By Yasmin Sooka
Ebrahim Ebrahim’s biography Beyond Fear: The Reflections of a Freedom Fighter tells the compelling story of the liberation Struggle and the stalwarts who played a central role in shaping it.
Ebrahim, fondly referred to by Judge Albie Sachs as the “quiet hero”, begins his Struggle history as a courageous 14-year-old, who defiantly refuses to allow the politics of apartheid poverty and racial segregation to quell his indomitable spirit or take away his identity.
Ebie, as he was fondly known, grew up knowing what hunger and poverty was about, selling samoosas and popcorn made by his mother to support his family.
He describes his joy at being able to buy a two-shilling ticket for the bioscope and a Coke in a bottle for a “tickey”, going to the movies in Grey Street, where his own lifelong love affair with old Bollywood movies and Indian music began.
Ebie shares his exuberance at volunteering for the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), handing out leaflets at bus stops and distributing them at mass rallies.
An activist, Ebie joined other comrades at Red Square every weekend, marching down to Berea Road Station to the chants of Mayibuye iAfrika.
His biography highlights how his participation in the Defiance Campaign on June 26, 1952, inspired him to join the youth wing of the NIC, and joined the SACP in 1961. Ebie provides an important lens into the dissolution of the SACP in 1948, and its secret revival in the early 1950s, as well as the role played by the SACP during the years of apartheid in the struggle for freedom.
Ebie was an ardent believer in the creation of a classless society, in which all peoples share in the benefits of everyone’s labour – ideals which shaped his own life. The book underlines the SACP’s role in organising African workers throughout the 1920s, and the call for black majority rule, noting that without it, we might not have enjoyed the freedom that came with liberation, a point often lost in the current narrative.
The book does not shirk dealing with the ideological battles within the SACP and the ANC, which took its toll on comrades, particularly when Rowley Arenstein was expelled. Ebie’s biography notes that ideologically a battle has always existed over Marxist-Leninism in the ranks of the ANC, an issue he says he grappled with his entire life.
The decision by the ANC leadership to set aside the movement’s inherent socialism in the early 1990s during the negotiations toward democracy with the apartheid government, leads to his wry comment that “the decision was as strategic as it was ideologically controversial”.
His assertion that the shift was understood as a means to attain the higher stage of capitalism to eventually open the way for socialism, is not convincing, and is probably the one aspect of the book to be critical about – given state capture and the betrayal by the ANC of the goals of the Freedom Charter of human dignity, equality and freedom.
Ebie recounts his recruitment by Ronnie Kasrils into MK, the armed wing of the movement, and is incredibly honest about his own personal struggle with the notion of an “armed struggle” and the “taking up of arms”.
He takes responsibility for recruiting other comrades to work with him, in manufacturing homemade bombs using stolen explosives, which inflicted considerable damage to electric pylons and train stations, and ultimately damaged the pride of the apartheid government.
In his inimitable humble style, he tells the poignant story of the many stalwarts who played a central role in our struggle for freedom. While many names in the book resonate, one in particular stands out – that of the late Aunty Phyllis Naidoo, whose name was synonymous with mothering activists and raising money for their welfare, ensuring that they would not be destitute or forgotten.
Ebie shares Aunty Phyllis’s letter to him, while he was in detention in 1963, in which she expresses her shock at learning from Mr Smit, the visiting magistrate, that Ebie had been detained three weeks before.
She believed that he had managed to escape during the mass arrests. Her deep love and affection for him is self-evident in her lament that “her boy was in a cell – 3-by-3, he could not stretch”.
Ebie’s biography quotes from her letter where she says that: “I earned motherhood and claim it now without reservation, whatsoever I learned of the torture that had been applied to Ebie’s malnourished body that would fill pages, not least was his hands handcuffed behind his back and leg irons on his feet and being kicked into Midmar Dam.
Only when he gulped for breath did they surface him, they wanted him to disclose the whereabouts of our comrades. He betrayed no one.” Ebie, was kidnapped and tortured numerous times, finally ending up on Robben Island in 1963 and a second time in 1988 in the “University of Robben Island”, as he called it.
Ebie never dwells on the debilitating and inhuman torture inflicted on him by Security Branch officials under apartheid and raises the torture experienced by his comrades.
He is quite prosaic in speaking about his betrayal at the hands of close comrades, asking the rhetorical question: “I wondered what kind of torture had led them to collapse and give way under detention and whether I had adequately prepared them for that very situation – this troubled me”.
While the biography notes familiar names of perpetrators implicated in his abduction from Swaziland, his unlawful detention and torture, the name of Nicolas Deetleefs stands out as the person responsible for his torture at John Vorster Square. He recalls the chilling words uttered by Deetleefs, “that if I survived, I would not be human”.
Numerous survivors of Deetleef’s torture call him the “quintessential psychopath”. Ebie’s biography also details Deetleef’s brutal psychological torture of Helene Pastoors, including how she and Thandi Modise were poisoned using a neurological drug which not only affected their cognition, perceptions, behaviour, mood and consciousness, but left both of them almost dying from the effects of the drug.
Ebie describes the total lack of remorse displayed by Deetleefs, including his failure to apply for amnesty, while Helene did. Despite these experiences, Ebie displays no bitterness, and yet is profoundly aware that under the democratic government, no apartheid perpetrators have been held accountable, despite his sacrifices and those of his comrades.
His biography eloquently sums up “that on Robben Island, we envisioned a ‘new’ South Africa – we were steadfastly against corruption, factionalism and ill-discipline and condemned greed and accumulation of wealth”.
Disappointed that these values have been eroded, he calls upon us to return to the core principles and the reasons we took up the greatest fight of all.
Ebie’s extraordinary biography epitomises the triumph of the human spirit, and his transcendence from torture to a state “beyond fear”. It is a story of sacrifice, incredible humility and generosity and above all, his absolute joy in finally being able to build a family with Shannon and his children.
This book should be compulsory reading for all South Africans, particularly young people at school and university.
* Sooka is a human rights lawyer working on issues of transitional justice in South Africa and abroad.