A toast to an unsung SA hero on his 80th
Testament to Ebrahim’s contribution to the Struggle
THE ANC policy conference this weekend coincided with a special event to celebrate the life of one of its unsung heroes, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim.
The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation hosted a dinner in Joburg on Saturday to mark “The Life and Times of Ebie Ebrahim” on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The event was testament to the contribution of South Africans of Indian origin who put their lives on the line during the apartheid era to fight for democracy and freedom.
The theme of non-racialism in the fight against apartheid was symbolised by the fusion performance of both Indian and African dancers from the dance troupe Tribhangi, and in a rap song based on Be the Change you Want to See, presented by Ebrahim’s children.
In a video tribute produced by Anant Singh for the event, Nelson Mandela was featured speaking about Ebrahim’s contribution. “He emerged as one of the most outstanding pillars of the movement, who was not only committed and loyal, but who had the ability to explain the policy of the organisation.”
Ebrahim’s wife Shannon, Independent’s group foreign editor, prepared a booklet, The Life and Times of Ebie Ebrahim: A Gentle Revolutionary, published by the Kathrada Foundation.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former president Kgalema Motlanthe graced the head table, with Motlanthe making the opening tribute to Ebrahim’s contribution to the Struggle for democracy.
Ebrahim joined the ANC in 1952 at the age of 14 and threw himself into the passive-resistance and defiance campaigns of the 1950s.
His comrades remember him as a young revolutionary, overturning tables of potatoes in the local markets during the potato boycott of 1959, a protest against the mistreatment of workers on the potato farms of Bethal. He was also involved in the revolt of the peasants of rural Natal and the economic boycott against firms that supported the National Party.
As a young man, Ebrahim was hounded by the police for his political activism and spent his free time after school working for the left-wing publication at the time called the New Age, and producing leaflets to politicise the masses. By the age of 18, he had gained the respect of his community and was elected to represent his area at the Congress of the People in 1955, which adopted the Freedom Charter.
It was the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 that damped hopes of effectively waging a peaceful Struggle against apartheid, and Ebrahim was one of the founding members of Umkhonto weSizwe in Natal, joining the Natal High Command of MK.
Ebrahim waged the Sabotage Campaign with comrades Ronnie Kasrils and Sunny Singh.
“Ebie was one of the first MK combatants to engage in sabotage, and he delivered some stunning successes, such as the blowing up of electricity pylons which plunged the city of Durban into darkness, bombing a railway line and targeting the offices of an apartheid collaborator,” Kasrils recalls of the sabotage years. The units were meticulous in ensuring they did not endanger the lives of civilians.
As the dragnet of the apartheid security apparatus closed in on the saboteurs, Ebrahim and Kasrils set up an underground base in Kloof, north of Durban. It was there that Kasrils pretended to be the owner, Ebrahim the painter and their comrade-in-arms, Bruno Mtolo, the gardener.
The unit carried out some spectacular acts of sabotage of the early MK campaigns. What brought an end to their operations was the arrest of Mtolo, who subsequently betrayed his comrades to the security police, divulging the location of their underground house.
When Ebrahim went to warn another comrade who was due to arrive at the Kloof station not to proceed to the house, he was surrounded by security police, who held a gun to his head.
Ebrahim then became a prisoner of the apartheid state and would not see freedom for much of his young adult life, recounted Shannon Ebrahim in a moving tribute to her husband.
He was accused No 1 in the Pietermaritzburg sabotage trial – along with 18 other accused, including Billy Nair, Curnick Ndlovu and Singh – and was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island, which in 1964 was one of the most feared penal colonies in the world.
In those early years, prisoners were allowed to change their clothes only once a week, there was no toilet paper and they were forced to sleep on rough sisal mats on the cold cement floor, in cells that held 60 prisoners each.
Ebrahim was put in a cell with Jacob Zuma, who had come from the rural areas of Natal, and he taught him to read and write.
The torture of Robben Island was the daily hard labour at the stone quarry. The warders would wake up the prisoners at 5am and stand at the grille of the cell, beating them as they filed out to breakfast. Breakfast was porridge with one teaspoon of brown sugar and a mug of coffee, which they ate while squatting in an open-air courtyard.
The prisoners were then marched off to the quarry, to chip stones and push wheelbarrows all day, with the warders constantly beating them.
Ebrahim was one of a few who registered in the early years on Robben Island for a university degree and, by the time he was released in 1979, he held two Unisa degrees.
The authorities failed to break Ebrahim’s spirit. Instead, he reinvigorated his commitment to the values and principles of the ANC. On his release in 1979, he threw himself back into the underground work of the party, despite the restrictions of a banning order that confined him to the Pinetown magisterial district.
It wasn’t long before the ANC leadership in Lusaka ordered him out of the country as his security had been comprised. He was sent for military training in Angola before being made head of the ANC’s political military committee in Swaziland. It was from Swaziland that Ebrahim ran the political underground in South Africa, at one stage coming into the country on a secret mission in disguise to report to the ANC leadership about the situation on the ground in 1985.
The apartheid security police became aware that Ebrahim had been in the country and detained a number of members of an MK unit who were responsible for his protection while in the country. They were severely tortured and held in solitary confinement for nine months before being released.
Where Ebrahim was based underground in Swaziland, apartheid agents were expanding their network of spies, and it wasn’t long before he was abducted from his house in December 1986, blindfolded and gagged, and brought back to South Africa and delivered to the headquarters of the security police in Pretoria.
Ebrahim said: “I would have rather died than have betrayed a single one of my comrades or my organisation.”
The security police were unable to elicit a single answer out of him during months of torture and interrogation. The ANC did not know what had become of him until he managed to smuggle out a note from Pretoria maximum security prison, addressed to his lawyer, Priscilla Jana, documenting his torture.
What followed was a lengthy treason trial that lasted over 18 months, where the State sought to link him to military attacks in the country, in order to obtain the death penalty. It lined up false witnesses who gave testimony that failed to withstand cross-examination.
Despite the fact that the State was unable to prove its case, the judge ignored the legal arguments of the defence that it had no jurisdiction to try Ebrahim as he was abducted from a foreign country, and sentenced him to an additional 20 years on Robben Island.
After serving three years, Ebrahim won his case on appeal when Judge Steyn found that the court had no legal jurisdiction to try him. He ruled that Ebrahim’s abduction from Swaziland and return to South Africa were in breach of international law. The State had come to the trial with unclean hands and the sovereignty of other states had to be respected. Four judges of the Appeal Court concurred, and the next day, on February 27, 1991, Ebrahim was released.
An outstanding pillar of the movement
CELEBRATION: Ebrahim Ebrahim cuts the cake with ANC comrades on the 25th anniversary of the publication of New Age in Durban in 1962, with Ronnie Kasrils to his right.
FREEDOM KEY: Above: Ebrahim Ebrahim after receiving the master key of Robben Island from Paul Langa. BELOW: Ebrahim opens his former cell on Robben Island.
HONOURED: Ebrahim Ebrahim