This article was written by Sarah Rahimi and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

Zarina Maharaj Biography


Zarina Maharaj is a political activist, a daughter, a mother, a wife, a feminist, and much more. Zarina Maharaj has served her country during the apartheid era through her involvement in the ANC. She continued to serve South Africa during the post-apartheid era, as well as in present day through various projects, dealing with topics such as gender development and women empowerment. Throughout her lifetime, Zarina has continued to maintain a balance between her family and her political life. Over the years Zarina has made quite an impact on the South African community, even in the midst of having to support her then political activist husband, Mac Maharaj, and raising her children.

Key Words

Zarina Maharaj, Mac Maharaj, Shirene Carim, ANC, apartheid, Vula, O’Malley


There is a popular saying that ‘behind every successful man there stands a woman.’ Many such women do not just stand behind their successful men, but they equally share with them their sacrifices. One such figure is Zarina Maharaj, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, an activist, a mathematician, a lecturer, an advocate of women's empowerment, an author, a documentary filmmaker, and a woman. While she is known as the wife of Mac Maharaj, the many hats she wore in the struggle against apartheid suggests she is a prominent political figure in her own right. Zarina served in many ways during the struggle against apartheid when her husband was away fighting for a free South Africa. Zarina dwells on these multiple roles in her interview with Padraig O’Malley and says:

Supposing I'd never been acommunications activist in Vula”¦supposing I'd never been the go-between between Mac and OR and all of them, would that have diminished my role as the woman keeping the family together? Isn't that also a form of political activism? It really, really irritates me that I kept body and soul together, hearth and home together, and if I'd never been even involved in Vula would that have diminished me as a person? (O’Malley, 2004)

Zarina mentions Vula as one example of the many roles she played in society. She was not only in the forefront as a freedom fighter herself, but she also played a significant role in raising and protecting her family in her husband’s absence.

Giving herself recognition for her share of sufferings, which later included allegations of corruption, Maharaj, in her memoirDancing to a Different Rhythm, writes that ‘Wives in the struggle, even those known to be actively involved, were generally not credited with an identity of their own by the majority of their fellow comrades’ (Z.Maharaj, 13). Maharaj believes that women are not celebrated in history as they should be, even with their sacrifices in which they sometimes have to abandon their homes to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with their men in their struggles. Nevertheless, Maharaj, with an extraordinary commitment and devotion to her family and to her country, continued to support her husband Mac and fought bravely and enthusiastically against apartheid. Although many may not consider her a heroic figure because of more recent alleged financial exploitation charges, Maharaj’s commitment and devotion towards ending segregation in South Africa cannot be ignored. Her passion for her country and her family created zeal inside her that shaped her life and gave her a strength and desire to become a female activist and an educator, thereby shaping the course of feminist politics in South Africa. It was Maharaj’s work in fighting for gender inequality and women’s empowerment, in which she really shaped feminist politics in South Africa.

Zarina Maharaj’s Childhood

Zarina Maharaj, born in Johannesburg in 1945, was the fifth child and first girl in her family. Her parents namedher Zarina which means ‘golden’ or ‘of gold.’ Later, Maharaj’s mother also had another daughter, Shirene Carim, with whom Maharaj was very close. Maharaj grew up with a mixed background, as her mother Josephine was a Catholic Coloured woman and her fatherAmod Abdul Carim was a South African Muslim of Indian origin.Growing up, Maharaj was mostly surrounded by her father’s family and hence was raised as a devout Muslim. She learned Arabic, read the Quran, and wore a hijab like a typical Muslim girl. During her teenage years in South Africa, Maharaj attended the Indian government school in Fordsburg and then the Johannesburg Indian High School.

Although Maharaj and her siblings grew up among Indians and Coloured people in the neighborhood, she did not fully identify herself as Indian. She recalls that the Indian community in her neighborhood called Maharaj’s family a ‘half caste’ because of her White mother and an Indian father. This was one of the reasons she adopted the Indian culture, but never embraced the Indian identity. Similarly, Maharaj’s family partook in ceremonies and rituals of the Muslim community such as Ramadan, but never really fully identified themselves as fully Muslims. This and many other daily practices and activities made Maharaj and her family very distinct from other families around in South Africa. Maharaj considered her and her family members ‘cross-cultural misfits.’ Nonetheless, Maharaj considers this to be an advantageous quality, as she believes that it has helped her adapt to her surroundings no matter where she lived.

Maharaj grew up when South Africa was a nation under the system of apartheid. Maharaj’s childhood experiences in apartheid South Africa were no different than that of any other person of colour. However, Maharaj was made aware of racial discrimination because she and one of her brother’s were quite fair and passed as White, while her other siblings, including her sister, were very dark and were considered Coloured. Maharaj found she was treated differently as a White compared to her other siblings who were dark and often became victims of racism. Maharaj recalls that one of her brothers was even beaten because he was with Maharaj and Coloureded boys were not allowed to be seen with White girls. It was these kind of ruthless incidences in her life that made her become mentally, emotionally, and politically conscious of the discrimination around her. Much like herself, there were other people surrounding her that were also affected by the cruelty of this system, specifically Maharaj’s mother. It was Maharaj’s mother that decided to leave South Africa and move to England on 5 February 1960. Maharaj believes that she moved from South Africa at the critical moment in her life when she was becoming politically aware of the world around her. She strongly believes that if she and her family had not left for England during that time, she would have definitely become an activist like most other youths in apartheid South Africa as she had already started taking part in protests and strikes. (O’Malley 2003)

This political consciousness that came about also had a lot to do with Maharaj’s parents being so emotionally connected to the freedom struggle, specifically her mother. Maharaj says that the reason her mother never became politically active was due to the fact that Maharaj’s father was not financially supportive and therefore her mom had to work several jobs to provide for her six kids. However, the decision to move to England was not a financial decision, but rather it was sparked by the Group Areas Act in 1960. The Group Areas Act stated that residents of the Fordsburg area had to leave their houses and attend different schools. The purpose of the act was to segregate people based on colour. It was also during this time that Maharaj’s parents were struggling with their relationship, which had a lot to do with the financial situation. Maharaj suffered the consequences of this unstable relationship. During this difficult time in their life, Maharaj’s mother found England to be a stepping-stone for her kids because of the opportunities it had to offer, but for Maharaj it was a culture shock. Despite all of this, Maharaj tried to adapt as best as she could to this new culture. She attended the Maidavale Grammar School to continue her education. However, the girls-only system of the school did not agree with Maharaj’s standards and despite excelling academically, she eventually dropped out of school and started working fulltime.


Zarina Maharaj married the first time at the age of 20 to a Hindu man. She faced disapproval for this marriage from her family members because of religious differences, but her mother supported her in her decision, as she herself had married a man of a different religion. It was also during this time that Maharaj returned to complete her studies at a university. She received her Master’s in Mathematics and Computer Science from Nottingham University in UK and later got a job at General Electric working as a Research Mathematician. After working in this field for some time, Maharaj realised that this was not her passion and that she was more interested in law and economics and would rather communicate with people than work in research. Maharaj then went on to work at Xerox in which she partook in the creation of the precursor of the fax machine. It was during this time when she also started taking part in politics and joined the Mayibuye Cultural Group, which was a cultural sector of the African National Congress (ANC) based in England.

In 1974, Maharaj’s mother died and Maharaj felt as if she had to leave England. It was her mother’s death, the crumbling of her marriage, and just everyday frustrations that led Maharaj away from London. The years following 1974 were difficult for Maharaj, as she suffered an identity crisis. Being born to parents of different religions and cultures, her marriage to a man of different religion, and other such events in her life had just become overwhelming for her. She explains: ‘1973/74 onwards. Then Mozambique became free. I was very, very frustrated with life in London. My mother had died, there was no actual reason any more. My marriage had collapsed and I had been offered a job in Algiers but I had turned it down”¦’(O’Malley 2003)

Maharaj’s second marriage was to Mac Maharaj, a freedom fighter who in 1965 was charged on several counts of sabotage and was sentenced to 12 years in imprisonment on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and other significant political personalities. Mac was the one who smuggled the copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography out of prison when his twelve-year sentence came to an end in 1976. In August of 1977 Mac came to London. Mac and Zarina’s meeting was quite interesting in that Mac had long been familiar with Zarina through letters that she use to write to her ex-husband’s brother, who was an inmate with Mac Maharaj. Mac and Zarina officially met at a Woman’s Day event in London, on 9 August 1977. Zarina then moved to Mozambique in the same year. She lectured in Mathematics at the University of Maputo. Mac also arrived in Mozambique in 1978. After her contract expired in 1979, Zarina decided to join Mac, who had moved to Zambia, and the two got married in 1981. (O’Malley, 2004)


1982 in Zambia was a year in which Zarina had to manage the birth of a child, her own job, and being seen as an appendage of Mac, while he was working actively with the ANC. Once she had settled in Zambia, Zarina started working at the University of Zambia for the British High Commission as the British Technical Co-Operation Officer. In the same year she also delivered her and Mac’s first child, Amilcar, who was named after the Cape Verde leader Amilcar Cabral. Amilcar. Amilcar, also nicknamed Milou, was born in July of 1982. For the nine months of her pregnancy, Mac was only present for three months. The rest of the six months, Mac was in Swaziland. Zarina had to fly to London to deliver her son, as she required a special medical facility because of her age. Even during the time of her delivery, Mac was not around as he was out working for one of the ANC’s underground mission called Vula which was one of the ANC’s most impactful operations. It is interesting to note that Mac Maharaj in his interviews, with Padraig O’Malley, author of Shades of Difference, admits to have been absent during these years of Zarina’s life. The ANC initiated Vula to enable the return of exiled leaders into South Africa. During this time, Zarina found herself very lonely and considered herself a ‘political widow.’ She writes in her memoir that,

I’d lived with fears and uncertainties for Mac’s life and our future for a long time. Yet what helped and sustained me through the difficult moments was the knowledge that we were living out our commitment”¦In the difficult times, it gave me strength to know that I stood alongside Mac in the front-line trenches in the fight against apartheid(Z. Maharaj 7).

Two years later, in 1984, Zarina gave birth to her second child, Sekai, which means smile. Mac and Zarina also call her Joey. This time though, Mac was around to take care of both Zarina and her children. (O’Malley, 2005)

Operation Vula

Another two years passed, and in 1986, Operation Vula was launched and Zarina was as much a part of this mission as was Mac and other Vula members. Mac Maharaj in his interviews mentions Zarina’s role in Vula as well. Operation Vula was the secret communication between Black South Africans in South Africa and the exiled peoples in the United Kingdom. In the same year, the ANC asked Mac to go to South Africa on an important and dangerous operation. This was a difficult time for Zarina, especially with Mac being away, she had to balance between her work and her home. She had two little children; Milou who was 4 and Joey was only 2. However, Zarina gave her full permission to Mac to carry on the mission. She considered her sacrifice as a way of contributing to the freedom struggle, especially given her constraints; she was not able to do much herself with two children to raise.

It was in the year 1988 that Mac was assigned to become commander of Vula. In the same year, Zarina gave up her job at the British High Commission and started working for the United Nations. At night she would work in the communications team of Vula in which she helped develop and operate the computer-based message system that connected the activists fighting apartheid within South Africa to the leadership of the ANC in exile outside South Africa. She also served as a trainer and trained the activists in its use. (O’Malley, 2004) (O’Malley, 2002)

Zarina, a single mother

Zarina spent much of her life devoted to the ANC and its causes, but she also spent time holding a role of a single mother. The year 1988 was a disastrous one for Zarina. First it was the family separation and then a car accident causing 19 fractures in her body, leaving Zarina almost dead. After her accident she moved to London for treatment and at one point had to leave her kids in the hands of strangers. However, the family was reunited again when Mac returned to London. While Mac was able to take care of the kids, Zarina decided to go pursue her second Masters degree in at Sussex University. Mac stayed in UK with the family for a few months and left for Moscow again. He left Zarina and the kids alone once again. Zarina had become really fed up with the coming and going of her husband. On top of that, Zarina’s children went through depression because they felt like their father had abandoned them. Zarina herself would have probably given up if it were not for her kids.

In 1990 Mac makes plan for Zarina and the kids to go visit him in South Africa, but Mac was arrested and Zarina and the kids were once again on their own in U.K. Finally, in December of 1991, after Mac’s release from jail, Zarina and the kids visited him in South Africa and the family was reunited.

Bribery and Corruption Charges

Life for Zarina might have been somewhat stable until a few years later, in 2003, when the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) charged Zarina and Mac with bribery and corruption. According to the reports, during the time when Mac was the transport minister under Mandela’s cabinet between 1994 and 1999, the Shaik brothers, who lived in Durban at the time and were active members of the apartheid struggle, deposited a good chunk of money into Zarina’s account. This money, in millions, was deposited as a result of a negotiations made between Mac and the Shaik brothers for the creation of specialised driver’s licenses, as Mac did work as the transport minister. Zarina’s sister, Shirene Carim, confirmed the reports of the transactions. Carim explained in an interview how Zarina believed she earned the money because of the sacrifices she made for the country and the people of South Africa. Zarina and Mac denied any such bribery. It can be said that the controversy surrounding Zarina’s life has impacted her both personally and professionally. Her relationship with her sister, after Carim came out publically, had not been the best, she also divorced her husband Mac sometime after the year 2007, and her name was thereafter associated with the corruption charges. (Amabhungane, 2013) (Bauer, 2011). The corruption charges remained an allegation and both Mac and Zarina Maharaj were never prosecuted by the South African government.

Zarina, a Woman Empowered

Despite the corruption Zarina may or may not have been involved in, she continued to pursue her interests in women’s empowerment both before and after the charges. A big change in Zarina’s life came in the year 1988 after the accident when she went back to school to study Gender and Development in Sussex and became a committed feminist who believed in women's power. Years following her move to South Africa, Zarina attempted to transform herself by writing regular columns in Business Report, a nationally circulated supplement of the Independent Newspaper Group. In her articles, she promoted the idea of improving women’s participation in economic development in South Africa. In her Keynote speech at the Professional Women's League of KwaZulu, Natal on 9 August 1999, Zarina said: ‘In SA there is glaring unequal access to social resources like land, healthcare, credit, information, education and decision-making power between the races and between the sexes. What unites us as South African women across the diversity of our race, religion and socio-economic status is that we do not enjoy the same access as the men in our social groups to our country's resources.’ Zarina even went on to write articles and participate in a debate, with Cherryl Walker, on the social theory of gender, which she believed was in the making. Though Zarina has recently shifted her focus from gender development to some other issues and projects, she spent a chunk of her life dedicating her life empowering woman and promoting the idea of gender equality. (Z. Maharaj, 1999)


Zarina Maharaj successfully fulfilled her role of a wife, a mother, a caregiver, and a leader in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Even though, at times, Zarina was working in the background, she should still be considered an equal partner in eliminating apartheid. She took on multiple roles both as the freedom fighter in the forefront and as a mother and a wife at home by taking care of her family. Despite her role as a freedom fighter and the risks she took to bring democracy in her country, Zarina took care of her family and protected them from the consequences of ugly politics. Her role in the freedom of South Africa is not restricted to the past only, her activities still continue to influence many in South Africa and shape their future. Zarina is in a mission to change the course of South African history by being a political activist and an educator. Zarina is considered an iconic figure in the history of South Africa’s freedom, and a human being whose life is worth writing about. Zarina is still actively working on other projects of her interest, something different from her previous work on gender development.

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