Maniben Sita was born on 24 December 1926 in the Asiatic Bazaar, (Marabastad, Pretoria) in Transvaal (now Gauteng), into a highly politically-active family. Her father, Nana Sita, who had met and been greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, joined the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) in 1928. He was an executive member and chairman of the Pretoria branch before becoming president of the TIC. Her father encouraged all seven of his children to educate themselves and become active participants in community issues and the greater struggle for democracy and justice in South Africa. He would become known throughout South Africa and the rest of the world for his principled stand against the unjust and repressive laws.
Between the two world wars, there was a great deal of in-fighting in Indian politics as differences in ideology began to be asserted and various political groupings began to define themselves. In the TIC, the young radicals who called for passive resistance opposed the older more cautious members who favoured negotiations. Because of these and other differences, TIC meetings had become violent and on 4 June 1939, members of Dr Yusuf Dadoo’s group were attacked – some were badly injured and one died. Sita, who was thirteen at the time, overheard her father’s account of the dreadful events at the meeting and that awakened her to the problems of the Indian community. Thereafter, she took a keen interest in the political situation, read widely and prepared herself to become an activist.
After completing her studies at the Indian High School, Sita completed matric at a college in Silverton, Pretoria. On passing matric, Sita enrolled for a BA degree with the University of South Africa (UNISA) while taking up a teachers’ course at the same time. She qualified as a teacher in 1957. A decade later, when schools catering to Indians were transferred from the Transvaal Department of Education to the Department of Indian Affairs, Sita resigned as a form of protest against apartheid education.
When the congresses decided on the Passive Resistance Campaign, Sita and Mrs Thayanayagie Pillay organised a group of women volunteers. They formed the Indian Women’s Support League and helped to raise awareness and funds for the TIC. Sita went to prison twice during the campaign – in 1946 and again in 1947. A total of five members of her family were imprisoned during this campaign.
Before the Defiance Campaign, Sita accompanied her father and Dr AB Nkomo to address mass meetings and recruit volunteers. In 1952, she and two comrades from Lady Selborne, Pretoria, were arrested and sentenced to three months in Pretoria Prison for occupying a bench at the railway station marked for Whites only in defiance of the racial segregation.
In December 1963, Sita joined the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria led by Zainab Asvat against the Group Areas Act and the establishment of the Indian National Council (later the South African Indian Council - SAIC), an advisory committee appointed by the government.
From 1963 to 1967, Sita supported her father in his stand against the Group Areas Board. When the family was given notice to move, Nana Sita defied the order, refused to pay fines and was sentenced to jail terms of three and six months in 1963, 1964 and 1967. When he died in 1969, Sita, together with her siblings and mother, Pemiben, continued to defy the Group Areas Act by remaining in their house on Van der Hoff Street in the then-declared White suburb of Hercules, Pretoria, until 1976 when they were threatened with expropriation of their property and forced to move to Laudium, Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng) which was a newly established township for the Indian population.
Sita and her mother lived together in Laudium until her mother’s death in 1980, after which she lived alone. She also continued with her activism and when students at Laudium High School and Himalaya Secondary School embarked on the 1980 school boycotts, she immediately got involved and pledged her solidarity. In1982, when elections were being held to give legitimacy to the SAIC, the TIC was revived and Sita became an executive member. The TIC joined the United Democratic Front (UDF) that was formed to halt the establishment of the Tri-Cameral Parliamentary system.
The first major campaign taken on by the TIC and UDF was the call for a boycott of the elections for the House of Delegates. This was part of the apartheid government’s reform strategy to give Coloured and Indian South Africans a false sense of power by participating in the parliamentary system while simultaneously further isolating the Black population, who were excluded. Sita became an active campaigner, speaking at many mass meetings and rallies in the then-Transvaal and Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) provinces, exhorting people to boycott the elections. When Election Day came in August 1984, Sita, along with educationist and playwright, Dr Muthal Naidoo, sat outside the polling station at the Laudium Civic Centre dressed in black. She was a silent sentinel, a reminder to people that these were not democratic elections.
Sita actively participated in many acts in the struggle against apartheid throughout the 1980s, driving her bakkie to numerous meetings, events, and demonstrations. She bravely and willingly addressed public rallies even in the face of intensifying repression.
In July 1985, Sita was one of those chosen to represent the TIC at the funeral of the Cradock Four – UDF activists who were brutally killed by the apartheid regime. She insisted on travelling down to the Transkei (now Eastern Cape) on the special bus hired for the journey. On the way back to Johannesburg, Transvaal, the bus was stopped just outside Lenasia, Transvaal, and all the passengers were detained and sent to Diepkloof Prison (known as Sun City), Transvaal. They were arrested on the first day of the State of Emergency that was declared the night before. Sita spent 87 days in solitary confinement. On her release, she remained undeterred and continued to participate in protest activities against apartheid.
She was elated to finally witness the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela in 1990. In 1995, representing a ward in Laudium, Sita was elected to the Centurion Town Council in Johannesburg. She served as an ANC Councillor for five years.
Over the years, Sita became deeply saddened by the corruption so prevalent within the government. She was unequivocal in her call for ethical governance as well as upstanding elected representatives and public servants. Furthermore, Sita never wavered in her support for the oppressed, in South Africa and elsewhere. For example, at the age of 91, she attended a demonstration at the Union Buildings in support of Palestinian prisoners marking a forty-day hunger strike. An ardent vegetarian, she also loved gardening and authored a book on vegetarian recipes.
Maniben Sita died on 7 July 2021 after contracting covid-19 and spending a week at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. She was 94 years old. Never calling herself a politician, she always said that her activism stemmed from her strong belief that all people are born equal, regardless of race, creed, class or religion. She extended this compassion to all living creatures.
We remember Maniben for her courageous and principled opposition to apartheid for over five decades, her contribution to building a democratic South Africa and her lifelong commitment to the cause of freedom, non-racialism and justice (Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, 2021).
Sita, who never married or had children, is survived by her two sisters, Niroo and Urmila, twenty-one nieces and nephews, twenty-eight grandnieces and nephews, and one great-grandnephew.
- Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. (2021). A tribute to Maniben Sita – a courageous and indomitable fighter. [online]. Available at: https://www.kathradafoundation.org/2021/07/12/a-tribute-to-maniben-sita-a-courageous-and-indomitable-fighter/. (Accessed on 14 July 2021)