ELA GANHDI IN AN INTERVIEW IN OCTOBER 1984 RECOUNTS THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS WHEN THE FORMER APARTHEID REGIME POUNCED ON MEWA RAMGOBIN AND OTHER NATAL INDIAN CONGRESS(NIC) AND UNITED DEMOCRATIC FRONT(UDF) LEADERS
(ELA RAMGOBIN (GANDHI))
In this period of August 2019 when South Africans celebrate our women folk, I have the privilege of bringing you an interview that I had conducted with one of the freedom heroines, Ms Ela Gandhi, in October 1984. The interview was about her experiences two months earlier when her late husband, Mewa Ramgobin, and other freedom fighters – the late Archie Gumede, late M J Naidoo, late Billy Nair and Sam Kikine – were detained by the then notorious security police. After they were released 15 days later following an application to the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court, Mewa Ramgobin and five others – M J Naidoo, George Sewpersadh, Archie Gumede, Devadas Paul David and Billy Nair – sought refuge at the British Consulate situated at that time in a building at the corner of the former Field and Smith streets. After staying at the Consulate for one month – Ramgobin, M J Naidoo and George Sewpersadh – walked out to challenge the Pretoria regime’s oppressive stances. They were immediately arrested and charged with 13 others with treason on October 6 1984. The trial lasted until December 15 1985 when all of them were acquitted. The other treason trialists were Paul David, Archie Gumede, Essop Jassat, Aubrey Mokoena, Curtis Nkondo, Albertina Sisulua, Frank Chicane, Ebrahim Salojee, Ismail Mohammed, Thozamile Gqweta, Sisa Njikelana, Sam Kikine and Isaac Ngcobo.Ela Gandhi Ramgobin in our interview in October 1984 told me about her trials and tribulations during the detentions and during the refuge that Ramgobin and his comrades sought at the British Consulate.
This is what we at the Press Trust of South Africa Third World News Agency October 1984 recorded of Ela’s experiences in her own words:
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
“Since August 21 (1984) – the day on which the Pretoria Government cracked down on opponents of its new tri-cameral constitution – the lives of many people have been rapidly and drastically affected by the events that followed.
“As the wife of one of the detainees I would like to outline my own experiences. However, I would like to stress that in the South African context these experiences are not unique or isolated. Thousands of people are being daily subjected to unjust, arbitrary and surprise detentions.
“Our leaders were detained on the eve of the Coloured Representative Council elections on August 21 after the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the United Committee of Concern in Natal fought a long and arduous campaign against the so-called new constitution.
“The detentions were preceded by a vicious campaign against the UDF and its leaders by the state-controlled radio and television services and by some state-influenced newspapers.
“Right-wing student elements at white universities and the Indian and Coloured candidates also helped to whip up sentiments against our leaders and organisations. Cries of ‘communist ties’, ‘violent actions’ and other unfounded allegations were just part of the diatribe directed against our people.
“My family became aware that a massive nation-wide swoop against our leaders was under way when we were rudely awakened by loud knocking on our door at our home in Everest Heights, Verulam, at 2am on August 21.
“My son, Kush, who opened the door, was surprised and shocked when two security branch policemen pushed past him and entered the house.
(MEWA RAMGOBIN ADDRESSING A PROTEST MEETING AT THE VERULAM TOWN HALL IN THE 1980s)
“Within minutes my husband, Mewa, our four other children and I came to the lounge to see what the commotion was all about.
“They told us that they had been instructed to take my husband into detention in terms of Section 28 of the Internal Security Act and they wished to search the house. They possessed neither a warrant of arrest nor a search warrant.
“After a thorough search of the house for about an hour they found two books that belonged to me. One was a handbook on forced removals in South Africa and the other a book on the struggles by women in the country. I told them the books belonged to me and that they had no right to take them.
“After a while they returned the books to me but left the house with my husband. I can say with pride that my children saw their daddy being driven away by the security police with courage and strength.
“Trips to the police station, jail and our lawyers, which has now become a regular feature in our lives, began in earnest on the morning of August 21.
C R SWART POLICE STATION IN DURBAN
“Our lawyers were able to see our husbands in detention at 11am. After being told that we could take food to our husbands we dashed to the nearest take-away to buy some food and cool drinks.
“While our lawyers were allowed access to our husbands, we, the relatives, had to stand in the corridors of the C R Swart Square police headquarters (now Durban Central Police station) for quite a few hours without any seating being provided.
“Eventually at 7pm, after supplying our husbands with ‘hot supper’ through an officer on duty, we left for home without seeing our men-folk. Half-an-hour later I had to attend an urgent meeting of the Natal Indian Congress and the United Democratic Front to discuss a rally planned for August 22.
“I only went to my house in Verulam, which is about 25 kilometres from Durban, at 2am. The next morning at 8am I set out once again for C R Swart Square after attending to my home chores and taking care of the needs of my two sons and three daughters.
CONSULTATIONS WITH AMERICAN AND BRITISH GOVERNMENTS“On arrival at the police headquarters my lawyer and I were told that our menfolk – Mewa, Billy Nair, Archie Gumede, M J Naidoo and Sam Kikine – were being transferred to the town of Pietermaritzburg to be held in preventative custody.
“We were allowed to exchange a few words with our husbands through the cell doors.
“That morning an executive member of the NIC, Professor Jerry Coovadia, and I flew to Johannesburg to meet with the American Ambassador, Mr Herman Nickel, and a British Embassy official, Mr Graham Archer.
“We discussed the detentions and the propaganda against our organisations. We called on the American and British governments to actively support the democratic organisations in South Africa.
“We referred to the abstentions by the American and British governments on the resolutions against South Africa at the United Nations in New York and wanted to know what their attitudes were towards the detentions.
“We returned to Durban that same evening and rushed to attend the mass rally at the Students’ Union Hall, University of Natal, where more than 10 000 people packed every corner to listen to their true and authentic leaders.
“The massive turn-out of the people of all colours was a clear indication of the support we enjoyed among all democratic-minded people in South Africa.
“The next morning heralded a period of contacts with all the family members of the detainees, endless rounds of discussions with lawyers and decisions on what steps to be taken in our campaigns to get our men released.
DETAINED IN PIETERMARITZBURG
“We made three trips to Pietermaritzburg in two weeks to obtain visits and give our leaders some clean clothes. The authorities, however, refused to allow visits. We were only allowed to deposit some money for the needs of our leaders and to give them clean clothes.
“During this period of anguish and turmoil we, the families of the detainees, grew closer, supported each other, shared our anguishes and anxieties, and above all began to understand the unjust system that robbed us of our menfolk.
“This realisation brought us closer together to the ideals and aspirations of the leaders in detention and gave us added strength to fight for the cause – a cause for freedom, justice and democracy.
“Fifteen days after our leaders were first picked up, the Supreme Court in Pietermaritzburg upheld our application that the Minister of Law and Order, Mr Louis Le Grange, had not given sufficient reasons and information for detaining our menfolk.
“Our leaders were allowed to go free but the prison authorities only released them at 8:30pm that evening. After brief discussions our leaders informed us that they would not return home with us because they feared they would be re-detained. They wanted to take a ‘holiday’ for a few days.
“Although their decision was a painful one for us we accepted it because we also realised that re-detentions were a real possibility.
“Our fears were not unfounded. Within 24 hours Minister Le Grange issued new orders for their re-detentions. On September 9 at 1:30am we had another visit from the security police.
“Like their first visit their entrance into our home was rude and typical of oppressors. When they did not find Mewa at home they became aggressive and talked of the possibilities of ‘our husbands being found dead with their throats slit and gullets hanging out’.
“All the homes of the released leaders were similarly invaded that morning at the ridiculous hour of 1:30am. It is against this background of threats of ‘slit throats’, we learned with relief of six of our leaders making an ‘appearance’ at the British Consulate in Durban on September 13.
(MEWA RAMGOBIN LEADING A PROTEST MARCH OUTSIDE THE DURBAN CITY HALL IN THE EARLY 1980s)
RUSH TO BRITISH CONSULATE
“We rushed to the Consulate offices to re-assure ourselves that our menfolk were safe and in good health. But the British consular staff refused to allow us to see our leaders.
“After lengthy and persistent negotiations, we were allowed a brief re-union with our husbands – one family at a time for a few minutes.
“Having had the satisfaction of seeing them in good spirits and good health, we felt a little ease at mind. But the following day brought us face to face with the British ‘don’t care’ attitude when they refused to allow us regular visits to our menfolk.
“We immediately decided to resist by staging a sit-in hunger strike at the Consul offices. Our protest brought in immediate results for within half-an-hour we were told that visits would be allowed.
RIGHT-WING THREATS AGAINST THE CONSULATE SIX
“After the first week of the refuge at the consulate, our anxieties for the safety of our leaders grew when right-wing reactionaries threatened to blow up the building where our husbands took refuge.
“We began a 24-hour vigil at the building to monitor all movements. This was called off after we noticed that uniformed policemen had been posted to protect the building.
“Our life of normal work and family routine was disrupted. We now began to attend to the professional businesses run by our husbands, arranging all their requirements at the Consulate – blankets and pillows, cups and saucers, kettle and tea pots, chemical toilets, bath tubs and daily meals and change of clothing.
“We also had to attend and address meetings and institute a new law suit against the Minister.
“After our case was dismissed, three of our leaders – Mewa, M J Naidoo and George Sewpersadh – decided to challenge the authorities by walking out from the consul offices. But no sooner had they appeared on the street below, they were arrested by security policemen and taken to Pietermaritzburg for preventative detention.
“Our anxiety and uncertainity began all over again until we were allowed visits three times a week for a period of 40 minutes for each visit.
“The visits were non-contact visits and were separated by a glass window. We were allowed to converse through a ‘funnel-like” object.
“Although the journeys to Pietermaritzburg were long and tiring, we were, however, pleased to make the trips just to see and talk to our men folk.
“We have repeatedly asked the Minister for reasons to justify the continued detention of our leaders but he has failed to respond.
“In our view there is no justification for the detention of our leaders and we challenge the Minister to produce any evidence to show that our men have propagated or participated in violence.
“We are proud of the struggle being waged by our menfolk and stand by them in spite of the daily suffering we endure.”Ends – Press Trust of South Africa Third World News Agency Oct 22 1984