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Interviewee : George Sewpersadh

Interviewer : Mwelela Cele

Date : 11 August 2002

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MC: Okay, and Sir can you tell us a bit about the time when you became political, what influenced you? Why did you choose to fight against injustice, social injustices?
GS: Well I joined the NIC, I think it was in December 1956. So, I didn’t like apartheid and I felt it was wrong I felt I had to do something about, you know, opposing apartheid. And I was influenced a bit by the struggle in India, at that time. Nehru and Ghandi are two public figures who influenced me. And I joined the NIC in, I think, it was in December 1956.
MC: 1956 and at the time where were you studying at the time? At Natal?
GS: At Natal University.
MC: And did you read maybe certain books or it was just that you were influenced by prominent figures like Jawarhlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi?
GS: No there was not any particular book that influenced me, but after I joined the Movement, or before, I used to read books, you know, about politics. And the newspapers there was the New Age, at that time. I used to read it.
MC: Okay Sir can you tell us about your experience when you were a member of the NIC I mean from the time you joined up till the time you became president of the NIC?
GS: Well I joined in December 1956. Well, after I joined we formed a branch in Cato Manor. I think it was called the Manor Garden Branch. I was the chairman of that branch. Well we used to have meetings about once a week and we used to give out, sell the little Congress newspaper, at that time, it was the New Age. So that was mostly what our activity was confined to. And when there were mass meetings held by the Congress Movement we used to give out leaflets. And I know once, during the Emergency, we used to give out leaflets in the night with other members of the branch. If ours was the Manor Garden Branch, there was another branch nearby, I think that was called the Mayville Branch or the Cato Manor Branch.
MC: And then can you go bit further towards the time when you became the president of NIC?
GS: Well I carried on that activity which I spoke about, talked about until 1960, and in 1960, the Emergency was declared, and most of the organization, which formed the Congress Alliance, at that time, were banned. The ANC was banned; the Congress of Democrats was banned; the South African Congress of Trade Unions, I think, was banned. I mean the Coloured People's Organisation was banned. The NIC was not banned, at that time, but most of our members were banned. So then the organisation should’nt function from 1960 until 1971. In 1971 it was - NIC was revived, and the person who actually started the revival of the organisation was Mewa Ramgobin, and we all worked with him. Dilly Naidoo was there; Jerry Coovadia was there; Farouk Meer was there; I think it was revived in 1971. So by the time the organisation was formed after its revival, Mewa Ramgobin was banned, and I was elected as president of the NIC. From 1971 till about 1973 when I was banned, when the banning order expired in 1978 sometime then I was banned in 1978 again until 1981 or 1982, sometime there. All these banning orders were by law declared to be expired or null and void; I’m not sure exactly what’s the right term. And after that, I joined again I was again president of the NIC, and I joined the UDF [United Democratic Front]. I was detained in prison in 1980, when there was a massive school boycott. Kept in solitary confinement for 14 days. And then I was at Modderbee Prison for another 36-days or so, then I was released. Then I took part in activities and then I was arrested in 1985, I think. Mewa Ramgobin, MJ Naidoo, Dr Jessop, Aubrey Mokoena, we were kept in prison for about 50 days, I can’t remember how long, and from August till December, we were in prison, in Pietermaritzburg Prison and then in December we were charged with treason. Myself and about fifteen other people, then we were acquitted in May, 1986.
MC: Can you describe the situation in prison or in jail, Sir, during that time?
GS: The first time?
MC: Yes, from the first.
GS: First time we were detained when was that in 1980 it was the school boycott. Then we were kept in solitary confinement. I was detained, Rabi Bhagwandeen was detained, Farouk Meer was detained, Thumba Pillay, and I was kept at Umbilo Police Station. Well it was very unpleasant there because we were in one cell by ourselves for about the whole day. We were allowed exercise for half an hour to an hour a day. But we were allowed to buy our food and food was allowed to come from home. Only problem with that we had to stay in the cell all the time. After fourteen days we were taken to Modderbee Prison, that’s where we all lived in one group. That was more pleasant, we were about 80 to 100 people somewhere there, together. People of all races and we stayed there and it was much easier there because we were able to mix about with people and all that. The second time I was detained I was arrested when - that was in 1985, that was during the campaign against the Tricameral System, we were carrying on. And we were kept in Maritzburg [Pietermaritzburg] Prison, we were not in solitary confinement myself MJ Naidoo, Paul David, Sam Kekane, two or three others, I just can’t remember them, Kader Essack, from Pietermaritzburg. And we were there in a group there we were allowed exercise for one hour a day and but there they had facilities to play table tennis. Food was allowed from home; we were allowed reading material; but we were confined.
MC: Yes. And can you tell us why were you banned?
GS: Well the first time I was banned that was in 1971 that was for taking part in political activity; opposing the apartheid system. Many people were banned I was one of the people that was banned. And all the banning orders were because then, those days, they used to ban people - was what they under generally, what they used to call the Suppression of Communism Act. So I think that was the main Act and many people who used to take part in political activities used to be banned in those days.
MC: Were you ever under house arrest?
GS: Ja, I was under house arrest. I think - I don’t know during one of those two banning orders I was under house arrest. From Friday six o’clock [in the evening] till Monday morning, I couldn’t leave the house. And then I had to be home by six and leave by six or eight in the morning.
MC: And Sir if we can go back - [interruption]
GS: I think it was during my second banning order, which wasn’t very long, during my first banning order I was not under house arrest. I was just banned from taking part in political activities.
MC: Yes, well did anyone harass you maybe during that time or were you ever tempted maybe to break these rules or?
GS: Ja well, they were not very strict with me. The first time I was banned I was not under house arrest. So that I’m not allowed to attend gatherings, social gatherings, but they were not strict with me I used to attend gatherings and all this.
MC: Yes.
GS: The impression I got, the basic purpose of those people who banned me was to not for me to take part in political activities, you see. The second time, well I was banned I couldn’t leave my house from Friday six o’clock till Monday morning. But they were not very strict with me I used to go out in the weekends and leave the Durban magisterial area, for quite some time. But towards the end from around 1981, they arrested me for being out of my home when I was not allowed to be out of my home. They charged me, but eventually, by the time the case came to court, the banning orders and all that declared to be sort of void after that and that charge against me was withdrawn.
MC: And during all this arrest and can you sort of tell us about the basis of the charges, I mean?
GS: Well we were charged with - I was only charged in 1980; December 1985, we were charged with treason. And I think for furthering the aims of communism, furthering the aims of the African National Congress, those were the three charges I can remember.
MC: Okay Sir can you tell us a bit about the ANC, I mean your time when you were the member of the NIC and the time when you - can you sort of tell us about the NIC and the ANC and yourself, I mean, what happened between you?
GS: When I joined the NIC that was in December 1956 that time the NIC and the TIC, the Transvaal Indian Congress, were part of they called the Congress Alliance, which consisted of a number of organisations which worked together. That was the SAIC, which was the South African Indian Congress, the African National Congress, the Coloured People's Organisation, the Congress of Democrats, that consisted of the Whites, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, they were part of one Alliance, they worked together. And then, well in - after the Congress was revived in 1971 the other organisations were banned till the NIC was revived and carried on working. But basically, we should carry on the same policy of the Congress Alliance.
MC: Sir, during the time when you were under house arrest - I mean how did you manage to sort of remain optimistic?
GS: Well when I said I was under arrest that was in the second when I was banned a second time that was in 1978. They never harassed me very much when I broke the banning order. I mean I used to although I wasn’t allowed to leave my premises from Friday evening to Monday morning I used to leave and go. They never used to prosecute me. They only prosecuted me towards, when the banning orders were all declared all expired in a certain day there was a law passed that saying after a certain day the banning orders won’t be effective, it won’t be applicable anymore. So in the end they prosecuted me and then I shouldn’t break the order. I should stay at home. But I used to stay in the premises, you know, my brother's house where there was a yard and all that sort of thing.
MC: And then when you were in jail I mean why - I mean how come you didn’t, maybe, give up or maybe you didn’t crack maybe when people were asking you, what made you to be strong and optimistic?
GS: Well, there were many people that there used to be banned who used to be detained and used to come out after the detention and carry on with the type of work. Most of them carried on I mean all of those who were arrested MJ Naidoo, Jassath, all carried on with the struggle. So I mean throughout history many people have you know, been through difficulties and they carried on with the struggle. As I said, I was influenced by Gandhi and Nehru - they carried on. I mean, and Mandela was in prison. That time many ANC members were in prison on Robben Island. So all that inspired us to carry on with the struggle.