Ashlatha Moodley (nèe Rambally) was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) in 1946 and grew up in the small town of Colenso. After completing her matric in 1964, she moved to Durban and attended the University College for Indians at Salisbury Island (later renamed in 1972 as the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) – now known as University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN) where she graduated with a BA degree, majoring in English and Psychology, and became a qualified teacher.
It was during her time at the University that her political consciousness started taking shape as she engaged in political discussions with some of her peers. These debates and discussions would play a significant role in her life as they opened her eyes to a lot of things she had been naïve to, like just how little power Black people held in the country. She soon got involved with the South African Student Organisation (SASO) through her theatre group based at the Durban-Westville campus. She also joined the Black People’s Convention (BPC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
When she lost her job as an English teacher in 1973 for her political activism (she was accused of trying to cause a rebellion in the school after encouraging her students to write poetry and other writings, critiquing what they saw to be wrong in their community as well as in their school) she started working part-time as a researcher on Black Review – an annual yearbook which chronicled events in the Black community in the mid-1970s, published by the Black Community Programmes (BCP) in Durban.
During the trial of the SASO/BPC trialists in Pretoria, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng) which began in 1975, Moodley travelled to Pretoria and assisted with providing support for the detainees and their families for two years. When the trial was over in 1976, she returned to Durban before receiving a call from Mamphela Ramphele and Steve Biko who asked her to move to King William’s Town, Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province) to work in the research department of the BCP’s offices there. She would eventually take over as editor of the Black Review when the previous editor, Thoko Mpumlwana, like so many other BCP employees, would be banned by the government. Moodley settled into her new role as editor, where she played an essential role in the publication.
Not long after, Moodley was arrested on the evening of 26 August 1977. The police had arrested Biko (who was banned at the time) and Peter Jones a few days prior while they were on a trip to Cape Town to engage in talks with members of other liberation organisations. Following their arrest, the offices in King William’s Town were raided, members of staff were arrested, and most of the equipment and publications were confiscated. The police called her the day before they arrested her and told her that they were coming to pick her up the following day. Despite her colleague Malusi Mpumlwana advising her to go on the run, she decided against this, thinking that she would be detained for only a few weeks or that the police were simply trying to scare her.
The following day, two police officers arrived and she was arrested. She was driven overnight to Uitenhage, Eastern Cape. A few weeks later, she was moved to Port Elizabeth, also in the Eastern Cape Province, where she was interrogated and badly assaulted – an experience she would later describe as very traumatic and which made her truly realise how brutal the apartheid regime was. She was taken back to Uitenhage the next day. After nearly 18 months in detention, during which she was repeatedly interrogated and spent about six months in solitary confinement, Moodley was released in December 1978 and was driven (handcuffed) back to Colenso. She was then banned for five years and restricted to the district of Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal. When she broke her banning order by going to a party, the security police found out and she was charged. However, after just three years, her banning order was lifted, coinciding with the release of a number of prisoners from Robben Island. Returning to Durban in 1982, she started looking for work while she resumed her political activism. She eventually found work at the Legal Resources Centre, which was set up by Chris Nicholson, who would later become a judge.
During her time in prison and while she was still banned, Moodley started reading a lot about the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). Seeing it as a continuation of what the BCM was trying to do, she subsequently joined the Durban branch of AZAPO. However, she later distanced herself from the organisation after she felt that it was not making a real impact on the lives of the community.
In the 1990s, Moodley became editor of the feminist journal Agenda, which she currently serves as part of its editorial advisory and management boards. She has also served as a board member of the Umtapo Centre (Umtapo was formed after some members, including Moodley, broke away from the AZAPO local branch), the Refugee Social Services, as well as the chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA).
While many BCM stalwarts joined the African National Congress (ANC) following the end of apartheid and the subsequent 1994 general elections, Moodley remained loyal to the ideology of the BCM even though the movement had at that time largely been eclipsed by the ANC.
Alongside her late husband Strini Moodley, Ashlatha Moodley is among the many women who helped pave the path to a post-apartheid South Africa. Through the various organisations and initiatives that she has been a part of, she continues to work towards the betterment of all South Africans.
- Desai, A. (2015).Indian South Africans and the Black Consciousness Movement under apartheid. Diaspora Studies, 8 (1), pp.37-50. DOI: 10.1080/09739572.2014.957972. (Accessed on 18 August 2020)
- Hadfield, L. (2013). Challenging the status quo: young women and men in Black Consciousness community work, 1970s South Africa. The Journal of African History, 54(2), pp.247-267. DOI: 10.1017/S0021853713000261. (Accessed on 18 August 2020)
- Steve Biko Foundation. (2012). Frank Talk, [online], Available at: http://www.sbf.org.za/home/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2ndEdition-FrankTalk-Journal.pdf. (Accessed on 18 August 2020)
- Shongwe, D. (2002). Interview with Asha Moodley, University of Durban-Westville Documentation Centre, Oral History Project-‘Voices of Resistance’, [online], Available at: http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/Audio/VOR/Transcript.htm. (Accessed on 18 August 2020)
- UKZN. (n.d). History, [online], Available at: https://ukzn.ac.za/about-ukzn/history/. (Accessed on 18 August 2020)