Nithianandan Ganese Govender (Elvis) was born on 1 November 1958 in Esperanza, a village on the south coast of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal – KZN), on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. The second of four children, he was the son of primary school teachers, Nora and Ganese Govender. When he was a year old, the family moved, first to Umzinto and then to Port Shepstone, where he matriculated in 1975 at Port Shepstone High School, also on the south coast of Natal.
As a schoolboy living and studying in a rural 'Indian' area, Elvis had no contact with the increasing political opposition to apartheid. One would have expected him to accept the status quo without question, as he knew of no other reality. Yet, in some strange way, he was drawn to those who suffered most under apartheid - the African people.
At Port Shepstone High School, his outstanding leadership capabilities became known. He was a prefect, house captain, captain of the athletics team and a member of the school's cricket, football, tennis and table tennis teams.
His passion for music began at a young age — as an ardent fan of the singing idol Elvis Presley, he earned the nickname, Elvis, by which he was known to family, friends and colleagues for the rest of his life. In addition to teaching himself to play the guitar, his observant eye for natural beauty led to an interest in photography, while his skills in fishing are remembered with pride by his family.
According to his mother, Nora Govender:
Elvis was always an outdoors person. He loved the sea, drives along the country roads, hiking, camping and jogging. As a marathon runner, he won a large number of trophies. He had an adventurous spirit, a 'get up and go' approach to life and placed very little value on material things. When I was upset after a burglary at our home, he made me look at things afresh and appreciate life more. He said, ' Your children and grandchildren are God's precious gifts. They are your jewels, not material things.
The birth of a political activist
In 1976, Elvis enrolled at the University of Durban- Westville (now University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN), which, in keeping with the then Government’s policy of separate development, was established as an institution for the higher education of Indians. During the first year, as his family was still in Port Shepstone, he lived on campus at the student residence. Here he became fully involved in sporting, social and political activities. It was a period that saw Elvis change from the pursuit of his own interests to a realisation that there was a desperate need for political and social change within South Africa. His mentors were older students who had begun an earnest behind-the-scenes campaign to rouse students from apathy to political awareness and activism.
In December 1976, when his family moved to Merebank, (a suburb south of Durban, established in terms of the Group Areas Act for the Indian community) he left the university residence to live with his family. The strong anti-apartheid position of the Merebank community, combined with his on-campus political development, saw the birth of Elvis Govender's passionate commitment to the ideal of justice. It was a period of political awakening that was to chart the course of his brief life - secret meetings at the university residence or at the homes of fellow student activists; interaction with undercover members of the banned liberation organisations; secret distribution of political pamphlets among students and, over the next three years, quiet but intense politicisation of their thinking.
Elvis was one of the leaders at a time when students at the University of Durban- Westville had no recognised representative organisation and no say in the governance of the institution. Through it all, he remained calm and controlled as he worked with other equally committed and fearless students towards the establishment of a more democratic order on campus. In 1978/1979, he served on the Constitutional Committee that led to the formation of the first Students' Representative Council (SRC) at the University. He was, then and later, an ardent and articulate exponent of a peaceful transition to democracy and a selfless and untiring worker for the betterment of the lives of the disadvantaged.
By 1978, he was a member of the South African Students' Organisation (SASO-the pro-liberation voice of black students) and had been recruited into the African National Congress’s (ANC) underground structures. He knew that his future lay in active service to the ANC, the organisation that had committed itself to freeing the oppressed and bringing true democracy to South Africa.
Consequently, in 1979, he was sent secretly to Maputo for six weeks' training and was infiltrated back into the country to establish underground cells specialising in propaganda, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. According to Evelyn Groenink, in her book “The Unlikely Rogue - A life with Ivan Pillay”, in exile he was trained by Ivan Pillay and Judson Khuzwayo. He served as commander of his underground cell. At all times, he maintained a low profile, to escape detection.
Though such involvement, on and off-campus, impinged severely on his time, he persevered with his studies and completed the Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1981 with majors in Philosophy and Sociology. Siva Chetty, Secretary of the Merebank Residents' Association and a close friend and fellow activist in the struggle for liberation, says:
The philosophy of dialectical materialism (which I learned from him [Elvis]) fuelled his belief that the South African social system would change as a result of active struggle. He encouraged and stimulated debate, critical thinking and Socratic questioning to get to the underlying causes of the country's socio-economic problems.
Elvis's family - his parents, his brothers Deena and Anand and his sister Vanessa - knew nothing about his political activities. The gaps in their ages and their studies kept the four children apart for much of their time. Deena was a student at the University of Natal's Medical School, while Elvis was at the University of Durban-Westville. When Anand began his study of electronic engineering at the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, Elvis was overseas. Vanessa, who is ten years younger than Elvis, left the Merebank family home to pursue her medical degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She remembers him as her mentor and guide, a wonderful older brother who was fun to be with. She learnt to play the guitar from him and one of her prized possessions is the Spanish flamenco guitar he used to play, an original handmade instrument crafted especially for him on a training trip to Madrid, Spain in 1982.
According to his mother:
For fourteen years he kept us in the dark to protect us from harassment by the dreaded Bureau of State Security and the police. All opposition to the ruling government resulted in the relentless persecution of so-called terrorists and their families. Elvis shielded us from that. He would pack a few belongings into a knapsack, say he was going away for the weekend and leave. We thought he was with friends or indulging in a favourite pastime, hiking, when in fact he was at a secret camp somewhere in South Africa or its neighbouring countries with uMkhonto weSizwe, the undercover armed wing of the African National Congress.
Elvis joined uMkhonto weSizwe (MK - Spear of the Nation) on 1 March 1978, at the age of nineteen. At the time, leaders of the South African liberation movements were being detained under house arrest, imprisoned or had fled into exile. As a student with a hiker's knapsack and camera slung over his shoulder, Elvis had adequate cover to work towards the achievement of the ANC's avowed goals for liberation and democracy, through secret meetings, dissemination of information and training.
In 1982, he took a year off, ostensibly to work his way around the world. It was, in essence, the means to establishing contact with the members of the banned ANC in Germany, Spain, England and the Netherlands to update his knowledge on policy matters and to bring back information. In England, he received three months' training in espionage and the use and manufacture of electronic equipment. He funded his trips himself, with money he earned as a tote cashier at the Natal Turf Clubs on Saturdays.
On his return to South Africa, he began working. After a short stint as a locum tenens teacher, he found community-based opportunities that enabled him to help others. He worked as a community organiser with the Pietermaritzburg Municipality Estates Department's Community Awareness Project. In this capacity, he devised self-help projects and programmes to assist the African (black) tenants of the municipality with problems relating to their welfare, educational, cultural and recreational needs.
In March 1985, he was appointed community organiser and principal of the pre-school at the David Landau Community Centre in Asherville, Durban. This entailed the initiation and development of self-help projects within the surrounding community as well as total responsibility for the pre-school and its staff.
His love for children and his desire to help them develop their potential saw him leave on a scholarship to Princeton University in New Jersey, United States of America (USA), as a Visiting Fellow in the Teacher Preparation Programme, for the period 15 September 1987 to 31 December 1987. He also visited other institutions in Pennsylvania and New York, attended workshops and conferences on early childhood learning and participated in an administrative management programme. William G. Bowen, President of Princeton University said of him:
Mr Govender's presence on the Princeton University campus contributed significantly to this community's understanding of South African political and social issues and enriched those of us who had the opportunity to know him.
During February and March 1988, Elvis took up a second scholarship at the National Academy for Voluntarism run by the Hopkins House Association in Virginia, USA. He completed an internship in community studies and a course in management and visited a number of agency programmes - among them public schools, child care centres, a drug treatment facility, the juvenile court system, senior citizen programmes and local boards and commissions.
He returned to South Africa inspired by progressive ideas for improving the pre-school programmes and assisting the community, all of which he implemented without delay. He became actively involved in community affairs in Merebank as well, serving in the following capacities:
• Council member – Merebank Ratepayers' Association
• Council Member – Merebank Community Centre
• Council Member – Merebank Child and Family Welfare Society
• Founder Member & Executive - Merewent Athletics Club.
- 1990: Associate Membership of the Institute for Personnel Development (Southern Africa)
- 1990: Certificate in Sound and Video Engineering
- 1993: Certificate in Computer Literacy
The unbanning of the ANC and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and other senior members of the organisation in 1992 began to propel the country towards its first democratic elections. The ANC began an accelerated programme of training and induction of personnel to fill key positions that were hitherto denied to black South Africans.
Elvis's intellectual abilities, his friendly, outgoing nature and his excellent communication skills made him an obvious choice for a career in the diplomatic service. His abilities were recognised, developed and utilised:
- 1993: Selected by the ANC to complete an Advanced Course in International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom as part of the planned programme of training personnel to take up key positions in the new government.
- 1993: Appointed to the Organising Department of the ANC at its headquarters in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng).
- 1994: Appointed Provincial Co-ordinator in the Legislatures Division of the ANC's new Head Office structures.
- 1995: Appointed Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs (now known as the Department of International Affairs and Co-operation – DIRCO). Elvis's interest centred on bilateral relations, particularly with the Commonwealth countries and Australasia.
On 10 November 1995, shortly after his 37th birthday and a month before he was to marry Roslyn Perkins, Elvis Govender was killed, as a result of an unprovoked brutal assault by a white man. South Africa was then in its infancy as a democracy.
As part of a team-building exercise in the newly integrated Department of Foreign Affairs (now known as the Department of International Relations and Cooperation – DIRCO), senior officials and trainee diplomats were socialising in the recreation area at the Vaal Dam. In the rural areas of the conservative, Afrikaner-dominated Orange Free State Province (now Free State Province), the impact of democracy had yet to be grasped and white and black did not normally mix.
Elvis - the Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs - and a young white female colleague went rowing on a dinghy. They stopped alongside a catamaran moored in the middle of the dam, from which music blared. With no one response to their calls, they boarded the boat and went below to turn a radio off, to avert a possible short circuit. It was an act of concern, typical of Elvis Govender, who had dedicated his young life to community service, to upholding the principles of justice and peace and to the belief in the essential oneness of humanity. He lost his life as a result.
The owner of the boat, the manager of a private boating club, had watched them through binoculars from the shore as they boarded his boat. He sped towards them in a motorised dinghy and, ordering them off his boat, attacked Elvis with a machete while he was in the water. The young white colleague, terrified of drowning, saw part of the attack. She did not see Elvis desperately trying to escape by swimming between the front hulls of the catamaran, which pointed away from the shore. Nor did Elvis's friends and colleagues, who were alerted by her screams and who could see only that the dinghy was repeatedly driven at speed between the two hulls.
The actions of the police that day and the innumerable delays in bringing the case to court constituted a travesty of justice. Kevin Toolis, a journalist, wrote in the Guardian Weekend, 11 November 1998:
Elvis's 'crime' was trespassing on the white man's boat. In court, the white man said he was defending his property. It was not a new tale. Under the Afrikaner regime, there was always a steady drip of stories of white farmers beating to death black men and then getting away with murder by legal chicanery. Black lives were not important to White Justice; they did not matter.
Elvis was struck down in the early stages of his new life as a career diplomat and shortly before the fulfilment of marriage to a partner who was a kindred spirit.
His killer, Allan Stokes, a white man, surrounded by white policemen, sheltered by a white magistrate and the yet unchanged pro-white laws of the country. He was released on bail by a magistrate (against the instructions of the then Attorney General of the Free State) so that he could participate in the Cape to Rio Yacht Race. The murder trial date was moved to April 1996 to accommodate this. Then there were further delays.
Dr Dullah Omar, the Minister of Justice, wrote that he 'was appalled and felt a sense of outrage at the way in which the matter was handled.' He further commented that 'the perception was created that the authorities bent over backwards to accommodate the accused.'
The case came to trial only in 1997. Though the charge was murder, Stokes entered into plea bargaining on the last day of the week-long trial after finally admitting to culpable homicide and manslaughter. He was fined R20 000 and released. Every attempt had been made by his family, his fiancée and the ANC to see justice done. However, in the euphoria of its new freedom South Africa was still caught in the web of its apartheid past, where the life of a black person was worth very little in the eyes of the law.
The agony of a mother is recorded in the desperate letters of appeal Nora Govender wrote to the President of South Africa, to the Minister of Justice and to many others. They were cries for help, for justice to be done, but the matter was a judicial one and beyond the personal scope of anyone outside of it.
The protracted delays, the agony suffered by Elvis's family and the tensions of the trial all took their toll: Ganese Govender died of a massive heart attack ten months after his son's death. His ashes were buried in Elvis's grave at the Mobeni Heights Cemetery in Durban.
- Elvis Nithianandan was a deeply committed young man, destined to become a substantial leader in our community. His death was a crushing blow to us all.
Nelson Mandela, President of the ANC
- When Elvis joined the Department in October, he had the prospect of a long and promising career ahead of him. His personal and professional skills and abilities will be sorely missed by the Department.
L. H. Evans, Director-General, Department of Foreign Affairs, South Africa.
- I couldn't have wished for a better son-in-law as he stood for everything, I hold dear.
Norma Perkins, mother of Elvis's fiancée, Roslyn Perkins.
- We are grieved that his young life should have ended just when he could have enjoyed the fruits of all his past selfless contribution to our freedom struggle. At least he lived to see the miracle of a democratic South Africa.
Rica Hodgson, Secretary to and on behalf of Walter Sisulu.
- He was held in high esteem by officials and members of this centre and more particularly by the teaching staff.
D. K. Singh, President, David Landau Community Centre.
In November 1999, Birmingham University, where Elvis studied at the Graduate School of Political Science and International Studies, took the decision to honour him. The Elvis Govender Award was established to be presented annually to the best Master's level student in Diplomacy. The first ceremony marking this event took place in July 2000. Elvis's mother, sister, his fiancée, Roslyn Perkins and many of his close friends attended this event. It was a fitting tribute to a young man who, in his lifetime, encapsulated the best in the new South Africa.
- This biography is primarily based on first-hand accounts from immediate family members:
- Nora Govender (late) – mother
- Deena Govender - elder brother
- Anand Govender - younger brother
- Vanessa Govender - sister.
- Email from Anand Govender to Myron Peter, 14 March 2021, forwarded to SAHO, 14 April 2021
- Kevin Toolis, journalist at the Guardian Weekend, 11 November 1998
- The Unlikely Rogue, A life with Ivan Pillay, p.129. Evelyn Groenink. Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2020.
- Condolence messages received at the funeral:
- President Nelson Mandela
- L. H. Evans, Director-General, Department of Foreign Affairs, South Africa
- Norma Perkins, mother of Elvis's fiancée, Roslyn Perkins.
- Rica Hodgson, past Secretary to the late Walter Sisulu.
- D. K. Singh, past President, David Landau Community Centre
- Dr Dullah Omar (late), Minister of Justice, 1995.