The Naidoo-Pillays – A spirit of struggle
A new exhibition opening at the Apartheid Museum today, called Resistance in their Blood, looks back at the story of the Naidoo-Pillay family, who for more than 200 years have stood at the front lines of political activism in South Africa, and their native India.
Surprisingly little is known about one of the most prominent families in the fight for freedom. From fighting alongside Mohandas Gandhi in the Satyagraha movement and their rise in the ranks of uMkhonto weSizwe, to their recent public letter addressing their dismay at the capture of the ANC – theirs is a story of struggle in the fight for a non-racial South Africa, one that has been lost in the dominant narrative.
Plaques placed inside the museum explain the heritage of the family. After being shipped off from India as slaves to the fertiliser fields of the British colony of Mauritius, Govindasamy Krishnasamy Naidoo – affectionately known as Thambi – and Do you have any stories to share about the long history of the Naidoo-Pillay family in the fight for equality in SA? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword PILLAY and share your story. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50 his family boarded a passenger boat to South Africa in the 1870s to find their fortune in a new country. Thambi would ultimately come to fight against Jan Smuts’ damning Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which forced Indians to register their fingerprints and carry identification documents at all times.
Thambi's wife, Parenithama Pillay, would also join the fight for freedom, organising a 300-strong march of Indian women, most of whom were ordinary homemakers, to resist the unjust laws being put in place against Indian South Africans. Together the husband and wife would join Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, and would become the leading proponents of its message of non-violent resistance across South Africa.
“Perhaps the bravest of all is the indomitable Thambi Naidoo. I do not know any Indian who knows the spirit of the struggle so well as he does. He has sacrificed himself entirely,” Gandhi once said of the patriarch.
Gandhi’s communal Tolstoy Farm – established by him and his friend (and rumoured lover) Hermann Kallenbach – would become a home-away-from-home for the Naidoo-Pillay family after they lost their fortunes in the fight against Smuts. It is one of four key locations in the Naidoo-Pillay family’s history: another a home in Marabastad, Pretoria; the third in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, and another in London, which would become a site of major apartheid resistance for exiled cadres.
Thambi youngest son Prema (72) said that seeing his family on the walls of the museum “feels very good, like excellent timing”.
Prema’s brother, Indres, was imprisoned on Robben Island for sabotage in 1963. Prema himself was in and out of prison a number of times in the 1980s and was severely tortured by apartheid police.
He was a ward councillor in the City of Johannesburg, and serves on the board of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Many of his family members protested President Jacob Zuma’s axing in March of then finance minister Pravin Gordhan.
For the next generation of the family, the fight continues, he says, “with a little help from us”.
Imam and Thambi Naidoo The Naidoo-Pillay women of the Satyagraha movement
Shanthie Naidoo at an anti-apartheid demonstration in London, flanked by Fred Carneson on the left and Hugh Lewin on the right