Enver Hassim was born in the Transvaal, where he was part of a large family, with two brothers and four sisters. His father made a living as a middleman and the family endured poverty, hardship and illness. A talented cricketer and swimmer, such challenging beginnings did not stop him from excelling in a range of disciplines and interests.
Hassim was well-cultivated and could speak easily on various themes (even in Afrikaans, which he spoke fluently) because of his wide reading and knowledge. Contemporaries in the revolutionary movement even commented on the neat and unique style of his handwriting; it was as “methodical as his thinking” was one comment.
His social contacts included people of the professional world and those of the working class, and he interacted successfully with those of differing intellectual views. Hassim would engage professors on different disciplines, among them psychology and the works of JG Taylor and Seymour Papert and their experiments involving the use of spectacles with inverted glasses. Such pedagogic mastery placed Hassim in high esteem among the intellectuals of the struggle movement, especially the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) in which he became active.
Hassim studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1940s, and became politically aware around that time. Wits at the time saw the establishment of the Progressive Forum, a Marxist organization which played a significant role in the struggle in years to come. Part of the things it did was to provide political study and theory.
Hassim also interacted with a number of African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts including Walter Sisulu, and leading trade unionists of the time Dan Koza and Max Gordon. Through his close association with Gordon he became more familiar with trade union activities. He went on to become an expert on trade unions.
Serving as an articled clerk Hassim’s path crossed with came into contact with leading minds in the legal field in Johannesburg. He set up a practice in Durban in the days when black lawyers practiced either criminal or civil law, although Hassim excelled in both spheres.
His mastery was shown in both quasi-judicial and administrative tribunals like the Road Transportation Board, the Licensing Tribunal and the Sugar Board. Sometimes he appeared for the Administrator of Natal. He spoke none of the Indian languages, but managed to retain clients of Advocate A Christopher and Company, such as the Bus Owners Association and the Cane Growers Association.
In 1951, Hassim attended the Unity Movement’s 7th Conference held in Cape Town and it was where he met his future wife Zulei, whom he married in 1952. Later on, in Natal, Hassim accepted the offer of a partnership at A Christopher and Company.
Hassim’s political stature began to grow in the Unity Movement. He served in several positions, including as member of the head committee and the executive of the All Africa Convention, of which he was later elected to the treasury. At a 1956 conference of the All African Convention Hassim was asked to present a paper on one of South Africa’s most controversial issues, the Land Question, point 7 of the NEUM’s Ten Point Programme.
As a consequence, Hassim was sought by the apartheid security police and went into hiding. He deputized his wife Zulei to speak in public on his behalf. In 1960, when the State of Emergency was declared, Hassim was arrested and detained by security police, the only detainee of the Unity Movement among the scores of ANC and the Natal Indian Congress detainees. Through his convivial character he won their friendships and respect which lasted many years.
Hassim became involved in a number organizations linked to the NEUM, for instance, Society for Young Africa (SOYA), the Coloured People’s Congress and the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) after its formation in 1961.
Hassim’s detention resulted in the closing of Prometheus Publishing, a publishing facility through which he organized, printed and published the leftist theorist I.B Tabatas’ book Education for Barbarism and organized its sales. He also helped to organize and purchase a printing press that printed the Unity Movement newspaper, Ikhwezi Lomso, in which he was helped by Livingstone Mqotsi who became the manager.
Things took a turn for the worse in South Africa in 1963 when the 90 day law was passed This law legalized solitary confinement and detention up to 3 months. The following year, many were issued with house arrest and banning orders.
Several events took place in the lives of the Hassim and his family. The first was the issuing of a banning order for both Hassim and his wife under which they were not allowed to communicate until permission was given by the authorities. Zulei was also detained under the 90 day law, a traumatic experience that left her permanently scarred. They were both charged with attending a meeting they were not supposed to under their banning orders. Hassim was detained because he was allegedly linked with forging passports. There was a fear that both he and Zulei might to be called as state witnesses.
At this time Hassim received a blackmailing letter from one Benjamin Madikwa, an associate of Karrim Essack who was allegedly leading a violent faction in the Unity Movement that sought to overthrow the government by force. Madikwa demanded money from Hassim, saying that if he did not hand over the cash the workings and plans of APDUSA for the armed struggle would be revealed. Hassim did not respond or give into the threats by Madikwa. These circumstances led Hassim and his wife’s leave country to exile in Canada.
They both established themselves in exile, Enver as a lawyer and Zulei a doctor. Zulei died in March 1992, and her husband succumbed to pancreatic cancer on 28 November 1995.