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Interviewee : VISH SUPARSAD

Interviewer : M Ntsodi

Date : 17 October 2002

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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 agenda.
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 at Tongaat?
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: 1982?
VS: Yes.
MN: Then in 1982 that’s the year follows, that was the formation of the UDF...
VS: 1983.
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?


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?
MN: Door-to-door.
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 down.
MN: Oh.
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.
VS: Yes.
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 were women?
VS: Ja.
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 that.
MN: 1983 it was formed; then can you take us through that, through from ’83 onwards.
VS: Ja.
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.
MN: Yes.
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 that?
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 study education.
MN: Can we pause please?