MEWA RAMGOBIN – A STRUGGLE STALWART WHO MADE ENORMOUS SACRIFICES FOR THE CREATION OF A NON-RACIAL AND DEMOCRATIC SOUTH AFRICA
By Subry Govender
One of the veterans of the freedom struggles against white minority rule and apartheid in South Africa, Mr Mewalall Ramgobin, who passed away at the age of 84 in Cape Town on Monday(Oct 17) night, will be remembered for his uncompromising commitment to the creation of a non-racial and democratic society.
Mr Ramgobin had been ill for the past few months after retiring as a member of parliament of the ruling ANC. He had been elected as an MP since the dawn of our democracy in April 1994.
Born in Inanda, north of Durban, on November 10 1932, Ramgobin, who was known to all of us as “Mewa”, had been involved in the struggles from an early age when he became convinced that the fate of the people of Indian-origin people was inextricably linked to the majority African people.
He joined the Natal Indian Congress at an early age in 1950 and thereafter became involved in student activities at the then University of Natal and became active in the anti-apartheid struggles with leaders of the calibre of Alan Paton, Archbishop Denis Hurley, Advocate Louis Skewiya, Don Kali, Jordan Ngubane, David Matabese and Johnny Makhatini.
In the 1950s and thereafter he also became involved with the Mahatma Gandhi Trust and the Phoenix Settlement Trustin Phoenix where he stayed for some time after marrying Ela Gandhi.
But because of his involvement in community, student and Phoenix Settlement activities, he came under the scrutiny of the notorious apartheid Security Police at that time. He suffered his first five-year banning order in 1965.
But this did not stop him from continuing with his community work and at the Phoenix Settlement Trust. At the same time he provided sanctuary to Steve Biko and other student leaders to promote their struggles from the Phoenix Settlement.
When his banning order expired in 1970, he started the South African Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and at the same time initiated the revival of the Natal Indian Congress. The NIC, which was established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1894, became inactive and defunct since the 1960s due to the harassment, bannings, and detentions of leaders such as Dr Monty Naicker, Dr Kesaval Goonum, Mr I C Meer, Mr J N Singh and Mr George Singh.
He worked actively with a new group of activists such as George Sewpersadh, M J Naidoo, Paul David, Dr Farouk Meer, Dr Jerry Coovadia, D K Singh, Dr Dilly Naidoo and Rabbi Bugwandeen to re-invigorate the struggles against white minority rule.
The dirty tricks of the apartheid regime did not stop their harassment of Mewa. Agents of the apartheid regime planted a parcel bomb in his Durban office in 1973. Fortunately, he was not around at the time the bomb exploded.
The apartheid regime did not stop there, it imposed restriction orders on him and he was forced to move his insurance office to Verulam where he also set up home with his family.
He was banned again for another five years in 1976 but the determined Mewa continued with his political and community work unabated.
In the early 1980s he was involved in the establishment of the Release Mandela Committee. But he was banned again for another five-year period in 1981. He did not serve the full banning when in 1983 the apartheid regime in a surprise move unbanned Mewa and all the other activists who were banned at that time.
One of the first assignments Mewa and his colleagues carried out after they were unbanned was to drive the very next day to Brandfort in the Free State to show their support for Mrs Winnie Mandela, who was banished to this small village from Johannesburg by the apartheid regime. The colleagues who accompanied Mewa were M J Naidoo, George Sewpersadh, Paul David and Subry Govender.
Mewa once again became actively involved in the political struggles and played a major role in the establishment of the United Democratic Front in Cape Town in August 1983 with leaders such as Archie Gumede, Paul David, Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, and Yunus Mahomed.
He was elected as one of the joint treasurers of the UDF with Cassim Salojee.
As a leader of the NIC and the UDF, Mewa continued with his political struggles by campaigning with fellow activists against the apartheid regime’s attempts to co-opt the Indian-origin and Coloured people into the House of Delegates and the House of Representatives alongside the white Parliament.
For their efforts, Mewa and his fellow activists, George Sewpersadh, Billy Nair, Archie Gumede, M J Naidoo and Sam Kikine were detained in terms of the apartheid regime’s notorious security laws. But they managed to bring an urgent court action against their detentions and were freed by the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court.
Soon after their release, they raised the struggles to an international level on September 13 1984 by seeking refuge at the British Consulate which was situated in a building at the corner of the former Smith and Field streets in Durban at that time. Mewa remained here for a month but was re-arrested on October 6 1984 on charges of High Treason.
He was the number one accused in the High Treason Trial which was held at the Pietermaritzburg High Court. His fellow accused were Isaac Ngcobo, Archie Gumede, Curtis Nkondo, Sisa Njikelana, Aubrey Mokoena, Sam Kikine, M J Naidoo, Mrs Albertina Sisulu, Essop Jassat, Cassim Salojee, George Sewpersadh, Paul David, Frank Chikane and Thozamile Gqweta.
Defended by Ismail Mahomed, who later became the Chief Justice of South Africa after the dawn of freedom in 1994, Mewa and all his fellow treason trialists were acquitted on December 15 1985.
Mewa and his fellow struggle stalwarts continued with their struggles to see a number of Robben Island prisoners such as Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki being released at the end of 1989 and the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. At the same time the ANC, PAC and other organisations were unbanned by the then apartheid President, F W De Klerk.
During the transitional peace talks and the negotiations process from the early 1990s to 1994, Mewa played a significant role in the background with the full support and blessings of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. He was elected as an ANC MP in April 1994 and served in this position until 2009 when he retired.
During his life-time Mewa visited the land of his forefathers several times. His very first visit was to make an entry into the film world in the early 1950s. Ten years later he visited India again to marry his teenage sweetheart, Ela Gandhi. And then in 1974 when he was granted a passport by chance he and his family visited India for six months. During this period he addressed many political meetings and held talks with political leaders.
I interviewed Mewa at his flat in Brindahavan, Verulam, once again in 2009 after some political activists were discussing the idea of establishing a progressive forum to work with the ANC. They were concerned that people of Indian-origin were moving away from the ANC and some had expressed the view that the Natal Indian Congress should not have been allowed to go out of existence.
But Mewa was insistent that people of Indian-origin were South Africans and, therefore, should continue to be associated with the ANC and other progressive organisations. Out of politics, they should also continue to be involved in community, social and sporting activities like they had been involved during the days of the anti-apartheid struggles.
This is the radio report I had produced after the interview with Mewa.
He will be remembered as one of the sons of the struggles who paid a heavy price.
Hamba Kahle and go well Mewa.