This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Billy Nair was born on 27 November 1929. After primary school he went to work to supplement the family's income. He attended night classes and obtained his Matriculation certificate and a Diploma in Accounting. He began his trade union career by organising the Natal Dairy Workers Union in 1951. Fired from his job, he became full-time Secretary of the Union. Billy was appointed Secretary of the Natal Indian Youth Congress in 1951 and member of the executive of the Natal Indian Congress in 1954. He served on the National Executive and was the Natal Secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). He was one of the 156 leaders arrested and charged with high treason in 1956. After being detained for three months during the 1960 State of Emergency, he was served with a two-year banning order in 1961. He continued to work in the underground structures of the SACP and Umkhonto weSizwe. He was again detained on 6 July 1963 and sentenced to 18 years for sabotage.
In prison he obtained a BA and a BCom. degree and was studying towards the B.Proc. degree at the time of his release. On his release from prison in 1984, he became active in the United Democratic Front. He served on the NEC of the UDF and was Deputy Chair for Natal of the UDF. He was again detained in 1984 and in 1985. On the eve of the 1986 state of emergency, he went underground. He was arrested once more on 23 July 1990 and was charged with nine others in the 'Vula' trial.
Billy served as a member of the Central Committee of the SACP from 1990 to 1997, and of the National Executive Committee of the ANC from 1991 to 1994. He was elected to Parliament in 1994 and re-elected in the 1999 elections.
by Ben Arnold
In a freedom struggle every battle has to be fought as if it spells the end of the war. At the same time it is winning the war that counts.
Billy has that mettle, that stubborn streak, which is essential to the make-up of a freedom fighter. He engages in every battle as if it were the last.
He was detained in 1963, and experienced torture and brutality in detention, while awaiting trial and after sentence. It didn't end when they reached Robben Island in 1964. The warders would descend on the prisoners with batons and pickaxe handles without reason.
By the time Billy was brought to the isolation section he was in a fighting mood - better to die fighting than subject oneself to such brutality, was becoming his motto. At the time, the prisoners in the isolation section were seated on rows of concrete blocks, about a metre-and-a-half apart. No talking was allowed between prisoners. Equipped with four-pound hammers we were to break slabs of blue stone into tiny pebbles.
Billy's hackles would rise at the slightest provocation from a warder. Time and again such a flare-up would result in summary punishment for Billy. Mandela would send whispered messages down the work-line, passed from one prisoner to another and on to Billy, urging him not to react to the provocation. Billy was in no mood for such advice. Only after being urged repeatedly and reminded that we were in a protracted struggle for freedom, did he calm down, but not without accusing some of being faint-hearted.
That stubborn grit in Billy should never be mistaken for inflexibility. His life as a trade unionist had taught him that winning one battle does not spell victory in the war.
As a trade union leader he had learnt that organising workers in South Africa was an extremely difficult and hazardous task. At the beginning the workers at a factory would need repeated persuasion to come to a union meeting. Once convinced, they would respond with great enthusiasm. By the time they reached to point of formulating and submitting their grievances and demands, they would be itching for action. As a leader Billy was often confronted with the task of persuading them to prosecute their demands resolutely and methodically. Only after going through such procedures should they contemplate strike action. Often enough, by the time strike action was resorted to, there would be workers wanting to continue the strike indefinitely.
Almost every strike required a sense of timing on when to compromise, the key being to consolidate gains while maintaining the unity and cohesion of the workers to take issue in the next round.
A union leader learns fast that leadership is a somewhat lonely task requiring one to urge one's colleagues forward when they are hesitant, and urging them to take it easy, to accept settlement – even a compromise - when their unity in action is at its height. None of this comes easy. Such leadership requires strength of character, a sense of timing and an eschewing of demagoguery.
Never should Billy be judged by his temper at a given moment. His head and heart may appear to be disjunct, but he is always able to respond to the counsel and persuasion of his peers – because deep down he always has stamina for the course. This he combines with an impish humour, marking him out as a prankster among his comrades.