I am truly humbled to have been selected by the ANC to present a message of condolence and an obituary on the late Ebrahim "Cas" Saloojee. It is not often that a young activist is called upon to talk about the life of an elder and a great leader. It would have been more fitting for veterans such as Andrew Mlangeni or Mewa Ramgobin, who were contemporaries and personal friends of Cas, to be standing here to say a few words in memory of their comrade. But the task has been given to me.
Cassim Saloojee passed away this last weekend after a period of prolonged illness. He suffered from a rare, neuro-degenerative disease resulting in uncontrolled memory loss. I remember that before he was given leave of absence from Parliament, he, one evening, drove for several hours looking for his home at Acacia Park. But his illness never broke his spirit. When I visited him late last year, he was full of life. He asked about so many of you. And he wanted to know what was happening in Parliament.
Cas was a passionate social worker, a strong and capable political leader, an enthusiastic sportsman and at one stage an accomplished tobacco pipe-smoker. He had dedicated the better part of his life to uplifting the welfare of ordinary people. Cas spearheaded the formation of the Johannesburg Indian Social Welfare Association (JISWA), and served as its Director for over 25 years. Under the harshness of life in apartheid South Africa, it was Cassim Saloojee and his dedicated staff at JISWA, who provided relief, assistance, care and comfort to literally hundreds of thousands of people, irrespective of race. Through his work in JISWA, he was able to develop a deep understanding of the brutality of apartheid, which he later used so effectively to mobilise communities against the apartheid system and Nationalist Party rule.
In the 1980s, Cassim Saloojee was one of the founders of ACTSTOP, a civic organisation that mobilised and organised residents facing evictions in the Johannesburg inner-city. He called upon people to act to stop evictions. He called upon them to defy the hated Group Areas Act. And he called upon Blacks – Africans, Coloureds and Indians - to reclaim their ownership over the City of Johannesburg.
When former President P W Botha established the racist Tri-cameral Parliament in 1984, it was Cassim Saloojee, together with former members of this House such as Dr Essop Jassat, Lalloo Chiba, the late Billy Nair, Pravin Gordhan, Ela Gandhi and the Honourable Mewa Ramgobin and Professor Ismail Mahomed, that had launched one of the most successful election boycott campaigns in the history of South Africa. Under the banner of the revived Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses, they had mobilised the vast majority of South Africans of Indian origin to deliver a devastating blow against the Tri-cameral parliamentary system, thereby denying it any legitimacy in the community. Cassim Saloojee initially served as the Publicity Secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress, and went on to become its President during the State of Emergency in the late 1980s. It was in this capacity that he led a joint delegation of the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses to Lusaka, to meet with the banned African National Congress.
Comrade Cas was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF). He played a key role in the UDF, serving as its National Treasurer. This eventually led to his arrest and him being charged for treason in the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial, together with leaders such as Archie Gumede, Frank Chikane, Mewa Ramgobin, Albertina Sisulu, Curtis Nkondo and Dr Essop Jassat. Ironically, it was during his detention that he gave up his pipe-smoking habit. Though in his mid-50s, he became a health fanatic in prison and continued playing golf and tennis years later.
Cas had a zest for life. When he was the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Social Development, he would walk through the corridors of Parliament with a serious look on his face. At times he was disturbingly temperamental. But he had a splendid sense of humour. I can still see him chewing his gum and laughing with gusto. Cas was ever ready to share a joke; sometimes even a little naughty one with a youngster like myself.
In 2001, my wife and I had the privilege of going with Cassim Saloojee and his wonderful wife, Aunty Khatija, on pilgrimage to Mecca. Cas was not a particularly religious person. But Mecca and the City of Medina had a profound impact on him. It softened him and ignited a deep sense of spirituality in him that was not there before. On my final visit to him, his last words to me were, "Ismail, when are you taking me for Haj again?"
Cassim Saloojee was born in Krugersdorp in 1935; and lived in Sophiatown, Bloemhof and Johannesburg. He studied in Bombay, Princeton University in the US and the old Johannesburg College of Education. If I were to write an epitaph on his tombstone, I would simply state:
"Here lies a man who worked for the welfare of his people and who loved his grandchildren dearly."
Dear Cas, if your spirit is hovering over us today, we say, "Go well. Know that we love you. Our prayers are for you. And may God's grace and mercy be upon you."
To Aunty Khatija, Riaz, Mohamed, Fatima and the five grandchildren – be strong. We express our sincerest and heartfelt condolences. May the Almighty keep you in His care!
Ismail Vadi (ANC MP)