Elsie Nair (nee Goldstone) was born in Newcastle, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) in 1927. After completing her primary school education, she joined her mother who was already working in Durban, Natal. She was about 15 years old at the time. Nair then got a job at a clothing factory, and worked part-time as a dressmaker to supplement her income. She joined the Progressive Garment Workers' Union, an initiative of the South African Trade Unions (SACTU), in opposition to the then conservative Garment Workers' Union.

Elsie met her husband, Billy Nair, a friend of political activist Poomoney Moodley, when Elsie would visit her. At the time, Billy Nair was working as a trade unionist for the SACTU.  

In 1963, three years into their marriage, Billy was arrested and charged with treason and sabotage. He was sentenced to 20 years on Robben Island in 1964, along with former president Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.

The Robben Island years were difficult and Elsie supported herself in various ways. Aside from dressmaking, she got an evening job as a cashier at a fast food outlet in Clairwood, a suburb just south of Durban.

She described the experience as ‘hard, but when we were affected, you don’t feel that it’s hard, as long as you know it was a struggle that meant good for the people of South Africa.’

She would visit Billy on Robben Island at Christmas.

‘I worked and saved so that at the end of the year I’ll have money to get my ticket and go.’ What sticks in her mind is that ‘they were very strict. There were gates, you’ll find them all lined up, you can’t talk to them, you can just say “hello, how is everything?” but no shaking hands, nothing ”¦ We didn’t worry about it because at least you’re seeing the person you married.’

Family and friends became scared and stayed away from her.  Elsie’s attitude was, ‘you don’t blame them because you may get arrested for no reason at all.’ Elsie epitomised what so many of the struggle wives went through in holding things together. She was not exaggerating when she remarked that Billy was ‘an absentee husband’, because he spent so much time working clandestinely in underground structures or in prison, while she held down two and sometimes even three jobs to make ends meet. She waited patiently while he completed his prison sentence, but on his release in February 1984, after 20 years on the Island, he ‘hardly spent time at home’.

When Billy was detained in 1985 and severely assaulted, he smuggled a letter out of jail detailing his assault at the hands of the Security Police. She went to lawyers and applied for a court interdict to stop further assaults on him. Elsie continued to demonstrate her faith in Billy and stood by him when he was arrested for his involvement in Operation Vula with Mac Maharaj, Pravin Gordhan, and other Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operatives.

During his two five-year terms in parliament, he and Elsie enjoyed a marriage for the first time in their lives. They travelled and lived together and shared time out of the shadow of prison and detention.

Elsie Nair passed away on27 January 2011 in Tongaat, kwaZulu-Natal.


Pillay T. (2011). Elsie Nair stayed strong when friends were few from TimesLive, 30 January, online. Available at www.timeslive.co.za . Accessed on 16 September 2013


Collections in the Archives