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Interviewee : NINA HASSIM

Interviewer : D SHONGWE

Date : 01 Aug 02

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Transcript (excerpt)
DS: Good morning and welcome. My name is Dimakatso Shongwe from the Documentation Centre of Durban-Westville University. Today we are interviewing Mrs Nina Hassim, at her home. Thank you Mrs Nina Hassim, or should I call you Nina?
NH: Nina.
DS: For your time and welcome.
NH: Thank you.
DS: Nina would like to tell us a little bit about yourself? When and where you were born?
NH: I was born on the 27th September, 1936, in Cape Town, in Walmer Estate, Cape Town.
DS: Your parents, were they South African?
NH: My parents were South African, but my father was a German Jew, who fled Nazism and came to South Africa, and met my mother in the Communist Party.
DS: And your mother was?
NH: My mother was, do you want their names?
DS: Yes.
NH: Sorry, my father was Hans Friederich and my mother is Amina Ghool. My mother met my father, I think, in the Communist Party and married. My father fled Germany, and soon after that his sister and his mother came to South Africa. So they are really South Africans, made their home here. My mother came from a well-known Cape Town family that had a political background. My grandfather was an Indian, my grandmother was Malay. And they entertained in their home diverse people. From India, from Africa, the Khamas came to my grandfather’s house and lived there, and other people as well.
DS: Okay. So your grandparents from your father’s side?
NH: I don’t know.
DS: You don’t know? Okay. Would you like [intervention]
NH: No, I only know my grandmother.
DS: Oh, your grandmother.
NH: Only my grandmother and my aunt came[from Germany].
DS: Okay, would you like to tell us about the community you lived in?
NH: In Cape Town?
DS: Yes.
NH: I went to Coloured schools; and my father and mother separated, and when they separated, we had a period of instability and then we went to live in District Six. My mother’s family, my mother’s eldest brother gave her a little place to stay in. And I went to school in that area. I went to Zonnebloem, which was a very well known school, at the time, originally started, I think, for the children of the chiefs but by the time I went, it wasn’t. It was a mixed school, not mixed no, it wasn’t really mixed. And then from there I went to Trafalgar High School, which was, at the time, the foremost political school there, the political teachers taught and it had a very high reputation.
DS: Okay, what year was that?
NH: I went to Trafalgar in 1950, but I was already politicised before that because my aunt was Jane Ghool, and her husband was IB Thabata and my mother, even my father and my aunts, they were all a very political family. My uncle’s ex-wife was Sissy Ghool, who was a city councillor, but she was on the other side.
DS: Okay. What do you mean on the other side?
NH: We were Unity Movement, Jane Ghool and IB Thabata were Unity Movement, All African Conventions Teachers’ League of South Africa and Sissy Ghool was a populist. I have written an article but I haven’t published it, but it is more for my sister - on District Six. She was what I call the original populist. She knew how to fire people with populism. But she was a city councillor. She is the daughter of Doctor Abduraman, who was the first Black provincial counselor, I think. But we all used to meet, high school days and holidays, we would fight. Scrap over big dinner tables, because the political ideas were being thrown around, all the time.
When I was at primary school, the first political act that I did and it is documented in the Torch, I had heard about the libel case by Golding who was a member of the Coloured Affairs Council and he had sued the Torch for libel because there was a cartoon. I forget what the cartoon was, but he said it denigrated him and so he sued the Torch Newspaper. You know the Torch, hey?
DS: Torch, yes I know.
NH: Yes so I heard that they were going to go out of business and I collected money and I must have been in about standard two or three. I can’t remember. And I collected money – maybe standard four, but I wasn’t even a teenager. And I collected money and I took it to the Torch to tell them it was pennies and halfpennies, but small but packets of money. And they wrote about me because I really felt very strongly. And then when I went to high school, I sold the Torch door-to-door, on a Monday night or Tuesday night. I think it was Monday or Tuesday night in the District, in District Six, which was absolutely safe to walk in, if they knew you. And we would knock on the doors. And in my article – no it is not an article. In this thing that I am writing about, in that period I’d say that we were safe and nobody ever chased us. They may not have bought, but they never chased us selling the newspaper. There were lots of us, young people, students. I was about standard seven, when I first started.
DS: You were selling the newspaper just because you were involved in Torch or is it because of hardship maybe?
NH: No, no, no it was a political newspaper. We got nothing for it.
DS: Oh it was a voluntary [intervention]
NH: We did it for nothing, yes it was voluntary. In fact, the strange thing, not strange, the thing is that, that group that sold, when I think back, there was a Zimbabwean with me. He and I used to go together because Trafalgar was a place when it was Rhodesia there were no high schools at one time there for the students and so they often used to come to Trafalgar. So Trafalgar actually was a place where you actually did meet other people from outside the border, but Zimbabweans mainly, ex-Rhodesia. So the Zimbabweans were often politicised at Trafalgar.
DS: So that is when you started to be politically active?
NH: Yes.
DS: So in high school?
NH: I was a member eventually of the debating – what did we call it, it was like a debating society. And there too, we were political. We had - one of our biggest meetings at the school was against the van Riebeeck festival, 1952. That was the first time I ever addressed a group in 1952.
DS: Would you like to tell us about the…?
NH: The van Riebeeck festival was going to be a very big festival celebrating the coming to South Africa of van Riebeeck. 1952 must have been 300 years of van Riebeeck’s coming. And they had all sorts of smart things at the Waterfront and in Town and there was going to be big celebrations and we joined the call by the – the students at the school joined the call by the political organisations to boycott the festival. So people didn’t go to the festival. Only the really – it was a very big boycott, yes in Cape Town. I also remember the Train Apartheid Resistance Committee. In fact I have given my badge – now that would have been in ’47. ’48 the Nats came in, and very soon after that the Train Apartheid came, and so it must have been about ’49. So how old was I? I must have been about thirteen. I was about thirteen and it was a big – Train Apartheid Resistance Committee was formed, the TARC. Have you ever heard of it?
NH: TARC – Train Apartheid Resistance Committee and it had various, it was almost like a united front of different organisations and there was a huge meeting on the Grand Parade. And I was one of the collectors and my badge, I had a badge. I donated it to the District Six Museum. We collected to go around the crowds. At those big meetings people would give, they didn’t have much but they would give. And they would come flooding in. I think there was some trouble, because some of the students I think, after that meeting, they were told not to, but they did actually go and board trains. And I think some were arrested, but I don’t know. I was young and I didn’t do that sort of thing.
DS: So what was it really, Train Apartheid, all about?
NH: Before the Nats came in you could sit anywhere on the buses and trains. Not on the mainline trains. I think they had what they call second class reserved or something like that, that is where you sat. You know if you came on the mainline from Cape Town to Durban. It was sort of segregation of some kind, but the local trains in Cape Town, you could sit anywhere and in the buses you could sit anywhere. When the Nats came in, it was on of the first – that, and the ‘mixed marriages’ [Act], those were amongst the first things that they did. And they made boards, and you couldn’t sit anywhere anymore and so people were incensed because the trains in the Cape, those days, weren’t like now. They were safe and that was our very big method of travelling from one point to the other to go to work, to go to school, that kind of thing. And there was huge outcry.
DS: Okay just to understand, so you are saying by this time you were at high school?
NH: Ya, I was at high school and I was thirteen. I am not sure whether I was at high school at that particular[time], but I think though I must have been.
DS: Your parents, especially, I think, your mother was ..?
NH: My mother was the backbone for her brother, her sister and the rest of the members of the Unity Movement. She supported them all the way. Her home, even, actually, when my father was still at home. Though he didn’t really like it because he – the cleavage between Stalinism and Non-Stalinism in our home was quite pronounced. And my mother’s home was open to them. They would have fund-raising parties and make money for the anti-CAD and for the All African Convention and CARTA. And then when my mother and father separated, my mother was always there to raise money. Help to – roll up her sleeves, make food, sell things to make money for them. Her home was also open. One year the CARTA teachers came, and we lived in two rooms. We didn’t have a lounge. We had two tiny rooms and the teachers came, and my mother had to move all of us, and juggle and make place for the teachers from the Transkei. She was very supportive of her family. And in fact, she really wasn’t a member of the Communist Party really, by then. She really did swing across to the Unity Movement.
DS: So obviously she was supportive of you?
NH: Very supportive, all my life.
DS: Doing all …?
NH: Yes. No, in our family that was the given, and even those that didn’t support the organisation were always there. Yes they always, they may not have agreed, but they never stood in anybody’s way. And when there was trouble they were always there to help. This was the unusual thing about our family. That even when they belonged to different organisations or were apolitical, when trouble came, they came to help, always.
DS: So at high school, what school was that?
NH: Trafalgar.
DS: Trafalgar, was it mixed or…?
NH: It was mainly Coloured and Malay, and we had one or two African students, very few.
DS: How was the environment, you know, social life there?
NH: In what way?
DS: I mean was it – it wasn’t racist, I believe?
NH: No, no, never, never, not like now. It was a different – the one African student that was in my class, his mother was a washerwoman. He was probably in the top ten of our class. And I knew – and in District Six as well, there were African families living there, and there were White families living there. Do you want to know about that?
DS: Okay. You were still explaining how was the community in District Six, would you like to expand on that?
NH: Yes. There were small pockets of African families there, as well as White families. And so my feeling, when I started thinking about it about a year or two ago,was that the trauma, that dislocation of removal, I think, affected them as much as it affected the Coloured and the Malay community. And in – and I can give you examples. Would you like examples?
DS: Yes do that.
NH: There was a hostel for Africans in the District Six, in Searle Street, just a stone’s throw from where I lived. And those were migrant workers, mainly from the Transkei, and I befriended some of them. And they gave a lot of stability to that area because they were strong, brave men. When the 'skollies', the gangsters were around, those men would come from work; they were very respectable gentlemen. They were migrant workers. It gave that area a certain stability. And they were never, ever looked down on. I went into that hostel as a young girl of twelve, ten maybe eleven or twelve, thirteen and I was perfectly safe there. And I had made friends and we used to write a little newsletter and we used to – just three people would read it, but they were [interested]. And when they left there, when District Six was - people were thrown out, I often felt that those men must have had a very hard time in the townships because they were used to town life. You know what I mean? And unfortunately, the one that I was very close to, died in an accident. And I wish, sometimes, people would remember how hard it must have been for them as well. Then there were Whites. There was one White family, quite close to where we lived. They lived in the most peculiar house. It has a level below street level, and there was a man in that house who was a recluse. I don’t know if he was mentally retarded or mentally ill or just depressive or whatever, but he just sat there, underneath this tree. You walked on the pavement, you would look down, and you could see him. And there were about two or three sisters, White sisters, they were Whites, sisters in that house. They were very reclusive, they looked, they were, they didn’t mix with people. But you knew they were there, and you greeted them. You know, and they knew you and many - a couple of years after my mother was removed from the area, she met the one woman at a bus stop or at the station, and my mother said how she wept. She wept because of her own dislocation. And that is something sad for me, that we don’t sometimes remember some of the others.
DS: Or maybe they don’t come out too and say: “This has affected us”?
NH: That is right. And that was very sad because, you see, I suppose the community was a very giving community there. They took no notice of them. They could just be miserable or on their own or reclusive, with nobody interfering with them. What would happen when they went somewhere else? They might not have had that same kind of sympathy, even. Ya, it was very sad. There was another thing, if you are really interested in that period. There was a boy at school, he was White with blonde hair. He lived down the road from us, but when he got to university he suddenly became White. And how it happened, I don’t know?
DS: What do you mean he became White?
NH: He never mixed with the Black students, he never – I mean you know.
DS: He just changed.
NH: He just jumped, so I am not going to say that, that kind of thing also didn’t happen, you know.
DS: Then after – you matriculated at the same school?
NH: Mmm.
DS: And then you went to?
NH: University.
DS: Which one?
NH: Cape Town.
DS: Cape Town, then how was life then?
NH: Life was very exciting those days. There were lots of people. I mean Neville Alexander was there, and he took on the heavy weights and there were always arguments. There was a corner, called the Unity Movement Corner, and it is still there. And the arguments at lunchtime and the discussions that went on. I mean there was a Namibian, what is his name? Then there was somebody else from Kenya. There were students from all over, and the arguments. There was one who went to the United Nations, eventually, and I mean Neville would just demolish them. And then we also had meetings at the university, and that was also a time of great turmoil. It was the Universitys’ Act. I don’t know what it is called, and there were marches. I didn’t join the marches. We didn’t believe in that sort of thing. But there was turmoil, in the student population throughout the Western Cape or let’s say Cape Town, I don’t know the whole of the Western Cape. And so, by then, there had been a split in the Unity Movement, the All-African Convention section and the Anti- Cad section, which you know about. I am sure my husband spoke about it. And the students that belonged to the All African Convention wing and the students that came from the Anti-Cad wing came together to mobilise and to organise the students. Because there was this ferment and we met and we then broke all over again. Because the All African Convention wing were pushing for a proper student organisation and the other wing said they must come into existing organisations. And we said students have their own particular needs and agenda. They need to be able to express themselves, and we felt that the more organisations you could get people into the better. Especially the students who would go out eventually and take the ideas. And so we split again, and at that time Dullah Omar, Neville Alexander, myself and various other people I am now beginning to forget some of the names, were all in the original [organisation] when we were discussing and we actually split on the question of the organisation. And our group broke away from the sort of nebulous group, and we formed the Cape Peninsula Students Union and that was formed in Mowbray, must have been about 1955. I am not good at dates, hey, about that time, yes. About the mid-fifties.
DS: Because, you know, most people we have interviewed, especially those who have studied at the University of Natal the situation there – the institution itself was racist. So I just want to find out whether at the University of Cape Town was it a similar?
NH: The university itself was racist, right, there is no two ways about it. And some lecturers were decent people and some were totally horrible. You got – I mean I did chemistry. The one class I was in, I had no partner, you can’t do physical chemistry, it is like physics, alone. And when I went to say I am all alone this man said: “Well you will have to be alone there is nobody to work with you.” But the Black students were very close and they met and they engaged on all – you know because it was such a – because people had come from all over. And you met Transkeins at the university who came from political families, as well. I mean Archie Makeje was there. I don’t know if you have heard of him. He has written books. Archie Makeje was there. Fikile Bam was there, sell-out now, co-opted by rich Afrikaner firms. Fikile Bam was there. Neville was there, Archie Makeje was there, what was that other guy’s name? Then there was the anti-Cad people who were there. There were lots of people and we would fight. I mean lunchtime was time to go and fight over anything.
DS: Like?
NH: Konsangwisi was there. On any issue, whether you were joining the march or you not joining the march, or you’re going when they are going to put up that thing. You know, the principal put up the plaque to say – what was it called? Something is gone, free education – the freedom university freedom. There was no such thing at that wretched university, right. We were kraaled there. And a few students would bridge that, and I can remember a handful. I can’t remember their names, but most of the time it was the Black students, and I use Black in the generic sense – African, Indian and Coloured.
DS: All right, after you finished your degree what did you do?
NH: Once I left university I decided that I shouldn’t be in a student organisation. Too many students stay in student organisations for the rest of their lives, and this I would say to this day. Because you have got all these thirty-year olds in these organisations doing all sorts of funny things, right. I don’t agree with that so I joined the Society of Young Africa. I joined SOYA.
DS: What was it all about?
NH: SOYA was the youth wing of the All African Convention sector of the Unity Movement. It was where we were going to be trained politically, and that is what I did.
DS: By that time, how old were you?
NH: I was quite old, twenty-odd. Now I am very old, right. Then I was quite old. I was I think about twenty-one.
DS: So after the university you joined?
NH: I joined SOYA.
DS: And then at SOYA, were you in an executive member or just a member?
NH: Cape Town Soya, I think I was on the executive eventually, not at the beginning, but eventually I used to, I think I did – yes I can remember going to executive meetings. I was on the executive of the CBSU as well. Ya.
DS: So you and at the SOYA from SOYA where did you go?
DS: APDUSA, okay and then…?
NH: I don’t know if I should. There was an underground structure of the All-African Convention – it wasn’t of the All-African Convention, it was a cell. It was a party and I was invited to join that, and the decision to form APDUSA came from that forum. We were sworn to secrecy, and to this day I don’t even know if I should be saying it. Because it was one of the things that I never even told the cops. It was so hidden. It was so deeply embedded in your psyche, that you didn’t talk about it. But it was from that cell, that party that directed the formation of APDUSA and that actually directed us.
DS: So what was it exactly all about?
NH: It was a cell really, you can say. A cell of people, revolutionary cell.
DS: So it was an underground movement?
NH: Yes it was. You could say underground because nobody knew about it, hey.
DS: Would I say like the ANC, in those days, had an underground movement?
NH: No, it wasn’t quite the same, no. It was more a core; it was a core group of people.
DS: So you never, you were just involved in this …?
NH: That was where you got your Marxist training.
DS: Marxist training, would you like to talk about that?
NH: Oh, I forgot.
DS: Or your favourite literature on life and?
NH: No I can’t.
DS: You can’t remember?
NH: No, but that is where we got our training.
DS: So your working experience, where did you start practising or …?
NH: I had a science degree, and when I came to Natal to get married, it was very difficult to get jobs. In the Cape you still could get jobs, you come to Natal, it is worse than an ox-wagon’s laager. I couldn’t get work. When I first came I had a job at the university, but when I came to ‘Maritzburg that is when I couldn’t get work. Eventually I did get work. Ya, I worked at the university as well, as a technician. And then I left there because I was a bit bored, and I got a job in a factory but then they tried to force me to do things, which they didn’t force the Whites to do.
DS: Like?
NH: Hours of work, agreements that we made about hours of work, lunchtimes, little things like that. And then I was so upset that I told Kader that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had a child, I had …
DS: By this time you were married?
NH: I was married, ya, and I said to him [Kader], I couldn’t stand it anymore and he said I had better leave if I couldn’t. And then I tried to force them to go back to the agreement that we’d made for the job and they refused and I said right, I am leaving and then they brought some – it was tough days those days. They brought somebody from Jo’burg to tell me exactly how even, till I go I have to do this, this and this ,and I said no you can take it off my pay but I am not doing it. I am leaving. And I was sitting at home - I have left out something. I will tell you that just now. And I came and I was sitting at home, and at some point Kader said to me at Easter that year, he would offer me a job. I could do law because otherwise I would drive them all mad. And so I said, “No, if you are prepared to do something for me, let me do something else. Let me do pharmacy.” So he agreed, and so that is how I became a pharmacist. We knew that it would give me a chance to earn a living, if anything were to happen. What I did leave out was when we came to Pietermaritzburg – from the time we came to Pietermaritzburg we were politically active in the community and we used to bring out leaflets, have meetings and we were picked up on every single occasion we gave out leaflets.
DS: You were picked up?
NH: By the police. We knew as soon as we start, then we would be picked up and it was the height of the repression, at the time.
DS: What year was that?
NH: What year was that? I came to Pietermaritzburg in, I think, it was 1961 and it started from ’61 to ’62, it went on throughout that period.
DS: So by this time, you were also doing pharmacy?
NH: No that came after that, ya, that came after that. I got a bit mixed up there. First we came to ‘Maritzburg. I couldn’t get work there and I got work. Then I yes then after that I did pharmacy. I did pharmacy at Westville [UDW].
DS: Oh, I just want to find out your first, personally, I understand maybe experiencing, as a whole, racial oppression, but I just want you your first experience of racial oppression?
NH: My very first?
DS: Yes.
NH: I can’t remember a time without some kind of segregation or repression.
DS: Okay I was still asking you about the question of your first experience of racial oppression.
NH: I cannot, ya.
DS: Ya,I understand you cannot really point out exactly but can you at least maybe have an idea when it started? Even if it means going back at your early age.
NH: Ya, it is because of my mother and father being different, I think, and also because of my mother and her family. There was a time when my father wanted to put me in the German school and my mother totally, point blank, refused. Because, she said, this is a Black child and I wasn’t to be taken away from my environment and I, because of my mother and her attitude from a very early age, I knew that I was Black and I was very happy to identify as such.
DS: So earlier on you said like racial oppression was different in a way starting from a certain period. The question I want to ask is that would you at least explain to us exactly what was the difference of oppressions before Nats came to power and thereafter?
NH: It was no you didn’t do certain things – well I was very small, remember that. I must have been six/ seven, you know. You knew you didn’t do certain things and you weren’t welcome in certain places but it wasn’t so pronounced. It was more by agreement almost, that you didn’t, and you lived in this area and you didn’t, but and that you went to a Coloured school, and you didn’t go to some other school. But when the Nats came in, it became more pronounced and more hurtful because it was legislated. And so the bus had a board, and the train had a board, and the beach. We loved the beach, and the beach was closed to us, and the beaches that we were used to were closed to us. And it was that kind of thing. And in our family, one of my cousins had to rush to marry because of the Mixed Marriages Act. So we were very much aware of it. That it was more pronounced.
DS: Okay, I just want to find out you – what the impact of Apartheid basically, socially to Blacks especially socially, economically as well as politically?
NH: Socially those people who were politically conscious never let it affect their social lives, and I would include the people who were not politically conscious but whose philosophy in life, and I am thinking in particular of certain Whites, who themselves, didn’t take a political stand but were non-racial in their very being. They never let it stand in their way and they would still meet and mix, even at great danger or risk to themselves. That is socially. Economically, I am not sure that it wasn’t just a perpetuation of what happened under the United Party. I think it was there from the beginning and so I don’t think that it made – the class divide stayed, so I don’t think that was so pronounced. So and politically, politically I think it did bring people together.
DS: I just want to understand, you know, because lately especially in schools, you find people talking about Apartheid, racism but they don’t know exactly what it means. If I just want to find out your ideas.
NH: On racism is different.
DS: Yes.
NH: Because when Apartheid came – you see it is difficult for me in the sense that I came from a family that was not only mixed but had relationships across all the colour lines. So for me it is a little difficult to try to think of how other people perceived it. But that period was a period in which race was of less importance than political ideology, and if you were in the same political group then race was never an issue. And that is what I find so distasteful now in which people do not judge you by what you believe and what you think and how you behave but they judge you purely on race because that I don’t find – I didn’t grow up in that environment. And so when I had to be judged on the colour of my skin, I actually mind and that is too much today, and that I think, is due to two things and it is not just the legacy of Apartheid. That mustn’t be used here as an excuse. I believe it is something to do with the rise of an elite that uses race to justify their ideology.
DS: So I just want to come back to the question about yourself basically. I just want to find out were you subjected to any arrests during your political involvements?
NH: Ya, apart from the times when I used to be picked up and my name taken and all that and then I was also warned not to take part in political activity by some magistrate, at some point. And then, but I wasn’t banned, but Kader was house arrested. So I didn’t have that fortunately, but after that I was detained in – what year was Kader detained 1971? Ya.
DS: Okay can I just pause for a minute.