A toast to an un­sung SA hero on his 80th

Tes­ta­ment to Ebrahim’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Strug­gle

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - VAL BOJE

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

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