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Interviewee : Vanitha Chetty (on her mother Dr K Goonam)

Interviewer : Rajes Pillay

Date : 13 June 2002)

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RP: Was she ever banned, house arrested?
VC: She wasn’t banned, she wasn’t house arrested, but she was imprisoned, for varying periods of time.
RP: Can you give us, expand on that, please?
VC: Well you know, as I say, all this happened before I was born, but I know she did so. I know that she served at least two terms of imprisonment, and perhaps more of shorter duration. Once she was imprisoned, I think it was in 1946 for six months, so she spent hard labour and she spent, I think,it was two or three months of that time in prison, then rest was suspended. So yes, she did serve time in prison, and during that time she, also many of her friends were imprisoned with her. And I think you know, this just made them even more determined to fight the evil legislation that existed then.
RP: What would you consider to be the heights of her career?
VC: Oh, Rajes, that is such a difficult question because I mean her life was dotted with highlights. It’s hard to say off-the-cuff really. I think one of the highlights of her career was - well I think look, the real highlight was her political involvement, that was a highlight in itself. The fact, also that in the 1960’s, when we were in England, we were left in England for a year because she was asked to serve in Nehru's health ministry, at that time. I think that was a highlight for her. Another highlight for her was when she was in prison in Maritzburg, and she received a visit from Nelson Mandela, at that time. I think an absolute highlight for her was the dawning of democracy. She was in exile in Harare at the time, and she was absolutely ecstatic. I think for her really that was the ultimate, because it proved that whatever she had done, and whatever she had experienced, whatever she had gone through for the last fifty, sixty years, was all worthwhile.
RP: Could you tell us what actually, why did she leave South Africa, the second time?
VC: She left South Africa because she, although she hadn’t been house arrested or banned, she did face a lot of harassment from the Security Branch, at that stage you know - spying on her and things like that. And also a cousin, to whom she was very close died in 1976/77, and then with this harassment, I think you know, she made the decision that she would leave and go to England. I think for her it wasn’t a decision not to come back to South Africa, I think she did intend to come back, after a while. But as it happened, she was there and I think it was in 1978/79 she sent her passport for renewal and she got a letter back stating that they refused to renew her passport and thus she was effectively exiled in England, that’s how the exile began.
RP: I see. She went to England and she went to several other countries, and landed back in Africa. Do you have any information on how that happened?
VC: Yes well as I say, she did go to England initially, because of the harassment and following the death of her cousin. And as I said, she had no intention of staying there permanently, but she was forced to. She was there for about five years I think, and in that time she was working, she was working at a clinic there. She was writing her memoirs, as she referred to them, she had contact with Dr Zainab Asvat, I think, who was in England, at the time she was editing her book. From England she went to Australia because there was a young man that her club had sponsored when she was in an organisation called the Sydenham Cultural Institute. He was a surfer they sponsored him he got into Australia and he invited her over. And she did go to Australia she did a lot of voluntary work there. She was there for two years and then she received an invitation from one of the ministers that she was friendly with. One of the ministers in Harare, and he invited her to come to Harare and work. And this is what she did, she left Australia I think it was in 1982 or early 1983. And she went to work in Harare - she was attached to a big hospital there the Perenetwa Hospital. And she was there from 1982/3 until she returned to South Africa in 1991, I think it was.
RP: In her book “The Coolie Doctor”, she has a photograph with some narration on relations with the United Nations, the UNO, do you have any info on that?
VC: No, I don’t. I think the picture you actually referred to is a gathering, at a function where she is pictured with the Consul-General of the US at that time. If I’m not mistaken his name was Mr [Tooey?], because I remembered meeting him, as well. I think she also had a friend at the United Nations, Mr Enuga Reddy, who also came to South Africa at the time of her return from Harare. I think that was really the extent of her involvement with the United Nations, if there was any.
RP: Having then done this exile stint and coming back to 1990, now what were here impressions in exile that influenced her life inside the country?
VC: I think whilst she was in exile, particularly in Harare, she met lots of people who were also in exile - they were very politically active. She was very friendly, she used to talk about Govan Mbeki, she was very friendly with a gentleman, with a family the Applerajus, and she was in and out of their home, and Jaya [Appleraju] had many of these people visiting him, at that stage. The Mbekis and Ronny Kasrils, they were all friends and as I say this ferment, this discussion, these debates about freeing the country were going on there, didn’t diminish at all. They were just waiting, they were biding their time when they could come back to a democratic South Africa. So I think all that influenced her, all the people that she met there, at that stage of her life.
RP: What were her impressions when she came back, you know, I mean with the forces inside the country?
VC: She was very much - what word is it? I can’t think of the word now, but she was very much for what was happening in the country, for the forces within the country, although she was totally opposed to the tricameral government, at that stage, the tricameral system. She was all for the, I think it was the UDF, at that stage, the ANC, I mean you know, she always said years and years ago, when no one would admit to it. She came out openly and she said "well I am a member of the ANC." This was while the ANC was still a banned organization, so when she came back she got immediately into the thick of things. It was, as though she was never outside of the country, because she knew exactly what was going on. The activists who were outside of the country knew more than we did, within the country. So they just picked up where they left off, and then when she came back many of the exiles returned as well. So they had a readymade situation for themselves, and at the time, I mean this was two, three years prior to democracy, there was such a lot going on, it was actually a very exiting time for her. And she spoke at rallies and meetings against the tricam, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. She was in her element, she really was, you know her so well Rajes, you know I mean you know talking about, sorry, to go back to people that she knew in Zimbabwe as well. I think you were there, you were there, Phyllis was there, all of you, you know, it was one big family there, just waiting to come back to a democratic South Africa.
RP: Do you have any firm views on exactly what path should be followed, you know post-independence here? Before we get to that, did she vote?
VC: Yes. Oh, she was very proud to go and vote. She was mobilising people to go and vote, and vote ANC. I actually have a picture of her in a nice little ANC cap and, you know, I think she had a little banner or something. Oh no, she was very active, although she was eighty something at that stage. Oh, of course she voted. That was, you’re talking about highlights in her career, that certainly was a highlight. We all went down to Centenary High and that’s where we voted.
RP: Did she have any firm views, you know, of what development and how development should go, and so on, any particular structure or system of government, or you know?
VC: I don’t think she did actually. I could be wrong. But I think for her, you know, since she had been so politically active from 1940 onwards, I would say I mean for her the be-all and the end-all was to see democracy in her lifetime. And that was the ultimate and when it happened I don’t think she thought further, with regard to governance and policies and things like that. As far as she was concerned, well it’s the ANC that’s going to be in power, and that’s how it should be, and it’s going to work.