Surinarayan ‘Sonny’ Kala Venkatrathnam was born on 27 July 1935 in Sea View, Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). He had 12 siblings. He grew up in very dire circumstances with no running water or electricity at home. His grandparents, indentured workers, came from India. His parents, born in South Africa, were flower sellers at the Durban Central Cemetery. Eventually his parents and sisters became peddlers.
Later his parents farmed in Cliffdale an area on the way to Pietermartizburg. The Second World War interrupted his schooling. Together with his cousins he had to tend cattle and work on the farm. After the war, he went back to school - it was about seven miles from home. He had to cross the Umbilo River about three times, to get to school in Stella Hill.
His parents couldn’t afford to send all the children to high school because they needed them to assist in their hawking business. He was fortunate to attend Sastri College, the only high school in Durban for Indian students at that time.
After matriculating (Grade 12) he registered at Natal University for a BA degree (now University of KwaZulu-Natal -UKZN). At the time the University would not admit black students on their campuses. They had to attend part time lectures in the evening, from eight o’clock, off-campus.
The students started a study group at the University. Eventually that study group became a student organisation - The Durban Students Union, which was affiliated to the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM). The Durban Student Union began to grow because they recruited students mainly from high schools throughout Natal, and by 1960/63 were on the verge of forming a national student organisation.
In 1963 Venkatrathnam became a teacher at the M.L. Sultan Technical College, in Durban (the very first technical institution for Indian students in the country) the year Indian Education was first introduced in South Africa. Bantu Education was already in existence since 1954. Venkatrathnam, his wife, Theresa, and two of his colleagues mobilised the students, organising a boycott of the morning assembly, against the introduction of a system of education for Indians only.
All the students refused to attend the morning assembly. The authorities immediately threw the students out of the premises. Half an hour later, the principal suspended him from teaching. The same happened to his wife, Theresa and the other two colleagues as they were not on the permanent staff. A month or two later they had a trial where he was found guilty of instigating the boycott and was dismissed as a teacher.
He gravitated towards the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). Attracted to its Ten Point Programme, Venkatrathnam then joined the NEUM at University becoming the secretary of the Non-European section of Natal University (as it was then known). In 1958 he was chosen to attend a conference by the International Union of Students (IUS) in Beijing, China. After much red tape he first travelled to India and on to China.
At the conference he met Mao Tse-tung and Cho En Lai from the Chinese Communist Party. In 1958 he decided to cut all ties with the NIC and join the NEUM.
At the time, students at the Non-European section of Natal University boycotted the graduation ceremonies. Many students used to graduate in absentia for which students had to pay £3 penalty for that. In 1960 he was supposed to graduate but he refused. He came under tremendous pressure from the university authorities for his boycott stance. Following their 100% boycott success eventually in 1961, the university had to accede to an open graduation.
In 1962, the Unity Movement formed the African People's Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA). By the early 1960s APDUSA was the only legal organisation (the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were by then banned organisations) that was able to operate openly.
In 1964 Venkatrathnam was banned and house arrested for five years. Life became quite intolerable for him — he could not get a job and was thrown out of teaching in 1963. Wherever he was able to secure employment the Security Police would harass the employers and he would not be employed. Out of desperation he was forced to open a run-down butcher shop in Chatsworth.
When his banning expired in 1969 and he drove around the country re-establishing contact with his comrades. The NEUM decided to get involved in the armed struggle. They began recruiting guerrilla fighters in South Africa. Venkatrathnam got involved in this process until 1970 when more than 200 NEUM members got arrested.
At the time he was registered as an Article Clerk with Navi Pillay, who went on to become the first Black woman judge in the High Court in then Natal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Security Police grabbed him in Grey Street (Durban’s CBD), took him to his office, ransacked the office, but found nothing. The Security Police then took him home to search the premises. His little son, a year and a half, Ravel, wanted to be carried. The Security Police wouldn’t allow him to do so. He was then taken to Security headquarters and interrogated for twenty-four hours non-stop. He was severely assaulted and tortured.
Thereafter he was detained at the Durban North Police Station in a very filthy cell. Here the interrogation started in earnest once more. The police jumped on his chest. As a result of the assault and torture he got a burst hernia. They beat him up so badly that they damaged his ear. He received severe beatings protecting his comrades. He was held in solitary confinement for about five months with no visits from either a doctor or magistrate.
His youngest son was born, whilst he was in detention. The police tried to get him to become a state witness but he refused. His torture continued in detention. The Security Police, especially one Swanepoel, placed his testicles in a drawer and slammed it shut. He passed out. When he regained consciousness he found himself at the Pietermaritzburg Prison.
He was one of 14 members of the NEUM and its affiliate APDUSA, who was charged on four counts under the Terrorism Act in 1971 in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court. The State claimed that the accused engaged in terrorist activities on various occasions from 1963 to 1970.
For him the saddest thing was when his comrades gave false evidence against him and the other accused at the trial. But when they came and gave evidence against me and Kader, it was evidence.
They were sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island. His wife, Theresa, and Nina Hassim (Kader Hassim’s wife) had to bring an urgent application in the Supreme Court of Cape Town to release them from solitary confinement. He was released in 1978. While on Robben Island he managed to outfox his prison guards by disguising his copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare as his religious book. This made headlines around the world as the Robben Island Bible. He was never caught for this, which would have resulted in severe punishment from the prison authorities.
The security police served him with another five year banning and house arrest orders. He was not allowed to leave his home in Mobeni Heights, Chatsworth. This went on for a while until Navi Pillay applied to have him employed as a clerk in her office, and the state allowed that. He was allowed to work at her office in central Durban, but nowhere else.
Venkatrathnam received a scholarship at Columbia University where he completed a Masters degree. At the end of this period, Amnesty International invited him to co-produce a rock concert called Human Rights Now, which went around the world, to 28 cities. He returned home in 1990.
Venkatrathnam refused to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He objected to it in principle — that you cannot get truth from your oppressor and that he would not reconcile with his oppressor.
He was head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Durban Westville (now University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN). At the time of his passing he was retired.
Surinarayan ‘Sonny’ Kala Venkatrathnam passed away from natural causes on 15 March 2019 at a hospital in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
- Ntsodi, M. & Shongwe, D. (2002). Sunny Venkatruthnam, University Of Durban-Westville, Documentation Centre, Oral History Project, “Voices of Resistance”, 16 July 2002. Available at http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/Audio/VOR/Transcript.htm online. Accessed on 18 March 2019
- Ntsodi, M. (2002). Sunny Venkatruthnam, University Of Durban-Westville, Documentation Centre, Oral History Project, “Voices of Resistance”, 14 August 2002. Available at http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/Audio/VOR/Transcript.htm online. Accessed on 18 March 2019
- Sunday Tribune Herald. (2019). Fallen Struggle stalwart a ‘cool dude’, p3, 17 March 2019.