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Rajbansi: Bombastic, thick-skinned and controversial

STEPPING DOWN: Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi posing in front of a poster showing him embracing former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Puri Devjee

STEPPING DOWN: Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi posing in front of a poster showing him embracing former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Puri Devjee

Published Dec 29, 2011



Bombastic, thick-skinned and thoroughly controversial, Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi has left a memorable mark on South African politics.

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Nicknamed “The Bengal Tiger”, Rajbansi who died on Thursday aged 69, was described by the James Commission in 1989 as an “inordinately ambitious man obsessed with a desire to achieve personal power, and ... ruthless in its pursuit”.

Speaking of his death, political analyst Professor Adam Habib said Rajbansi was a “controversial” player on the political scene of South Africa.

“It’s never good to speak ill of the dead, because this is a tragedy for his family, but Rajbansi advanced the kinds of politics that I did not agree with.”

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Habib said Rajbansi’s idea of political representation was ethnically based, a move he criticised the Minority Front for, as being “counter productive to the direction of South African democracy.”

“His (ideology) didn’t yield to the population (in general) and was inappropriate for post apartheid SA,” Habib said.

He added that it was worth bearing in mind that Rajbansi’s legacy would included being an acknowledged political survivor having survived political turmoil in the form of scandles and rebounds, “turning to the ruling party” and personal attacks.

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“The future of the MF was grim, Habib said, adding that it was possible for the party to dissolve with its charismatic leader gone.

“Rajbansi’s personality resonated with his community.”

Rajbansi, who served as a member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature, was born in Durban on January 14, 1942.

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He studied history and psychology at the Indian University College in the city before going on to work as a sports administrator, professional soccer referee and then teacher.

Before entering into full-time politics in 1980, he also worked for 10 years as public relations officer for the dairy industry.

According to a biography, sent to Sapa by his office, Rajbansi's youth was “filled with action in the Natal Indian Congress, working with great leaders like Albert Luthuli, Moses Mabhida and Nelson Mandela”.

In 1974 he joined the SA Indian Council (SAIC) and became a member of its executive. He resigned that office two years later, in protest at the council's decision to take part in the Cabinet Council, which excluded Africans.

Rajbansi also served on the Southern Durban Local Affairs Committee, but was expelled in 1977 for not declaring a financial interest in a matter under discussion.

He stood for the SAIC when the body was reconstituted in 1981, and was returned on an eight percent poll. He then formed a National People's Party (NPP), which took control of the council, and Rajbansi became SAIC chairman.

In the first tricameral elections in August 1984, Rajbansi won the Arena Park seat for the NPP, which obtained a majority in the House of Delegates.

Rajbansi became Chairman of the Delegates' Ministers' Council, and declared in a newspaper interview at the time that he worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on behalf of the people, and invoked Gandhi and Pandit Nehru to justify his participation in the tricameral system.

Towards the end of 1984, he was appointed minister without portfolio in PW Botha's Cabinet.

In 1985, his house was bombed by an ANC recruit who was jailed in 1987.

Virtually from its inception, claims and counter claims of kidnap, death threats, intimidation, corruption and bribery flew thick and fast in the House of Delegates.

In February 1987, in the face of dissent in the NPP, Rajbansi resigned as party leader, then withdrew his resignation a few days later.

In May that year, the NPP lost the majority in the House to an opposition coalition, but Rajbansi refused to step down as chairman - even after a 24-17 vote in the House calling for his resignation - saying he would only go when required to by the State President, who appointed him.

Botha stalled, and a week later the alliance and the threat to Rajbansi collapsed.

In June, a Parliamentary select committee found he had accepted R10 000 for the NPP from a private concern to “facilitate the obtaining of land and contracts”.

He was subsequently suspended from the Cabinet and from the House, and Botha appointed Justice Neville James as a one-man commission to investigate allegations of corruption in the Delegates Administration.

Rajbansi declared to a reporter that he was busy preparing a “2000-page bombshell” to present to the commission.

In August the same year, 1988, he was found guilty by another parliamentary committee of “glaring” maladministration in that he pressured delegates, ministers and officials into buying, for R1.1million, a cultural centre which turned out to be a white elephant - and this when the purchase price was about R400 000 higher than its valuation.

In December 1988, after receiving the James Commission's preliminary report, Botha sacked him from the Cabinet and the Ministers' Council, and Rajbansi declared he was planning to institute legal actions for damages against every person who made allegations against him at the Commission.

In the final Commission report in February 1989, James described Rajbansi as “arrogant”, “unscrupulous”, “ruthless” and a “mean-minded bully”.

He found he had lied to Parliament, given false evidence to the commission, committed statutory perjury and misused his position, and recommended that he never again be employed as a minister in the House or in any official or semi-official post which called for integrity.

A newspaper wrote afterwards that Rajbansi was now considered “honour bound” to resign as MP.

On February 8, Rajbansi did step down as Parliamentary leader of the NPP, but carried on as national leader. Two weeks later, he resigned from the NPP saying he was going to start a new political party for “purists”, and was suspended from the House again by popular vote.

In April he bounced back, cancelling his resignation as Parliamentary leader “with immediate effect” and was reinstated as national leader of the NPP.

In June 1990, he was convicted on two counts of fraud related to the use of “fronts” to obtain premises for his businesses when he was a member of the SA Indian Council, and fined R10,000.

In 1991 he was ordered to pay a former Delegates MP, Pat Poovalingam, R50,000 plus cost for circulating a defamatory letter describing Poovalingam as a “gutterish liar” after he accused Rajbansi of taking bribes and of corruption in property deals.

Rajbansi underwent a heart bypass in May 1989.

After South Africa's transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994, the NPP became the Minority Front (MF) and continued to draw support from the Indian community.

According to his office, Rajbansi formed the MF “because he wanted to be elected by the people he served, and not piggy-back on bigger parties”.

Ten years later, after the 2004 elections, Rajbansi made an alliance with the ANC and became sports and recreation MEC for KwaZulu-Natal.

Rajbansi was formerly married to Asha Devi, with whom he had five children. The couple separated in 1998 - with alleged paranormal activity and evil spirits in their marital home being cited among the reasons for their separation - and divorced in 2000.

In 2001, Rajbansi married Shameen Thakur, who is also a member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.

In January 2009, Rajbansi received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the India International Friendship Society in New Delhi.

In April that same year, in the country’s fourth democratic elections, the Minority Front fared badly, only getting 0.25 percent of the vote.

Rajbansi, who would have turned 70 in January 2012, was admitted to Umhlanga Hospital on October 26, 2011 with a chest infection. He was placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit and on a ventilator.

According to a Durban newspaper, it was his second trip to hospital in a matter of weeks. A fortnight earlier he was admitted with a mild chest infection and to have a heart valve checked. He was discharged on October 20, but his condition deteriorated thereafter. - Sapa, IOL

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