100 Years Of Solidarity Now It's Time To Die

Stalwarts of the Natal Indian Congress, which is celebrating its centenary, say it has served its purpose and should be disbanded. Farouk Chothia reports

WHAT was billed as a glorious celebration to mark the Natal Indian Congress’ 100th anniversary turned into an occasion where stalwarts of the Mahatma Gandhi-founded organisation wrote its obituary.

The NIC kicked off its celebration a fortnight ago with a march from Durban’s Mercury Lane—where Gandhi established his legal practice a century ago—to a hall in Lorne Street named after the Indian pacifist.But the march was a damp squib as a small band of between 100 and 150 activists took part; even NIC president George Sewpersadh left before a citation to honour his contribution to the liberation struggle could be awarded to him.

And to embarrass the organisers even further, NIC stalwart Kesaveloo Goonam, the only South African to be stripped of her citizenship under apartheid rule, called for the NIC to disband at the celebration rally. She also decided this week to return her citation to the NIC leadership.
“The NIC did a lot of wonderful work since it was founded 100 years ago,” she said, “but now is the time to go ... People just no longer have any faith in the organisation.”

Goonam’s call has received widespread support: veteran NIC activist Jaydew Singh, who served a lengthy banning spell under the Suppression of Communism Act; former NIC vice-president MJ Naidoo, who was part of the 1984 British Consulate sit-in in Durban; and National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) secretary Krish Govender expressed similar views.

“If the pathetically low turnout is not a pointer to close shop, then I don’t know what is,” said Naidoo. “Instead of hanging on with no real reason and no real support, we should say: ‘Thank you for the services rendered. You are not needed any longer.’”

Revived in 1971 as the only legal organisation upholding the Freedom Charter at a time when black consciousness was emerging as a powerful force, the NIC championed opposition against the South African Indian Council (SAIC) in 1978 and the tricameral elections in 1984 with remarkable success.

But the NIC’s credibility had reached a low ebb by 1987, when Naidoo led a walkout of activists, charging that a “cabal” had wrested control of the organisation and operated in an undemocratic fashion.

NIC leaders continued controlling the United Democratic Front (UDF), became senior figures in the ANC/ SACP’s Operation Vula underground network, organised a trip for Indian community leaders to meet the exiled ANC leadership in Lusaka in 1988 and the following year, were in the forefront of the Defiance Campaign under the banner of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). Foreign funding, important for the survival of the anti-apartheid movement, was also under their control.

The ANC’s unbanning in 1990 saw widespread resentment being ex-pressed towards the “cabal” in kwaZulu/Natal from previously sidelined internal activists and imprisoned and exiled leaders from across the racial spectrum.

Many prominent NIC leaders—including Pravin Gordhan and Farouk Meer—failed to be elected to positions in ANC structures in southern Natal, including Indian- dominated branches. In talks with the ANC, the NIC leadership insisted that it was the ideal vehicle to recruit membership for the ANC in Indian areas. This offer was firmly rejected.

And when the NIC executive failed to call internal elections, citing more pressing commitments at hand—its current executive was controversially elected in 1987—the perception grew that it wanted to cling on to power.

But diehard NIC activists still refuse to throw in the towel—including George Naicker, Abdul Randeree and NIC secretary Meer. Meer says his personal view is that the NIC “definitely” has a role to play, but it needs to rejuvenate itself after the “fullest possible consultation and participation of the community”.

Meer believes the NIC has a crucial role to play because the National Party has succeeded in winning over many Indians and making them fearful of the ANC. The Indian community is also concerned about the effects of affirmative action in education and the workplace, he adds. “There has been a legacy of apartheid and it is not unnatural for a community to have minority fears. Rather than having these fears channelled in the wrong direction, let’s have it channelled into a progressive organisation.”

Meer says the fact that the “thoroughly discredited” Amichand Rajbansi’s Minority Front secured 48 000 votes in the April elections points to the need for the NIC’s continued existence.

But Goonam counters that despite its long existence, the NIC had “failed miserably to win Indian support for the ANC in the April election”, while Naidoo says there is a “reasonable possibility” that the NIC would have fared worse than the Minority Front if it had contested the elections under its own banner.

Naidoo argues that the NIC needs to disband on principle: it existed to fill a vacuum left by the ANC’s banning and its activists now need to work “frantically” through the ANC to woo Indian support.

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