Unsung hero of Struggle honoured​ on his 80th birthday

Ebrahim Ebrahim at his cell on Robben Island.

Ebrahim Ebrahim at his cell on Robben Island.

Published Jul 3, 2017


The ANC policy conference at the 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. Factionalism, which has characterised ANC gatherings in recent times, gave way to a display of unity around the legacy of a stalwart who embodies the principles of the movement that Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada held so dear.

The event was a testament to the contribution of South Africans of Indian origin who put their lives on the line during apartheid to fight for democracy and freedom in South Africa. 

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, saying: “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 for the event, and 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 his early teens in 1952 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; he 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 already 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 which dampened hopes of effectively waging a peaceful Struggle against apartheid, and Ebrahim was one of the founding members of Umkhonto we Sizwe in Natal, joining the Natal High Command of MK.


The Life and Times… outlines how, with comrades such as Ronnie Kasrils and Sunny Singh, Ebrahim waged the Sabotage Campaign.

“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, but 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 young saboteurs, Ebrahim and Kasrils set up an underground base in Kloof, north of Durban. 

It was there that Kasrils pretended to be the landowner, Ebie Ebrahim the painter and their comrade-in-arms Bruno Mtolo the gardener. 

The unit carried out some spectacular acts of sabotage during the early MK campaigns. What brought an end to their operations was the arrest of Bruno Mtolo, who subsequently betrayed his comrades to the security police, divulging the location of their underground house.

When Ebrahim had gone to warn another comrade who was due to arrive at the Kloof station not to proceed on to the house, he was surrounded by security police who held a gun to his head. 

From that moment on, Ebrahim became a prisoner of the apartheid state, not to see freedom for much of his young adult life, recounts Shannon Ebrahim in her 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 Sunny Singh. 

Ebrahim 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 only allowed to change their clothes 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 accommodated 60 prisoners each. 

Ebrahim was put in a cell with Jacob Zuma, who had come from the rural areas of Natal, and Ebrahim would eventually be one of the comrades who helped teach the young Zuma to read and write.  

But the real 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 grill of the cell beating them as they filed out to breakfast, soft mieliemeel porridge with one teaspoon of brown sugar and a mug of coffee, which they were forced to eat squatting in an open-air courtyard. The prisoners were marched off to the quarry for the next eight hours where they had 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 had earned two degrees from Unisa.

The authorities failed to break Ebrahim’s spirit, and instead reinvigorated his commitment to the values and principles of the ANC. 

On being released from Robben Island in 1979, he threw himself back into the underground work of the ANC party, despite the restrictions of a banning order that confined him to the Pinetown magisterial district in Durban.

It was not long before the ANC leadership in Lusaka ordered him out of the country, as his security had been comprised, and 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 full-blown disguise in order 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. 

The cadres were severely tortured and held in solitary confinement for nine months before being released.

While 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 taken over the border back into 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 to any of their questions during months of torture and interrogation. For weeks, the ANC did not know what had become of him until he managed to smuggle out a note from the Pretoria maximum security prison following his ordeal in John Vorster Square. 

The note documented his torture and was addressed to his lawyer, Priscilla Jana.

What followed was a lengthy treason trial that lasted over 18 months, where the state had sought to link him to military attacks in the country in order to seek the death penalty. The state lined up false witnesses who gave testimony that failed to withstand cross-examination and an array of mysterious Mr Xs were masqueraded as state witnesses.

Despite the fact that the state was unable to prove its case, the judge ignored the legal arguments of the defence that the state had no jurisdiction to try him as he was abducted from a foreign country, and sentenced Ebrahim to an additional 20 years on Robben Island. 

As the sentence was read out, the state prosecutor Louise van der Walt shouted “Long live the AWB”.

After serving three years on the Island, Ebrahim won his case on appeal when Justice Steyn found that the court had had no legal jurisdiction to try him. 

Steyn ruled that Ebrahim’s apprehension, abduction from Swaziland, transport and return to South Africa, arrest and detention were in breach of international law, and therefore unlawful. 

He said the state had come to the trial with unclean hands and that the sovereignty of other states had to be respected. Four justices of the Appeal Court concurred with the decision and the very next day, on February 27, 1991, Ebrahim was released.

Boje is editor of the Pretoria News 

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