Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim was a South African revolutionary of Indian descent who spent 15 years at the Robben Island prison alongside the legendary Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, also an anti-apartheid activist. After the end of apartheid in 1993, Ebrahim briefly joined the government. Comrade Ebi, as he was fondly called, headed the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which means “spear of the nation”, of the African National Congress that was set up after the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre when police murdered 250 anti-apartheid protestors.
Ebrahim suffered long periods of incarceration and would have remained in jail if the apartheid had not ended in South Africa. A gentle revolutionary, Ebrahim grew up following India’s freedom struggle and the Gandhian non-violent movement. In 2013, the Indian government conferred on him the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.
It was in 1933 that Ebrahim’s father Adam Modan traveled on a boat from Chasa village in Gujarat and retained his name as Ebrahim after the family that he accompanied on this long, turbulent voyage. Indian music and way of life ran in Ebrahim’s blood as he fought the apartheid regime, in the bushes of Angola or in the streets of Soweto, a township in Johannesburg.
His is a dramatic story of courage, suffering and love for his country. Ebrahim’s autobiography, Beyond Fear was released after his death last December. His widow Shannon Ebrahim, a former journalist and a diplomat, had earlier compiled a biography on her husband titled Ebrahim Ebrahim- A Gentle Revolutionary.
Here is an excerpt from Beyond Fear.
It barely mattered that we were the only Muslims among mainly Hindu families. We were invited to every local gathering, and my most striking memories of the community are of the weddings where Indian folk music was performed for the bride or the groom throughout the night. Whenever I hear the loud ‘chak’ rim beating on a dholak, the two- headed wooden hand drum, my mind is filled with images of that time. I catch a glimpse in my imagination of the open dance floor at the festive sangeet before a wedding. Those same musical triggers would give me comfort decades later when I was doing military training with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the Angolan bush, and was able to listen to Indian music on the radio.
We shared so much pleasure listening to the radio in my uncle’s car on Sundays. There was half an hour of Indian music and half an hour of Zulu music, and I would lie on the back seat with the doors open, comatose with the love of it all. Sundays were the only time we were blessed to hear both forms of music on the radio.
Being denied our music on the other six days of the week was not the most important effect of apartheid on us. There was a battle to get me into school because there were very few places open for children of Indian origin. I remember that Ma took me to school at the beginning of the school year, every January from the age of six, only to be told there was ‘no more place, try again next year’. It bothered her that I was ten years old when I finally got admission to the Hindu Tamil Institute, a government-aided school which worked on a ‘pound-to-pound’ principle: if the community raised £1, the government would also contribute £1. It was overcrowded and we had hardly any money for the ordinary things that a child would wish for. That was a source of sadness for me. That I could speak and read Urdu and English was the only benefit. Even textbooks and stationery would have been an additional burden for Ma and my parents.
My father didn’t have any formal education, although he could read and write Gujarati. My mother had no education at all. History weighed heavily on us.
But I wonder if I retain the memory of any of these events as much as I do of the struggles of the people of India for independence. I was only eight at the time. Most Indian homes hung portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, and Muslim homes also had portraits of Maulana Kalam Azad and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. How we all hated British colonial rule. India had to be free! As a child, I was a vociferous Indian nationalist. But then came the partition of the country into the two dominions of India and Pakistan in 1947, dividing Hindus and Muslims and creating a massive migration on religious lines. The brutality shocked us. We heard stories of mass murder and general violence, and it felt as if it was happening to us too, as our extended families thousands of miles away in India, whom we hadn’t met, were caught up in it.
In the beginning, it seemed so contrary to what we knew of India and believed in: ‘satyagraha’, a term I first heard in 1946. Gandhi introduced this form of non-violent resistance or civil resistance: ‘satya’ means ‘truth’ and ‘āgraha’ means ‘insistence’ or ‘holding firmly to’ in Sanskrit; thus ‘satyagraha’ means ‘holding firmly to truth’. I gazed at resisters in Durban wearing the white Gandhi side-cap, which Britain had tried to ban in India. Gandhi wore it out of cultural pride, to show solidarity with India’s masses. Nehru was also famous for wearing the cap. You may have noticed too that many people wearing Gandhi caps stood behind the African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr when he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963.
There were two names as big as Gandhi’s in our community in the 1940s: Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker, both of whom had a monumental influence on us. Dr Dadoo, who was Muslim, was chair of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and the Communist Party (CPSA), and a leader of the Defiance Campaign. Dr Naicker, who was Hindu, joined the trade union movement before he became president of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). They promoted passive resistance, but, more importantly, when they took over and radicalised the SAIC in 1945, the unifying effect of one being Muslim and the other Hindu bolstered our common identity while the partition of India was happening. They focused us against the common enemy in our own country – white nationalism. Even today, Muslims and Hindus are not enemies in South Africa. Religion has never really been a problem for us. We are neighbours and, most of us, patriots.
The United Party government of Jan Smuts – which took the side of Britain in World War II – rejected nationhood in India, and it also didn’t want Indians integrated into South African society. So they made it as difficult as possible for us to be Indian and South African at the same time.
As for the opposition National Party, led by the Afrikaner church minister DF Malan, its ‘Programme of Principles’, while accepting Africans and Coloureds as ‘permanent members of the country’s population’ who fell under the ‘Christian trusteeship of the European races’, declared that ‘all groups’ of the population had to be ‘protected’ from ‘Asiatic immigration and competition ... by preventing further encroachment on their means of livelihood, and by an effective scheme of segregation and repatriation’. This stance towards Indians intensified over the next ten years and created serious insecurity among our community. I didn’t have the understanding at the age of eleven to comprehend that whites were ‘citizens’ and all the rest of us were ‘non-citizens’, but at least I knew we were standing together against the ‘citizens’.
In 1948, in the lead-up to the general elections, there were huge posters of Malan and Smuts pasted all over the walls of the railway stations. Our parents couldn’t vote, but we still had to see those faces. We – the Indians, Africans and Coloureds – didn’t count as human beings of any substance. Although we played some role in the election as a symbol of what white racists feared, the actual process only benefited whites. All whites could go to the polls as well as a few Coloureds; but no one else.
For us, there was another underlying tension. The National Party of Malan had gone into an electoral alliance with the small Afrikaner Party of General Hertzog (after the latter was defeated by Smuts on the issue of participation in the war), and one of its policies was that we would be forced to ‘go back’ to India. The party proposed a scheme of ‘voluntary repatriation’, offering a sum of money to those who agreed to leave. The alternative – compulsory segregation – was designed to strangle our community. The National Party, which won the 1948 election by a small majority, was like the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis), which is why people called Malan ‘Malanazi’.
After the National Party came into power, we weren’t surprised – even if we were shocked and harmed – when ‘riots’ broke out in Durban in 1949 involving Africans and Indians. I was twelve. This was a pogrom in which two days of violence claimed dozens of lives and created tens of thousands of Indian refugees. The attack started in the Indian commercial centre around Victoria Street with assaults and the stoning of cars. But once that was contained, it spread to residential areas.
I was affected by the events all over again when I recently read Professor Donald L Horowitz’s book The Deadly Ethnic Riot (2001), which examined dozens of ‘intense, sudden, lethal attacks by civilian members of one ethnic group on another’. Indians and Africans had lived cheek-by-jowl in areas like Cato Manor; the Indians were employed mostly as shop owners and farmers. When the tide turned against us, our shops and homes were looted and burned. Indians had to flee to refugee centres. Even Ma and I had to change locations according to where we would be safest. I remember the hollowed-out feeling even as a child of something terrible going on, over which I had no control. I judge that awful sensation by the impact especially of the murders which took place during the riots. According to the historians Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai, in their Documentary History of Indian South Africans, the ‘loss of life and property was officially given as follows: deaths; 142 (87 Africans, 50 Indians, 1 white and 4 others whose identity could not be determined); injured; 1,087 (541 Africans, 503 Indians, 11 Coloureds and 32 whites; of the injured 58 died); buildings destroyed: 1 factory, 58 stores and 247 dwellings; buildings damaged: 2 factories, 652 stores and 1,285 dwellings)’.
We were frightened. Indian people were fleeing. There were suicides as families were separated and businesses destroyed.
At the very least, Indians were subjected to insults and psychological trauma. It was known that some whites assisted Africans to commit violence against Indians until the South African Navy was called in to put an end to the riots. Their intervention then saw many African people killed – this time by the Navy. It took the leadership of the ANC and the NIC to restore some calm.
Few conversations at our home, with our neighbours and in the streets were not about the bloodshed. To some people, the riots were regarded as ‘the Battle of Cato Manor’. Some people were honest about the fact that African people had suffered as the result of extortion by Indian slumlords, and we knew that not everyone had the interests of their fellow human beings at heart. Some of the Indian merchants were exploiting us by selling goods at high prices. But there was more to the events of 1949 than strife between Africans and Indians. Black people – African, Indian and Coloured – had been under siege since the time of Union in 1910. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had been through terrible battles just to stay alive.
To an extent, we could see that the government’s aim was to push us out of our neighbourhoods, our cities and our country until most of us identified as ‘Indian’ were gone. But where to? To me, ‘Indianness’ lay in things like khandvi sprinkled with coriander and coconut.
Excerpted with permission from Beyond Fear: Reflections of a Freedom Fighter, Ebrahim Ebrahim, Jacana Media.