Billy Nair: the revolutionary hero
ILLY Nair, who died on October 23, 2008, at the age of 79, will be remembered as a firebrand political activist who was not cowed by 20 years imprisonment on Robben Island or the continued harassment, intimidation, detention and torture he endured at the hands of the former apartheid regime and its notorious security branch members and agents.
Only a year after being released from Robben Island in February 1984, Nair, who had re-integrated himself into the liberation struggle by joining the United Democratic Front, addressed a packed protest meeting at the former University of Durban-Westville in August 1985.
He was given a massive ovation and thunderous applause when he warned the former Pretoria regime and its backers that their days were numbered. This is what he told the students and members of the public:
“South Africa is today on fire and the cause of it is the Pretoria regime. And we also want to warn that those who bolster the Pretoria regime in the name of the Rajbansis, the Hendrickses, the Matanzimas, the Sebes and other racketeers, they too are co-responsible for the state of affairs.
“Now the question that arises is: is South Africa normal? Is it normal when you have insane men sitting in power, dividing the country into bantustans, into Indianstans, Colouredstans and whitestans?
“What you find here in South Africa today is a serious conflict between the minority ruling class and the rest of the populace – those fighting for democracy, for freedom, for a non-racial and a free, united South Africa.
“The minority government that lacks legitimacy and is rejected must change its stance because the longer it delays, this beloved country of ours will for sure be blazing a trail of blood, violence and disaster.”
Who was this firebrand? I had the privilege of befriending Billy Nair after his release from Robben Island and interviewing him on several occasions about his early life and involvement in the political struggle against the white minority regime.
From an early age Nair was involved in fighting for a better society and he continued to promote a non-racial and democratic society until his death in October 2008.
His parents, Ittyanian and Parvathi Nair, came to South Africa from the Cochin district of the state of Kerala in south India. He was born in the Sydenham area of Durban on November 27, 1929, into a family of three brothers and two sisters.
He went to Essendene Primary School and thereafter attended the Natal Technical College where he completed his Junior Certificate and his matric. He could not attend Sastri College to complete high school as his parents could not afford the fees.
Because his parents were poor, he was forced to start work as a clerk for a timber merchant in Durban at the age of 16. At his parents’ insistence he started to study commercial subjects and attend night classes.
During this period he also became politically aware and started to participate in political debates and discussions with fellow students.
He attended protest meetings at Red Square (in the heart of the former Grey Street complex) and came under the influence of Communist Party leaders such as Cassim Amra and SV Reddy.
At the young age of 21, he became a member of the Communist Party and also joined the Natal Indian Youth Congress and the Sydenham branch of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).
At this time, he was working as a despatch clerk at Durban Combined Dairies in Mayville. In 1951, he helped establish the Natal Dairy Union and became its secretary.
He was involved with Kay Moonsamy, who was the union’s chairperson. Moonsamy died on June 21 at the age of 91.
Nair’s employers did not like his involvement in the union and within six months he was fired from his job. So he became a full-time trade unionist and congress activist.
His first taste of harassment at the hands of security police was in 1952 when he participated in the first batch of Defiance Campaign protests led by the then leader of the Indian Congress, Dr Monty Naicker. He and 21 other activists were arrested and sentenced to seven months imprisonment.
After his release he continued to work as a full-time functionary of the NIC and the ANC, organising people to participate in protest campaigns.
In early 1953, after fellow trade unionists George Poonen, SV Reddy and Cassim Amra were banned, he took charge of 16 trade unions.
At the same time, he was elected as an executive member of the Natal Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party.
During this period Nair also stepped up his efforts to unite African, Indian and Coloured workers and helped launch the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in March 1955 in direct opposition to the rightwing trade union federation, the Trade Union Council of SA.
Their campaign among the workers at this time was under the banner: Organise or Starve.
In June 1955, he attended the Congress of the People in Kliptown, in Johannesburg, as a Sactu delegate. The Freedom Charter was launched at the Congress of the People.
As one of the speakers, Nair called for the nationalisation of the mines and the banks. Soon after he got home, he was arrested with 155 other activists and leaders and charged with high treason.
But in 1958, the trial was separated and he was among those released on bail. But a two-year banning order was imposed on him. It was extended to five years in 1961 after the ANC and the PAC were outlawed in 1960.
Nair was restricted to the Durban area and forced to resign all his trade union and political positions.
“I was restricted from entering any of our offices and the security branch people were keeping a close watch on me,” Nair told me.
“But I openly defied the restrictions from day one and even trained workers to become shop stewards. I was charged several times and Joe Slovo used to defend me. After two months, I was arrested in Durban and detained for three months for breaking my banning order.
“Although the ANC was banned, most of us began to work underground to continue the struggles.
“And in 1961, the ANC underground members planned to hold a conference, I think in Pietermaritzburg. But this was banned by the apartheid government.
“Nelson Mandela issued a statement saying the people would not take this lying down and would devise new strategies to resist the government.
“We were encouraged by certain groups in India, who had resorted to the armed struggle against the British colonialists before India gained its independence in 1947.
“uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) was launched and I became one of the commanders of MK in Natal with Curnik Ndlovu and Ronnie Kassrils. Our first acts of sabotage were the bombing of the offices of Indian, Coloured and Bantu Affairs in Durban.
“At the same time we brought out posters throughout South Africa bearing the phrases: ‘Eye for an eye’ and ‘Life for life’.
“This caused quite a sensation. However, all our targets were state institutions and no lives were taken. We received massive support from the people because we targeted not only state institutions but also collaborators.”
The State hit back and raided all their homes.
He was arrested on July 6, 1963, and detained for 90 days at the Point Prison in Durban.
After about four months in detention, he was charged along with 18 others, including Ndlovu and Sunny Singh, with sabotage.
“The trial lasted five months and on February 28, 1964, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison along with Ndlovu. The others were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
“We were held at Leeuwkop Prison in Johannesburg before being transported to Robben Island. I was severely beaten up before being taken to Robben Island.”
Billy Nair and Swaminathan Gounden talk about attending the launch of the Freedom Charter in 1955.
University of Durban-Westville students respond to Billy Nair’s call for action in 1985.
Family members welcome him after his release from Robben Island.