Struggle attorney’s living museum honours Neil Aggett and others who died in detention
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The wall outside the office of attorney Feizal Motala in Overport, Durban, is a strong indicator of what inspires him. A large mural depicts the faces of Abdul Khalek Mohamed Docrat (under house arrest for 25 years); Chota Motala (treason triallist); Phyllis Naidoo (activist and fighter); and Harold Strachan (a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe who was imprisoned).
A visitor entering Motala’s boardroom will notice that he pays tribute to the Struggle heroes and heroines. It could be viewed as a living museum.
Motala is a mine of information. We may know much about the broader canvas of the political lives of activists, but he adds his personal brush strokes.
He speaks about issues such as the death of Dr Hoosen Mia Haffejee in custody (a recent re-opened inquest found he was murdered); and that of Neil Aggett, the first white man to die in detention, whose death will be the subject of a further inquest, despite opposition from the State. So will that of Imam Abdullah Haron (his first inquest found he slipped on a bar of soap, fell down the steps and died). “The Malays were the most militant in objecting against the apartheid government, primarily because they were exiled political prisoners from Malaysia,” said Motala.
Returning to the people who stare out of his wall, he said Docrat had left his entire estate to him. “I gave the R350000 to the Hartley Road Primary School in Overport and built a library and media centre. I donated his books to the University of Natal, where they were placed in their AM Docrat section.
“Docrat came into South Africa illegally and was never a citizen. His book of life read ‘citizen of no country’. When I took him to cast his vote in the first democratic election he was refused, despite his years of banning, because he was not a South African.
Turning to Haffejee, Motala said their respective aunts were at university together.
“Sometimes Haffejee came to my aunt, Ameina Seedat, for meals. I sometimes spent the night at Hoosen’s place. He had a girlfriend in London whom he used to phone regularly. But he was also going out with a local nurse at King George V Hospital (now King Dinuzulu Hospital) where he worked as a dentist.
“She had access to his flat. At one stage another nurse began passing notes to Hoosen at a restaurant, James Bond style, informing him the Security Police were after him. Had he realised the gravity of the situation, he would have left the country.”
Meanwhile the security police paid a visit to Haffejee’s flat in Antelope Towers, discovered several banned books and bugged the place.
“The night before his arrest, he and two other friends were discussing a passport. Though not for him, the next morning, he was stopped in Brickfield Road and taken to Brighton Beach police station where he was murdered.
“Two senior councillors, who later became judges, acted on behalf of Security Police at the inquest, where it was found he tied his trousers to his neck and to a burglar guard, and twisted himself till he strangled himself.”
Giving insight to Chota Motala, Feizal said he had qualified as a doctor in Bombay, at Grant Medical University, and had cut his teeth on the Indian Liberation Movement. He and his partner Omar Hassim opened a practice in Pietermaritzburg.
“Chota had the ability to move people with emotive language, whereas Omar spoke clinically. They were a good combination. At Chota’s memorial service a woman from the Black Sash told how he had treated young men who had been shot with buckshot. A black woman sitting behind me kept saying it was true.”
He also pointed out that Motala had been one of the accused in the Rivonia treason trial and banned for five years.
“He was a kingpin in writing the Freedom Charter. His partners Chetty and Hassim paid him a salary for three years while he was on trial.”
Feizal said Harry Gwala, ANC; Peter Brown, Liberal Party; and Motala, Natal Indian Congress, worked closely together, while in the rest of the country there were bitter fights among the anti-government forces.
“They met regularly at Motala’s house in Boom Street, Pietermaritzburg. It was also a safe house for the ANC, but only had two rooms so Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki slept in the lounge. It is now a national monument.”
Feizal pointed out that Motala had always said: “Above all, we need unity between the Indians and Africans; between all people really. There is no other future.”
Motala refused a post in Mandela’s first Parliament and became an ambassador to Morocco.
On a lighter note, Feizal spoke about a time when Mandela, when he was on the run, arrived at Motala’s house.“His wife, Choti, didn’t recognise him, and thinking he was a patient, told Mandela to wait outside.”
Feizal and Phyllis were also close. “In her book, she spoke about Enver Motala giving her financial support to start her practice. On one occasion, Phyllis requested Enver to type a letter to the chief warder on Robben Island. She referred to him in the letter as ‘the bastard’. Enver’s secretary typed the letter - which Enver did not check - including this word. Phyllis stormed into Enver’s office drawing his attention to this major error.
“She collected money for prisoners on Robben Island and accounted for every penny. When Jacob Zuma came out of Robben Island, his first job was with Phyllis. She shared her monthly profits with him. She was banned and ran away from South Africa.”
Feizal also has tales to tell of Ike Mayat, of Ike’s Bookshop (the largest secondhand bookshop in Durban, where many book launches are held). Ike had Malay ancestors, but looked white. “Ike had polio as a child, and was very well read, delighting in Homer’s Iliad. A welder by trade, he was highly principled. The Green Mamba buses would not stop for him, because he looked white. But he wouldn’t get into a whites-only bus, so his only solution was to walk. He and my uncle were close. They used to go to fêtes and buy cheap books, then Ike opened the bookshop.”
Finally, Feizal turned to Harold Strachan, who had been a pilot in World War II. “Somehow, Govan Mbeki thought he knew how to make bombs. Harold told him he did not know how to, but Mbeki was adamant; if he had flown a bomber, he must know how to make bombs, and he instructed him to do so.” Strachan, he said, believed many in the leadership had too much blood on their hands and the ANC often sent young people to the slaughter.
“An early member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Harold was caught when he blew up the Department of Bantu Affairs in Port Elizabeth and sent to prison, landing up with common whites who regarded him as a traitor.”
On his release, Strachan joined the Rand Daily Mail and wrote of how the prison authorities were contravening prison regulations. He was imprisoned for a further 18 months. He ran the Comrades Marathon and won a gold medal. “He and I often trained together and climbed the entire Drakensberg escarpment together.”
Feizal tells how Strachan and his wife Maggie stood at the front of a group of black people protesting against imprisonment without trial. “He knew the authorities would not kill a white person. Maggie once ‘disarmed’ a man pointing a rifle at a black man simply by using her eyes. This was one month after Sharpeville.”
Faizel mentions that Robert Sobukwe, founder of the PAC, was the most militant of the fighters. “As a result, he was kept in solitary confinement on Robben Island.”