Saro Naicker: A life well lived
WHEN the land of one’s birth calls you back to celebrate your 90th birthday with friends and relatives of a small community, you know you have finally come home.
It was a great celebration with stalwarts like Mac Maharaj, Sam Ramsamy and Judge Thumba Pillay and many others at the Jaipur Palace restaurant in Durban when fellow activists reminisced on their lives in exile together.
Aunty Saro was a great cook, and her culinary skills were akin to the atavistic call to recreate a home from home.
Sarogoonam Naicker was born in Durban in 1928 and metamorphosed from a traditional wife to a woman in her own right. The story of Saro Naicker’s life is one of hardship and determination.
It is a story of a woman’s personal battle to cope with the challenges of being the traditional wife of a seriously dedicated die-hard communist activist, and not quite understanding what his world was all about, but seeking desperately to find her place in it.
Despite her hard life, Saro is well preserved at 90. What comes through strongly is her meticulousness in recalling the details of dates and occurrences that highlighted important events in her memorable life. At the birthday party, she never misses a beat, and although she is surrounded by hundreds of guests, she chides her nephew for having come in late.
I had the privilege of having interviewed her for a book I had written on Indian women from Indenture to Democracy nine years ago and some of the insights into this remarkable woman still apply.
She had shared several newspaper clippings that she had collected over the years with me, and I noted at that time that despite her frequent relocation as an exile, she had not lost her important documents. The pictures brought back memories and told their own stories of a dedicated and traditional Indian wife waiting outside the Durban Magistrate’s Court in 1964 to pick up her husband, the well-respected NIC activist MP Naicker, after his release from prison on bail for a 90day detention trial.
Some memories for me were trapped in time and place, and her presence at the Umgeni Road temple was one such memory. As she was in deep prayer, the other devotees would say: “Shame, the poor lady is praying for her husband, who is locked up in prison.”
But while they were saddened by her state, they were also rather nervous about her political involvement.
I got the distinct impression that she was a loner. The thought occurs constantly as one marvels at this traditional, yet progressive woman who, without much formal education, sought to emancipate herself to view life from a perspective so different from her peers.
Like most young women of her generation, her formal schooling ended at Standard 4, but she continued with her vernacular studies and was well versed in Tamil language and literature.
She says: “Although I could speak Tamil well, I recall being very self-conscious later in my life when my husband had so many highly educated political activists at our home in London, and I couldn’t speak English well. He then told me that I should always remember that English was not my mother tongue.
“Still, I was determined to improve myself and build my self-confidence, and continued my studies by enrolling for adult education while in exile in Britain.”
Today, she proudly has a degree in the social sciences.
For Saro, marriage in 1943 at the tender age of 15 offered a difficult and challenging life in an extended family in which the matriarch, Panjalai, held the purse strings and made all the major decisions. She was advised early in her marriage by her mother-in-law to learn a trade, such as dressmaking, by which she could sustain herself in hard times.
This was fortuitous advice since she became the sole breadwinner in later life when her husband was imprisoned for his political activities. In several speeches at the birthday, many of her nieces recalled having received beautiful garments that she had made for them over the years.
Marriage, though challenging for a 15-year-old, opened a new window in her life through which she was able to see the world differently. Her husband was the chief instructor in her political education and taught her the basics of activism. Her first assignment was to collect signatures from Indian women to protest against the Kajee/Pather pact in support of the anti-segregation movement of the NIC.
In 1952, during the Defiance Campaign which the ANC together with the SA Indian Congress organised against unjust laws, over 8 500 volunteers or defiance campaigners were imprisoned.
Saro recalls: “I participated in defying the apartheid laws by entering in white areas and sitting on white benches. I sought the permission of my in-laws, who supported me by assuring me that they would take care of my children if I had to go to jail. I served one month’s hard labour, leaving my 6-year-old and 11-monthold baby behind.”
Her memory of the month that she spent in prison is as clear as if it happened yesterday.
“I was placed in the women’s prison with hundreds of mainly black women and given one month’s hard labour. The walls of the prison were very high, and I was placed in a very small cell with a stinking s*** bucket. They degraded us by physically examining us for venereal diseases.
“When the women prisoners were curious to know what crime I had committed, they could not believe their ears when I said that my only crime was that I was fighting for the freedom of our country. Thereafter, they took care of me and showed me the utmost respect.
“When I was tasked with cleaning the lavatories, they would come to my rescue, and on one occasion, I had to stand in a pool of unsanitary water and wash filthy clothes with my bare hands. They brought me a stool to stand on and a brush to scrub the clothes, so that my hands would not be so soiled. I was so touched by these acts of kindness.
“When we were then given the task of having to break stones with a hammer, they taught me my rights. By refusing to perform the job without goggles, lest our eyes were damaged by the splinters of rocks, we stood together against the authorities who then relented.”
In 1965, on the instruction of senior leaders of the ANC, Saro’s husband went into exile to continue political work outside of the country. She was denied a passport to join her husband overseas but was given 90 days to leave the country on an exit visa forever.
“I left South Africa, my beloved country of birth, on 13 February, 1967, and arrived in Southampton on 13 March, 1967, to face a hard and challenging life of exile.
“The forces that shaped my life in London were financial hardship, racism and homesickness. Life in London was initially very tough.
“I was depressed, and the long separation from my husband brought me back to a different man. He was not the husband that I knew. Subsequently, I came to understand that it wasn’t easy for him either. We were on a tight budget, and I had to run the family home on a pittance.”
Her motivation to study came from the realisation that the people she was surrounded by in London and Moscow, such as the Pahad brothers, Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Mabhida and others, were highly intellectual and politically astute, and she wanted to improve herself to fit into this world.
As a couple, life was not easy for the Naickers. They had a hard life together, but he always included her in his work. Soon, she embraced her husband’s world. “MP always loved writing and was a selftaught journalist.
“He was given the important post of Director of Information and Publicity, the highest position given to an Indian at that time, and he used the pseudonym of Mandla Nkosi. He was also made the editor of Sechaba, the official organ of the ANC.”
Initially, Saro assisted with the typing of important manuscripts. Later, she joined him in working for Sechaba. “I enjoyed every minute of my working days there, and more so because of MP’s dedication to the Struggle, and to produce such a journal of international consumption was meaningful to me.”
Having spent 42 years in exile the question of identity is an interesting one.
When approached with this question Saro is unhesitatingly clear: “I am deeply proud of being a South African Indian woman. I am traditionally steeped in my cultural ways, and despite the fact that I have lived in London for so long, I have not abandoned my faith or culture, its rich values of family and morality.”
She holds a newspaper clipping to remind me of the faith of their commitment.
The headline reads: ‘Naicker Lived and Died for SA’. On his fatal trip to Berlin on 29 April, 1977, to deliver publicity material for printing, at the age of 56, MP Naicker was struck down by a massive heart attack. Saro recalls the event with fresh pain at the loss of her life partner.
But for this interesting woman “the battle was well worth the war”.
Rajab is chairperson of the Development Democracy Programme
The writer says the story of Saro Naicker’s life is one of hardship and determination.