A giant of the anti-apartheid movement has fallen

Mohammed Hanef Bhamjee, close friend and comrade, brother of Yusuf Bhamjee, passed away peacefully on Saturday 8 January 2022 after a brief illness. 

Born on 1 December 1946, Bhamjee was exposed to the effects of apartheid from an early age. Unable to attend a local school in Wolmaransstad (in the old Transvaal), he had to travel quite a distance to a school, in an African area. 

This set him on a lifelong dedication to the struggle against apartheid and for a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa. 

His family moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1957. Bhamjee was enrolled at the Nizamia Primary School, where we met in standard 4. My poor working class background, and his political awakening, led to us becoming lifelong friends. 

In 1961/2, at the age of 15, Bhamjee recruited and organised a whole group of students to attend what were essentially political education classes every week.

Politically, Bhamjee was part of a study group that included Harry Gwala and Goolam Suberdar, who played a significant role in shaping his Marxist thinking. This group included Truman Magubane and other comrades from Sobantu. Bhamjee was the youngest in the group.

The late Dr Chota Motala likened Bhamjee to a 1976 cadre active in the 1960 period of the struggle.

Bhamjee worked with Motala, Dr Vasu Chetty and A S Chetty (among others) in this period. 

This led to the formation of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Natal Indian Youth Congress. Some of us were recruited by Bhamjee to do underground work for Umkhonto weSizwe in the Pietermaritzburg area. This included organising boycotts, distributing pamphlets, political education camps, painting slogans calling for the end of apartheid and the repeal of the 90-day detention laws. 

Bhamjee also recruited young activists to engage in social responsibility projects that exposed them to the inhumane effects of apartheid. 

This resulted in Bhamjee being harassed by the local Security Branch, leading to interrogations on a number of occasions in the period leading up to his matriculation in 1964. 

Following this increasing harassment, Bhamjee left South Africa on the advice of senior comrades to study, further his political education and training and to link up with the exiled leadership of the ANC in London. 

There, he immediately plunged into political activities of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the International Defence and Aid Fund. Once again he was engaged in organising student political education classes all around the UK and in Dublin, Ireland. 

While being a disciplined member of the ANC and SACP (then the Communist Party of South Africa), Bhamjee was an independent thinker with a keen grasp of politics and the struggle. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind and criticise leadership. This, sometimes, brought him into conflict with senior leadership and other fellow activists. 

While in London he engaged with comrades Oliver Tambo, Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Joe Slovo

In 1971, after completing a degree in social science at Birmingham University, Bhamjee relocated to Cardiff, Wales, to continue with a master’s degree.

However, he did not complete this degree as he was preoccupied with the founding of the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1972. Bhamjee served as its secretary until 1994 when Actsa was formed. 

In order to earn a living, Bhamjee became a sociology tutor at the University of Cardiff, and later, a human rights lawyer with a local firm of attorneys. 

In the lifetime he spent in Cardiff, Bhamjee traveled throughout the UK drumming up support for the struggle against apartheid. He addressed major conferences on the opposition to apartheid, including addressing the UN committee on the boycott apartheid movement. 

Bhamjee’s work in the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement led to him being awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2003 in recognition of his “services to race relations, the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the charity and voluntary sector”. He accepted this award on behalf of the thousands of members and volunteers of the Wales movement. 

Here in South Africa, in 2009, the Gandhi Development Trust presented Bhamjee with a Satyagraha award for his “contribution to the struggle for freedom in South Africa”.

Characteristically, in his acceptance speech, he was scathing in his criticism of corruption and lack of delivery of services as well as the jostling for power and patronage among comrades. He was also critical of the many individuals who became extremely wealthy as beneficiaries of black economic empowerment but did not give back some of their wealth to the communities from which they came. 

Bhamjee viewed his involvement in the struggle as being of service to the poor and marginalised in the country. He was a humble and caring person, a committed revolutionary, a socialist and internationalist, a freedom fighter and fearless champion for the cause of social justice. 

His political education, practical work and thinking influenced a whole generation of activists in London, Dublin, Wales, Mumbai and South Africa. 

Sadly, Bhamjee’s contribution, vital in the third pillar of the struggle against apartheid — namely the international boycott and isolation of the apartheid regime — has not been given due recognition in the country of his birth. This was as a result of his strident criticism and talking truth to power. 

The greatest tribute one can pay to Bhamjee is to emulate the ideals that he stood for, celebrate his life and continue the struggle. 

Hamba kahle comrade Hanef. 

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