VR: Good morning. I am Vino Reddy from the Documentation Centre of the University of Durban-Westville. This morning we are talking to Swaminathan Gounden at his home in Pastoral Road. Swami, thank you so much for allowing us your time.
SG: You're welcome, Vino.
VR: Thank you very much. Perhaps we should just start with a few personal details. Tell us about where and when you were born?
SG: Okay, I was born in the year - 16th December 1927; and I was born at a place called Magazine Barracks. Now Magazine Barracks has a very, you know, tall story to say, how Indians lived there and so on. That's where I was born. My father was an Indian labourer from India. He came down in the 1860 period and when he came down to Durban he was employed by the Indian Municipality, Durban Municipality, that's the Durban Corporation; and they put him at the Mitchell Park Zoo; and my father was a mahout; a mahout is a person who looks after elephants and he worked at the zoo and Mitchell Park Zoo had a lot of animals then in the early days, you know, in the '20s and so on, you know? They had lions, tigers and various other animals, and in 1928 the Maharaj of Mysore of India presented an elephant to the Durban City Council and that elephant was called Nellie, and when the elephant was shipped from India, came down to Durban Harbour, my father had to go to the Durban Harbour and escort Nellie. Nellie was a small - was about; maybe, about a year-old or so, you know, escort the elephant right from Point Harbour to Mitchell Park. You know the distance, and so on? Escort the elephant and bring the elephant to the zoo and ever since the elephant was under his guardianship. He looked after the elephant until his death in 1934. My father had an accident, a train accident in Somsteu Road and he died in 1934. Up till then he worked there and we were living in Magazine Barracks. He was a municipal employee, you know? So one of the conditions under which the employees lived there, if the breadwinner dies, and within a year if the family don't find anyone among them to take over the job, they must vacate the premises because another employee will have to come and occupy the premises. So my brother, then, was at Sastri College. He was doing his Junior Certificate and was one of the first Indians from Magazine Barracks to go to Sastri College. He had to terminate his studies abruptly to take over a job and so that's how we stayed there for another year until my brother was fed up with municipal work, he wrote application and he got a job at Depot Hospital as a male nurse and then in 1935 he moved to Depot Hospital and we lived in the barracks there, Depot Barracks. That is how.
VR: What is your recollection of your father especially since he...?
SG: I was seven years old when my father died. I barely have any, you know, fond recollections about him, you know, any recollection but my father, what I could remember of him, was a very tall person, had a handle- bar moustache and he always used to wear the brown uniform, you know, the municipal zoo uniform they called it, you know, and he used to be there and he was illiterate, you know, he couldn't read or write, couldn't speak English and he used to communicate with his employer in Zulu. Somehow he learnt Zulu, communicated in that and he was, you know, a person who used to socialise and so on because from Monday to Sunday he used to work at the zoo, never had time off - only on a Wednesday, they used to give him time off, you know? That was things then.
VR: So your parents had no choice as to where they could live?
SG: Ja, really they had no choice, because they were not skilled people, you know? He was employed by the municipality. My mother, you know, typical Indian housewife at home, and there were about eight of us staying there, and I attended Depot Road School then, you know? It was in Somsteu Road; Depot Road School in Somsteu Road and we carried on until we left Barracks to go to Point and stayed in Point Barracks.
VR: Now, was your Mum from India as well?
SG: No, no, no, she was a local person.
VR: Okay and tell us something about the community that you lived in?
SG: Magazine Barracks, well look it was like a compound, Magazine Barracks, each one knew the other there and many of them, in fact all of them worked for the Durban Municipality and there weren't any facilities for them like what the Whites enjoyed, you see? And at a later stage in 1934 the workers got together and formed a union called Durban Indian Municipal Employer's Society and that society, that union, started making representations for the employees and brought about lots of improvements in the way of salaries, facilities, [the] Corporation them builds them, you know, hall - Drummer Hall they called it, and established a football ground for them, a library and so on at a later stage, you know, and that was the place where the people used to meet weekends.
VR: Did you have a clinic?
SG: There was a health clinic; that was a Corporation Health Clinic.
VR: And where did you go to school, Swami?
SG: I went to Depot Road School, which was adjacent to the barracks there. I went to Depot Road School.
VR: And after that what did you do?
SG: You see because my father was earning a very meagre salary, wages, he wasn't able to send us to high - you know, to educate and so on. Well my brother was fortunate somehow, you know, he went to Sastri College, you see? Then I finished off in standard 6, I got through standard 6 and I had to seek employment. I finished off school in 1942, standard 6. In '43 I found employment in Baker's Limited in Brickhill Road. Now something interesting about Baker's - now Baker's Limited had lots of people from Magazine Barracks working there, the youngsters, you know? You see, they are very near Barracks, the Brickhill Road and Barracks is not very far off. So I found employment there, worked, then there was a union there, the Baking Union, you know? The secretary of that union was one Mannie Pillay. He was a well-known Communist in the early days, working with George Poonen and others. So whenever, you know, young people come there and got employed, first thing Mannie will do is recruit them into the Communist Party. He'd have formed the Eastern group of the Communist Party and that is how I joined the Communist Party in 1944.
VR: How old were you then?
SG: Oh, I was born '27 - '44, say about 20 - in the early 20's, I'd say.
VR: Early 20's.
SG: I'd joined the Communist Party in 1944, it was a very powerful group, you know, in other words it was branches but it's called group - Eastern Group and Western Group and so on, you know, and Mannie was a secretary of the union and he was also a member of the District Committee of the Communist Party; and actually that is when my political career started; after I had joined the Communist Party.
VR: Tell us a little bit about that?
SG: Well, the Communist Party as you know was a non-racial, you know, organisation from the 1920's and it was the only organisation that embraced everyone, you know, White, Coloured, Black, Indians, you see? No discrimination, and they represented the workers, the working class, you see, and they were a very, very vibrant organisation and they took up lots of issues and they assisted lots of unions. You see, there were very many trade union organisations of the '40s and many of them, you know, were manned by Indian Communists, African Communists, you know, and the Whites, you see, and you know, I don't know if you understand about Communism, Communism they want to, you know, penetrate, infiltrate into organisations and take over the leadership and propagate equality and so on. So one of the things that they, what they call propagated is that, as far as possible the trade union organisations must be developed into a strong working-class organisation and that is why in the 1940's you found like Tin Workers' Union, Fire Workers' Union, you know? Tea Workers' Union, Laundry Workers' Union, there were numerous unions, you know, and all of them had - our communists had a head of affairs like either a secretary or chairman, you see, and they controlled the unions, you see, and not only controlling the union, they worked for the workers, you know? They put forward their demands and got what they wanted, and in fact, they were not in a position to achieve what they want to; they brought the workers out on strike and successful strikes. Like example, the Tea and Coffee Workers' Union, you know? I don't know if you know M D Naidoo?
SG: Late M D [Naidoo]. M D was the secretary, young secretary. He pulled the workers out on strike; successful strike; but then, you know, employer had an upper hand. What he did, he gave them the necessary increase and so on and after a few months he imported automatic machines from Germany and those machines took the place of man, and he fired all the workers, the employer fired all the workers and just retained one or two to man the machine, you know, and the machine did the work of man and up till now automatic machines are packing, and you know, all kind of things, you see? Now that is how that happened, but the strike itself was a successful strike. Like we had the Laundry Workers' strike and various other strikes, which were successful, but subsequently the employers always had an upper hand, you know? Somehow, in devious ways, of you know, depriving the workers of what they justly deserved and so on.
VR: So you were working at ...?
SG: I was working at Baker's and I belonged to the Baking Union. Mannie was Secretary. I worked there for about a year and then in 1940 - say from the - I changed then, I went into an hotel as a pageboy because the salary wasn't that good in Baker's, and in a few months at the hotel and so on and finally I landed in the leather industry, in 1946. I joined the leather industry, that is the National Union of Leather Workers, and whilst working in the shoe factory I became very interested in union work and I was elected as an Executive Member of the National Union of Leather Workers. I represented the Durban Leather Workers at Port Elizabeth Conference. And…
VR: When was this?
SG: In the '50s.
SG: And I was also appointed as a shop steward. Now whilst working in the shoe industry we were campaigning for the people of the - Congress of the People. You know the Freedom Charter?
SG: That was in 1956 – ‘55/’56, right? So my task as a shop steward was to go and canvass with the workers and the place where I lived, at the residence - I don't know whether you understood how the Freedom Charter came about?
VR: Tell us?
SG: You see, they had a council, you know, comprising of ANC, the TIC, Communist Party and all, they were working towards a charter. You see the idea was that the Charter would be our policy, principles were enshrined in the Charter, you know, and we must go by that, you see? And we say look, we must be democratic as far as possible, now we mustn't write all the principles ourselves, we must go to the people, ask the people what they want in the Constitution, South African Constitution if we take over, you see? So our job was, we used to go to the residents and say look this is what we are doing. Now if we, you know, triumph and if we have a democratic South Africa and we want a democratic constitution, what would you like to be enshrined in the constitution? So you might tell certain things, right? We write that on a piece of paper. So I used to do that in the factory, you know, getting the workers to write, jot down what they required and so on and by then I was living in Cato Manor, you see? We moved from Barracks and in Cato Manor we had a branch, NIC [Natal Indian Congress] branch, so I used to go and get all these things done, that we handed that over to a committee in Durban and that committee processed that and then it went to a national council and so on. Then all - it wasn't only in Durban, throughout wherever people were, they got all that together and then they had a draft, you know, Charter in Kliptown. It was a Kliptown Conference, you know?
SG: Ja, Freedom Charter. So what I did, I represented the workers and I took two African comrades, you know, from the factory. It was on a Friday, we met at Lakhani Chambers and we had a bus. We all got into the bus and we were proceeding to Kliptown. Now like, you know, MJ and others, they were stopped halfway, but our bus, we were lucky, you see? Very many of them were asked to come back because never had a permit and all, that time you've got to have a permit, you see? We went there and very well organised in Kliptown. You know Kliptown is like Asherville. Every householder was a host to the people who came from outside Jo'burg. So as we walked in they had marshals, you know, leading us to a house, it was a Muslim, you know, family and they gave us breakfast and all kind of things and in the morning - you know we slept there that night. They had new mattresses, right through, we slept there, and then in the morning they had butter bread, jam bread on the tables and that's our breakfast, we had a breakfast, then we proceeded to the conference area. We went there and Billy, our Billy was there, Billy Nair. He also moved the resolution then. When we were there, we were surrounded by the police with their sten-guns and it was a frightening, you know, atmosphere. There was nothing that one can do. We are [were] there now, police surrounded us and they want to intimidate, you know? You know how police intimidated - they take certain pamphlets and all that type of thing, you see? Now our group, we had to leave Sunday afternoon because we've got to come back to work. So somehow, you know, they didn't interfere with us, we got into the bus and we came back to work. Sunday evening we came back and you wouldn't believe, Monday I went to work as usual. You know, it wasn't interfering with the working hours or nothing, the two Africans too went there. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, my foreman comes, he says you know, "we're going to give you notice to terminate your employment." I said: "what for?" “Oh”, the managers say, “we're not busy” and we were busy as a bee, you know, manufacturing shoes. I knew immediately why or what was the whole point, you know?
VR: How old were you? Let's just go back a little bit. How old were you when you became politicised, firstly aware of oppression in this country?
SG: I was politicised as a result of my being a member of the Communist Party. I joined the Communist Party in 1944. I was born in 1927 - how old was I? Say about 27?
VR: No, under 20.
SG: Under 20, ja.
SG: Now I got into politics about 18-years old, you know? You see I also got my inspiration from my brother. My brother was a member of the Communist Party in the early '40s and he was Chairman of the DIMES Union for 25 years, you know, with George Singh and others, you know and he used to attend Congress meetings. When Monty Naicker and others took over Congress from the Kajee/Pather Group in 1945, now my brother and others joined Congress and became the first working committee members in 1945 and I also joined NIC in 1945. In 1944 I joined the party, in 1945 there was a huge mass meeting in Curries Fountain, you know the then Congress. You know we formed the anti-segregation council and then took over, and we challenged the Kajee/Pather Group. They ran the Congress then, the rightwingers. So Monty then went to court and asked them to have an annual meeting, you see, an election. So they didn't pitch up. There were thousands of people at (the) Curries Fountain. So that's when I joined NIC in 1945.
VR: Now at the time you joined the Communist Party, in those early years, was the government of the day aware of what you were doing, and how did they react to it?
SG: Ja, well you see I'm not too sure whether they were, you know, keeping an eye on me at that stage, but I was freely, you know, doing my political work in the Congress, in the party, in the Leather Industry, you know, as a trade unionist. I was carrying on. I was only arrested in 1964. Up till then I was given the freedom to carry on. I went to Kliptown Conference. Well, before Kliptown Conference in 1946, the Passive Resistance started. '44 I was a party member; '45 as I say I joined; '46 we plunged into Passive Resistance. Now, I was quite active in the Passive Resistance. I did court - what had happened really was I wanted to go to prison. That time, you know, you volunteered to go to prison. So I was working in the shoe factory and I worked – look, in December the factory is closed; so in December I’ll go and court imprisonment for two weeks, why it don’t affect my work. But then our executive people told look, you can't court imprisonment because a group of us were back room boys, you know, administration. You know Raymond, Raymond Bux?
SG: Myself and a few others. Now they say you need to have people run the office, you see? And that is how I got left out to go and court imprisonment, you know? So I got a picture of that, myself, MJ, RD and so on. So my job, I was a assigned this task of going and recruiting people and this is very interesting here, the late Harry Devduth, I don't know if you know Harry Devduth; and SV Reddy; the late SV Reddy and I, we were given Clairwood, Jacobs, that area. There were a lot of Indian shack settlements there, you know? And our job was to go there on a weekend; on Saturday; with a megaphone; you know, and speak to the people. Then you find all of them assembling, you know, open. A lot of unemployed people, and so on. Now we used to talk to them about the importance of joining the Passive Resistance and so on, and we used to bring - recruit them. We used to come to Lakhani Chambers. In Lakhani Chambers, there was a place called Peter's Lounge and there was a hall, dance hall, you know. So Monty would be there, and in the meantime some breyani and all will be cooked. Now we're getting all the new recruits, you know, that will come there. Monty started to see them, you know, telling them how our people were treated in the sugar cane fields and all that type of a thing, and do you want that to continue? And the participants said no, "we shall resist!" All [would] shout now. We give them good feed and so on and that lot will go on to court imprisonment. See, I myself was recruiting, I'd never gone to prison, you know?
VR: So when you were - were you dismissed from your job at ...? [interruption]
SG: That was in '55. Now let's get the sequence. From '46, after that, we went to what you call the Kliptown Conference and then I was dismissed from work and then just before Kliptown Conference - '52, '52 was the Defiance Campaign. By then we had joined council, the ANC, the NIC, Congress of the People and the Communist Party, they formed a Congress Alliance, you see and this Congress Alliance organised the Defiance Campaign. Nearly about, I think 9 - 10 000 people courted imprisonment in the Defiance Campaign and there, too, it was the same thing. You know, Ebrahim Seedat and myself also, somehow we just fell into that category of doing all dirty jobs, you know, pamphlets, giving out ‘Flash.’ There was a pamphlet called Flash, distributing to the people, and doing all the backroom type of thing, and we didn't court imprisonment for the Defiance Campaign. Now after the Defiance Campaign came Kliptown Conference, and then as I've mentioned what had happened, then I came back I got fired. When I got fired I was at home '56. '57, then I was employed at the Child Welfare. '57 I was employed at Child Welfare after I'd finished up in the Leather Industry there. While I was working - see I had a more freer hand at Child Welfare; that was ‘non-white’ employers, so they didn't worry. I carried on working and went on working there. Whilst I was in the Child Welfare we used to have lots of meetings, because in the - just in the '50s, you know, the government started clamping on ANC, banned ANC, they wanted to ban the - they banned actually the Communist Party but they never banned NIC, you see, and other organisations, so we went underground, all the Communist Party members. In fact the Communist Party went underground long before it was banned. They knew it was going to be banned. It was still functioning but they functioned as an illegal organisation. They changed the name into - it was called the Communist Party of South Africa, then South African Communist Party, technical in the sense, and we continued, and from that period I became very active. We were doing a lot of illegal work, you know? Illegal meetings. At this house, my house here, was used extensively like George Poonen, you know MD; MP Naicker?
SG: MP, Arenstein - Roley Arenstein, Dr Randaree, all these people used to come here and they thought this was a safe place, you see? Meantime that was a mistake we made. And we used to have meetings and they used to disperse, you know? Now this open field here (pointing), we didn't know that the police were spying from there. So in 1964, in September '64, when they got the Ninety-day clause passed, Suppression of Communism Act, they made one sweep and they arrested all of us at six in the morning, September; and in our group Dr Randaree, MP Naicker, MD Naidoo and Dawood, myself, RG Pillay from Clairwood, K Moonsamy, you know K Moonsamy, and quite a few, you know, others, we all were arrested and then we were detained in solitary confinement. You can't see anyone and no family members, you know? They took me to Umbilo Police Station. Ja, what’s it called, I think Truro Road, or something like that. Kept me there for over a month and then from there the Special Branch headquarters was in Wentworth then, they used to take me there every morning, early morning take me in the van and they used to drill me there, you know, and start questioning you and all kind of things and I must tell you the police were very, very intelligent because they knew exactly what they wanted from you and they had - they did their homework. We didn't actually, you know? We took it for granted because one day we were painting this house green, you know, on the outside. We had two coloured comrades from Sparks Road. They were Party members. They came here and we had a chat about something, they went home. You know, the police who were interrogating me, asked me, "look, do you know so and so?" I said, "no, I don't know any coloured people." "You're sure you don't know?" I said, "no, I don't." "Alright, we'll tell you: you do know the house you stayed in, you've been painting, you were painting the house green." Now it comes back to you? I said, "ja." "You remember the day when you were outside painting when two coloured chaps came by the house?" Now you're going to say no? I said, "ja." "Well, that's what we are talking about, man and you say you don't know any coloureds?" Ja, things like that, you see?
VR: In terms of your detention, you say you spent about a month there in detention?
SG: No, a month here in Umbilo Police Station. From there they took us to Point Prison.
VR: Did they charge you at that stage?
SG: No, no, no. You see, when they kept us in Point and they started drilling us again there and meantime I think they'd been getting all the, you know, homework done and after that they formally charged us, you see, for being a member of or members of an illegal organisation and conspiring to overthrow the State and all blah, blah, things, you see?
VR: Can we just go back to the time you were in
detention? Were there any assaults? And what were
the conditions you were kept in?
SG: Oh, the conditions were bad because in Umbilo there was a little - say not even 10, say 6 by 6 room, wood and iron thing, you know, it's a cell and then it was locked, under lock and key. They never allowed any members of the family to come and see you and they had a bucket, they call it a shit-bucket, you know, kept one side and they used to bring food, just leave it by the door. They opened the door, put down the food and locked the door. You've got to eat and go out in the same place. Now we'd never been through that life, you know? And then all the interrogation was done at headquarters Wentworth, opposite the Police Station. The police chaps were okay, but the real chaps who gave us problems was at police station there, they used to make me stand over a small coir mat, you know, at attention position, you know and there was an old German lieutenant there, I forgot his name. He used to question me, you see? And there had two policemen on either side of me with a rifle and a bayonet tucked into it, you know? Okay and then this fellow will ask me questions and I'll have to reply, to respond. He knows now that I'm not responding correctly so as soon as he, you know, knew that I was speaking a lie then he'll make a noise and these two chaps will poke me with that bayonet. Just a slight poke, you know, but that slight poke was a very painful poke, okay? Now look, without any shame, I used to cry. You can't stick that pain, you see? Cry and then they go on doing that and ...?
VR: Did the bayonets cause wounds on your body?
SG: I beg yours?
VR: Those bayonets, did they cause wounds on your body?
SG: No, no. You see they're clever. They're very clever. They do it in such a way there's no evidence of you being assaulted, you see? Then about say one o'clock, they'll bring an Indian Special Branch, leave him in the room, they'll lock the room up. There was a small hand basin there with a tumbler, you see and the tap. Now the tap will be slightly opened and there's a drip, you know, water. And you stand and you know, imagine from eight in the morning I'm standing, no breakfast nothing, stand there and then at one o'clock these Whites will go for their lunch. They leave this chap there and one day I asked this chap, you know, Moodley, "Mr Moodley, please I'm feeling very, very, thirsty, can I have a drink?" He used F’s and B’s on me. He said: "you want me to lose my job? How can I give you water?" You know? And yet there was no one there. Just myself and him and, you know, you must try at home when you go tonight, you open the tap, dripping tap slightly, you have a tumbler there and you stand there and see what happens to your throat. You go dry, psychologically, you know? It dries you up. Then after an hour they come back. They'll start drilling me again. By then my both knees get[s] swollen up, couldn't stand any longer, just fall. Then they lift you up; just lift you up; make you stand and they’ll question you; then they realise now this fellow can't stand any longer; they'll hold me; they'll put me in the car; bring me back to Umbilo and they made me lie down [unclear] and leave me the whole night. Next morning the same routine thing used to go on until they moved me back to Point.
VR: Did your interrogation go on every day?
SG: Every day.
VR: Weekends too?
SG: I can't even remember whether it was weekends or not, you know? Every day. They used to allow the family to bring food but they must leave it in the station. You can't see them, you see? And bring the food and give it to you.
VR: And you had no access to a lawyer at that time?
SG: Not at that stage.
SG: Not at that stage, only when we came to Central, Durban, you know? Roley [Arenstein] used to come there, you see? Now in Point, also, we were in solitary confinement, in single rooms. Point had a very narrow cell like this. This narrow cell but little improved because they had a toilet, like a modern toilet and next to the toilet we used to sleep. They had this felt put down and two blankets for you and you sleep next to the toilet and it was under lock and key.
VR: But you were in a single cell?
SG: Single cell. But we knew every one of our comrades who came to the cell, you know? Either by singing a song or something like that, we knew each one there. My neighbour was MD Naidoo, you see? He knew every morning I used to wake up I used to knock on the wall. Now MD will also do that, you know, to know we were alive, we'd carry on doing that.
VR: So what happened when ...
SG: Food was bad there - Point.
VR: Was it?
SG: They used to have, you know, like boiled carrot and other things. They used to grow - you know, when you go to Point Prison, at the back there was a huge land there, you know? They used to grow there, you see and what they used to do they used to pluck the thing with the sand. They had huge, like boiling - where they boil the food, you know, or hot water and they just used to use the thing and pick it up again and used to come and dish it to you. One day, the first day I went there when I start - when they gave me the raw thing, when I put in my mouth I only was biting sand, you know? So I rang the bell, the warder came and I told them that I think they made a mistake, there's sand in this food, you know, he looked at me and said "no mistake, you are not in a five-star hotel, you're in a prison, man. You must eat it." Leave it one side, okay? That's how things were there.
VR: So between the time you were at Umbilo Police Station and then you went to the Point Prison, when were you charged? How much time have you allowed to lapse?
SG: Well, look, I spent three months in all. 90 days, complete 90 days. The first month in Umbilo, then they took me to Point Prison, spent the next 60 days there, about 40-odd days there and from there I think while we were there they were getting more information about us and ...
VR: Can we pause for a moment?
INTERRUPTED BY TELEPHONE CALL
VR: We're back again with Swami Gounden. Please continue, Swami?
SG: Ja, at Point Prison, as I told you the food was horrible. Nevertheless we were in solitary confinement, and outside they formed a Relief Committee. Fatima Meer and Dhanpal Naidoo and others, I think, I made representations and then finally, I think, the authorities allowed them to bring food but it must be tinned food, you see? Not cooked food, tinned. They used to bring tinned food and leave it there, but you can't see them and they used to give that to us, you see, we used to have that, you know? Okay, now in there - while we were in Point, we had a number of our comrades were brought, one by one, and somehow, you know, our sixth sense used to tell us so and so is here, and so on. You know Jack Govender and all the people you see; and while we were there, MP Naicker was inside and MP started a newsletter.
VR: In prison?
SG: In the prison. You know, when you are inside a cell your brain works very fast, you know, you want to do lots of things, you see and he started a newsletter there and that newsletter used to come to our cell and you want to know how? Now, you see, the cells used to be opposite each other, a row of cells there, a row of cells and a passage in the middle. Now the warders who used to be in the passage guarding us were these Afrikaner youngsters who must have been to standard six or seven and they gave them warders jobs, you know, rifles. They used to parade in the passage, you see? Now somehow what our fellows would do, some of them got hold of them, you know, influenced them and they used to give the newspaper to us, through - you know, we used to call them the [Outspan]. Outspans are the criminals, long-time criminals, you see? Now they'll do anything for you if you give them a bit of tobacco or a piece of soap; they'll do anything for you, you see? Now when they go out doing work, like you know into the field, when they come back say like on a Sunday when they go out, they used to buy Sunday Tribunes, Sunday Times. One paper will go round the prison, like one paper cost them R3. I think they're getting about R30 for that, you know? So that paper used to come to us, as well. I read The Tribune, I read The Times, I read The Leader, everything in the prison, without the authorities knowing, you see? Now we'd get hold of them and they used to give that to us, you see? Now we also, when we get the tinned food, you know the labels around the tinned food? We used to very carefully remove the label and we had a pencil smuggled, I'll tell how the pencils used to come, we used to write notes, and have the thing stuck on again, you know? You know we used to get mealie rice for lunch, stick that thing on there. Then we'd get this warder coming, every time he passes you - there was a peephole there, he'll open the peephole to see what you're doing. So I tell you my own experience; what I did. Now when he did that I had a cheese, you know the triangle cheese? What do you call that cheese? I took that label out, wrote something for M D and I kept that thing. When this chap came I said "you like this?" . He says "Ja." I gave him one, to him. He ate that thing. Now he became obligated to me now, you know? The second round I tell him, “you see my friend, he like this. Here, take that and give it to him.” MD knows what it is, he’ll open the label, read that thing and put it back and that is how we used to communicate with each other.
VR: So that situation made you very creative in terms of your communication?
SG: Yes, yes you see?
VR: And what was the morale like?
SG: Very strong. Very strong although initially, you know, I was a bit demoralised and so on, thinking of the family but with the old-timers, MP [Naicker], MD [Naidoo] and all, they were very good, you know, because they'd been to jail long before us, so many times. We were the new-timers, you see?
VR: Of course.
SG: And they used to keep the morale up, you know?
VR: At this stage were you married, Swami?
SG: Ja, ja.
VR: You had your family?
SG: Ja I was married in '53.
SG: And how were they coping, while you were in prison?
SG: My wife was a pillar of strength and she - the children were very small. Vasu was born 1961, three-years old. The others, my eldest was about 10-years when I was taken in. They knew very little, they didn't understand very much, you know? But my wife, somehow, you know, she managed. I had my mother, an old lady and my mother-in-law, old lady, living with my wife but my family came to my rescue, you know, like my cousins and so on used to come here with groceries.
VR: Were your family and friends and the community supportive of your activism?
SG: Very much. I know for some reason or other nobody opposed, you know, active in the, you know, struggle.
VR: And they lent support to your wife and your children while you were in prison at that time?
SG: Yes and you see fortunately my employers at the Child Welfare never deprived the family of my salary. Every cent of my salary, every month for the next three months was paid to the wife and over and above them giving her a salary they used to send her groceries home and that is how they kept the home fires burning and in addition to that my sisters and my cousins and all used to come and paying the light account and so on.
VR: Okay can we just stop at this point? I have to turn the tape over.
END OF TAPE SIDE A
VR: We're back again, Swami. Tell us what happened after your stay in the prison at the Point?
SG: Okay, now I believe they gathered sufficient information to charge us when we were in Point and then from Point they removed us to Durban Central and not all of us, some of them were released. Only six of us were removed there. The six were Kay Moonsamy, myself, RG Pillay, MD Naidoo, MP Naicker and there was one little Padayachee boy, you know, from Wentworth. Six of us and Steven Dlamini. They brought him from Robben Island and charged him with us, you see and so they took us to Durban Central, and at Durban Central we became awaiting trial prisoners; and then they formally charged us and that's when Roley Arenstein came to us, you see, and he spoke to us and then we had JN [Singh], DK Singh and all. Look, insofar as the legal fraternity were concerned, we had any amount of attorneys give us free services, you see? It never cost me a cent being in prison and so on, you know? Everything was done by the Congress, you see? They took over the whole, you know? And then we stayed about six days in Central. Then they told us we are being formally charged and they took us to the court, and you know the court proceedings, and so on? And then they - you know, I might as well tell you here, that some of our comrades turned State Witness against us and no need to mention names, you see? And of course, subsequently, they told us that was a tactic because if they didn't do that they would have been still in and so on, you see? And they charged us and we came out on bail of R500 each.
VR: That was a lot of money then.
SG: Ja, that was also paid by the comrades. Never cost the family a cent. In fact, my family gained by my going to prison, you know, and then what had happened, the State was cocksure that they were going to convict us and on the other hand we were also convinced that we are going to go into Robben Island. MD, MP came to see us and told us, “Look, for sure now, it's hundred percent, you know, that we are going to be convicted”, and told me, ‘look Swami, you'll get five years, and Kay Moonsamy and others get so many years. Now when we go there we mustn't idle, be idle, let us do some studying and all, you know, and that we must educate ourselves, not study, proceed with study and so on. We prepared everything. We were convinced now we were going to be charged. The State Witnesses didn't turn up. Now M D worked a plan to send them away. One went to Bechuanaland [Botswana], one went to - where's this now, where the ANC offices were, you know?
SG: Zambia, Zambia. And one went overseas so the State got stuck, they didn't know what to do when they brought us to court to, you know, convict us. Then the magistrate - that was in January 1965 now, until then we were in and out. The magistrate told us "look, you're being released conditionally, as soon as we get our State Witnesses you'll be recharged." and up to now nothing has happened, we came free. But immediately they released us, they listed me; they listed me for 25 years from that time until old man [Mandela] was released 1990.
VR: The old man?
SG: The old man, I mean Nelson, when he was released, then they de-listed all of us. Now here, being listed to me meant that I cannot become a member of any trade union organisations, any political organisations, and I couldn't be quoted in the papers. These are some of the conditions under which I stayed, you know? But I used to go to meetings, you know, like cultural meetings and so on, carried on, you see?
VR: When you came out of prison, did you find yourself new employment or did you go back to Child Welfare?
SG: No, no, no, they didn't terminate my employment. Child Welfare kept me on and that was the beauty of the whole thing, you know? They called me - Mr Pather was our Chairman and ME Sultan was there. You know they called me, they were the first ones to call me and told me, “look, insofar as the Society is concerned, we cannot help you in the name of the Society, but in our personal capacity, if you want any money or any other help, we are prepared to assist you and you continue with your work." I thought it was great of them, you know? Although we were in opposing camps, we were NIC and they were NIO, opposing camps, you see?
VR: Did you continue your activism in trade union work and so on?
SG: Well after that, after I left the leather industry, I was in the Leather Union, I was with …
VR: Were you involved with people?
SG: Ja - continued.
SG: I continued with NIC work, you know, like 1960 Emergency, you know? Every one of our executive members were banned, you know, banned and house arrested and so on, but NIC as such, as an organisation, wasn't banned. So Hassan Mall, myself, Thumba [Pillay] and who else, one or two others, we ran the show there. There'd be Monty [Naicker] and all, in the underground. Remember JN [Singh], Monty and all of them? The emergency, when they escaped, they had a case, you know, and after that they all disappeared? So we were again backroom boys, you know? We used to go meet them at certain places, carry messages, come back, organise, take direction and so on and we continued.
VR: So what year are we talking about? What stage?
SG: I'm talking about 1960 Emergency.
VR: Okay and what route did your life take after that?
SG: I was still an activist, you know, and I confined myself more with the ratepayers work, you know? Ratepayers and other civic organisations and after that we had the United Democratic Front in the '80s, you see, and together with [Dr] Randeree, myself, Farouk [Meer] and all of us, we went to Johannesburg. That's where we first, you know, started the meeting in Johannesburg with Kathy [Ahmed Kathrada] and all - not Kathy, what do you call? Vallie Moosa and all, and the idea of having a United Democratic Front was hatched there.
VR: Tell us a little bit about that?
SG: Well you see, now those of us who were outside, first we must have an organisation, a united front to coordinate, you know, you see, and the senior people met, they worked out a plan and then a meeting was called in Johannesburg and things like that. I've got a picture of that here, you know?
VR: I'd like to see it afterwards.
SG: Ja, and then at that meeting was hatched and then they said we must have an inauguration for that in Mitchells Plain. Then all of us went. We chartered a plane at a special rate, and we went to Mitchells Plain and at Mitchells Plain it was officially inaugurated, the United Democratic Front. That time you know this chap, Reverend what's his name? He got charged for ...
VR: [Allan] Boesak?
SG: Boesak. Boesak and he and Trevor [Manuel] and all of them were there, you know? Active, you see?
VR: Who were your role models in the struggle in the years of apartheid?
SG: Well look, to me I always, you know, looked up on MP Naicker, you know? MP Naicker was for the youth of that time, and the youth would always be with MP and MD. MP, MD, both of these party members, you know, because of their own sacrifice in the struggle and giving us this type of inspiration, you know, I always felt that they were our role models.
VR: What was the hardest time in your life during the apartheid years?
SG: Well look, it's very difficult because, like me, very many of us were deprived of certain facilities of life, you know, and I - look, I was in the Congress Movement at that time, I was continuing, you know, with the actual work, you see, and I really didn't feel that type of a hardship, you know, although I was deprived of a lot of facilities, we took it for granted that that is the way of life, and we continued working, you see?
VR: And you continued with your resistance and activism?
SG: Precisely, ja.
VR: Let's move onto when Mandela was released and when the new government came into power. Do you want to talk to us about that, please?
SG: Well look that was our cherished dream that one day old man [Mandela] will be released and he will lead, you know, the State and so on, which had happened, but I think it's history that it didn't become that perfect, you know? After Mandela was released for a while he was a President, things were okay but like in any other organisations you will find people who are there for their own self-interest, doing the wrong thing, you know, they shouldn't be doing and bringing discredit to the organisation, you know, and it is not my intention to mention who they are and all. I think it's open, you know. But the important thing is that we got democracy although we might not say hundred percent, perfect democracy, you see? Now we were deprived of all our rights for the past 300 years under the White Regime, and we overcame all that when the old man was released and we had this, you know, coalition government and thereafter the ANC, which happened to be in the majority, took over and none of us expected - I don't for a moment expect the present government to bring about, you know, perfection overnight, because for the past 300 years if you were deprived you cannot in three years time bring that type of a change.
It will take time, you know, like we talk about
affirmative action and so on? There is a reason for
having introduced affirmative action and it is not the
State that is imposing hardships insofar as
affirmative action is concerned, it's left to the
employer, you know, how they introduce affirmative
action and some employers very deliberately,
I think, play one race against the other insofar as
affirmative action is concerned. I think time will
tell that soon that all that will be overcome, you
VR: Just go back a little to 1990. Why do you think the Nationalists agreed to negotiate a settlement?
SG: Negotiate a settlement? Ja because you see whether you should take any country or this country, you know, now one thing that we must learn, the majority of the oppressed people one day will rule that country. You take India now, you know, India. You know India, it changed hands from British Imperialism to Indian Capitalism, you know, but the working class people were still - are still struggling now but the vast majority of the oppressed are now governing India, you know similarly in other countries. So in South Africa too with all the might of the State regime, you know, the Apartheid Regime, they knew for a moment that they cannot continue suppressing the masses because they will rise one day and if they rise there might be revolution. There will be a revolution, you see? And I think this is where - even Mandela applied his mind very, very tactfully, you know, when De Klerk met him, negotiated. You know, among us in the Robben Island, like Sisulu and all, didn't quite agree with him, you know, to negotiate for this changeover, peaceful changeover and so on. There were revolutionaries there, you see? But he did it and I think God helped what he did because suppose now we said no, we want to have a civil war; we were heading for a civil war. There was revolution. Now who had the might and the ammunition? The regime had the ammunition. They would have mowed us out. But by negotiating; peaceful negotiations; we were able to take over without shedding blood. I think that was a great thing.
VR: Did you think you would see the country liberated in
VR: At the time of the years of apartheid, did you think you would see it in your lifetime?
SG: Not really, because the manner in which the matters went about, you know, we felt now look we will continue struggling but we might not see it, our children might see, you know? But fortunately, we are still alive to have seen this changeover, the transformation that had taken place.
VR: What other hopes did you have for the country and have they been realised?
SG: Hope in a sense that we never enjoyed the voting rights, okay, and we had seen that our people are now exercising the rights to vote. That is a great thing and we never, for a moment, you know, think that we as Blacks would sit in parliament and pass legislation in the interests of the people, that has - you know, we have seen that thing realised, you see? Like there were many other things where doors were opened to us in the sporting field, in the sporting world and in trade unions, for instance. You know a Black man was not supposed to have been member of trade union. Today it's a free for all. Like that, there are quite a number of things that has, you know, succeeded after old man had come and there are many more things to come. But what is worrying now is this question of corruption and fraud and all these things going within our own circle, you know? That is a bit worrying, you see, but you tell me, which country hasn't experienced that type of a thing? Britain, corruption goes on there. India, the MPs, mafia style MPs are there, you see? Now all this will be there but I think gradually it will phase off.
VR: In your earlier years, did you ever consider joining the armed struggle?
SG: I did. I did because you see as a communist we believed in armed struggle depending of the nature of the activities that you're engaged in and we felt like in Russia, you know, when the Russian revolution started, it started off with the armed struggle, you see? In China, the same thing. So we felt that look, if need be, if there's going to be a revolution we'll have to join the armed struggle.
I was prepared for that as well but it didn't come to that stage, you see? Maybe viewpoint different, you know? Differing viewpoint, people don't believe in that and so on. Like for instance now we believed that we must get into the majority. I don't know if you know about that? You see the Party believed that in order to take over we must infiltrate into the Navy, the Army and into the State missionaries and when the date comes when we take over we've got certain people, trained people in the various departments and all but the majority of our people here felt that that wasn't the right thing to do, you know, and I mean we cannot join and be a tool of the system of the State and so on, we can't identify ourselves. But as a communist, we said no, we must get into these organisations, take over and you know, those are the differing viewpoints that existed.
VR: If you considered joining the armed struggle, of course, you felt that you could lose your life, not only in the armed struggle, but even with the activism that you were involved in, underground work, and after the Communist Party. Was that a consideration? Did you think that that might happen to you?
SG: Yes I did.
SG: Yes. Despite all that, you know, I felt it was my duty, you know, having decided to be in the struggle, you know, that come what may, we would have to be with the comrades.
VR: You were prepared to die for the cause?
SG: Oh yes, I was prepared to die. There's no doubt about that. Although I had children, you know? And I always felt that children will be taken care of, somebody - look tomorrow if I'm - drop dead, somebody is going to take care of them, you see? No, I was prepared.
VR: After you detention, and the time you came out of prison, or during that time even, did you think they would kill you or was your life in danger in any way?
SG: It didn't occur to me because of the morale that we enjoyed there with our comrades. That didn't occur to me really.
VR: It didn't?
VR: In your own life, what do you think was your biggest sacrifice during the years of apartheid?
SG: Well my sacrifice was having joined the liberation struggle, you know, means it is a sacrifice on my part, you know, having families, settled family and not having joined and knowing the consequences of that, you see? So that was my biggest thing.
VR: During all this time, your wife, two children and family supported you in this very strong activism?
SG: To the extent that they had no option. You know, like although they will tell me, "look man, you know, you had enough, you mustn't go the meeting and that meeting." You know? But I used to attend the meeting despite what they say, but there wasn't that type of a quarrel between us to say - like my wife telling me that I can't stick it and I'm getting out and all that sort of thing.
VR: Do you think the government, the ANC government has fulfilled its promises to the people?
SG: You see it's a typical thing, you know, because you see the ANC now has a government, they made lots of promises, you see and in the process there are a lot of hindrances, as well. You know, there were element who were trying to sidetrack things and try to be an obstacle to the ANC's move and so on, you see? But in spite of all that, let us not, you know, bluff ourselves, the ANC has made a lot of strides, it will take time, it will definitely take time for the ANC to fulfil all their promises.
You take the housing now, they're building quite a
lot of houses but in spite of all that people are
grumbling that there's no houses and so on, you
know? Now you expect the ANC to say look, a
magical thing to say we've got millions of houses
now that you can occupy. It's a slow process but
it's being done.
VR: Are you still a member of the Communist Party?
SG: I am. I am.
VR: What do you think of the criticisms levelled against the government in terms of their economic policies and so on?
SG: You see the government is doing their very best, you know, as I said, to bring about a stable economy and so on and in the process there are certain individuals who may do certain things or are doing things that is not bringing about an equal economy and so on, you know, but nevertheless I think that - look, criticism will be there no matter how best you try to bring about some equity. The criticism will be there but whatever they are doing, they're doing something towards bringing improvement, so that we must appreciate.
VR: So as a communist yourself, are you satisfied with the route the government is taking?
SG: You see the party has an alliance with the ANC and COSATU and so on, you know, and in the alliance they had to tow line with the government but individually, as a Communist Party, they don't go along with very many things that is being done, you see and they are bold enough to even criticise. They say you don't follow a certain path but when it comes to the alliance they are part of the alliance and they have to work through it there.
VR: What do you think the major issues facing our country are today?
SG: Major issue is question of poverty, you know, the State has to do something to bring the poverty level down and the economy too, you know, to bring about a stable economy. Not that it is not stable, you know, and like housing, they must address these housing problems. These are some of the things, you know? And there are very many other important issues that they've got to sit down and address.
VR: Are you hopeful for the future of the country?
SG: I am, you know, I am. I may have mentioned no new government overnight can bring about miracle, you know, and so with the ANC, you know? Give it a chance, give it about ten years, you'll find lots of improvement coming about. Definitely, ja.
VR: When you look back on your life and all the things you've been doing, what would you say were the defining moments in your life?
SG: I didn't get you?
VR: What were the defining moments in your life?
SG: What shall I say?
VR: What do you think were the things that moulded you or brought you to a point where you ...?
SG: My own background, you know, from my infancy, you know, when I was a child, the deprivation that I faced and that had made me go to together with inspiration with some people to go ahead and the desires that I had is that at some stage I must bring about some improvement to the community.
VR: If your father was alive do you think he would have been proud of the work you did?
SG: It's very difficult to say. A very interesting thing about my father, while my father was working at the zoo the Gandhi strike started, 1913 strike, you know? So all the municipal workers downed tools and joined the strike. So what the employer did, he held my father back and they had a room in the zoo there, they kept him there with a few others because they were handling the animals. They said look, if everybody get out, who is going to feed the animals, you see? And much against his wishes they kept him and others to feed the animals, you see and he was termed a traitor by the community. Not of his own - the employer held him and they termed him a traitor.
VR: He didn't have much choice there, did he?
SG: He had no choice there.
VR: Let's just move onto a little bit about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and - did you support the idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
SG: Well you know look, the thing is that we felt that there was a need for this Truth and Reconciliation because there were - you know, we wanted to see the past, what people have done and so on and I think they did their homework in as far as possible and they had pardoned people who went there. Like for instance now if I was there and I joined the MK movement and shot somebody, I did it because, you know, I felt that I'm doing it for the Movement, you see?
And if I was interviewed by the TRC and if they felt
that look, his action was towards the liberation
struggle, they pardon me right? Then were others
who used the struggle but for their own purpose
they did that and obviously we are not going to
support that. Like an example is you know there
isn't a presidential pardon and so on, you know?
SG: Now there were quite a lot of them, you know, who belonged to the organisation of the PAC, ANC and so on but many of them - well, according to the news and so on, were real criminals and their action had no relevance to the struggle but they were pardoned, you know, and there's a big controversy that's going on now.
VR: Yes. Did you actually give testimony before the
SG: No. No.
VR: Is there any reason why you didn't?
SG: Look, no, they didn't call for me, but I didn't volunteer as well, you know?
VR: You could have made a statement if you wanted to?
SG: I could have made a statement, I didn't, you know? I didn't feel it was a need, the need for me to do that.
VR: Can you tell us why not?
SG: I didn't apply my mind, I didn't apply my mind to it.
VR: But you supported the idea of the Truth Commission?
SG: I supported the idea of the Truth Commission.
VR: This recent thing with the Truth Commission and the government in terms of reparation, there's this feeling that the government has been back-peddling on, paying reparations. What is your view about this?
SG: We don't know really what is going on, you know, because you're talking about the Truth Commission.
VR: Yes, well you know they're supposed to pay - it was their decision that reparations be paid to people, victims and it was the government's duty to pay out that money, it was their agreement but now the government is back-pedalling on this.
SG: Back-pedalling, ja.
VR: What is your view on the government's back-pedalling?
SG: Ja you see there must be a good reason why they are back-pedalling, although on the face value we don't agree with that. If the government had indicated that they will be paying they should honour that, you know, but if they are now beginning to back-pedal, I really honestly don't know the reason for that, you see? But personally I feel that if you say something you must honour that, you know?
VR: How do you think people will view the government in terms of this back-pedalling?
SG: Well you will see you get categories of people. The man in the street, now he views it differently. Okay, now the more people who are closer to the ANC, in the hierarchy, they might have had a long debate about it and they may understand the reason for back-pedalling, you see? So it's not everybody who is against this decision.
VR: What about the victims?
SG: Well obviously if you are a victim of any, you know, form of thing and if you are looking forward to that thing you will be disappointed. Victims will be disappointed.
VR: And what about the image of the Truth Commission, do you not think it will be diminished?
SG: Tarnished, ja. That's true, I agree because - what's his name? Tutu made it very clear the other day that it's an interference on the part of the State now, you know, about this presidential thing, you know? Similarly here too, you know, it does give some sort of a bad image on the part of the TRC.
VR: One last question, if you were to do anything differently, what would it be?
SG: If I want to do anything differently?
VR: Either in your life or today?
SG: I will have no cause to do anything differently from my own belief in the organisation and so on unless something very critically has happened to me, you know? But so far that hasn't happened, you see, and in fact, I'm far more active now but more in the ratepayers. Our ANC branches all have died a natural death here, you know, and I really haven't any particular reason as you've mentioned to do anything differently. My life goes on the normal way and I don't regret having joined theses organisations, having been in the liberation struggle. In fact I'm proud of myself although I'm not in the limelight and so on, I've always been a back-room boy and I feel that I have done my duty, my share, you know? If anybody asked me: "look, what role did you play in the liberation struggle?" I know I'll have my head up and tell: "look, this is the role that I played." I can ask him: "so what role did you play in it?" you know? So I'm proud about what I've done.
VR: What you call a back-room boy is what most of us would call an activist.
SG: Well ja, the different names attached to us.
VR: Swami, thank you so much for your time. It was very interesting talking to you.