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.

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