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The Formative Years of a Trusted Politician: An Excerpt from Insurgent Diplomat by Aziz Pahad

Insurgent DiplomatInsurgent Diplomat: Civil Talks or Civil War? is Aziz Pahad’s memoir, in which he tells the story of his childhood in South Africa, his exile in London, and his role in the secret ANC discussions that preceded official negotiations.

In the excerpt shared below, Pahad speaks about his family history and how his parents political beliefs informed his understanding of the world around him. Politics and the will to change things became entrenched in his identity.

Read the excerpt:

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The early years

The first wave of Indians came to South Africa in 1860 as indentured labourers and settled in what was then the Crown Colony of Natal. They were predominantly from the south of India. Indentured labourers were followed six years later, in 1867, by ‘Passenger Indians’ or ‘Passage Arrivals’ who came to South Africa to seek greener pastures. They were mostly Hindus and Muslims – like my grandparents, who came from the state of Gujarat in North India – and were, in the main, traders or those who came to work in Indian shops. Most settled in Natal, but soon moved to other regions in order to set up businesses, thus becoming the main competitors of white traders. Fearing competition, the government of General Jan Smuts intensified anti-Indian legislation that, among other prohibitions, prevented Indians from trading in certain areas or attempted to curtail their movements from one area to another. Despite these restrictions, many among their number went on to become independent traders and joined professions within the bounds of those occupations they were allowed to enter.

I was born on Christmas day 1940, the third of five sons. My brothers were Ismail, Essop, Nassim and Juned, and our early years were spent in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke, in what was then the Western Transvaal and is now part of the North West Province. My father first worked in the family business, but later opened his own small general dealership. In 1945 my family decided, for economic and political reasons, to move to Johannesburg. We moved to a two-bedroom flat in No. 11 Orient House, Becker Street, in Ferreirastown. One bedroom was used by my parents, while Essop, Nassim, Juned and I shared the other. There was a dining room and a living room, which at night doubled as a bedroom for my eldest brother, Ismail. Friends would often stay over and somehow we ingeniously managed to create more sleeping space.

The move to Becker Street was fortuitous but fateful, since it had a profound impact on my political development; Ferreirastown turned out to be a hive of political activity. Rather importantly in this regard, Orient House was flanked by the offices of the ANC and the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC). The Tambo-Mandela law offices were in Chancellor House, on the corner of Becker and Fox streets, and thus close to where we lived. Then there was Kosi Café, which was directly below the Tambo-Mandela offices in Chancellor House. In the absence of any public recreational facilities, Kosi Café became our regular gathering space. We also took advantage of the billiard room across the way from the café where many of the top gangsters of the area used to hang out. I knew those gangsters well and under their protection’ felt safe and secure from other competing gangs in the area. These connections led me to join the ‘Becker Street Gang’ and we earned a healthy respect from the community.

Another interesting feature of our neighbourhood was the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, which was also in Becker Street. Not only was this court the scene of many of the political trials, but in the absence of sporting facilities we used to play football on the lawns of the courthouse where we were constantly harassed by the police and, if caught, even beaten up. Given the strategic location of our flat, it became a hub of political and social gatherings. Senior ANC leaders, as well as those from the Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC), all of which became stalwarts of the liberation struggle, frequently visited for lunch, supper or meetings. They included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Robert Resha, Duma Nokwe, JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Alfred Nzo, Thomas Nkobi, Mendi Msimang, Yusuf Dadoo, the brothers Molvi and Yusuf Cachalia, Zainab Asvat, Ama and her husband TN Naidoo, Jasmat Nanabhai and others.

My mother, Amina, was born in July 1918 in Klerksdorp in the then Transvaal. She spoke very little English, while we only had a nodding acquaintance of Gujarati and Hindi. Yet she was able to communicate with us and the many visitors to our flat. Her lack of knowledge of the English language was no obstacle to her being what Ahmed Kathrada describes in his memoirs as a ‘humanist who displayed immense strength and courage in the face of adversity … to all her strengths were her kindness, her generosity of spirit, her selflessness and her commitment to community’.

My mother was extremely kind and caring, not only to her family but to everyone she encountered – even to the Special Branch who frequently raided our flat in the early hours of the morning. We were often rudely awakened as Special Branch police searched the flat and interrogated our parents. Even though we objected, my mother ignored us and insisted on offering them refreshments. As a measure of her magnanimous spirit, she always told us that we must share what we had, even if it meant depriving ourselves. She saw no contradiction between her commitment to family and community, and her commitment to fighting oppression and discrimination.

Reflecting on my mother, Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography, ‘I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch, and then suddenly this charming woman put down her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could.’

In their biography, Albertina and Walter Sisulu write that Goolam and Amina Pahad at Orient House provided ‘a home away from home in the city centre’. Sisulu noted that he initially believed that Indian women were ‘conservative and unwilling to involve themselves in public life’. But that opinion had changed after he met my mother and other women involved in the Passive Resistance Campaign. My mother was a woman with a vision. She never sought publicity or accolades for her participation in the struggle, and she maintained a strong belief in creating a non-racial, democratic South Africa. Her commitment did not derive from book knowledge but from her own life experiences and her constant contact with activists and leaders of the Congress Movement.

My father, Goolam, was born on 21 September 1912 in Kholvad, Gujarat. He came to South Africa in 1919, but then returned to India in 1922 to further his education, which is when he met Dr Yusuf Dadoo and developed a lifelong friendship. After my grandfather’s death in 1926, my father returned to South Africa. He was a stoic character of great fortitude and self-control. He was also active in the Indian Congress, which strove for independence in India, and he continued his political activism when he came to South Africa. He later rose to become an executive member of both the Transvaal and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). When a state of emergency was declared in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, my father was detained and imprisoned for five months. As a result, his business collapsed, leading to financial ruin. On his release, he made the difficult decision to leave South Africa for the UK.

It was rather ironic that the luxurious headquarters of all the major institutions representing white capital and finance were also located in our neighbourhood. Even today the massive Anglo American corporate buildings continue to dominate the landscape. I recall vividly how many of our leaders pointed to these buildings to explain the inequality of the apartheid system and the extent to which big capital complied with it, offering early exposure to the complex tensions between exploitative capitalism and the promise of socialism. This area also housed one of the main ‘pass office’ buildings in Market Street. The ‘pass’ was emblematic of the dehumanisation of African men and women, and I grew up witnessing daily the humiliation and ill treatment of hundreds of Africans as they queued for hours outside the pass office. The Marshall Square Police Station was another landmark where many political detainees were imprisoned. In later years the notorious John Vorster Square Police Station was built on Goch Street, two blocks away from Becker Street. We had many fights with young white policemen, especially on Friday nights, when they returned to Vorster Square after drinking sprees in town. If the fights were serious, we had to stay off the streets because they were sure to return with reinforcements. Fortunately, they were often too drunk to identify anyone.

Ferreirastown, its spatial environment and the various landmarks were, therefore, not only an important part of my growing up, but also formative in my socialisation and my growing awareness of political life. Indeed, the cumulative experiences of Ferreirastown provided the driving impulse that made politics part of my DNA. This environment, and particularly my early encounters with so many Congress leaders, shaped my understanding of the world in which I grew up. This was a world animated by important events, key figures, daily activities and a particular understanding of history that became deeply woven into the rhythm of my life.

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