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Swaminathan Gounden: The People’s Person

Anti-apartheid icon Swaminathan Karuppa Gounden passed away on Tuesday. File photo

Anti-apartheid icon Swaminathan Karuppa Gounden passed away on Tuesday. File photo

Published Dec 5, 2021

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OPINION: To echo a possible final word from Swami for the youth of today – the struggle for a just and free South Africa is far from over. Swaminathan Gounden chose to make a difference when he was barely 18 years old, writes Judge Thumba Pillay.

Who would have dreamed that a man, the son of a first-generation indentured labourer, born on the December 16, 1927, a day originally celebrated by Afrikaners as Dingaan’s Day and yet later on as the Day of the Covenant and the Day of the Vow; would be honoured some 90 years later by the award to him of the Order of Luthuli by a democratically elected government.

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December 16, we now call the Day of Reconciliation to celebrate our newly won freedom, the date also chosen in 1961 to launch the armed struggle and with-it Umkhonto We Sizwe.

The significance of the day of Swaminathan Gounden’s birth and the decades that followed his unwavering dedication to the cause of freedom, is what also marks him out be an icon of that struggle. It has been my honour and privilege to have had him as amongst the first to initiate me into the world of Struggle Politics. It would be impossible in the space allocated to me for this tribute to do justice to Swami’s struggle credentials.

As a 10-year-old in 1946, I was intrigued by a tent pitched up at a vacant site in the Gale Street/ Umbilo Road precinct and it was only later from family conversation and forging a friendship with another Struggle veteran and fellow university student M.J. Naidoo in 1955, that I learnt of the sterling organisational role played by Swami in that much celebrated campaign.

Having taken part in the student campaign to popularise the Kliptown meeting from which emerged the Freedom Charter, I knew Swami to be among those who with Billy Nair, Kay Moonsamy and others made it to the conference, while many of us university students were thwarted by the security police using every conceivable means to ensure that we never reached our destination.

Swami, at the date of his death remained among the few who attended the Kliptown meeting. And so started a friendship and association with Swaminathan which had its beginnings in about the mid-1950s and endured through his lifetime, during which, I rarely, if ever, came across a political colleague and friend of such humility … a real People’s Person.

Humility is the one word were I to choose to describe Swami, and it all goes back to his parentage which one can trace to the beginnings of Indian Indenture; and as co-incidences go, I learnt only recently that his father was the mahout who cared for Nellie the elephant at Mitchell Park, where again coincidentally, I was taken to meet and greet the famed elephant as a special childhood treat.

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Swami spent a considerable time of his early life living in what was called barracks accommodation principally for those lowly paid Indian employees of the City of Durban. Magazine Barracks, Point Barracks, Umbilo Barracks and the Depot Road Barracks come to mind, all familiar to the Gounden family and others of original Indian Indenture background.

His father passed on when Swami was still a child and it come as no surprise that when just about 18 years of age he resolved to throw himself into the struggle to better the lives of the downtrodden; was attracted to the trade union movement, and the influence of the likes of George and Vera Ponen, Mannie Pillay and later MD Naidoo, Billy Nair, MP and Dr Monty Naicker and eventually into the Communist Party of which stalwarts like Dawood Seedat, Roley Arenstein, Kay Moonsamy MD Naidoo and the Ponens played a pivotal role.

He and many of the stalwarts in the Communist Party founded and led many of the trade unions of years gone by, among them the now relatively unknown Tin Workers Union, the Municipal Workers Union, the Leather Workers Union, The Baking Workers Union, the Laundry Workers Union, the Tea and Coffee Workers Union and an unlikely Fire Workers Union.

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Following the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign Swami was involved in the 1952 Defiance Campaign, followed by his participation in the drawing up of the Freedom Charter. Thereafter his activities amount to a virtual history of Struggle politics. He was detained in solitary without trial, interrogated, tortured and faced charges under various pieces of Apartheid Day legislation. He was among the earliest of those “listed” under the notorious Suppression of Communism Act.

My own banning in 1963 brought to an end my interaction with him as neither of us who served together in Dr Monty Naicker’s executive in 1961 could communicate with each other. It is now a matter of recorded history that despite the many meetings of the executive held under the greatest of secrecy during the early 1960s, the NIC (National Indian Congress) eventually disintegrated, unable to function under the strain of a record number of bannings, arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment for what was termed “subversive activity”.

In 1974 with the expiry of my 10-year banning order, I was able to renew my interaction with Swami upon the revival if the NIC although he remained “Listed” for some years thereafter.

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I recall that in the early 1960s, Swami was held in solitary under the notorious detention without trial laws together with the likes of MD Naidoo, MP Naicker, Dawood Seedat, RG Pillay and Kay Moonsamy, only to be released after some of the State witnesses were salted out of the country.

MD Naidoo was not that fortunate and did serve a term of imprisonment on Robben Island whilst some of the others went into exile. Swami stayed the course and at some stage in his long activist days, was offered a position in the Durban Child and Family Welfare Movement and became a much admired and sought-after colleague of the late Dr Khorshed Ginwala.

His passing on marks the end of an era of unequalled struggle against racism and human rights abuses. He was also an extremely proud family man who never shied away from lauding their successes or their care of him in trying times.

Despite his advanced years Swami refused to give up or take leave from his lifelong commitment to make South Africa the place envisaged in the Freedom Charter, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution – even if it meant hobbling along in great pain to show solidarity and support on the many issues that plague us to this day. His entire family are to be lauded for staying the course with him through thick and thin.

I will miss those very early morning chats when he would call on me to compare notes and reflect on days gone by as we try to put together shared moments in Struggle history. As age takes its toll, it is a given that recollection of shared moments in history and life generally are prone to different and varying perceptions and interpretations. We were no exception. It was and will remain stimulating. And also, for me, the end of an era leaving me now the sole survivor of Dr Monty Naicker’s NIC Executive.

Judge Thumba Pillay has paid a moving tribute to his late former struggle comrade Swami Gounden. Picture: Supplied.

Go well my friend and rest in the peace you so richly deserve. And to echo a possible final word from Swami for the youth of today – the struggle for a just and free South Africa is far from over. Swaminathan Gounden chose to make a difference when he was barely 18 years old.

* Pillay is a retired judge in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court.

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