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Mewa Ramgobin PDF Print E-mail

Mewa Ramgobin (1932 - 2016) was born in Inanda, Natal. He was President of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) that was founded by Gandhi in 1894 and was married to Ghandi's granddaughter, Ela. During his life he has done much to honour Gandhi, including establishing a Gandhi museum and library, organising the Annual Gandhi Lecture and educating people from different race groups on Gandhian thought. He also played a role in training leaders of the struggle for South Africa's freedom.


Ramgobin started becoming aware of the political situation in South Africa when he was a teenager and he saw the difference in how he was treated compared to the Pondo children. This idea was strengthened when he finished Primary School, but could not get a space in the only Indian school in Natal. The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) stepped in and started a new school. It was at this point that Ramgobin became aware that there was an Indian Congress and that as an Indian he could not do as he liked. When he was seventeen, a bus driver of one of his father’s buses was killed by a group of blacks. After this his father moved them from the area, and Ramgobin found it difficult to be separated from his Pondo friends. It was at this time that he began to realise that he could not complain about discrimination towards Indians if he discriminated towards blacks himself.


When at the University of Natal, he became more politically involved. He was active in NUSAS, headed the non-European SRC and in 1960 joined the fast at the Phoenix Settlement. In 1965 he received his first banning order, but this did not affect his political involvement. In 1970 his banning order expired and he founded the South African Committee for the release of Political Prisoners, and began to work towards a revival in the NIC. By the end of the year he was president of the NIC.


In September 1971 Ramgobin was banned again after he organised a petition for clemency to political prisoners. He remained under house arrest until February 1973. In March 1973 he received a parcel bomb, the first time in South Africa, which exploded in his office in Durban. The government then restricted him, meaning he could no longer work in Durban, so he moved his office to Verulam. In 1975 he was banned for another five years, but was unbanned in 1983.
In 1983 he became the treasurer of the United Democratic Front (UDF), and was arrested in 1984 and released after 19 days. He went in hiding after his release, and sought refuge in the British consulate, but was arrested again on 6 October and accused of high treason after the 1984 people’s riots. He was acquitted in December of 1985. He continued his work with the UDF. He is presently a Member of Parliament for the ANC and Chairperson of the Phoenix Settlement Trust.

In 2009, Ramgobin's memoir, Prisms of Light: Within My Memory was launched.  This autobiographical text is Ramgobin's recollections of his experiences in the struggle period of the apartheid era.  Ramgobin's memoir recounts his role in the release of political prisoners in the 1970's, and his continuing role in anti-apartheid politics.  The text is also the culmination of Ramgobin's research of the period, and acknowledges  his political peers who he credits for his own personal growth.

On 17 October 2016, Ramgobin passed away in Cape Town. He was buried at the Mountview Civic Centre in Verulam. To honour him, President Jacob Zuma declared a Special Provincial Official Funeral and ordered that the flag be flown at half-mast at all stations in KwaZulu-Natal on the day of his funeral.

 


Selected Work

From Waiting to Live (1986)

In Durban, Elias and his comrades worked every day except Sunday, when they rested. It was, they were told, the Sabbath. Elias had decided that at the end of the fourth week, he would go home on a visit. On the first three Sundays, after an early wash and in clean clothes, he sought out a compound mate and they went out together to explore their surroundings. They had to be careful to be back at the compound before the appointed hour, the curfew. They had been told that blacks were prohibited from being outdoors after 10 P.M. The more humorous in the compound had observed that the young madams and the young baases must not be disturbed and frightened by the sight of black aliens like Elias late at night.

On the third Sunday, Elias and James Mazwai walked along concrete pavements flanked by tall fences made of bricks or stone or cement. Elias was amazed. Jammed close together were many houses, inside which were people who looked like the baases who gave orders along the railway lines. Elias wondered what they were hiding, behind their high walls. From inside their houses the people peeped and gave the black passersby disapproving looks. Elias and his guide, Mazwai, passed on. To whom did all these things in the city belong? It was exasperating for Elias not to know. They saw a woman dressed in city clothes, but she looked very much like the women Elias had left behind in Umzinyathi. She was black, she had crinkly hair and she had a child tied to her back. She told them she was taking the baas's child for a walk. The child's parents were not to be disturbed early in the morning on the Lord's Sabbath.

Elias marvelled at the fact that this part of the city was so different from the compound yard, and so different from his own Umzinyathi. Within the fences surrounding these houses there grew lovely flowers of so many colours and shapes. The high walls that enclosed the flowers seemed to hide them and to keep the joy of their beauty from the people outside. It was funny, and intriguing. But what was funnier was that there were hundreds of blacks who were not observing the Lord's day. They watered the flowers, they swept the yards, they carried refuse and they minded their baases' babies. He wondered where all these people, his black brethren, lived. He soon found out: there were lodgings at the back of these houses. There were rooms underneath some of the bigger buildings. Other buildings, he was told, had compounds for them on the top, nearer the sky. These were the lucky ones, the ones that slept on top of their baases and madams. Black men sleeping on top! Where did the black women sleep?

Mazwai said his friend Sibiya worked in one of these huge buildings. He suggested that the three of them get together for the day. They entered the building through the yard at the back and took the goods lift up. The lift at the front entrance was reserved and not for the use of blacks, said Mazwai. Elias's stomach lurched with the sudden upward jerk of the noisy goods lift, But Mazwai was unperturbed. The lift stopped at the seventh floor and they got out together and walked along a passage. Mazwai stopped in front of a door and pressed a button. The bell resounded. The door opened and there, right in front of them, stood a full-breasted white madam in a shortie pyjama top. Just like Nomsa! But before the madam could be told how beautiful she was or greeted with a 'good morning,' the door was slammed in their faces. They heard the sounds of the door being bolted. Elias was baffled and wondered what the madam was frightened of and why she had locked them out. He knew that Mazwai had business there. Mazwai pressed the button again and this time there was no immediate answer. A little while later a baas opened the door, shaking his finger at them and demanding to know what they wanted. Both were terrified at the sight of an angry, threatening baas. Mazwai tried apologetically to explain that they had come for Sibiya, who was apparently, to Elias's amazement, inside where the madam had hidden herself. But the baas said Sibiya was busy making the madam's bed and not available. They should enquire from the caretaker later in the day. The two left without Sibiya.

Coming down in the lift Mazwai suggested they make for the suburbs. Elias was fascinated by the fine houses, each set in its own garden. He observed that each house was beautiful in itself, but not as a part of a total beauty. Each was heavily fenced in. Entrances were tightly secured by gates with large signs indicating that the public should 'beware of the dog.' Entry into the precincts of these houses, Mazwai explained, was very difficult by day for all blacks who had no business there. At night those who worked there could easily bring in their black friends. Their blackness could not be distinguished from the blackness of the night. There was almost a singleness in blackness. It was their security and their identity. While they themselves experienced their blackness as all these, everything around them indicated that their blackness was other people's insecurity.

It was past lunch hour. From all directions black umfaans - clothed in short pants and thick white shirts edged with red - were converging on an open, wide, breezy piece of ground. It was evident that they were in the habit of gathering here. The ones and twos arriving had soon merged into a large crowd. Elias and Mazwai, though they were dressed a little differently, soon found themselves in the midst of the singing and drum-beating, the chantings and wavings of gaily decorated knobkerries and of sticks with chicken feathers stuck on one end, so that they looked like tall flaming altar candles. Before long they were all in a frenzy of merrymaking and jubilation. For all of them it was their time off, their time to be together. The rest of the week, in the city, their time was not theirs. They had particular roles to play that were defined and scheduled by others, others whose aspirations in life were different from those of the 'migrants' to Durban.

Carried away by their own vigour and vitality, by the power of their songs, by their sense of oneness, they were invoking their ancestors and remembering their loved ones across the land. The invocations, the lyrical love songs, intensified Elias's longing for Nomsa. His stomach churned. His head reeled.

Almost telepathically the crowd moved. In unison and with compelling rhythm they moved up and up and up the hill, away from the open ground. They took the hard, tarred road that had been designed by their white baases and built by their black brethren. As they climbed, they went into further frenzy. They were leaving behind them the fenced, enclosed, divided houses. They wanted to look out from the top, in the hope of seeing the distant plains with their sprawling fields of maize, perhaps even a familiar collection of huts, a village. Their mood was joyous, and that sight would have crowned their joy.

Even the ear-splitting noise of a passing aeroplane could not drown the sounds of joy. The aeroplane passed and was heard no more. The men beat harder on their drums. Their sticks clattered against each other.

They were on top, on the Berea, from where they had a clear view of that ever-changing sea that separates land from land, and men from men. These black men saw, down between themselves and the sea, the houses and some of the people in them, and these were as separate from the black men as any chunks of land divided from each other by the mighty sea. Some of the men on the hill thought that the separation had its origin in the baases' inability or unwillingness to obey the commandments they themselves had brought to the hearts of the black men. They felt that the separation of land from land was the effect of the machinations, good or bad, of the One they did not know.

Bibliography

1986. Waiting to live. Cape Town:  David Philip Publishers.
1990. The People shall Govern: An Overview of the Freedom Charter.  Durban:  University of Natal Press.

2009.  Prisms of Light. East London: iQula Publishing.

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