Harold Sundrum.
Harold Sundrum.
Nelson Mandela gestures to Thumba Pillay (left) who was part of the entourage accompanying the former president to Oslo in Norway, where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Nelson Mandela gestures to Thumba Pillay (left) who was part of the entourage accompanying the former president to Oslo in Norway, where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
WHO was Harold Sundrum? I posed the question to several local political activists and struggle politicians I thought would know, but their response was: Harold who?

Yet Sundrum turns out to be someone who was so trusted in the liberation struggle, he was assigned the task of setting up a clandestine meeting between two ANC stalwarts - Nelson Mandela and Chief Albert Luthuli - in mid-1961 that was to become a pivotal moment in our country’s history.

It was this meeting - at Sundrum’s home in Stanger - and others at secret venues on the North Coast that gave rise to the ANC announcing a collective decision only a few months later to engage in armed struggle against white minority rule and apartheid in the country.

The liberation movement established its military wing, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and announced its campaign with a series of sabotage acts and bomb attacks to damage public facilities, changing the course of our history.

As it turned out, Sundrum, a medical doctor, died a year later at the age of 39.

And like many other unsung heroes of the liberation movement, his crucial role in our political history may have been lost had it not been for the painstaking persistence and investigative skills of retired Durban judge and civil rights activist, Thumba Pillay, 40 years later.

It was at the height of his activist days as a student leader at the then “Non-European” section of the University of Natal when Pillay and former Natal Indian Congress president, MJ Naidoo, were entrusted by NIC and Communist Party stalwart, the late MP Naicker, to transport Mandela to Stanger. Mandela was in hiding and became known as the Black Pimpernel.

“The brief was to pick up Mandela who would be waiting under a lamppost outside a petrol station in Clare Road in Clare Estate,” Pillay recalls.

He does not have any recollection of where in Stanger they dropped him. Nor did he get a chance to meet Sundrum.

“In those days, a part of the discipline of an activist was not to ask questions. The less you knew, the better for your safety. You simply got on with the task entrusted to you.”

It was only several decades later when he was writing his memoirs that he began to wonder about this little known doctor and why he had been chosen by MP Naicker for this historic, sensitive and highly secretive assignment.

That initial curiosity was soon to grow into a burning obsession as the judge took time off from other pursuits to embark on a mission of discovery.

After many months of painstaking probing, picking up odd bits of information from a wide variety of sources, a clearer picture began to emerge.

Born in 1923, Sundrum studied medicine at Wits University where it’s believed he came into contact with the young Nelson Mandela, who in his biography Long Walk to Freedom talks about how he befriended many Indian students at the time, notably JN Singh and Ismail Meer who rose to become prominent leaders in the liberation movement.

After practising as a doctor in Durban, Sundrum moved to Stanger where he worked and occupied a house close to and owned by the provincial hospital.

“ It was a fairly isolated house and as Pillay remarked “an ideal venue for private meetings with security being the main consideration”.

An even clearer picture began to emerge when Pillay contacted his younger brother, Silvian, living in Minnesota in the US.

“About the meeting with Mandela, I would not know who recommended his place. It could have been someone like Slovo or Monty or even Chief Luthuli.

“Harold once told me that he trusted Luthuli and made frequent trips to Groutville. I think he and Luthuli got on well,” said Silvian.

Pillay followed up by making contact with Sundrum’s son, Nesan, who was just a toddler when his father passed away.

He is now settled in New Zealand.

Pillay, who has been active in the struggle for justice in the country for over half a century, says he was inspired to undertake the investigation because he has always encouraged people to tell their stories of the “struggle days”.

“There are those who did more than just provide cover who remain unknown and unacknowledged.

“In my more than 60 years of activism, I got to know a number of such persons”.

Now, the retired judge can proudly add the name of Harold Sundrum to that illustrious list of unsung heroes.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.