Sunday, August 6, 2017


(SUNNY SINGH AND HIS WIFE, URMILA, WITH NELSON MANDELA IN MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE IN THE EARLY 1990s) One of the backroom boys and unsung heroes of South Africa's freedom struggles is Durban-born - Sunny Gerja Singh. In this report on Struggle Heroes and Heroines veteran journalist, Subry Govender, profiles the life of this struggle stalwart who was imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years for his activities on behalf of the African National Congress..……..
(Sunny Singh with late former Tanzanian President Julius Nyrere at the Hague late 1980s) Sunny Gerja Singh was born into a large family of five brothers and two sisters in 1939 in one of the most famous working class suburbs of Cato Manor in Durban. The area where he was born was known as Umkumbaan. His father, Girjabaksh Singh, came down as an indentured labourer from a village in the Bihar state of India while still a minor. He apparently accompanied some family members to work on the sugar estates as indentured labourers. His mother, Gumte Singh, was born here in the former Natal Colony. Sunny Singh remembers his father working as a rice farmer and hawker and his mother working as a machinist in a clothing factory in Durban. From an early age while still a pupil at the M L Sultan Seconardy School, Sunny Singh became aware of the exploitation of the poor by rich landlords.
(Sunny Singh with the Mayor of Amsterdam Van Thyn at the opening of the ANC office) The landlord of the property where they stayed in Umkumbaan was a “vicious exploiter” and Sunny was so upset about this oppressive attitude that he nearly set alight the landlord’s upholstery factory when he was 12-years-old. Later this consciousness developed into political activism when he personally experienced the oppression of the people through the then dreaded Group Areas Act. “As my political awareness grew I began to understand the bigger picture when the Group Areas Act affected our people right from areas such as Cato Manor, Riverside to Chatsworth. I began to search for organisations that were involved in the struggles and my first home was the Natal Indian Congress which I joined in 1958 during the ‘Potatoe Boycott’,” Singh told me in an interview. Sunny Singh became caught up in a number of battles. During the protests and campaigns against the arrest of the 156 leaders who were charged with High Treason in 1955 he went around and collected funds for the treason accused at the then Victoria Street “Indian” Market. He also took an active part in the centenary celebrations in 1960 of the arrival of Indians as indentured labourers to the then Natal Colony in 1860. “All these factors made one to become active through the Natal Indian Congress. My first contact with the leadership of the Natal Indian Congress was through people like Billy Nair, Kesaval Munsamy, N T Naicker and of course the leader of the NIC, Dr G M Monty Naicker.” After the ANC was banned in 1960 and the NIC was made virtually ineffective through bannings and detentions, Sunny Singh joined Umkhonto We Sizwe in 1962 and became part of a unit in Durban under the command of Ebrahim Ismail Ebhraim. “My first act of sabotage was on the railway line under the Victoria Street bridge which was the main track between Durban and Johannesburg and the offices of those who collaborated with the apartheid regime.” Sunny Singh was arrested in October 1963 along with 18 other MK activists and charged, convicted and sentenced to Robben Island for 10 years. Ten of the “MK soldiers” were Africans and nine “Indians”. His fellow comrades convicted included Billy Nair, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, Kisten Moonsamy, Kisten Doorsamy, Siva Pillay, Curnik Ndlovu, George Naicker and Nathoo Babania. They were all convicted of carrying out acts of sabotage.
(SUNNY SINGH, WIFE URMILA, AND A SUPPORTER OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN STRUGGLE) All of them were sentenced from five to 20 years “hard labour” on Robben Island. Billy Nair and Curnik Ndlovu were sentenced to 20 years each because they were found to be the leaders of the MK cell. Life was difficult on Robben Island and after 10 years of torture, he was released in 1964. When he walked out from the Durban Central Prison where the ICC stands today there was no one there to meet him. The warders told his family that they would drop him off at their home but on the day of his release he was just told to leave through the main gate. He was left on his own to find his way. He walked to a newspaper office to make contact with one of the journalists. “I tried to contact Dennis Pather if my memory serves me well. I wanted to get to the office of Phyllis Naidoo. I walked all the way holding my pants because I did not have a belt. I walked to a shop and bought a belt and two Sunday newspapers. “When I got to Phyllis’s office it was an emotional meeting. She laughed when I told her that I did not have underwear. She quickly gave one of her office secretaries some money to go and purchase me some underwear. “From Phyllis’s office I found my way to our old home in Umkumbaan. People were waiting for me and there was a lot of excitement, joy and emotions.” Five days after his release he was served with a five year banning and restriction order that prevented him from leaving home between 6pm and 6am and prohibited him from entering any other Indian, coloured or African residential area. He was under constant surveillance by the security branch policemen at that time. After a few months in Cato Manor, he applied for permission to move to Chatsworth. His mother used to travel from Cato Manor to Chatsworth to visit him on a regular basis. Although the banning order restricted him from meeting and talking to people, the resourceful Sunny Singh continued with his political and underground activities. “Despite the trying conditions and the constant surveillance of security branch people, I managed to carry out overt and covert work. I set up a structure in Unit 2 in Chatsworth to do some civic duties. “And in Merebank, I was involved in political educational with former BC members like Bobby Marie, Shamim Meer, Willie Lesley and Rubin Phillip. Some of these people later joined the ANC. “I also recruited into the underground Ivan Pillay, his brother Daya, Coastal Govender, Krish Rabilall, Patrick Msomi and his wife, Jabu. Krish Rabilall was killed during one of Pretoria’s strikes against ANC members in Maputo and Patrick and Jabu were brutally killed in car bomb explosion in Swaziland.”
(SUNNY SINGH AT A PROGRESSIVE MEETING IN DURBAN IN 2017) PART TWO On Christmas Day in 1976 six months after the Soweto uprisings, Sunny Singh left the country to join the ANC and MK in exile. “I left the country secretly in the company of another comrade, Riot Mkwanzi, who sadly is no longer with us today. We were met at the Swazi-Mozambique border by Jacob Zuma. “After spending three months in Mozambique I went to Tanzania and from there to Angola and then to the then East Germany where I underwent training in urban warfare. “I returned to Mozambique in 1977 and joined the Natal Command of MK under Zuma. Later Ivan Pillay and I joined the Political underground machinery under Mac Maharaj. After this I joined the MK Military Intelligence Unit under the command of Ronnie Kasrils. “After the murder of President Samora Machel by the Pretoria regime towards the end of 1987 we were given the marching orders by the Mozambican Government under pressure from the Boers.” During this period, Sunny Singh changed his name twice. First he assumed the name of Bobby Pillay and travelled on a Tanzanian passport and then later as Kumar Sanjay and used an Indian passport. During his long years in exile he worked with leaders such as Jacob Zuma and Mac Maharaj. He recalls that the Nkomati Accord signed between South Africa and Mozambique in March 1984 was a “heavy blow” for the ANC and its combatants. Mozambique was forced to sign the Accord after South Africa carried out a number of raids against ANC bases in the late 1970s and 1980s. One of the agreements of the Accord was that Mozambique should not provide refuge to ANC militants and soldiers and that ANC leaders and members should be removed.
(Sunny Singh at the South Africa in the Making museum at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban) “The Nkomati Accord was a heavy blow for hundreds of ANC members, including Jacob Zuma, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani. They had to leave Mozambique,” he said. “I survived and was appointed Chairman of the Military Unit. I had to traverse the whole of Mozambique to find ways to smuggle weapons from either Malawi or Tanzania. “This operation was time consuming and dangerous. But we were able to beat the restrictions on us by managing to smuggle weapons through the Maputo airport. One of the cadres, Catrinia, who I recruited into MK, was able to pull off this coup through her contacts at the airport. “Catrinia, who was known to all comrades and friends as Kate, is the late wife of Jacob Zuma. Through her efforts we managed to get our weapons flown from Angola to Maputo through Angola’s passenger airline, Taag. I would say Kate was one of our unsung heroines.” After spending a year in Zambia after being expelled from Mozambique in 1988, Sunny Singh was appointed the ANC’s Chief Reprentative in Holland from 1988 to 1992. When Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990 and the ANC and other organisations were unbanned, Sunny Singh was keen to return home. But he was advised by the ANC to remain in Holland to take advantage of the new political environment to promote the ANC as the leading force in political negotiations.
(Sunny Singh at the South Africa in the Making museum at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban) “1990 was a turning point in our struggles with the release of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela visited Holland in June 1990, I managed with the great support of the broader Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement to mobilise 20 000 people to greet Mandela in an open air rally in Amsterdam. It was a great day,” he said. When he returned home at the end of 1991, he continued with his political work and established an educational programme called CREDEP. This was a school project dealing with integration and challenges in the class room. They reached out to black townships such as KwaMashu and Inanda. “We even organised extra lessons on Saturdays and in three years, our projects managed to get 400 pupils to pass their matriculation examinations.” After the 1994 elections, Singh was drafted into the Crime Intelligence Service and worked as an officer in Durban. He served the intelligence service until 2008. Although Sunny Singh is now retired he’s still concerned about the socio-economic conditions of many communities. He’s currently a volunteer at “South Africa in the Making”, a project of the Monty Naicker Foundation. This project is based at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
Sunny Singh, who worked under Jacob Zuma in Mozambique during the early years of his time in exile, finds the socio-economic and political situation disturbing. “We need to overcome our problems and divisions and concentrate our efforts in fulfilling our struggles for a better life for all South Africans,” he said. “We must struggle for a society where non-racialism and democracy also means that the lives of the most disadvantaged and the marginalised are also improved.
(Sunny Singh at the South Africa in the Making museum at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban) “We cannot have a society where only the privileged few are making hay in our new free South Africa.” Does he feel disillusioned in any way with the political infighting, leadership battles and the lack of values among some of the leaders? “It's a crisis that's paralysing our economy, unemployment is at a frighteningly dangerous level and moral leadership is affected. But I have hope. We have good citizens and there are still many good comrades in ANC. I am sure, sometime soon that there will be a positive outcome. “I am certain that we will resolve all these problems for the good of the country,” he said. – ends – July 19 2017

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