: 17 October 2002
VS: Ja, (laughter) so we recognized that we
had to give effect to OCMS [Organisation, Conciousness-building
and Mobilisation] and we had to work with existing structures,
and the Child Welfare Society was one of the structures, the
youth had to understand it to go and make that structure work.
Similarly, with the Civic Association. It became, it had its
own style of working, and it needed to be a lot more conscious
about the other bigger issues, so again you needed to inject
that into the structures and that’s what the youth did.
And they made a tremendous impact on the community, and they
then also established the Tongaat Youth Club and they tried
very hard to build bridges between Tongaat and Hambanati so
you could have a non-racial youth organisation and they were
very committed to doing that and interestingly one of the things
that we did in Tongaat was a child health screening in 1979,
it was called, it was the International Year of the Child and
we mobilised maybe a 150 volunteers, mainly young people, to
come and bring children and we must have examined over a 1000
children and established their weight and their head circumference
and through all kinds of measures to look at their state of
health. We worked with the Department of Community Health at
the University of Natal, and they turned it into a manual of
how to do child health screenings which other communities could
use. But coming out of the Tongaat experience we had some- the
current deputy mayor of the Unicity was one of the Tongaat Youth
Club members, ja. The whole bunch of other people, who made
tremendous contributions in the underground. Thiruth Mistri
came out from Tongaat, out of that experience, and left to join
the ANC in the underground and he was trained, and joined the
MK and came back as part of Operation Vula.
MN: Okay. The mobilisation of youth, you said the youth was
very eager, was this attributed to the fact of 1976?
VS: I think that this definitely was a - that ’76 had
an impact on the youth and ’77. You had an active, the
non-racial sports movement also contributed to that, the thinking
that was going on at the university, and the student organisations
there now wanted to bring some of those ideas back. The impact
of the Natal Indian Congress, all, I think all of those things
had contributed, but you had a whole atmosphere nationally,
where you saw that the groundwork being laid for making the
country ungovernable. It had its origins there certainly from
Soweto, and those things now began to spill over into other
parts of the country.
MN: Were you now comfortable with working for the Welfare?
VS: Yes, yes, I understood that there was a political purpose
for my being there. I also enjoyed my work with the Welfare
Society; and we helped to establish the youth organisation;
the women’s organisation; we did the child health screening;
we did a socioeconomic survey of the entire area; we did a household
subsistence level study in particular parts of that area; we
contributed to promoting the non-racial agenda; the National
Council for Child Welfare; and obviously in collaboration with
many other more politically conscious people from other Child
Welfare societies, who were also keen to promote the non-racial
MN: If we go back two years back- in ’77, the death of
Steve Biko, most people, most activists claim that Steve Biko’s
death brought two things to them: it brought fear, it also influenced
them to go further, how did you - ?
VS: Yes. From our side, you know, we saw the regime engaging
in huge acts of brutality. Steve Biko’s was one of those,
and the most atrocious ones, to think of, but you could see
thousands of other people being the victims of state brutality,
you know, of the worst kind. And our response to it was, "We’ve
got to work harder in terms of building our organisation, building
consciousness, mobilising people to resist this regime."
We have a long struggle ahead of us, and you can’t just
have an emotional response to that, it has to be a planned,
conscious, organised act of resistance. So that’s where
the energy, as I understood it, we were trying to focus on,
rather than an emotional outburst at what, at the acts of violence
that they were committing because, unless you tackled that rat
its source, it was going to continue to inflict that kind of
violence on thousands more people. That was our approach.
MN: Do you remember some of the youngsters that you worked with
VS: Ja, there’s a whole bunch of people, I mean Segi Pillay,
Siva Naidoo, Logie Naidoo, Shirley Raman, there’s a range
of people, who really put in a lot of time and effort, to contribute
to changing people, people’s attitude to the regime and
looking to the future. And the consequence of that, interestingly,
is that, when the ANC had its’ last election- local government
elections- the ANC won all the local government seats in Tongaat,
where in other Indians areas they were not successful, as successful.
So it’s those people who continue to work quietly and
patiently in the mass organisations and raise people’s
understanding of the issues that we’re faced with.
MN: The integration or the harmony between the Tongaat and Hambanati
community that, did you achieve the goal?
VS: Well it was very difficult I must say, there was certainly
a willingness and an awareness and a keenness to do that and
we had people like Ian Mkize and others, who were leaders who
paid a bitter price. I think the culmination of non-racial unity
came up through the ‘80’s through the UDF and we
had a joint civic structure called JORAC, with people in African
townships, Indian townships coming together, and through Ian’s
involvement in the UDF [United Democratic FRONT], the state’s
repressive machinery attacked, and the people in Hambanati were
the victims of savage violence from the state, extensively led
by the IFP [INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY.] It was real massacre of
the people who were committed to non-racialism and supporting
the UDF, and they routed that leadership; they physically chased
them out of the township if they didn’t kill them.
MN: Let’s go back a little, you told us about 1979, how
long did you stay with the Welfare?
VS: I worked at the Tongaat Child Welfare from 1977 to 1982.
MN: Then in 1982 that’s the year follows, that was the
formation of the UDF...
MN: ’83, can you take us through the ’82 period
to ’83, in your activism?
VS: Right, well essentially our activism activism started in
the mid-70’s and one of the major emphasis that we were
giving through this late ‘70’s was the creation
of Civic Organisation. And so we saw the emergence of Civic
Organisations and because of the racial compartments that we
were working in, we had to, we could focus our energies in the
Indian areas. So in Chatsworth and Phoenix and Merebank, and
Tongaat and Pietermaritzburg, you saw people creating and establishing
Civic Organisations, and that was a very important public structure
through which we could then set up a network of people. We saw
through that period the establishment of the Durban Housing
Action Committee, DHAC, - some people might have referred to
that - again huge amount of effort in setting up that structure,
training people, making sure that that structure worked well
as a representative body of people in those areas. That laid
the basis for the UDF work. And thinking around the UDF started
in that ’82 period, and by this time, from 1979 we had
established a very direct relationship with Swaziland, and so
the political underground work was now beginning to also consolidate.
MN: Can we pause?
TAPE SWITCHED OFF
MN: Welcome back Sir. You were telling us
about the –
VS: Yes, that in 1979, we had established contact with Swaziland,
again it was through Praveen Gordhan who, at that stage, I mean
he had known people like Sonny Singh, Mac Maharaj, others who
had worked here, after having been released on the Island and
then having gone and Vis Pillay, Ivan Pillay from Merebank and
Rajes Pillay, who were in Swaziland and so, in 1979 he’d
asked me to go with Thiruth Mistri to meet with Ivan in Manzini,
and we met with Mac and with Ivan and with Indres Naidoo and
established a communication plan for regular contact between
the ANC and the mass work that we were doing in South Africa.
Interestingly, at that time, we were involved in the debate
in 1979, about whether we should participate in Apartheid Institutions
or not, The South African Indian Council, and we had proposed
a position, “Let us go and take over this Indian Council”
and it was a fascinating debate, created tremendous heat and
challenged us. The argument that we were proposing is that it
would help us in our OCMS strategy, by using the state institutions.
MN: Working from the inside?
VS: Yes. And it would give us a little more space because we
were still committed to the objectives of the ANC. Ah, we got
very seriously challenged by people who would not even tolerate
this an inch and so, there was public debate about it and eventually
through the intervention of the ANC, and we discussed this at
length. I remember discussing it in 1979 and I remember Praveen
going to London to debate it, and eventually it was agreed that
we would withdraw that position, and we did. But it left a legacy
of suspicion about these young people who are involved in this
political activity for opportunistic reasons. [Laughs] So we
had to convince some of the opponents of that position that,
that wasn’t the case; that we were just trying to think
about this thing in tactical ways. But it left an interesting
challenge to us to intensify our work, and it was around that
time that we then laid the basis for the UDF and were involved
in the thinking around that. Interestingly, I omitted to say
that we had also in the latter part of the ‘70’s
and early ‘80’s worked with people like Bobby Marie
and Shameem Meer, and others, really had an opportunity to work
with them as wonderful, but we formulated the idea of establishing
the Community Research Unit, CRU, and we were able to secure
some funding from Holland, from Nova for this structure and
it was going to be an NGO that would serve as mass organisations,
principally civics and it would do research work. So the research
work that we started in Tongaat, in terms of socioeconomic surveys
and household subsistence levels and so on, all that information
and knowledge that we had acquired about how to do it, we took
into the Community Research Unit. The idea was that we would
use research as a point of entry into communities and we would
be able to say we want to do a survey in this area, we need
students and we need volunteers and we would be able to train
them in how to go about doing this thing, they would go interview
people and the process of interviewing people and meeting people
in their houses, they would get an insight and understanding
about what the conditions were that people were living in. We
felt that if you wanted to have your own consciousness shifted,
it must be on the basis of understanding the reality that existed
in the world around us. And what better way of understanding
that reality by going right to where people were?
VS: Door-to-door. It was really something. And so it was a very
interesting instrument that we developed as a way, as a point
of entry. So we had this Community Research Unit started, launched
in 1980. Jerry Coovadia, whom you interviewed was the chairman
of the board, Nesa Pillay, was a researcher at the University
of Natal came, sat with us, Paul Azulu was there and Franci
Lund, Noddi Ginnabhai, and they were our board. They gave us
the space to go use research techniques and, but it was really
very much action research, it was not academic research. Ja,
ja and there was an explicit political agenda, well not an explicit
a covert political agenda to what we were doing. The Community
Research Unit was established in 1980 and interestingly this
last month, we’re in the process of closing the structure
VS: Ja, because it evolved from the Community Research Unit
with the Labour and Economic Research project into the Centre
of Community and Labour Studies, and we’re now closing
it down because it served its purpose. So after twenty-two years,
we’re closing that chapter.
MN: You’re finally closing shop.
MN: Yes. Now the formation of the UDF, what led to it?
VS: Well, it really was the interesting convergence of forces.
We saw the ANC really putting a huge push into the country with
its four plaques of the political underground; the international
isolation; the military intervention;and the mass organisations
within the country. So it was an element of the ANC strategy.
We saw in the country, civic organisations emerging; we saw
progressive trade union organisations emerging; we saw people
in the churches and religious organisations emerging; and it
indicated that objectively, the conditions were there to be
able to create a fairly wide umbrella structure that would provide
a home for all these different formations that were so dynamically
operating, on the ground. That home would be able to present
a very interesting challenge to the regime. And was the culmination
of the mass mobilisation work, not to say culmination, but a
new stage in which you could take the mass mobilisation work
to 1983. I mean you couldn’t think, I mean I remember
trying to see how we could work with Cheesa Tsnoli and Jabu
Sithole in Lamontville, in taking this research approach into
Lamontville and seeing how we could get the civic structures
in Lamontville going, but the repression was horrific, you know
in the African townships. We had some space, but there they
were merciless, the regime. But once the UDF was established
it gave you an opportunity to have an auspices under which you
could operate. But again the repression came, but it was a new
initiative which might have put the regime a bit off guard in
terms of how they were going to respond to it. And the popular
support for this structure was quite phenomenal. It was in terms
of the launch in 1983 in Cape Town, and we all went in the buses
to Rockville, and we saw the launch and we were a part of it,
and interestingly the UDF declaration was drafted in the Community
Research Unit offices, and it was taken to Cape Town. We did
a lot of preparatory work as well and made our contribution.
You know obviously lots of people were making a contribution
to it. But the UDF was a very interesting initiative, in terms
of creating some cohesive approach to challenging the regime
and giving effect to this notion of ungovernability. I mean
the Koornhof Bills and the Tricameral System. And the Koornhof
Bills you had the opportunity of bringing the African people
on board, the Tricameral System were the Indian and Coloured
people, and this was a mechanism to create unity. It was a challenge;
it was an amazing challenge. And my sense is that the efforts
of the people who were involved in the UDF and the ungovernability
campaign was one of, I would rate it as a bigger challenge to
the regime than even the armed struggle. Ja, because it was
so widespread and so popularly based the regime didn’t
know what to do with it. The armed struggle, it could mobilise
its army to squash it. It could create a cordon outside South
Africa, but in terms of the mass mobilisation and the resistance
on the streets, I think it really shook them in terms of not
knowing how to deal with this, and the culmination of it I think
you know, it was a significant contribution to what happened
in 1990 and the release of Mandela and the process. I think
the UDF was a very significant contribution.
MN: The launch what, how was it like?
VS: The launch was wonderful. I mean we all mobilised in the
buses and we organised to get people from the different communities,
I mean it was a sense of recreating the Freedom Charter - [laughs]
- you know and getting people involved and, it was wonderful
to see ordinary people from townships coming together. Again;
the non-racialism element. You know, people from the townships
of the Indian and Coloured and African communities - all coming
together and going to this thing and saying: "We are uniting
behind one banner."
MN: Mr Suparsad just - [interruption].
VS: Vish, Vish is my name.
MN: Okay. Vish for interest, women, women don’t seem to
be - [interruption]
VS: On the fringe.
MN: Yes, where were the women?
VS: Well you know, I think you’ve spoken to Daya Pillay,
and when you spoke to her she spoke to you about the work in
Phoenix in doing organising work through civics and so on, the
backbone of a lot of that organising work was women doing that
work, organising it and pulling people together and so on.
MN: The reason I’m asking when I get, when people paint
this picture of revolution, late ‘70’s, ‘80’s,
you find that it was a macho thing, it seems like men - where
MN: Because even when I hear of speakers on the launch, it seemed
to be it was only males who came and spoke.
VS: I think that you know people like, you know the new leadership
of women, I think hadn’t emerged yet, but you still had
Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph and other people who came from
the ‘50’s. The new leadership hadn’t emerged
yet, as I would understand it. I think in our own mass organising
work as we saw it from the window that we were looking at, women
were part of it, ja. But in terms of the leadership we didn’t
see many women. But just remember that a leadership to emerge
out of a repressive situation was a tough one. You’re
dealing with a tough enemy, and even in the UDF, to get African
leadership into the UDF was a huge challenge because the way
in which the state acted in its’ repressive form especially
against Africans, so that's why we had to- it was Archie Gumede
and Terror [Lekota] came out, but the allegation then was made
you know with these Indian people, you know not allowing the
African leadership to emerge, but the reality was that the repression
was so, so severe, that it was very difficult for them to emerge,
whether it’s you know, women or African leadership and
so on, I think it was in that context that we need to understand
MN: 1983 it was formed; then can you take us through that, through
from ’83 onwards.
MN: As far as your activism is concerned.
VS: Ja, ’83 I think we were, you know, we were really
beginning to see how the, our approach of getting mass organisations
going having an impact. And so there were many mobilising campaigns
and they would be you know, this Saturday we will all get together
and blitz the city and we’ll just throw, give pamphlets
out, you know, and so you could do that mobilising. While all
this was going on, the underground work was continuing - was
in fact increasing, and my function was to maintain our link
with Swaziland. I was instructed to maintain a very low profile,
so any time anything happened, I had to be observing it, I had
to record it, because I had to pass the information on to the
outside, but I should not be visible. So it was a very interesting
kind of challenge when all these things were happening. But
there were some important events. 1984 the elections came, Tricameral
elections, huge, huge mobilisation, one 1500 volunteers were
mobilised to monitor, to see how we could get our pamphlets
out and to resist, and make sure that people stayed away. And
again, not through coercion but by talking to people and saying
this thing doesn’t work, but I suppose it’s easier
to ask people not to do something than to get people to do something.
MN: I mean you campaigned right to their queues?
VS: Yes, yes but also we’re able to monitor. We had every,
just about at every polling station say in a township like Phoenix,
we would be able to try and identify a house that was close
by that would be seen counting the number of people going to
the polling station and they would then ‘phone to a central
location, where we would get all this information about as many
polling stations as possible, and we would then collate that
information and we would feed it to Capital Radio to say, “Our
campaign is working because at this hour, only so many people
have gone.” So that was the level of information network
that we’d set up.
MN: Now, when you report these happenings, were you reporting
it as UDF or as Civics?
VS: I’m trying to remember who it was. The UDF was leading
the campaign, so it would go as a UDF press report, yes, yes,
ja and interestingly, Mike Suttcliffe, who was the Unicity Manager,
had just come back from finishing his PhD, and he was familiar
with Apple computers, so we had a Hong Kong Apple and he was
putting all this information into the computer and we’d
be printing the stuff out, and we’d be feeding it to the
press. And we had a central place, six lawyers gave up their
offices in Field Street and said, “Here, you can use our
place as a central information point, netting point.”
MN: And the success?
VS: Huge success. Nobody went and voted for them or hardly anybody.
It was a failure.
MN: Even though it went ahead.
VS: Ja, ja, they went ahead. They were committed; they’ll
do it, regardless.
VS: And you had people like Rajbansi and others who supported
it, you know. So you can understand the emotive sentiment that
people have against those who participated in those structures
when there was this huge resistance.
MN: The Alan Hendrickses?
VS: Ja, ja.
MN: Okay, now they came in ’84 these elections and won
and so the Tricameral was established, what did you do after
VS: Interestingly, ’84 for the Tricameral, there was the
people who went and sat in at the Embassy, the British Embassy.
MN: Tell us about that.
VS: Ja. Well what happened in terms of myself is that the ANC
said I needed to go out for training, in terms of intelligence,
and so I’d applied to the British Council to go and study
at the University of Manchester, to do Adult Education. So British
Council paid for me to go to the University of Manchester to
MN: Can we pause please?