Ebrahim Ebrahim obituary: A life that leaves behind a substantial legacy of kindness and compassion
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By Janet Smith
His little shadow moved around him as he bathed and went to bed swept in darkness. This was an isolating sensation even when the house was full of people.
Before he fell asleep, he would lie looking around him, thinking about sweets but there weren’t any. The family worried only about how to get rice and bread.
When he was a much older person, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim told how his lifelong affinity with Communism started then.
During World War 2 and in the years after air raid sirens and lights-out orders had ended, he stood in queues to buy rice as a young boy with his grandmother, Sarah Khan. ‘Ma’, as he called her, was anxious about having enough to feed them all.
Ebrahim believed it was because of the Communist Party of South Africa, whose members swooped on the warehouses of rogue merchants in Durban hoarding for the black market, that they didn’t go hungry. The red raiders would bring the rice out onto the pavements where the people could buy it for sevenpence a pound.
Ebrahim, affectionately known as ‘Ebie’, enjoyed relating quiet stories of being a child in the company of ‘Ma’, who was his friend, his guide and his most empathic carer. When she died when he was a teenager, his gave his life to the revolution and comrades took over the chambers of his heart.
Ebie was born in 1937 into a family including indentured and voluntary travellers from India who were drawn to Durban in the last years of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century.
It would have brought his serious 14-year-old self a burst of joy to know he would live to 84 and see all his dreams come true. Ebie was denied membership of the Natal Indian Congress at first because he was too young but he nevertheless went into its offices every day, becoming a tireless, fearless advocate for freedom.
That was how he remained – unwavering to the cause.
Ebie died on the 6th December, at home in Pretoria, a comrade to the last, a beloved father to Cassia, Sarah and Kadin, and soulmate and husband to Shannon.
A significant blessing is that he believed in sharing his experiences, even if he had difficulty centring himself especially in the most brave of those. He leaves a substantial legacy of kindness and compassion.
It’s no surprise that his apartheid torturer, the vicious Nick Deetlefs, became furious with Ebie when he was interrogating him. Deetlefs said: ‘We are not going to physically harm you, but we are going to put you through something, and if you survive, I will be convinced that you are not human.’
Indeed, after that, Ebie was subjected to psychological torment, which scratches, squeaks, scrapes and tears at the mind leaving a person unsure that they are alive. Even so, a son of the collective, Ebie did not betray a soul.
It takes imagination to conjure a time when the name ‘Ebrahim Ebrahim’ was used to frighten white South Africans and prop up supremacist propaganda that ‘the Communists’ were coming to take ‘our’ land.
That terror -- apartheid -- spread and crept malevolently, using violence of such magnitude that our country is still battling to recover.
Ebie volunteered to fight it in the 1950s, becoming a messenger, runner and organiser for the Congress movement as it prepared to launch the Freedom Charter, and an intense and dedicated compatriot and journalist before being recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe by Ronnie Kasrils.
Among his most vivid memories of that time were about being in the company of the greats, including Yusuf Dadoo, Monty Naicker, Albert Luthuli, Phyllis Naidoo and Nelson Mandela.
He and Kasrils, a friend for life, were key to the early Durban sabotage units, which set about destabilising the Establishment, always without bloodshed.
Arrested and convicted under terrorism charges in 1964, Ebie was described by his captors as “a dangerous, unscrupulous blaggard, totally lacking in respect for the government and opposed to its policy”.
He would spend 17 years on Robben Island – 15 the first time, and two the second – leaving with two degrees and the know-how of cooking crayfish, illegally, on a windy beach.
Ebie told of how he would return to prison in his thoughts throughout his life. It was impossible not to as he would dream about it. Those experiences grew more profound the older he got.
The first years were harrowing and wounding but also intellectually engrossing – a time in which friendships were ultimately built between giants, among them Harry Gwala, Steve Tshwete, Jeff Masemola, Billy Nair, Shadrack Maphumulo and Indres Naidoo.
The Rivonia trialists were separated from the other prisoners but their links to each other were cemented through circles within circles inside the cells.
Ebie would also become a leader there, suffering the hostile echo chamber of spades and hammers in the quarry alongside men from the ANC, the PAC and, later, the Black Consciousness movement.
Upon his release in 1979, he was taken back to Durban under banning orders, expected to buckle under subjugation. There was no chance of that. He immediately entered an underground movement beginning to be dominated by the ANC again after a period of dormancy with most of its leadership in prison or exile.
It wouldn’t take long before Ebie would himself have to escape across the border to Zambia, Mozambique and eSwatini.
He often recalled the solidarity from other parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and a number of conflict areas around the world, which he found in Maputo where South Africans mixed with Cubans, Communists from eastern and western Europe and other patriots wanted by the apartheid regime, prominently, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Jacob Zuma, Sunny Singh, Sue Rabkin, Albie Sachs, Rashid Aboobaker and Ivan Pillay.
Ebie would travel to the USSR with his great friend, George Naicker, and was trained as a guerrilla in MK camps in Angola. That was an undoubtedly fraught time in which the ANC’s leadership reacted harshly to anyone suspected of working with the enemy. Yet Ebie’s gentle side was always evident.
So, too, his abiding passion for the music of his childhood, which carried even into the bush where he was put on satellite radio-monitoring duty at night. Between Radio Moscow, the BBC, Voice of America and the SABC, he would switch to All India to hear the songs of the playback superstars – Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and the ‘skylark’, Geeta Dutt.
Later, when Ebie was reincarcerated on Robben Island and prisoners were allowed to choose music to broadcast in the cells, he did the same, delighting in confusing the warders with sitars and Bollywood.
Ebie moved in and out of South Africa, Mozambique and eSwatini as an MK operative through the early 1980s, the most dangerous years of the struggle. This was a time when the SADF was brazenly killing cadres in cross-border strikes. Those captured inside the country underwent agonising treatment from the security police. Many were murdered.
Yet that was also a remarkable period for Ebie as his daughter, Cassia, was born through a friendship with her mother, Julie Wells, an American academic he met in South Africa and again in eSwatini. Although he never anticipated becoming a father, he loved Cassia dearly and immediately.
They were only able to meet face-to-face when she was five years old and Ebie was on trial for treason in Pretoria, in 1988. He was the chairperson of the ANC’s Revolutionary Politico Military Council and living near Mbabane when he was abducted to first face torture and solitary confinement back in South Africa.
Ebie’s relationship with Dutch anti-apartheid activist Hélène Pastoors was made public as Pastoors herself faced extreme trauma in detention, also under Deetlefs. Apartheid prosecutors made much of Ebie’s bond with Pastoors and his love affair with another Dutch activist, author Conny Braam, who would spend years campaigning for Ebie’s release.
If Ebie had regrets, it was about Pastoors, and also the activist Shaik family whose support for him when he was in hiding had dire effects. Operating under brothers Moe and Yunus’s MK unit in Durban, Ebie was protected for months when he was the most wanted man in South Africa.
While he was in hiding, the brothers and other comrades from the same unit underwent torture so savage that some sustained permanent injury.
When Ebie was finally released from the Island in 1991 after his second imprisonment and being reunited with his brothers, Gora and Essop, his sisters Fatima and Ayesha, his nephews and nieces, and his mother, Hafeeza Bibi Khan, he assumed they would be his only family in his new life.
Elected onto the ANC’s National Executive Committee, he was mandated by ANC President Mandela to set up a formation of anti-apartheid movements and parties to back multilateral negotiations in the early 1990s. Ebie was among those selected as an MP in 1994, and elected chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs.
But the ideas about his destiny changed in 1998, when he was working with the Non-Alignment Movement as a government official, and met Shannon Field, a United Nations reform specialist and advisor to the Canadian Secretary of State.
They married in 2000 and their children Sarah and Kadin were born in 2006 and 2008. Ebie was deeply proud of Shannon and all three of his children, whose every activity brought him joy. They gave him the happiness he had not had.
In 2009, Zuma appointed him deputy minister of international relations, and through Ebie’s work on behalf of the South African state in Burundi, East Timor and the DRC he developed a skill in conflict, a resolution which continued after he left government.
He would later join former National Party chief negotiator Roelf Meyer, former ANC negotiators and attorney Mohammed Bhabha and civil society leader Ivor Jenkins in global peace mediation in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Israel and Palestine, Colombia, Madagascar and Zimbabwe.
Ebie had a persistence about urging everyone to express love in this world, and never let it lie. He had a liking for Nikolai Ostrovsky, and the Soviet writer’s creed.
“Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my strength was given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the liberation of mankind.’
*Janet Smith is a journalist, author and former editor.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media and IOL.