Billy Nair: the rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero

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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.

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