Mandela and his comrades of Indian origin (Comment)

Nelson Mandela striding out of the Victor Vorester prison, outside Cape Town, on a sultry Feb 11, 1990 will remain etched on my mind as the everlasting image of “Freedom” in the 20th century. “Your piece to camera; your piece to camera,” screamed Akhtar Ali Khan, my cameraman. I came back with a start, so absorbed was I in the moment of history I was witnessing.

Later, it took me years of travel as a journalist to fix that historic moment in a broader perspective, both South African as well as global.

The role of the last white South African President, F.W. de Klerk, in unbanning the African National Congress (ANC) and taking a decision to release Mandela cannot be overlooked. The release was preceded by secret Mandela-de Klerk meetings in 1989.

White opposition to de Klerk came to a head when Andries Treurnicht addressed 60,000 ultra rightists at the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria. Afrikaans would resort to armed conflict to defend their right to a “White Fatherland”, he thundered.

This, soon after the massacre of black protesters at Thabong, near the gold mining town of Welkom, in the Orange Free State. Mandela threatened to call off negotiations unless the police, raised on generations of prejudice, were brought under control. History of the negotiations which preceded Mandela’s release must be accessed to find out so much. For instance, what was the position of Pretoria, Washington and Moscow on South Africa’s nuclear arsenal which, in the event, the ANC did not make an issue of?

It is elementary that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the beginning of the secret Mandela-de Klerk dialogue was not just a coincidence. It had become clear that the Soviet Union was doomed but any post Soviet gameplan could not be contemplated so long as the grotesque image of Apartheid dangled from the Western neck like an albatross. But the West continued to drag its feet.

When Rajiv Gandhi led six Commonwealth leaders into a conference in London in 1986 with Margaret Thatcher for concerted action against the Apartheid regime, she shrugged her shoulders. “Constructive Engagement” was the Western incantation those days to avert total isolation of the racist superstructure in Pretoria.

Had Mikhail Gorbachev not facilitated the demise of the Soviet Union, would Mandela have been set free when he was set free?

The years 1988-90 leading up to Mandela’s release offered a mixed fare for the world. In Somalia, President Siyad Barre and the opposition Somali National Movement had, between them, killed 50,000 civilians.

The reverberations of the post-Cold War tectonic shifts were felt even on the remote Gruinard Island off the North-West coast of Scotland. In 1942, the British government had embarked on a top secret biological warfare experiment and produced large quantities of Anthrax. In other words, Britain had planned to use Anthrax against Germany at least three years before Hiroshima was nuked. Well, in the aftermath of the events of 1990, Gruinard was opened up again for sheep grazing.

In India, Punjab was destabilized. The Sri Lankan conflict was casting its shadow on Tamil Nadu where a 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils had crossed over as refugees. The Indian Army, after having lost over 1,000 soldiers in Sri Lanka, was returning home, heads bowed.

In West Asia, preparations were underway for Operation Desert Storm after Iraq’s president obliged by occupying Kuwait. That sequence is still playing itself out in the region. A pity, Mandela will not be around to give us his perspective of the march of global events since his release. A South African journalist asked his hosts quite mischievously the other night: “Supposing in his last will and testament, Mandela recommends ‘Constructive Engagement’ with President Hasan Rouhani, President Bashar al Assad and Hasan Nasrallah, would the international community oblige or would it consider these gents worse than the Apartheid regime?”

I was quite precisely the first Indian to travel to South Africa on an Indian passport, specially prepared to cover Mandela’s release. I can therefore report with some certainty that New Delhi at that stage had no clear profile of the million strong Indian diaspora concentrated mostly in the Durban region. There was an overhyped, romantic link with Gandhiji’s long innings in South Africa but no serious cataloguing of his 21 years in that country. Nice of Mandela that he agreed to re-enact the scene at Pietermaritzburg railway station where Gandhi was thrown out from a compartment meant for whites only.

It is indeed a dramatic event bringing out the harsh reality of prejudice that Indians faced and on whose behalf Gandhi led his struggle. Gandhi’s struggle, let us be clear, was for Indians, not for black South Africans. A social profile of Indians who invited the young Gujarati barrister from Britain to represent them in the Apartheid courts is missing from this narrative. Gandhi was invited by Gujarati Muslim traders, led by Dada Abdullah, and it is among them that he spent most of his years not just in South Africa but even in Mauritius, where he stopped while travelling to India. In a letter Gandhi writes: “I stayed in Mauritius for about 10 days when my boat was lying at anchor. I stayed in the house of some Muslim friends.” I have not seen any research on who these “Muslim friends” were.

When Mandela’s first team of officials, including cabinet ministers, was announced in 1994, there were nine important slots taken up by descendents of Gujarati traders. Only Mac Maharaj and Jay Naidoo were of non Gujarati origin. The second most important man in Pretoria, in Mandela’s team, was Ahmad Kathrada. Later, in Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet, the minister in the presidency was Essop Pahad.

South Block may have had no knowledge of the two but both knew where Ajoy Bhavan, headquarters of the Communist Party of India, was because they had probably spent some of their “underground” days in this building. As members of the South African Communist party in their years of anti apartheid struggle, some comrades in the Mandela and Mbeki cabinets had personally known stalwarts of the Indian communist movement.

(A senior commenator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on [email protected])

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