It is no accident that a meeting held to commemorate the life of Yunus Mahomed was attended by scores of luminaries from the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Current and former Cabinet ministers such as Trevor Manuel and Valli Moosa, together with South African Revenue Service chief Pravin Gordhan and Gauteng ANC chairperson Paul Mashatile, paid tribute to their comrade, who died of a heart attack on January 6.
An architect of the UDF, Mahomed’s political practice was informed by his Marxism. Jeremy Seekings, in his history of the UDF, charts the emergence of a group of ”young Indian activists”, led by Gordhan and Mahomed, who broke with the Black Consciousness (BC) organisations, but who were also ”dissatisfied with the elite politics of the Natal Indian Congress [NIC] leadership”. They sought instead to ”promote mass politics” by organising around civic issues.
They broke with BC, including white speakers on their platforms and promoting a ”non-racialism which distinguished Charterism from Azapo”. Cultivating links with ANC underground figures such as Mac Maharaj, they resuscitated the Congress tradition.
But this course, which included reviving organisations such as the Transvaal Indian Congress, courted criticisms about organising around ethnicities and ”races”, which Mosiuoa ”Terror” Lekota countered by saying that ”you cannot just declare non-racialism; you must build it”. Then followed the birth of the UDF.
Mahomed was born in Johannesburg in 1950, lived in Jeppe and attended Gold Street Primary School and Williams Hills Secondary School in Benoni, matriculating in 1967. At the University of Durban-Westville, he was involved in student boycotts organised by the South African Students’ Organisation in 1972. It was here that he befriended Gordhan, Krish Govender and Zac Yacoob, now a judge on the Constitutional Court.
Mahomed joined the revived NIC in 1970, and by the late 1970s had joined the South African Communist Party and the ANC underground. Admitted as an attorney in 1976, he joined lawyer Shun Chetty’s law firm, which defended many anti-apartheid activists during the period.
He was a member of the Democratic Lawyers’ Association, and his civic activism found expression in his work with the Chatsworth housing action committee and the Natal rates committee, among others.
In the 1980s, he agitated against the South African Indian Council, and he eventually became Natal regional secretary of the UDF. He was active in fostering links with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the union movement, and in negotiations with Inkatha to stem the violence in KwaZulu-Natal. He was detained in 1981/82 and was arrested again in 1985.
Mahomed served on the ANC’s economic intelligence desk in 1986, and with Kagiso Trust, of which he was the chairperson at the time of his death.
He is survived by his life partner, Dhaya Pillay, siblings Zarina, Rabia, Idris and Husain, and his parents, Amina and Ismail Mahomed.