not something, an incident, that has made you do something and that tomorrow another incident will make you do something else. Quite often you would find, certainly the Indians, an advantage in that we developed over time views through which we can see things. We don't have to be told that this is right and wrong. Usually we have the tools to make our own analysis and make our decision and then decide on the line of action that has to be taken. I would like to believe, like for me as an individual, whatever happens, whatever this government says or does or doesn't do, whatever the ANC officially says or does or doesn't do, would make me review or cast out what I've done. Those are things that I would hold because they are tested, they are not borrowed.

POM. They were independent – you arrived at them independently of any ideological structure.

IP. That's right and I think that is the great strength that some of us have. It is because we've had to go through that different route anyway. I've discussed this with some other people and it's not a notion that they have, at least in the discussion with me, in which they have agreed with me. I suppose they feel a bit uncomfortable because it's got nothing to do with racialism or anything, it's a different experience.

POM. Of course. That is one of the things that I have been doing, is trying to understand the different ways in which people obviously had to come to your understanding, the influence which the Indian Congress had, the first one founded before even the ANC.

IP. Yes, that's right.

POM. So you have all these layered experiences. One must get to know how. Janet had to make a much easier route, a different route. You got there. A lesser understanding of the consequences of the route one takes though enjoying, it must be a kind of – the true reading of where I'll go, history.

IP. And the way the mind works and the way people work.

POM. We are all supposed to think equally but we don't and that's a fact.

IP. We are shaped by our circumstances.

POM. That's just a fact.

IP. Like my mother, she has no profound understanding, I would say, of politics. She's late now, she died. But she just had the basic values that I've talked about before and she had confidence in her children. She had brought them up in a particular way and if her children were doing this and it's consistent with those basic values she feared but she didn't stand in the way. Later on she got quite political but not from a real profound understanding. I hope I'm not underestimating her but it is because of her children.

POM. Because of the values instilled by a culture that goes back centuries. We don't like to talk about things like that because we say they're too awkward.

IP. Of course again you see then the thing is that that plays a role but that not all Indians had the same experience either. Now some of the values, basic values, would come through the fact that – our house, for example, was an open house. I think I explained earlier that people from the rural area would come through and stay there. We were nine in a four-roomed house, and the four rooms – one was a kitchen and one was a lounge and there were two bedrooms. I slept on a mattress in the lounge of my home – I would be the last one to sleep because when everybody had vacated the lounge then I would unroll my mattress and put it there and sleep. When we had visitors then we had even more people and some people would sleep in the kitchen. When I was growing up and up to the time I was even 21 we never had meat in our home every day and if anybody came to my home, and I still see this in some African families, I don't see it so much in Indians families now, nowadays in many families you've got to say you're coming and you go. It's like being in Europe, but at that time you come in, if you are eating, if there's food on the table you eat and there's certainly always tea and bread or biscuits or whatever. I don't think my mother has ever turned anybody away who has wanted help for anything, neither did my father, but there was a difference about my father which we didn't like. He said he would give everything away which was a big problem.

POM. I was just going to say something back to you about this sharing. I was born in the city of Dublin. I used to spend about four or five months in what we called 'the country', that was where all my family came from. We used to sleep in one bed, two up and two down and that fitted four people in one bed. It was perfectly normal and no-one ever complained about it, no-one ever said this is poverty. It was normal, the same thing as everybody was doing. A pot of tea went on right away and whatever was in the house was brought out and put in front of them. In a way that makes me laugh. When you talk I understand what you're saying because I can say I went through that and you're bringing back memories to me that I have forgotten, like two up, two down. You'd sleep with someone's toes in your mouth, that's how you would sleep at night.

IP. Actually when I moved out of the lounge as my older brothers began to move out, then I actually shared a bed with my mother, one of these three-quarter beds, and then again when somebody else moved then of course I got my own bed. I probably was 17 or so.

POM. I never had my own bed.

IP. I'm one up on you.

POM. I left Ireland at 25 and I still hadn't my own bed. Let's stop there. I'm trying to prove the Irish were more deprived before they got 11% growth rate.

IP. I'm sure you recognise in the township there were always neighbours coming, we need a cup of rice, we need a cup of sugar, we need some milk, that type of thing. And you go across there if you need something and so on.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.