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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
10 Oct 2002: Ayob, Ismail
POM Let's maybe go back, just a short history of yourself, where you were born, raised, where you went to school, your level of political consciousness, if any, at the time when you were growing up, when it might have developed and let's just get that far and I'll take it from there.
IA I was born in a town called Mafikeng in what was then the Northern Cape in 1942 to a middle class, third generation Indian South African family. My grandfather came to SA at the end of the 19th century from Gujarat Province in India.
POM Did he come as a passenger?
IA He came as a passenger Indian. He came to escape poverty. He was, I think, 13 or 14. He had an older brother aged 15 and the older brother worked in a shop in Ramatlhabama in Botswana, that village still exists. He landed in what he called Delagoa Bay which was later called Lourenço Marques and it's now called Maputo. It took him three weeks by ox wagon to get to a town called Ficksburg in Lesotho, it was called Basotholand then. He stayed with relatives there for a few months and then a farmer was found who was heading towards Mafikeng and passage was arranged on his ox wagon to take this young man to Ramatlhabama which he reached a few months later. He then started work.
POM On the farm?
IA On this farm shop as a salesman. He earned the equivalent of five shillings a month, the same salary as his older brother. They worked there for about two years and just about the beginning of 1899 the two young men received an offer from a shopkeeper in Mafikeng who offered to sell them his shop for They had no money at all. The shopkeeper was very generous, the man that he was, suggested that they could pay off as and when they earned money.
POM Was this a white man, an Indian?
IA No an Indian man, and having done the deal the shopkeeper then promptly fled back to India. What these two young men didn't know and what the rest of the world knew was that Mafikeng was about to be besieged by the Boers and he was escaping the siege that was to follow. A few months later Mafikeng was besieged, they faced ruin and discovered that there was a great thirst amongst British soldiers guarding the town and there was a soda pop factory in the town. They then sold they bought soda pop, that's described to me as soda pop by him, and sold it for the next 18 months and at the end of 18 months the two brothers had between them. The elder one took his 400, went back to India and promptly retired at the age of 16. He never worked again. The younger one, my grandfather, remained on in Mafikeng and continued to work. He died in 1966. He built up that business over the years and remained in that town. He bought properties, he then travelled, he educated himself. My father, his only child, took over the business, and he died in 1966. He is buried in Mafikeng.
POM When you were growing up did he have memories of the siege, of the Boer wars?
IA Oh absolutely.
POM Was the Indian community in and around Mafikeng, would they have been pro-British?
IA There were five Indian men.
POM Five Indians, a big community, this is a large sample!
IA I didn't know that, he didn't tell me that, I read about it afterwards. It's in Baden-Powell's book that there were five Indian men in Mafikeng during the siege. Two of those were accounted for as Ayobs, there were three others. I have a guess who the others were. There were two other families there. Certainly he had very warm memories and he was part of the Town Guard. His duties entailed being on duty for several hours each evening to look after certain areas around his house and to alert the soldiers if there was any activity in that area. He said nothing happened of significance during that period.
POM Now he would have been obviously pro did he identify himself as being in any way ?
IA No he was quite neutral. He was very young. He was 14 or 15. He never spoke about the politics of the town but it was something he had to do. He lived in that town, he had a shop in that town and whoever the Commanding Officer was I don't think it would have been Baden-Powell himself because he was the Commander of the British troops in that town, but certainly some official had called together the residents and created what he called the Town Guard and he was one of the town guards.
POM And his memories are?
IA Very vivid of that period. Certainly the post-siege years were good years for him because he had capital, he could expand his business. He sent for my grandmother. My father was born in 1914 in India because there was a problem that he remained in Mafikeng and then sent for a younger brother, the third one who came along. Then he seemed to have had an expansion of the business, because the elder brother retired and he needed to have somebody else, so the younger brother came. They became partners and, as tradition would have it, is that the one brother would remain in Mafikeng for three years while the other one remained in India for three years and looked after the family's affairs and generally business affairs in India. Then the two brothers would change. So they would see each other for a month or two every three years. The reason for the three years was a simple one, that in order to retain their SA residence status they had to come back here within a three-year period otherwise they would lose their rights here.
POM Now in the US I still maintain my Irish citizenship so I'm what they call a permanent alien, a permanent resident.
IA No, he was a stateless citizen to the day he died. It's a peculiar thing, I remember his passport and I think if I look for it I'll find a passport which says he's a stateless citizen. Contradiction in terms but that's the passport he had which simply declared that he was a resident of SA of British/Indian origin, but he never got SA citizenship. My father was in exactly the same position until about 1965 when the SA government created a puppet body called the SA Indian Council and one of their great victories was to allow SA citizenship to persons of Indian origin who had lived here for more than five years. But I go back to 1928, 1928 legislation was passed declaring all Indians undesirable immigrants to SA because of economic reasons which meant that my father and my grandmother were sent for hurriedly to arrive into SA before the deadline otherwise they would never have been able to come here. Then 1928 would have been quite an important date.
POM That was the cut-off point for Indian immigration.
IA It was the cut-off point. Yes, in this country. And that is why South African Indians are slightly different and more alienated from India than East African Asians, for instance. East African Asians continue to emigrate into Africa and they had much greater links with India because by the time the apartheid government, the NP government, took power in 1948 there was deep division between Indian, colonial India and SA because of Indian objections. There were a whole range of problems but certainly by 1948 all immigration was cut off and there was great hostility by SA towards India based on India's hostility to the apartheid policies. So we were cut off from India by and large.
POM Sorry I want to get this right. The hostility was on the part of the NP government?
IA No the Indians towards the apartheid policy because prior to the Afrikaner NP taking power there was the United Party here and the United Party had passed a great deal of anti-Indian legislation in this country. India obtained its independence in 1947 but prior to that they had something called home rule which meant that they controlled their internal and domestic and local affairs themselves and their hostility to the treatment of Indians in SA was uncompromising.
POM Why then were Indians here alienated from India?
IA Far less contact. I, for instance, have never been to India.
POM Oh, sorry, you mean alienated in the sense of not that it was a hostile relationship, it's just that it was
IA Not Indian to Indian but certainly government to government and it was based on the Indian authorities being protective of Indian rights in SA. They were trying to protect them and that aroused the wrath of the United Party government prior to 1948 and certainly after 1948 when the NP took over.
POM Mac talks about, which I found an interesting little comparison, that the Indian National Congresses were founded to protect Indian rights as British subjects.
POM So in the very same way, like in 1965 the movement that gave rise to, that sparked all the conflict of the last almost 40 years is that was a movement that was set up in the Catholic community, not looking for unification, but wanted their rights as British subjects in Northern Ireland. That skewed off into everything else but it was actually they were looking for their rights as British subjects, they weren't looking for unification or anything like that but they wanted equality under British
IA There was the Natal Indian Congress and there was the Transvaal Indian Congress but both of these Congresses or political parties were extremely conservative bodies. My grandfather belonged to them, my father belonged to them. They were small shopkeepers but the likes of Mac wouldn't have had anything to do with these Congresses had he been a much older man. The radicalism came in the late 1940s under Dr Dadoo and the others, which Mac must have spoken of, and they took over the Congress Movement. But prior to that it was the age of petitions and discussions and having meetings with the authorities and trying to get concessions for the Indian community and they had many meetings. We have photographs in the family of a very large gathering of men, as was traditional, attending these conferences.
POM Now the Indians in Natal didn't have access to the Transvaal or to the Western Cape.
IA They needed a permit. I've had such permits issued to me because we were in the Northern Cape so we would go to the Immigration Office in Mafikeng.
POM How were you allowed into the Northern Cape in the first instance?
IA My grandfather ended up there in the latter half of the 19th century so he was in the Northern Cape, but Northern Cape was ten miles away from the Transvaal border so we were not allowed to cross over the Transvaal border without having a permit and the permit cost two shillings and sixpence. We would then go to the Immigration Office in Mafikeng, which is a peculiar town and I will come to that in a moment, but we go to the Immigration Office, the Immigration Officer would say, "Where do you want to go to? Which address are you going to? How long are you going for?" And it was limited, you could not go to the Transvaal for more than a certain number of days and then they would issue us with this permit. Then we would drive through to Pretoria and stay there for a few days and then come back to Mafikeng and surrender the permit. That applied only to Indians. Africans had it far worse, that they couldn't leave from town to town. In the case of Indians it was the four provinces, you couldn't move from province to province but in the Orange Free State then Indians were prohibited from living there absolutely, so you could not enter it.
I remember very early on in my legal career we would go to Bloemfontein, attend the Appellate Division and then drive through to Kimberley to spend the night there and then drive back again in the morning to Bloemfontein, because there was no accommodation in Bloemfontein, no hotel would accept us there. I had that experience with Ismail Mohammed when I went to Pietersburg to represent students at the University of the North and we had to get the intervention of Judge Snyman, I think was his name, yes it was Judge Lammie Snyman who was the Chairman of the Commission of Enquiry into the disturbances at the University of the North, who had to persuade the local hotel to allow the two of us to live in the hotel because Ismail Mohammed was representing the academics, I was representing students. The condition of our stay was that we were not allowed to use the dining room so the two of us would eat in each other's rooms by room service. So we could occupy the hotel rooms but could not eat in the public dining room. That was the exemption and it was only because of Judge Snyman who was fairly close to government and I suspect that he got government in one or other form to instruct the hotel to allow us to stay there.
POM What year would this be?
POM To go back to the earlier movement, this is pre-apartheid?
IA Formal apartheid 1948.
POM But pre-formal apartheid.
IA The laws were there, discriminatory laws were there.
POM Africans couldn't move from town to town.
IA Town to town. The pass laws were there, oh absolutely. They were there long before that.
POM So in a sense apartheid really just gave legal expression, institutional expression.
IA Apartheid was the first time where government proudly proclaimed that apartness was the policy, that's all that apartheid means. It developed its own stench over a period of time but as an Afrikaans word it simply means 'apartness', separateness. Prior to 1948 it was an ordinary word in the Afrikaans language but the stench came because of the way it was implemented because it forced people to move, it oppressed them, it put people into jail, it did not allow for political expression, opponents went to jail, they were hanged, they were oppressed and they were discriminated against. That's where the stench came but not the word itself. The word itself is a fairly routine Afrikaans word, not now though. Now it's indelibly linked to a certain kind of political philosophy.
POM Mbeki is trying to, I thought, kind of weaken the word by extending it to talk about 'global apartheid'. Apartheid you see it and you say South Africa, apartheid, and that's your sole if you said it to anyone else
IA If you say Sharon is a Nazi today it brings up a particular kind of connotation but in pre-war Germany very many people were very proud to be Nazis, there was nothing wrong with that. Today you call Sharon a Nazi, he's probably going to shoot you and if he's kind to you at least put you into jail for life. But there's a particular kind of connotation around that word. So that's what's happening.
POM So back to when your mother was in India?
IA No, my mother was born here. Her father and her mother came to SA. Sorry, let's start again, her father also came to SA around the turn of the 19th/20th century but he settled in Pretoria and he too was a very young man, he was 12 when he came here and he had no brothers here. He was the pioneer of the family and he made a living out of walking from Pretoria to Pietersburg and selling his, I'm not quite sure what product he sold, but sold his goods on the train line that was being built to Pietersburg from Pretoria.
POM At 12?
IA At the age of 12. He made a very good living. He died a very wealthy man in 1952.
POM So he came into the country, his point of entry would have been?
IA Also Delagoa Bay, which is today Maputo and came straight to Pretoria.
POM Well at 12 how did he go straight to Pretoria?
IA Let me go back again. Most of the Indians of my community, that's the and the Surtees all come from a particular geographical area in Gujarat state near Porbandar. Now I'll talk about Porbandar in a moment, but Porbandar, Ranavar, Banvad, these are the three main towns. Then there were other villages but all, I would imagine and I haven't been to India, within a geographical distance of 100 miles. Those who came here, I'm not sure when the first person from that area came to SA but amongst the wealthy members of that community in Porbandar was one family that owned ships and they must have plied their trade along the East African coast as far as Durban. My suspicion is that it was that family of that village that encouraged passenger Indians to come through. So when I say that my maternal grandfather came at the age of 12 he must have been accompanied by other members of the community but not any of his siblings, so he would not have been alone. Of his six children two survived. My mother and my one uncle, they're both in their eighties now, in good health. My maternal grandfather died as a young man in his fifties in 1952, but a very wealthy man.
POM After beginning by selling and a 12-year old orphan.
IA To people who were working on building the railway line to Pietersburg. From there he opened a business, a retail business which expanded into a very large wholesale business.
POM In Pretoria?
IA In Pretoria, in Prinsloo Street.
POM So two survived, your maternal grandfather until 1952 and then your grandfather on your father's side
IA On my father's side my grandfather lived until 1966 but my paternal grandmother died of cancer in 1954. My maternal grandmother died, I think in the early 1970s, I think 1974 but she was very old, she was in her nineties.
POM And your mother is still alive.
IA My mother is alive, she's 85.
POM That's interesting. We were born, you and I were born in the same year and our mothers are the same age.
POM So your father met your mother
IA No they didn't meet, it was an arranged marriage. My mother was 16 and my father was 20 and very traditional families. My grandfather would have sent a proposal through a family member for my mother and then they got married and lived in Mafikeng. They lived in Mafikeng and there are six of us born of that marriage, all of us alive. My parents left Mafikeng in 1975 because five of their six children who were either living and/or working in Johannesburg or Pretoria which left the one son in Mafikeng who spent half his time in Johannesburg doing business, so they all moved to Pretoria.
POM So he still held on to the business in Mafikeng?
IA No, the business was shut down but the family properties which had been bought by my grandfather and my father are still in Mafikeng and are owned by the family.
POM When you say it was shut down?
IA It was a shop, a rather large shop, so it was closed down because my father was getting old, my brother was more interested in doing business in Johannesburg so there was little purpose in carrying on with that. One shop out of rather one shop in these properties so that shop was rented out and he just moved to Pretoria and retired.
POM When you were born in 1942, the big event, you would have been young at the time, would have been both the Second World War and the Indian struggle for independence. One, do you have any memory of that during that period at all?
IA My first memory I have, but we have to get our priorities right, we switch off our machines, we have some more coffee and then we continue.
Relating to political activities, seeing my grandmother in tears on a prayer mat, and talking to my mother, that we were all being sent back to India. There was a new government which was a terrible government. That would have been 1948, I was six years old.
POM Did this scare you?
IA Yes, it was a traumatic thing. Where was India? What was this place that we were being sent to? Why were we being sent there?
POM Did you ask these questions?
IA No I didn't. I just listened to this, but I have that recollection. It's just a glimpse that something terrible was going to happen to us as a family, that we were being sent away to a faraway place.
POM Now how long did that kind of - ?
IA That legislation remained there in place till about the 1960s or the 1970s. The legislation was to provide to any Indian family that decided to give up its SA rights and left for India. Much later as a young man I discovered that there were no more than half a dozen families that took advantage of that offer. None of the others ever took advantage of it. But it wasn't compulsory legislation. I think there were expressions, 'kaffir in se plek' and 'coolie uit die land', those two expressions I'd heard regularly during my childhood, translated roughly, meant the kaffir in his place and the Indian out of the land. It was a chant used by the NP supporters.
POM Why was the NP so interested in getting Indians out of the country?
IA I think there was always a resentment. Indians, in terms of their population, have always been reasonably successful but we're talking in the Transvaal area which doesn't exist any longer as a province, that these were all passenger Indians, they were all small shopkeepers, they were sustaining themselves rather than working. Yet at the same time I must say that as soon as the NP took power, there's another memory that I have which was when I was already a youth when my grandfather said that there were particular accounts, we gave credit to customers, and there were certain Afrikaner families which were in arrears with their accounts and he said these are the families that we must not worry about. They'll pay, if they don't pay, it doesn't matter because when the Afrikaner government took power they launched a boycott of buying from Indian shops and these families, there were half a dozen names in the ledger, defied the boycott. Their view was that when their families were hungry these Indian shops gave them credit and they were not going to participate in the boycott. It was families like these particular families who eventually broke the boycott because they defied an instruction from their own government not to shop at Indian shops and to support white shops. So there was a mutual respect at an individual, personal level that where Indian shopkeepers gave credit to farmers and to Afrikaner families who were not in a position to pay cash for their goods, and it would have been mainly groceries at that time, that when they were called upon to boycott Indian shops they refused.
POM I'm intrigued by why the NP government would go so strenuously after a very small population in the country, to use their economic circumstances to almost force them into a condition of having to leave, where by reducing them to poverty more would turn and accept the and get out.
IA I have a book here, a text book called The Group Areas Act and the legislation from the very beginning on the situation of Indian plantation workers, of discriminatory legislation passed against Indians specifically to restrict their activities continuously, and it would have to be only on the basis that they were successful. Gandhi started his campaign, and that's why I mentioned Porbandar because Gandhi came from Porbandar and that's the village from which my own wife comes, her family comes from there. It is ten miles from Ranavar where I come from and it's not an accident because it's this little community which was so successful and two individuals within the community had a commercial dispute which was going on for ever and one of these family members went home to visit on that traditional three year route, found this very unsuccessful lawyer and said, "Come over to SA and assist us and advise us on how we can deal with this major dispute that we have because we have lawyers, SA white lawyers, and we need someone to communicate with them and to ensure that we are not being disadvantaged in any way." And that's the reason Gandhi came here, as a very unsuccessful lawyer from Porbandar, came here and as legend has it, he settled the matter within a month and then stayed on. And the family still lives in Durban.
POM Yes, his granddaughter is an MP.
IA Yes. Oh absolutely. But the family that sent for Gandhi still lives in Durban.
POM Is that right?
IA Yes. And something else, there's a further development, the Indian government for the first time has discovered that there are Indians outside in the Diaspora so they've fixed 9 January of next year to host PIOs, that's persons of Indian origin, and NRIs, non-resident Indians, to meet in Delhi to meet each other and to meet Indians, that's in the year 2003.
POM That's just months away.
IA So you don't qualify but I do, I've been invited especially. They said would I speak, but they said you must come at your own expense so I'm considering my position. I've never been to India, I thought at least they should pay my air fare even if it was fourth class but at least they should make a token offer. No such thing. They said, "Please come, speak, but you must come at your own expense." Cheapskates.
POM That would be a marvellous conference. Is it a conference or - ?
IA It's a conference. The 9 January is the day when Gandhi got back to India after his long stay in SA.
POM How would one apply to attend it as -
IA You'll have to marry an Indian.
POM - an editor of - ? Wouldn't your word be good enough, couldn't you vouch for me?
IA I'm pretty sure, and Delhi's a big city and if you arrive there and put on brown contact lenses and dyed your hair and sat in the sun for a while.
POM Put on a Mac disguise.
IA Sit in the sun for a month, nobody would know the difference. I'm pretty sure that they'd welcome you. For them to have this kind of conference I think it must be fairly big. I'm sure that there are very large numbers of people who want to attend.
POM I'll find an Irish connection, I'll say I belong to the largest Diaspora in the world which is the Irish, proportionate to its population.
IA Not for the last ten years. I understand
POM In the last ten years per cent a year.
IA The flood has reversed itself.
POM The flood has gone back. Now they just got back in time to meet the American economy slumping so that means the first thing you do in a slump is you close all your branches in foreign countries. They're only growing at 7%, so tough. But we didn't grow for many years and it's the same, interestingly, the same pattern.
IA I went to Dublin to find out what was the Celtic miracle. I didn't learn anything. I liked the one day that I spent there. I saw the Charles Beatty Museum which was a great and lovely place to go to. I bought myself a book which says that you've educated your people, you took money off the European Union, you made peace with the unions and you waited for the miracle and it happened.
POM It did. Propaganda.
IA It was a green covered book as well, so I believe everything I read in print.
POM You could have picked up my books. Was your family in any sense political?
IA No my family was not political. I had a cousin, Ismail Mohammed, he finally became Chief Justice, the first Chief Justice of a democratic SA. His mother and my mother were sisters. Mafikeng being such a small town - you didn't ask me which school I went to.
POM I'm getting to that because it had to be a Catholic school.
IA No you can't, you've got to ask me the question. Let's talk about my education. I went to school in Mafikeng at the Methodist Coloured school and the Methodist Church came to an arrangement with the Muslim community to hire the Madressa for a year and my grandfather being the chairman of the Muslim community he says, "That's a generous offer", so he gave it to them for a year, there were three classrooms. The Methodist Church then hired teachers, Methodist teachers, who taught coloured children and the Indian community's children. By the time I arrived at the ripe old age of six there was no space in that Madressa. It was a very civilised affair. Mornings we were at school, we went home for lunch and in the afternoon we went back to the same classroom because it was a Madressa. So it worked out and we lived in peaceful co-existence. There's a lesson for the Irish.
So it was not possible for either the coloured community or the Indian community to acquire any more premises because of the legislation. The only available space was the Methodist Coloured Church. I arrived there one January and saw the older boys, who ranged from probably from eight to twelve, had a ritual to follow on Monday mornings. What they did on Monday morning is that they carried the pews into the vestry and they carried the desks out of the vestry into the church and until Friday we were taught in the church and I spent the first four years of my life in that church. As I grew up and my muscles developed I too did this ritual. On Fridays we returned the desks to the vestry and brought out the pews for the Sunday service and on Monday morning we took the pews back into the vestry and brought out the desks. In my fourth year I then moved to the Madressa premises and that's where I finished my eighth year of schooling which was called Standard 6.
POM The Indian community in Mafikeng had grown during this period?
IA Side by side with the coloured community.
POM So both communities lived together? After 1948?
IA Oh yes.
POM There was no law immediately
IA Mafikeng was a peculiar town. It was run by the English who resisted the Group Areas Act, not because they liked Indians and coloureds and Africans, but it was a way of cocking a snoot at the Afrikaners who were barbarians in their eyes anyway. So we benefited, we never got kicked out. We were moved but maybe one or two blocks, unlike the other towns in the country where people were thrown right outside town. But because it was English dominated and they were not going to have any old Afrikaner tell them how to run their town. You're forgetting Mafikeng's history, I mean you're an Irishman, that's why you're not impressed by that town. I was quite surprised but then I said, "Irish, what would he know?"
POM That's OK, we ended up by killing the man whoever the English General was, his name escapes me right now
IA You've killed very important English Generals.
POM Yes, they thought they had made it and we generally get them in their London homes.
IA But you don't know how important Mafikeng was to colonial history. People died in England and they were buried in Mafikeng, you must go to the cemetery, you will see their graves: died in Kent and brought home to Mafikeng to be buried. There's a military cemetery in Mafikeng. That's also quaint. You must visit Mafikeng and you must go to the Jewish cemetery while you are there and there is one grave erected by a grieving sister for her sister and then she wailed at the injustice suffered and the suffering that she endured by her husband and her children. Now 100 years later you go along and view that tombstone, she got her justice. It's a wonderful tombstone. I send all my Jewish friends, first time I'm sending an Irish friend to go and look at that tombstone.
POM So your education
IA When I arrived at Standard 6 that was the end of my education because I was not allowed to go any further. I was not allowed to go into a white school, I was not allowed to go into an African school. Coloured and Indian education shuddered to a halt at Standard 6. In Standard 6, that's the eighth year of education, there were six of us. I'm the only one of that class who went further, the other five dropped out.
POM Have you any idea what happened to them?
IA Two were girls, both got married, they have children. One lives in Mafikeng, the other one lives in Kimberley. The one man lives in Zeerust as a small shopkeeper. The other one is somewhere in the Western Cape as an artisan and the last one went off to Botswana and he worked as an artisan and I'm not sure whether he's still living in Botswana I've lost touch. But I see them occasionally, on and off.
Having reached Standard 6 and the family thought I was quite bright so they did the right thing. They went to the Immigration Office and said that my maternal grandmother lived in Pretoria, which was in a different province, and they needed a permit to allow me to study in Pretoria. I was considered to be a danger to the state at the age of 12. My permit was refused which was a severe blow to the family. Here I was at the age of 12 thinking of my maternal grandfather; would I be standing in a shop and starting work at the age of 12? Ismail Mohammed arrived there one year later, after fruitless attempts and appeals, because he was already a lawyer then, and he made many, many attempts to try and get this permit for me. He came there, there were discussions between him, his family and my family. I was bundled into a car and taken to Pretoria illegally, into the Transvaal, and masqueraded as a member of his family with his address and I was enrolled in an Indian school in Pretoria. I spent the next four years in Pretoria and I finished off my matric, the twelfth year, here in Johannesburg.
POM What school would you have gone to?
IA That was 1959. That was called the Pretoria Indian Boys High School and I came to a college here which offered two years of study in one, a cram college, to do my matric, completed it in 1959 when an interesting piece of legislation was passed. It was something along the lines of opening the universities but effectively what it meant was that the universities were closed to people of colour. So for the second time my career path was blocked.
POM So you couldn't apply to - ?
IA No, I was allowed to go to the University of Durban Westville which was then located on a island called Salisbury Island which was about a mile off the coast. It's still there, a tiny little island, it housed the military barracks of the British army during the Second World War. My family said go and have a look at it because that's the only option you have of continuing your studies. So off I went and took the ferry to Salisbury Island, spent a couple of hours there and I said this is not for me. There were just a very large number of bewildered looking students housed in military barracks hoping to make a university of it. It was the very first year, 1960. So I went back to Mafikeng and that was the end of my career. I was then persuaded by my family to go to England. I applied for a passport and it was turned down.
POM The passport to go to India?
IA To England. Again, no explanation.
POM Turned down?
IA Yes. So I kept on applying for it until I got a passport at the end of 1963 and as soon as I got it I went off to England without knowing what I was going to do.
POM In those three years what did you do?
IA I worked in the family business, the shop.
POM Were you at that point politically conscious?
IA I was. There were some threatening incidents which occurred very early on, I must have been 12 or 14. I met with some political exiles because in the sixties the only way out of SA was through Mafikeng because that was the route to Botswana. Ismail Mohammed would on occasion say that a friend is coming to visit and my elder brother was already in Pretoria studying so I was the only young person in that family. I drove a car when I was 12. So I met with a number of such people and they must have had an influence on me. I was interrogated by the police for the first time at the age of 14. The Security Branch, his name was Sergeant Pio, threatened the life out of me, but was very courteous in retrospect, he wasn't going to do anything but he was just curious about a young boy having met a man called Duma Nokwe. Duma Nokwe was a great advocate in this country who went into exile and died in exile. It was a terrible, terrible experience for me. Now, in retrospect, I am convinced that he was just curious but he was Special Branch and his name was Sergeant Pio and you can imagine that 50 years later I have not forgotten his name and I can remember very vividly what I now consider to be a routine interview. I was terrified.
It cured me of meeting people but then I couldn't do anything with Ismail Mohammed when he said, "A friend of mine is coming to visit." What do you do? I mean short of getting onto your bicycle and running away from that small town, I had to stay there and I was in the shop, it was easy to find me. They would have lunch, they might stay for the day. Generally it was just a time to find a place of refuge because the train would arrive in the morning from Johannesburg or from Pretoria and then I would imagine that they needed to find a comfortable place somewhere where they could feel secure and spend the day there or a few hours until somebody came to fetch them and took them on a circuitous route to an obscure part of the fence so that they could jump over and get to the other side. But they couldn't sit at a place where they could be seen so they would sit in the office of the shop and I would speak to them and I would hear them. But it wasn't a conscience thing. They would come there, they would have tea, they'd have lunch with us but usually by the evening they were gone.
POM Were these mostly African?
IA African. Absolutely.
POM At what point did you identify the African cause with the Indian cause? Or did you always see them as being synonymous?
IA I don't know. I can't say to you that there was this great flash to say the cause of the African is the same as the Indian cause. You must keep in mind I was in a very middle class kind of family, privileged.
POM But everybody around you was Indian.
IA Oh absolutely. The shop was there. One had privileges. There wasn't a need to find comfort. You went to the shop, you did business for the day, you went home in the evening, you went to meet your friends.
POM It was very structured.
IA Not very structured but it's a small time structure, there's not much you can do. You had your bicycle over weekends, you explored the whole area, you swam in the town's reservoir. That was a great thing, so the Water Engineer is looking for this group of young boys who polluted the town's water. You're not supposed to swim in the town's reservoir so you think what an opportunity and you do it again and again. You pedal all over. But that's small town growth. So, yes, in that form it is structured but this portion I don't want to over-emphasise, it wasn't that it happened every week, it would happen from time to time and it was something your cousin has asked you to do so you did it and when you did it, here's a guest so you talk to that person and they tell you a little bit about themselves and you understood perfectly why they were coming there because they would leave within a few hours but the whole idea was that they needed a place to be in. Again in retrospect I would imagine that there must have been other safe places. I can't think that every single person who went into exile came through our house or through our shop. I think there must have been a fairly large network of safe houses in Mafikeng.
POM Would they give their real names?
IA Oh yes, I knew who they were. When they came there they would give their real names. I knew who they were. They didn't hide their names from me.
POM Wasn't that kind of dumb on their part?
IA No, because I was Ismail Mohammed's cousin.
POM I know but police could come in and ask you, take you away and interrogate you again and ask you for the names of all the people who came to the shop.
IA But I would imagine they'd be gone by then and I could give their names. Nobody asked me but if they had, if I gave their names by this time they would have been in Tanzania or in Ghana or in Botswana.
POM You don't think it would be careless of them to give their names even if they're going into exile since they might be coming back to the country?
IA There was an advocate called Jack Unterhalter, he was an advocate here, a great human rights advocate. He was a very senior person in the Liberal Party and one day he was doing a matter for me and there were mass arrests and confiscations and he said to me, "We never learn. We are so meticulous about keeping records. Every generation thinks it's important to keep records and all we do is that one morning we wake up, we get arrested, they take us to the office, they seal the filing cabinet and they take our records away and then they use those records to prosecute us and put us into jail. Why do we never learn?" It was that kind of trusting society that you needed to keep records, you needed to keep order, it's an affliction that every liberation movement has instead of keeping things in their head and saying we will not keep records.
POM Now at home the ambience would be Indian culture, books? What did your Dad talk about? Did they talk about - ?
IA My Dad was very - Why are you doing this to me?
POM Pardon. Why?
IA Why are you doing this, why do you need so much from me?
POM Because I want to get a sense of who you thought you were, what your identity was, how did people in your community perceive themselves to be.
IA OK, ask me the question.
POM What did your parents see themselves as? What did people in your
POM As Indians, OK, thank you.
IA Oh yes. But in Africa. For instance my father went to India on a holiday for the first time in about 1960 since he left in about 1927 and he went there as a tourist. There are pictures of him with my mother and my sisters in front of the Taj Mahal and they came back and they said they saw a movie being made, but very much a tourist visit. It wasn't a homecoming, there was no sense of identity of being exiles from India. It was that we live here, it's been a country that's been kind to us and our loyalty is here but we are South Africans of Indian origin.
POM We are Indians who live in SA which is a distinction between the two.
IA Yes, because genetically and by race I am Indian and Asian and we must keep something else in mind, that we were identified and classified as Indian by the government so if you had an identity document it would say Indian or it would say coloured or it would say Bantu or it would say white, for instance. So you were always reminded that you came from a particular race.
POM But did you internally feel ?
IA Must have. It was not a radical family, it was a middle class family. We carried on with our lives in a small town.
POM I'm asking this question for a specific purpose, it being that I have interviewed a number of South African Indians over the last ten years and I always get down to the question of identity and they always have trouble with the question because I would shift it around and say, "When was the first time you were told you were black?"
POM You were never told that?
POM So when were you first told you were black?
IA In England.
POM In England?
POM The English are the biggest racists in the world.
IA No, it was South African exiles who said, "You're black." So I said, "OK."
POM A SA exile who was Indian?
IA I can't recall but I think it was after the development of the Black Consciousness Movement that we were broadly black. That would have been mid-sixties, around there.
POM But you're then being told you are something in order to bring you into a larger group.
IA Oh yes.
POM But you hadn't thought of yourself as black before?
POM Because this, one woman in particular is going there in a month's time, we had this whole thing the other night and she was saying, "I'm black." I said, "When you get to India and you go to visit some of your family what are they going to call you?" "Well, Indian." I said, "What are you going to say?" "I'm going to say I'm black."
IA They'll laugh at her.
POM Yes. You're Indian, what do you want to call yourself black for?
IA Yes, quite right.
POM So I have this thing of who
IA It's a political description. It comes out of the BCM.
POM OK, so it wasn't imposed by the government as such, it just came from within, it came from within liberation movements to create a broad identity so that everybody was part of this umbrella group called black.
POM Whereas the people in that group a lot of them wouldn't think themselves as being black at all.
IA I don't have a problem with being called black but it's a political entity that one says black. It's like saying 'previously disadvantaged'. I try to use that from time to time to get work for myself and they laugh at me.
POM I wonder why. OK, that's one thing I was trying to establish with people of where and who began to call Indians black.
IA I think only within the liberation movement. I may be totally wrong but what was clear is that Africans bore the brunt of the oppressive legislation. Next Indians were in line for oppressive legislation but not to the same degree as Africans. Then coloureds came into the equation but far less than Indians because coloureds were partly white and I think even Afrikaners had this uncomfortable feeling that they're relatives, we should go a little easy on them.
POM They spoke the same language too.
IA Oh absolutely, and today the fiercest fighters for Afrikaans language come from the Western Cape, they're coloured. Jakes Gerwel, Professor, Nelson Mandela's adviser and speech writer from time to time.
POM Director of the Children's Fund.
IA All sorts of wonderful things, former Cabinet Secretary, he belongs to this rather clever group of people who say Afrikaans has to be preserved as a language and he argues for it.
POM And rightly so.
IA Oh absolutely, I don't have a problem with that. I can't speak the language, I'm sorry about that. I think of it as an affliction that I can't speak many languages. It disadvantages me tremendously.
POM One of the people I've interviewed is a man that you may know, he's known as Doha, his name is Amien Cajee, he's now 84. He was banned in the forties and the fifties. Anyway, just to move on, so you finished boarding school?
IA No, I've never gone to boarding school. I stayed with my grandmother. Sorry, I stayed with Ismail Mohammed's mother, no, sorry, I stayed with my grandmother in Pretoria first because they lived in a very tiny flat and then when my brother gave up schooling then I moved into his bed because he went back to Mafikeng to join the family business, my older brother, and then I moved in with Ismail Mohammed and his family and finished my schooling and in 1963 or 1964 I went to England, not knowing what I should be doing. I had some cousins who had gone there a year earlier and I enrolled for A-levels at a cram college and three months later I was living in London, and three months later Ismail Mohammed came there to petition the Privy Council for one or other case that he was involved in and I said I didn't know what to do so he said why not law? So I said, "That sounds like a good idea, you've prospered." He thought that was funny and I said, "I don't know which university to go to." So he said, "Try LSE." So I went to LSE and they said, "You'll never make the A-levels." I said I would and you've got to admit me. So they said if I did not qualify and didn't get certain standards, academic standards in the A-levels and if they admitted me in that year I couldn't hope to simply come back the following year. I said, "I'll take my chances." I was pretty old by then, 23 I think. Anyway I got the grades and I did law at LSE. Sorry, then I was at Greys Inn for three years, great fun, and at the end of three years I wrote an exam and became a barrister. Never practised, but became that. I was going back to do another and Ismail Mohammed said it's time I stopped stomping up and down Trafalgar Square and came back here and did some work. So my political education also was English.
POM That's where you began to mix with people who were the exiles and who would gather, I would assume, lived in certain communities and would gather
IA I would see them regularly.
POM Did you ever see Mac when he was there?
IA Not in the sixties. I saw him much later, it would be in the eighties.
POM Because he was there, would have been at LSE in 1961 or 1962.
IA Kader, Mac would have been just before me. I got to LSE I think in 1964 and Ronnie Kasrils was there when I was there and I only remember him because he made such a big noise about how he walked across the Limpopo.
POM How he walked across the Limpopo?
IA Yes, when he was going into exile. Never forgot that expression when he shouted from the back of the hall.
POM In a classroom?
IA No, in the old theatre. There was somebody who came to make a speech and Kasrils disagreed and he said, "I know, I walked across the Limpopo."
POM He walked on the water of course.
IA Of course. The only other man I know who walked on water is Tutu.
POM What form did your initial exposure take in London? This is the sixties.
IA It was an exhilarating and wonderful society. What I hadn't realised is that England itself was just opening up in the sixties. I thought they always had it in that form, it was many years later, maybe even decades later with my reading that I realised that my arrival in timing was impeccable, that England itself was opening up. I assumed it was natural to demonstrate in the streets. I assumed it was natural to criticise one's own country. I assumed it was natural to be anti-American because they were doing terrible things in Vietnam. I assumed it was natural to knock policemen's helmets off their heads, but it was all not true because the fifties were, I understand, grim years and the sixties were when the country just started liberating itself. So it was that kind of period that I was there and being at LSE I suppose helped a bit. But bringing me back to earth was going to have these dinners at Greys Inn to become a barrister, they were as stuffy as ever but I enjoyed it.
POM Formality, I would say, all the way.
IA Absolutely. It was two minutes walk.
POM But you didn't join any movements or anything?
IA No. Student politics, very active.
POM Student politics would have been then anti-Vietnam.
IA Anti-Rhodesia, anti-South Africa, nuclear disarmament.