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Tribute: Strini Moodley`s Legacy

Strini Moodley's death on April 27, 2006 brings to an end a sui generis life of political engagement and commitment towards the liberation of the people of South Africa. This engagement was, however, situated within an ideological framework outside of, and in some ways even opposed to, that of the African National Congress and its allies. This distinguished and demarcated Moodley's personality, the political direction of his life and achievements, as also, perhaps, his angularities and failures.

history. For instance, the organisation was


initially opposed, rather typically, only to segregation in tertiary education. It was such white liberal pretensions to the “ownership of the struggle”, though seldom so crassly expressed, that BCM challenged.

Strini Moodley’s Legacy

Strini Moodley’s death on April 27, 2006 brings to an end a sui generis life of political engagement and commitment towards the liberation of the people of South Africa. This engagement was, however, situated within an ideological framework outside of, and in some ways even opposed to, that of the African National Congress and its allies. This distinguished and demarcated Moodley’s personality, the political direction of his life and achievements, as also, perhaps, his angularities and failures.


he death of Strini Moodley (Strinivasa Rajoo Moodley, born in Durban, December 22, 1945, died in Durban, April 27, 2006) on the 12th anniversary of South Africa’s Freedom Day – commemorating the first democratic elections held on that day in 1994 – brings to an end a sui generis life of political engagement and commitment towards the liberation of the people of South Africa. This engagement was, however, situated within an ideological framework outside of, in some ways even opposed to, the one represented by the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies. This fact both distinguished and demarcated the personality and the political direction of Moodley’s life and achievements – and perhaps also the angularities and failures.

Strini Moodley’s life was one of unrelenting struggle. Unlike most politically conscious and active Indians (of South African origin) of his generation and that of an earlier generation, like his own father, Strini Moodley struck out what many would think a contrary path. The latter almost naturally gravitated towards the broad democratic movement represented by the Congress Alliance, led by the ANC with the mediation of the Natal Indian Congress, the South African Indian Congress and the banned (and clandestinely revived) South African Communist Party (SACP). Moodley was deeply influenced by Steve Biko and the Black Conscious Movement (BCM) that distanced itself from the ANC, viewing it as being too much under the influence of well-meaning and patronising white liberals. This perspective was rather different from those who had broken with the ANC earlier in 1959 to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) because, in their view, the ANC was under the influence of the whites, communists and the Indians, often thought of as one and the same thing.

Further, inasmuch as liberation from colonial bondage was important, there was equally the need to emancipate the blacks from psychological oppression and a culture of subservience. Though critics of the BCM felt embarrassed about the emphasis on colour and race, and not class, in the peculiar context of apartheid South Africa, race had become virtually synonymous with class. Indeed, even the SACP acknowledged, in its well known formulation of colonialism of a special type (CST) (‘The Road to South African Freedom’ adopted at the Fifth National Conference of the SACP in 1962), that the primary task in South Africa was above all the “national democratic revolution”.

The ‘B’ in BCM however was inclusivist, not exclusively Africanist, as the ANC itself was at one time, before its Morogoro (Tanzania) conference in April-May 1969 when its general membership was thrown open to all the races. It took another 16 years before the leadership positions too became open to all races. The origins of the BCM go back to the realisation by Steve Biko, when he was a student of the University of Natal Non-European Medical School in 1966, of the necessity for a student organisation independent of the white dominated National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Though NUSAS, founded in 1924, had by then moved away from its origins of representing English and Afrikaans speaking university students – then by definition only whites – its opposition to apartheid was very much influenced by its once exclusivist

Such a segmented approach, bespeaking of a incremental continuum of nastiness, from segregation practised by the smarmy British to institutionalised apartheid – that unique construct of the Nationalist Party of the more transparently crude Boers – was perhaps inevitable, because there simply did not exist on the ground a single body of students of all races united on common issues given the structuring of educational institutions under apartheid. The founding of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) at a convention in the University of the North in June 1969 was the first step in this effort to organise black students, independently of the NUSAS, leading inescapably to launching of the Black Peoples’ Convention two years later in Durban.

An important context to these developments was the seemingly crushing setback to organised black political activity, beginning with the banning of the ANC, the PAC and other organisations, after the massacre of unarmed protestors against pass laws at Sharpeville on March 21, 1960. The internal armed resistance collapsed in the face of these repressive measures, with the arrest and imprisonment of virtually the whole leadership of the armed struggle (Rivonia trial 1963-64) within a matter of just four years. Barring those few whites (almost all of them communists) who shared the trenches, the liberal opposition to apartheid was silenced or reduced to lauding the complicit English-speaking whites’ “opposition” in the so-called parliament.

No wonder, therefore, that radical Indian students, especially of Natal, a marginalised minority among an even more marginalised majority, like Strini Moodley were drawn to the message of black pride and self-reliance projected by Steve Biko. He got closely involved with SASO, especially in its cultural and propaganda activities, and was at the founding convention of the Black Peoples’ Convention where he was elected to the executive. However, it was his association with SASO that led the biggest political challenge of his life (described in A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990: Volume Five, as “the most publicised legal confrontation of the

Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006 decade for black organisations”). He, along with eight other leading SASO members, were brought to trial under the Terrorism Act in August 1975. The trial dragged on for over a year and ended with all the defendants being found guilty and sentenced to between five and six years of hard labour. Strini Moodley himself was sentenced to six years and sent to Robben Island.

Politically, the trial of the “SASO nine” set the way to the Soweto uprisings that began in June 1976, within weeks of the conclusion of the trial. Unlike political defendants during earlier trials who, whatever their views of the apartheid regime might have been, observed scrupulously the rituals and decorum of the courts, the SASO nine were uncompromisingly robust in their defence, always forcing political theatre on the solemn courtroom, “challenging the regime’s strategy of dominance through fear”. These excerpts from the Documentary History cited above give a flavour of this robustness:

At a preliminary court appearance in February 1975, the defendants emerged from the cells beneath the courtroom robustly singing the freedom song, ‘UnzimaLo Mthwalo’ (‘This burden is Heavy’) and making raised first salute. On entering the dock they bellowed ‘Amandla’! (‘Power!’) in unison at the startled spectators. At a subsequent appearance in March, when they repeated this display of insubordination, Blacks in the public gallery stood up and joined in loudly. At the end of the brief March proceedings, fighting erupted between the defendants and the policemen guarding the dock as families and wellwishers surged forward to touch the accused and police struggled to push the prisoners down the stairway to the cells.

Nelson Mandela in whose B-Block on the island Strini Moodley was lodged, was both baffled by and understood only too well the emotions, politics and “angry revolutionary spirit” that lay beneath such militancy. He also tried, as he recounts in his autobiography, to know more about the new wind that was blowing. In a candid recollection of his fraught relationship with Nelson Mandela in an interview with John Carlin ( frontline/shows/mandela/interviews/ moodley.htm).

Strini Moodley explains some of these

nuances: I had a kind of nickname on Robben Island. I was called “Connection”. So he would say, “Connection, wake up, the warders are coming. Don’t oversleep. You’ve got to stand up now. Don’t let them catch you in bed.” He was like that.

So with me, my initial thought was that this is fast developing into a father-sonrelationship, and it immediately reminded me of my own relationship with my father. The one thing that struck me is that I hoped I was not going to end up in the same conflicted relationship that I had with my father over political issues. The first timeit struck me that Nelson spoke a lot like my father, was when he asked me why is it that we were so opposed to the homelands and the Bantustans. From that point on, I can remember, our debates became more and more detailed, with him and I taking positions that became quite distant from each other. There was another occasion, this character Kruger came to Robben Island to visit. I think he was the minister of justice or something. The warders came into thesection and said, “All of you must shine your shoes, and put on your jackets and dress up smartly, and you must stand at attention with your prison spoon in your pocket, and your card in your hand, your prison card, and stand to attention.” So Isaid, “Why must I do that?” And they said, “The minister of justice is coming”, and I said, “To hell with it. I must stand to attention for the minister of justice, you just got to be crazy. I’ll never do that.” Kruger duly came in, and I just lolled onmy bed reading a magazine ... while Kruger came past and he looked in at me, and he asked them, and they said, “No, don’t worry about him, he’s one of those klipgooiers”, which [meant] stone-throwers. I was curious, so the moment he passed my door,I got up and I looked and there was Nelson standing at attention. I just thought, whew, I certainly didn’t come to Robben Island to see all my dreams, my vision of a great revolutionary shattered like this.

The Kruger “character” was none other

than Jimmy Kruger, the man who famously

said that the death of Steve Biko in de

tention and under torture in September

1977 “left him cold”. After his release in December 1981,

Moodley joined the Azanian Peoples’

Organisation (AZAPO) that had been

founded in 1978 and was elected as its

Natal regional chairman in January 1984.

However, the focus of his activity was

increasingly political journalism. He pro

vides an amusing account of his encounter

with Nelson Mandela at the press confer

ence in Cape Town following the latter’s

release, in the interview referred to earlier.

But the first real eye to eye contact between Nelson and I was when he held the press conference at Tutu’s place. Of course, when I raised my hand, and I was asked to ask my question, I stood up and introduced myself. Nelson burst out and said, “Strini, my boy”! Kind of like – there’s my son again, that naughty little son of mine, prodigal. Then afterwards I asked him my question. He answered and subsequently he called me over ... we exchanged pleasantries. He asked about my mum and family and the children, because [in prison] ... when a letter came from my wife, with pictures of my children, or my mum sent pictures of herself, he would want to look at it, and sit and talk with me and play chess together, and we did all those normal things as well. So there was truly, between him and me, a father-son relationship, and so for him it was more that relationship that held us together. It wasn’t so much the political relationship. So ja, well very embarrassed I was, because here he was in front of all my colleagues, treating me like I’m his little son. But I didn’t mind it, because in the end I came to the conclusion eventually, I mean it’s like dealing with my own father, and politically we are going to differ until the day both of us are no longer around.

This remained true till the end. For, unlike some other BC activists who moved over to the ANC and indeed rose to high political office, Strini Moodley simply remained true to his inner convictions, content to lead the life of an ordinary citizen. One had a sense, meeting him during his later years, that he had become a slightly embittered person. What is more likely is that he felt he had done his bit, for the liberation of his country; and it was time for him to take his peace. He had earned his right to enjoy a drink, conversation with his friends, a game of cards, an ordinary man taking it easy watching the world pass by. But this did not affect his opinion that the struggle had not ended. Hence, the famous slogan of the struggle, revived by the SACP on the very morrow of the first democratic elections: ‘A luta Continua’!

Strini Moodley’s life and personality exemplify the fact that there were other, equally authentic strands in the struggle against apartheid than the one represented by the ANC and the Congress Alliance. Though during the hard struggle years the ANC was, understandably enough in the circumstances, extremely suspicious and even intolerant of any kind of dissent, or attempts to chart out an alternative political perspective, there is now an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of such alternative voices. This comes through in the generous tributes that have followed Strini Moodley’s death.



Economic and Political Weekly June 3, 2006

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