Early life and schooling
Sadecque Variava was born on 8 July 1949 in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), the fourth of seven siblings. His father held various jobs and was very well-read, and his mother, a lively and intelligent woman, was a cook for weddings. The family was steeped in anti-apartheid politics, and Variava’s brothers Haroon and Yusuf also became heavily involved in the freedom struggle. The family moved to Fietas, also known as Pageview, in 1962, where Variava, aged 13, began high school in Lenasia, travelling every day by train from Johannesburg to Lenasia. He began to become active by boycotting Republic Day celebrations at school. In Standard 8 (now Grade 10), he got the class to reject the sweets given out as part of Republic Day celebrations, defiantly admitting to the principal that he had been the instigator. In 1969, in his matriculation year, Variava led the first ever protest march of the high schools in Lenasia. He used the issue of students having to return to classes after going to mosque on a Friday as a pretext to mount a protest against the imminent takeover of Indian education by the then Indian Affairs Department. He distributed pamphlets, which the authorities didn’t believe he had written, and he was interviewed by the principal and the director of education and suspended from attending school for a week. His father and eldest brother Joe went to see the principal and informed him that they stood by Sadecque. Wanting to publish a magazine, the school authorities refused to allow him to pursue this. In his matriculation year, Variava was chosen as a prefect to help control the more rebellious students. Variava was praised for having leadership qualities. ‘Wherever Sadecque goes there’s always a group around him,’ said his English teacher. Variava completed his high schooling at the end of 1969.
Student politics and the Black Consciousness Movement
After matriculating he began studying in 1970 to become a teacher at the Transvaal Indian College of Education (TICE) in Fordsburg, where he soon became heavily involved in student politics. Variava registered to study English and History as his majors. From his first days at college, he pressured the authorities to change the name of the institution to the Transvaal College of Education, to remove reference to its ethnic identification. At college the Students Representative Council (SRC) was largely in league with the officials and lecturers, who were mainly Afrikaners appointed by the government’s educational departments, many of them members of the Afrikaner Broederbond. Nevertheless, the SRC had close links with the liberally-inclined National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). In September Variava stood for election to the SRC, and became the first ever first-year student to be voted president of the student body. Variava and his peers had heard about students aligned to Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) who had broken away from NUSAS to form a Black student organisation, the South African Students Organisation (SASO). Variava made a point of meeting with Steve Biko, the president of SASO. They met at Braamfontein station in 1970, and Variava assured Biko that his college would affiliate directly to SASO – TCE thus became the first Indian campus to do so. Variava and the SRC expelled NUSAS from their campus. Variava became an active member of SASO, and as SRC president attended its first formation school at Wilgespruit, near Roodepoort, to formulate and define SASO policy. Delegates from SRCs at Turfloop, Fort Hare, Natal University and Ngoya attended, among them Aubrey Mokoena from Turfloop, Barney Pityana and Biko. This gathering discussed how the young movement should move forward, how to define ‘black’ as a political subject, what Indians, Coloureds and Africans had in common as well as all the liberation movements and their ideologies. Variava attended several formation schools. At Wentworth in Durban, the conference, held in 1970, adopted decisions made at the previous formation school. Seeing their method as an instance of participatory democracy, meetings broke up into commissions, and these were held throughout the weekend, in non-stop fashion. Variava was part of the alternative education commission at the conference. Here he met Strini Moodley and other like-minded activists. Papers were delivered by MC Ndamse, a Transkei leader, and poet Adam Small, among others. When Mewa Ramgobin delivered a paper on the Congress heritage, Variava challenged him for wanting to form an ethnic Indian congress – Ramgobin would go on to relaunch the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) the next year, 1971. Variava travelled by train to Turfloop (the University of the North), where the students formed a Transvaal grouping which included Aubrey Mokoena and Goolam Mayet Abram. During his trip Variava became friendly with many BC activists, including Mokoena, Aubrey Mokoape, Harry Nengwekhulu, Tom Manthata, Drake Koka, Nomsisi Kraai, Muntu Myeza, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Winifred Kgware, Kenneth Rachidi, Stanley Ntwasa, Bokwe Mafuna, Ben Langa, and Saths Cooper, among others. On his return to college, Variava initiated changes to the SRC’s structure and its methods, attempting to make it more representative. At assembly once a week, Variava addressed students to ‘conscientise’ them. He got the SRC to abolish initiation practices, and introduced a more political culture among students, for example by showing movies reflecting radical and black cultural themes, such as Zed, Sacco and Vanzetti and Leadbelly. In April 1972, Onkgopotse Abraham Tiro delivered a scathing speech at a graduation ceremony at Turfloop, a wide ranging critique of education and life under apartheid. Tiro, the president of the SRC, was expelled and the issue was discussed at SASO’s General Student Council in July 1972, where Biko and his peers engaged in a debate about whether students should engage in boycotts. The speech and Tiro’s expulsion were issues that angered students. When Variava received a telegram, on a Friday, about the expulsion, he immediately convened a mass meeting, and called for a boycott, the first campus in the country to protest in solidarity with the Turfloop students who were already on strike. Saths Cooper called Variava and asked him to speak to students on campuses in Durban – at Westville, ML Sultan and Springfield College of Education – to convince Indian students to join in the strike and to identify with the BCM. The TCE was on strike longer than any other campus, making admittedly ridiculous demands that could not be met, such as calling on the rector and the entire staff to resign. About 80% of the students at TCE were on boycott. The education department’s directorate descended on the TCE campus and questioned Variava, demanding to know why such a small campus was acting in so radical a fashion. They wanted to know what the students’ demands were, and Variava said they were calling for the resignation of most of the staff, many of whom he said were incompetent. The department established a commission of inquiry, and yielded to some of the students’ demands – for example, Variava got the SRC publication, Echo, off the ground.. Nevertheless, the inquiry found Variava guilty of inciting the students.
Lenasia and the Peoples Experimental Theatre
By the end of 1968, the Variava family moved from Pageview to Lenasia, the new Indian township, 35km south of Johannesburg, and a few kilometres south of Soweto. Variava gathered together a group of activists, thus initiating anti-apartheid activity in the township, which had been largely free of political activity until then, perhaps one exception being a meeting about the death of Ahmed Timol in late-1971. Having qualified after completing his diploma, Variava began teaching at Lenasia High School in January 1973, but he was fired after just three days on the job as a result of the departmental inquiry. Variava sought ways to continue his resistance activities, and decided to use theatre as an instrument of conscientisation. He formed the Black Peoples Theatre Group, an avant-garde political theatre grouping that included Sulayman ‘Solly’ Ismail, Rashid Valli Moosa and Haroon Variava, among others. They were soon joined by Shiqomo, a similar grouping from Soweto, which included Nomsisi Kraai and Jackie Selebi. They also had sister groupings in other provinces, such as the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON), run by Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper; and MDALI in Magaliesburg, run by the PAC-aligned Tshepo Molefe. In March 1973, the expanded group was renamed the People’s Experimental Theatre (PET). Variava also edited the PET newsletter, titled The Spear Lives On. The newsletter’s executive committee consisted of Roy Moodley (chairman), Selva Govender, Zaiboon Moothosamy, and Variava as editor and permanent organizer. The newsletter featured poetry, articles on Black Consciousness, and news about the theatre group. PET held evenings of Black poetry readings and mounted plays of a radical nature, such as Shanti, a play about revolutionary struggle and love across racial lines written by the vice president of the Black People’s Convention, Mthuli Shezi, who had been killed shortly before the staging. PET also staged Requiem for Brother X, a play by William Wellington Mackay about conscientising black youth. Variava and his fellow activists held workshops, formation schools and youth-group seminars in projects meant to “conscientise” the youth and communities, drawing on the radical works of Franz Fanon, Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich, Stokeley Carmichael, Antonio Gramsci, Bertold Brecht and literature that espoused liberation theology. Variava’s grouping decided they needed a firmer political base and explored the idea of launching a branch of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) at a meeting in 1973 at the Anglican Church, a venue provided by a sympathetic priest, Father Hipkin. The activists included Rashid Moosa, Haroon Variava, Dilly Naidoo, and Drake Koka. Dr Jerry Coovadia and Saths Cooper from Durban were also at the meeting. Variava and his brother Haroon went to Durban for the launch of BPC at Edenvale, where history was made as a woman, Winnifred Kgoare, was elected president of the national organisation. Variava returned to Lenasia and formed a branch of the Black People’s Convention in his hometown.
The Viva Frelimo rallies and the SASO Nine Trial
In September 1974 Black Consciousness (BC) activists planned to hold rallies in various cities to celebrate the assumption of power by Frelimo in Mozambique, but the rallies were banned the day before they were meant to be held. The rally in Durban nevertheless went ahead, and activists at Turfloop also gathered together despite heavy police presence. The state cracked down on the entire BC movement and arrested many of its office bearers. Eventually, in April 1975, 13 activists were put on trial, charged under the Terrorism Act. Variava was one of the 13 activists charged. The others were Muntu Myeza, Mosioua (Terror) Lekota, Aubrey Mokoape, Nkwenkwe Nkomo, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Gilbert Sedibe, Zithulele Cindi, Strinivasa (Strini) Moodley, Rubin Hare (youngest), Sulayman Ismail, and Sivalingam Moodley. The trial eventually came to be known as the Trial of the SASO Nine, officially as State v Cooper and 8 others. The original 13 who had ben arrested discussed their plight in prison. They deliberately decided to make of their appearances in court a theatrical intervention, in the knowledge that this would be the first major political trial since the Rivonia Trial. They appeared at the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia Trial took place. Variava was held for nine months before lawyers moved for withdrawal of charges against him, Ruben Hare, Solly Ismail and Sivalingam Moodley. They were released, but Variava was charged with another offence, let out on bail of R500 and restricted to the Pretoria district. He was allowed to find a job, and worked as a chauffeur for struggle lawyer Shun Chetty, going to libraries to collect legal documents or running errands. He shared a home in Marabastad with Asha Rambally and Vino Cooper, fellow BC activists. On one occasion he had to pick up Biko from the airport a day before Biko’s testimony at the BPC/SASO trial. Charges against Variava were eventually withdrawn. He began to focus on building the organisation (BPC) in the Transvaal. He connected up with a new generation of activists, including Lentswe Mokgatle, Solly Dinath and Shabeer Randera. A branch of Black Community Programmes was formed in Lenasia, headed by Shabeer Randera. The next few years saw the 16 June 1976 uprising in Soweto, the death of Steve Biko in September 1977, and the banning of all the BC organisations on 19 October 1977. Variava was one of many arrested as the state swooped on BC activists in every corner of South Africa. He was taken to Modderbee Prison under laws allowing for preventive detention. Many prominent figures were also arrested and imprisoned at Modderbee at the time, including Jackie Selebi, Nthato Motlana, Percy Qoboza and Hanif Vally, among others. In July 1978 Variava was released from detention and placed under a five-year banning order. When he accepted a lift from central Johannesburg to Lenasia in a car with three other people, he was charged with contravening his banning order and found guilty. He was sentenced to three months, suspended for three years.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Variava continued as an activist in Azapo, and was elected deputy president of the Gauteng branch of Azapo. He stood for election on several occasions as a candidate for Azapo, but failed to win a seat. He continues to work as an activist, conscientising youth about South African, African and world history and politics, especially through the Abubaker Asvat Institute, based in Lenasia.
This biography was based on several interviews with Sadecque Variava conducted by Yunus Momoniat.