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Obituary: Big-hearted 'Aunty Phyllis' dies at 85

Niren Tolsi

Phyllis Naidoo was known for her intellectualism and humour as much as for her leftwing views.

The late lawyer and activist Phyllis Naidoo. (Gisele Wulfsohn)

Phyllis Naidoo - (1928-2013)

Phyllis Naidoo, until her death on February 13 at the age of 85, was a most singular revolutionary: intellectually inquisitive, opinionated and mischievous, she retained a deep sense of empathy for the country's most marginalised.

She continued to smoke and cuss until the end and retained her sharp, cynical view of power and what had gone wrong with South Africa's own liberation, all with an impish sense of humour and a heavy dose of struggle stories and leftwing literature.

Her anecdotes resounded with the humour and humanity often forgotten in history books, as much as they did with the ideological conviction of the struggle.

Affectionately known as "Auntie Phyllis", she was a trained lawyer, whose practice in Durban was a first sanctuary for many activists recently released from Robben Island, for them to work, be reintroduced into society and get reacquainted with the struggle's underground.

President Jacob Zuma was one of those Robben Islanders who sought out Naidoo following his release and she paid lobola for his first wife.

A member of the Natal Indian Congress, the South African Communist Party and the ANC, Naidoo was a writer in her later years. Her non-fiction work, Footprints in Grey Street, profiled several characters from the struggle, including Zuma, AK Docrat and Florence Mkhize.

Naidoo was awarded the Order of Luthuli in 2003 for her contribution to the struggle. Her political activism led to her banning in 1965, for 10 years, after which she spent a further five under house arrest before going into exile in Lesotho (where she was letter-bombed, losing her front teeth), Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In one of her last interviews with the Mail & Guardian, she talked of the pain of exile and of the sacrifice of the struggle, which caused her to lose one of her two sons, Sadha, who was murdered in 1989 on an ANC farm in Lusaka. "Regardless, it was still a good life," she said. "I was bombed, my children were killed, but I wouldn't change my life for anything."

Phyllis Naidoo (January 5 1928- February 13 2013) is survived by her daughter, Shakthi, and two grandchildren. –


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