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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
25 Feb 2002: Pillay, Ivan
POM. Ivan, let me first of all begin with your background, where you were born, your parents, brothers and sisters, where you went to school, influence of family and what led you slowly to get involved in the movement.
IP. I was born in a place called Merebank, it's in the southern part of Durban, actually quite near the Durban airport. Today it's a typical township, four roomed type of township houses, and I believe we moved in there when I was about five years old. I was born in Merebank but we moved into the township, South African style township.
POM. Now was that a forced removal?
IP. No, well for some people it was but for us it wasn't. We were already in Merebank but Merebank and then later Chatsworth were government townships that were there to accommodate people moved out of very many areas so there were people who were, say, moved out for Group Areas, from Cato Manor, Riverside and so on, they were moved to Merebank and Chatsworth but we ourselves we were living in Merebank. My parents came from southern Natal, they were farmers and they had just moved into Merebank maybe ten years or so earlier and so when these townships were built we were then moved in into the township. Obviously where we stayed had to make way for the township itself but I wouldn't say it was a forced removal in the political sense as we know with separate development.
. As I said, my parents were farmers. They moved to town, closer to Durban, for work. My father worked selling insurance at that stage. My mother was a housewife, seven kids at home. I was the youngest.
POM. What year were you born in?
POM. Did she stay at home or did she have to go out and work too?
IP. No, she stayed at home. I suppose seven kids are a handful. They did some market gardening around the house so my mother would have worked in the field a little bit.
POM. That was quite a move for your father to go from farming to selling insurance?
IP. Yes. I don't quite understand it. One of the things is that by the time I was growing up, when I was five or six my father had a stroke and so he was bedridden from then on until he died which was probably 18 to 20 years later, and there's a very big age gap between - I was the youngest and you must know there were seven kids so there was a very big gap so I don't think I really understood him and I don't think I really engaged with him or he with me. I really don't understand all of that.
. What is interesting and probably might be some indicator, I don't believe people actually in that sort of situation when they decide to move it's just a decision of the family or one or two individuals. You must know that the background is of extended families so this must have been some sort of decision by the extended family in the farming area. One of the things is that our home became a sort of conduit into the city so we always had people from the rural areas coming in, first of course to visit or to bring their goods into the market and they would stay over and take the goods the next morning, sell them in the market and then come back. We later on then had people maybe even staying for longer, for months, and then finally it came that we actually had them coming and staying over until they found a job so it became part of the route into the urban areas as people moved into towns.
POM. After your father had a stroke what was the source of income for the family?
IP. Then my brother, my eldest brother who had just passed his matric, he went to work and he worked in a furniture store and maybe a year or two after that the second brother to him who had finished his Standard 6, he also went to work in a similar furniture store and they then funded us.
POM. So you were all living still at home?
IP. At home yes, we lived at home. Actually they saw me through school and they saw my other two brothers, older than myself, through school.
. The area itself where we lived is interesting. It's probably one of the most polluted areas in the country. There is noise pollution from the airport, there's a sewage plant for Durban there, there's a paper mill there and there are two oil refineries. Just this weekend's paper, you should have a look, they mention the areas. They say there's a higher incidence of cancer in that area compared to the rest of Durban. There's also a higher incidence of all sorts of lung diseases, bronchitis and so on. And then in the nature of government townships when they are set up, usually they're not set up like a suburb, that is it's planned for in totality. What they usually do is actually build the houses, put in the roads later and then they think of where the shops should be and then when they get around with maybe where the parks should be a number of years go by. So it's also an area besides the pollution problem, an area which would have been short of amenities. Certainly when I was growing up there were no pavements on the roads, bus service was a problem, street lights were a problem, no parks to talk about, no swimming pool to talk about, so really it was a dormitory but that's it.
. That then gave rise to a situation where very quickly we were aware of what we didn't have, friends and I and families and all. These were everyday things that we were aware of that should be there and so our consciousness, now wanting to do something about it, arose out of trying to address those very issues. It is useful also to situate the area there. Just north of that area is a coloured township called Wentworth which has a similar polluted environment because it's very near. It's actually divided by one street and there was also considerable tension between the coloured communities and the Indian communities.
IP. Basically because of Group Areas. When you stay there and you're all coloured and you stay here when you're all Indian and that gives rise to a certain consciousness and any friction becomes a group friction, that's a normal sort of thing. In fact if we thought we were worse off for amenities I think the coloured community was even slightly worse off than we were so they would actually come over to buy from the shops in the Indian areas and that would lead to some friction and so on, the normal thing. One of the things I noticed was that even in the Indian township there would be friction between different sections of the township. I think it's quite normal that there would be – people tried to define themselves according to geographical areas or whatever. I think it's a trait, most people try to get some sort of identity within a group. So, for example, where I stayed was near the shopping centre and there would be a sort of shopping centre group. There was another area which was near the beach which was the hillside and there was another area near where the navy had an installation, that was called the navy area. So people would identify with, however vague it is, something about it.
POM. This was a kind of a social stratification?
IP. No, not a social stratification.
POM. Income stratification?
IP. No, just an area stratification. It leads me to believe that actually wherever you put people as long as there's some defining element they will begin to form, however small, some sort of identity around that. There was an interesting article, again in this week's Sunday Times, by some study that was carried out which said that they found that where you decreased the emphasis on race you could even have then mobilisation around even the colour of a T-shirt. There can be other issues on which people mobilise. Anyway, I'm digressing.
. There was a bit of political consciousness in my family in that my father had some consciousness but I wouldn't say very profound and I don't think it extended to the ANC but it would have been around the Natal Indian Congress that was active in the 1960s. I have two elder brothers that are, not the oldest ones but the elder ones, one four years older than me and the other seven years older than me who were close enough to me, both went to college, to university and both were politically aware and there were a number of discussions that we would hold amongst ourselves. My brother, for example, when he was in college there was a student boycott in 1971.
POM. Which university did he go to?
IP. University of Durban Westville. My older brother, the one who was seven years older than me, went to the university – it was called then Salisbury Island, also an Indian university that came before Durban Westville. So, again, they were absolutely aware of the fact that they had to go to an Indian university and everything that went with it. In my view you really didn't have to try very hard to make people aware of their situation. It would obviously hit you at every turn. The apartheid system hardly left anything untouched.
. At school, high school, which I attended in the area when I wrote my matric in 1970 it was the last year that we wrote a common matric exam with the whole of SA. After that came the matrics, each so-called race group wrote its own matric exam. Even then, although we didn't at that stage write an exam that was Indian, the school was run by Indian Education, the Department of Indian Education, and was very tightly run, very top-down, very hierarchical, no criticism of the government, everybody ran scared, which also made us a bit rebellious. So we had the normal sort of things at school, a bit of protest here and there. I remember we had soccer tournaments and a few of the teams were named after what I would say were not individuals but political subjects. One of the teams was called 'The Banned', another team was called 'Freedom's Children', so you start to come to engage with these things. We were forced to sing the national anthem, Die Stem, in Afrikaans and of course we never sang it, we always booed and all sorts of things. In my last year at high school I remember we tried to organise some sort of great demonstration against an Inspector of Schools who was going to speak there and it was discovered by the authorities and we were warned not to be involved in anything like that. So we had all of these little things, so all of that would have helped us get a greater understanding.
POM. Sorry, just when you say 'any criticism of the regime was absolutely prohibited', did that extend to any criticism of Buthelezi, the KwaZulu government?
IP. The stage I'm talking about Buthelezi wasn't such a big player. I'm talking about the late sixties. I wrote my matric in 1970. Buthelezi became active, or at least I become aware of him more in the seventies, the early seventies. Then I get out of matric and I don't go to university. I spend three or four months at home. Later I go to work at a construction company.
POM. Was that by choice that you didn't go?
IP. Yes by choice. It wasn't because I couldn't afford it but by choice.
IP. Because I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do in terms of studying. I was becoming aware of what was going on, I wanted a bit more time and those few months that I spent before getting a job were useful. It gave me time. I did a lot of work with my friends. One of them by the way, that's his photo, he died later in 1981 in Maputo, he was killed in the Matola raid. We left the country together in 1977. He was a member of MK.
PAT. How do you spell his name?
IP. Krishna Rabilal. That year becomes an important year because it happens to be the tenth anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of SA and the government tried to get as many people as possible to celebrate this tenth anniversary. It then gave us an opportunity to counter-mobilise. A person called Mewa Ramgobin, he's an MP at the moment, he was the husband of the grand niece of Mahatma Gandhi and he and his then wife lived in the Phoenix settlement. That's where Gandhi actually lived and they continued to occupy that property. He had been banned and his banning had just been lifted and he went straight into action and he headed an anti-Republican committee that then sought to form committees throughout Natal which would be a focus for counter-mobilisation. In our township, and this was probably the first political mass meeting that was ever held there, we then, probably round about some time in May, 28th or so of May, just before 31st, we then held a mass meeting at a cinema in Merebank and Mewa addressed that meeting. There were three or four other people, I'm trying to remember some of their names now. One was a woman called Paula Ensor she was in the SRC, University of Natal. She's got a sister who's a journalist I think, she writes for Business Day or The Star. Then there was a guy called Tim Dunne, he was also in the SRC. We then had an African chap, he's now a judge, I'm trying to remember his name, I'll recall it later.
POM. Did the fact of Gandhi having lived in the area and his whole philosophy of non-violence, mobilisation but non-violence, did that have an influence on people like yourself growing up or your father's generation? Was there a Gandhian strain running through the Natal Indian Congress that tended towards non-violence, organisation, civil disobedience?
IP. Not profoundly. You must remember my family came from the farm and we came into town late. I certainly didn't get the impression from my Mum or my Dad that there was this very strong influence. For me at that time it would have been vague, a name, an awareness.
POM. He wasn't held up as some kind of icon?
IP. No, no, not really. 1971 is also the year when the Natal Indian Congress tries to re-launch, 1971, 1972, it planned to start again. It's also the year when the Black Consciousness Movement in the form of the SA Students Organisation begins to make some inroads. So 1971/72 is this period of very small sort of activity that starts after a period say from 1964/65 to about 1970 where people are paralysed by fear and censorship has made sure that there's very little transfer of news and knowledge. So 1971 is stirrings and I must say again very small stirrings, nothing wonderfully big but a start. Also the period where – the other person who spoke at that meeting was a guy called Norman Middleton, he was a leader in the coloured community. He was also a leader in the SA Soccer Federation which was a non-racial soccer federation. Later he became part of the coloured Labour Party which although it participated in the apartheid system, in separate elections and so on, continued an anti-apartheid stance and when the ANC was legalised of course joined the ANC.
. The meeting that I was talking about actually went off quite successfully. I wouldn't say we had a full house, people were still very scared. We probably had about 300 people in a hall that would take about 450 or so people. I would imagine it was a breakthrough. We had some intimidation from the Security Police, they had let down the pressure in the motor cars that were parked around. They sought to interview, I use the word 'interview', some of the key organisers of that effort but that was the first overt political action that we were involved in.
. For the rest, for the next few years we heavily focused on the community so we joined all sorts of organisations and formed all sorts of organisations. We joined the social welfare bodies, we joined the local Ratepayers' Association. We formed a Bus Passengers' Association, we formed a group that produced a newsletter for the community. We ran, and I shouldn't say 'we' here but other people ran what is called a communal buying scheme. Then we also were part of the effort to take the Durban City Council to court so that we could buy our homes, taking them to court to force them to sell the homes to us. We then took them to court to force them to review the price that they charged. Now that was quite an effort because we literally went house to house every weekend and collected moneys and usually, you must allow for the fact of inflation, allow for inflation, and I think we collected 20 cents and 50 cents at a time, issuing receipts to them. I think we actually collected then, this was about 1973 or 74, something like R5000 over many weeks and months. It probably took us two years actually. We finally went to court, I think we lost on one count and we won on one count, but literally what it meant is that the houses were sold to us about R500 cheaper than the City Council wanted to sell them to us. So it's all that sort of activity.
POM. Was Archie Gumede playing any role in this?
IP. At that time? Archie a little bit later. The prominent people at this time, if I can remember them, were Norman Middleton, Gatsha Buthelezi would have now started, 1972/73 on the KZN thing, Farouk Meer in the Indian community, younger people like Pravin Gordhan would have started to get active, M J Naidoo. Now in the African community, and you must know probably (well certainly not probably) most of the African leadership were in jail or banned or house arrested. Now there were a few chaps that had come up at this time. The trade union movement had just begun to move and the white students actually played a very prominent role in giving impetus to this SRC at University of Natal. At that time trade unions were banned, were illegal. No, non-racial trade unions were illegal. You could form an Indian trade union and a coloured trade union and a white trade union. Africans were not recognised as workers, that's right, in terms of the legislation so they couldn't be part of the official trade unions. So there was all sorts of subterfuge to organise African workers and you had two groupings, one was the more radical workers movement around the students and one was the more conservative one with the recognised trade unions, with both trying to mobilise African workers. There were two or three Africans that I can remember who were prominent.
POM. I'll pick him up in the transcript. Don't agonise.
IP. OK I'll think of them later. Certainly two who later became known to me, and I didn't know at that time, one was Judson Khuzwayo who also died in exile and then the other was Shadrack Maphumalo who was actually murdered in exile. Those were some of the names that came up.
. This was a very busy period, an intense period. I worked through this period, did my work late at night and at weekends. I also became involved in the BCM but on the periphery and then I participated in 1974 in the Frelimo rallies which were banned and a number of people from the BCM were arrested and then some of them later stood trial and were sentenced to five and six years in prison in the main. The present Minister of Defence, Lekota, comes out of that background.
. That was a defining period because I then made the decision that we would have to take up arms. It was after that rally. I then sought about making contact with the ANC. I finally made contact with a guy called Sonny Singh who had just come out of Robben Island, well about a year or so. He had spent ten years on the Island. We made contact with him, spent a lot of time with him and eventually he linked us into the underground. My brother, the one who was seven years older than myself, and another guy who I met in the trade union movement who we called – I'll get his name just now, an African guy from the trade union movement - the union was called Black Allied Workers Union, we belonged to one cell, ANC cell. The black guy he was our link person with the other units, it would make it easier for him, and he linked with persons like Judson Khuzwayo and Shadrack Maphumalo and he went to Swaziland, made contact with the ANC there and we did some few things in terms of distribution of leaflets and so on but more in terms of, which he actually did rather than us, we just helped with the infrastructure, taking certain people out of the country. Mac himself was taken out of the country by this guy.
POM. Mac was taken out by?
IP. Yes, by our unit through this guy whose name I can't get now. Patrick Msomi, but Msomi you can use it almost synonymous with Nywaose, Patrick Nywaose. Mac by some coincidence was not born in Merebank but when he came out of prison he was restricted to Merebank because he had a brother living in Merebank in the flat area there. I only met him once on the day before he left the country, to try to arrange for him to meet with Sonny Singh before he left but Mac wasn't taking chances, he said "No, don't worry, it's not necessary to meet."
. So that sort of traces my involvement coming up to the ANC. I think we have to stop there.
POM. OK. Thanks very much.
IP. I hope that's useful.
POM. All these stories are.