Abdool Karrim Essak was born in 1925 in India. He was the third child of Fathima and Ishaq Hashim. His father was an adventurer and left his family to seek his fortune in South Africa in the 1920s. In South Africa he tried his hand at various trades and eventually settled for mattress-making, French polishing and the buying and selling of second hand furniture.
In 1932 he sent for his family – his wife and four children. With his family at his side he stopped his wandering and developed roots in the small town of Dundee in northern Natal. Four more children were born.
Essak completed his primary school education in Dundee and then went to study for his matriculation examination in Durban in 1939, at Sastri College, the one of only two high schools available for South Africans of Indian origin in Natal. In 1943 he completed his matriculation with an A-symbol in history.
That same year a public meeting was held in Dundee at which members of the Indian community turned out in numbers. That meeting was part of the tour of Natal by the Anti-Segregation Council. Dr Goolam Gool was a leading speaker on that tour. The young Essak, only 18 years old, spoke at this meeting at which his father was also present.
Essak then went on to study law at the University of Witwatersrand where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. While studying here, he worked as a ticket seller at one of the “Indian” cinemas in Johannesburg, probably in Fordsburg.
His years at Wits were charged with intensive political study. He belonged to an organisation called the Progressive Forum, which was an organisation of non Stalinist-Marxist intellectuals. Its members, apart from Essak, were A.I. Limbada (later Dr), Enver Hassim (later attorney), Zulei Christopher (later Dr), Dolly Hassim (newspaper columnist), David Soggot (later Advocate), Mike Davis (later Advocate), Errol Vawda (later Doctor) Ivan Stoller (later Advocate), Jennifer Heyman (later ANC) Bernard Berman, Jesse Berman, Leslie Martin, Andrew Lukhele (later attorney), Victor Sondlo, Fathima Meer (later Natal Indian Congress and Professor), Dr Seymour Papert (Mathematics/Physics), Norman Traub (later Dr), AKI Vahed (later attorney) and others of similar calibre. This formidable group of intellectuals attracted many young people. This group was affiliated with the Unity Movement (UM).
Essak was a senior member of this group and was regularly visited at Park Rynie, South Coast by members such as Enver Hassim, Seymour Papert and Dr Limbada.
Very little is known about his life at Wits, except that he shared quarters with Amanullah Khan from Stanger, whom he influenced to study. In 1956 Khan took up studying for his matriculation and after many long years of hard work and dedication completed his LLB and became an advocate.
Unable to afford the cost of further law studies at Wits, Essak decided to become a teacher and left to study for a University Education Diploma at Fort Hare. His stay at Fort Hare introduced him to African intellectuals from the Eastern Cape.
Essak excelled as a teacher, and his dedication to teaching was merely an extension of his dedication to teaching politics. He was easily able to relate to his fellow teachers and students, as he was able to with ordinary people.
He stood out in sharp contrast to the rest of his colleagues, who while being dedicated to the subjects they taught, had little knowledge of other vital fields of knowledge. Essak’s training in the Progressive Forum and Unity Movement soon established him as a leader among the teachers. He politicised them as he did with senior students at the various high schools where he taught.
Essak’s activities came to the attention of the authorities and he was subjected to a series of punitive transfers. First it was to Umzinto High School, and then to Newcastle, Ladysmith and finally a high school in Clairwood. The authorities believed that they were punishing him for his “subversive” activities. The authorities failed to realise that the punitive transfers permitted him to do his political work in different areas and not just in one. Wherever he was sent to he sowed the seeds of radicalism.
One example of this was the campaign he initiated against Dr AD Lazarus, who was the reactionary president of the Natal Indian Teachers’ Society. In a move to unseat him, Essak rallied all the friends and contacts he had established in the teaching profession over the years. Essak came very close to moving a vote of no confidence in Lazarus by calling for the Society’s disaffiliation from the Institute of Race Relations, whose function was to advise the ruling class how best to oppress the people.
By the late 1950s, Essak decided the he had enough of the Education Department’s espionage of his activities and felt the strong need to openly declare himself a freedom fighter.
As the UM’s chief pamphleteer, he wrote in an extremely logical, hard-hitting and provocative manner, which arrested the attention of the reader.
In the polemic which wracked the UM in the mid and late 1950s, Essak’s contribution revealed his wide reading and knowledge on a range of subjects such as the role of the peasantry and the land question, trade unions and the working class, the nature and role of the intellectuals.
Most importantly, he taught by example. He was always the first to do necessary work, which involved an element of unpleasantness, such as the long and slow trip from the Victoria Street Bus Rank to Happy Valley where he met with his contacts.
He studied for his law examinations part-time while serving articles with Attorney Ashwin Chowdree. He completed his examinations and his articles and opened his practice in Verulam in the early 1960s.
This period coincided with the banning of the ANC and PAC, and the eclipse of the Natal Indian Congress from the political arena. The way was open for APDUSA, an affiliate of the UM, to assert itself.
Essak’s practice was essentially a criminal practice with clients coming from Kwa Mashu and the peri-urban areas. He employed Benjamin Madikwa, who was previously a member of the Society of Young Africa (SOYA), an affiliate of the Unity Movement. Madikwa was both a clerk/interpreter and organiser for APDUSA.
Soon APDUSA held meetings on a regular basis, on Sundays, at the Sonny Moodley Gymnasium in Prince Edward Street in Durban. People from the peri-urban areas attended in numbers. When there were no meetings held, the young members of SOYA and APDUSA went with Essak and his band of organisers to those areas.
In early 1963, there was talk of leaving the country to undergo military training and to return and engage in an armed struggle against the oppressive state. In this period Essak was in his element. He already had at his disposal a functioning body of organisers, both full time and part-time. These organisers were out in the field every day of the week. Essak’s office in Verulam and his home in Alfred Avenue, off Wills Road in Durban became centres where meetings were held daily, reports were given and instructions and directives issued.
The concept of part-time organisers was his creation. The organiser would be given sufficient money for transport and subsistence and would then be told which area to visit. There the organiser was to make contact, deliver the message that the time had come to make APDUSA the parliament of the people, and for it to make decisions on how to confront the enemy. Essak’s car was available 24 hours a day for the work of APDUSA.
He organised a panel of drivers from the APDUSA members (Mac Reddy, Sunny Venketrathnam, Jay Sundar, Vishnu Tewary, Clive Vawda, Yusuf Jacobs) whose function was to transport organisers/ recruits from one place to another, covering hundreds of miles, almost always at night.
The name of APDUSA became popular overnight in Pondoland and the recruitment of members was rapid. The sophisticated version of the New Approach was soon abandoned by the organisers, and replaced by a straight appeal on the basis of arms and an armed struggle.
The initial contacts in Pondoland led to the Unity Movement leadership making contact with mass underground organisations of the peasants – The Makhuluspan, the Likwepepe, and the Kongo.
With Essak and his squad organising in a spirit of great urgency, the carefully crafted presentation of the New Approach (eschewing the direct appeal to arms and the use of analogies to convey the same message) was discarded. Madikwa and the organisers openly spoke of the armed struggle, anticipating a reaction from the state. At first, there were the magisterial warnings in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. Banning orders, at times coupled with house arrest orders, followed.
Detentions were then enforced under the notorious 90-day law. Essak was one of those arrested in 1964, and detained at the Amanzimtoti Police Station. His arrest was a signal for a sizeable section of the leadership, actively working with the peasantry, to flee the country. This included people like Dr Limbada, Essak’s partner, Alma Carolissen, Leonard Nikane, Diliza Lande, Eddie Ncalu, Cassim Kikia and Mannie Pillay.
By this time Madikwa, the chief organiser in Essak’s squad had been detained and word was spread that he had sold out to the police. APDUSA activists in Johannesburg understood the threat Madikwa presented, and lured him to Johannesburg to place him in “protective custody”. The police searched high and low for him, as he was to be a witness against him in a case which could have sentenced Essak to life imprisonment. Fortunately for Essak, the 90-day law was lifted in January 1965. Immediately an application to the Supreme Court was made for his release on bail. Essak was granted bail on a Friday, and that night, Essop Essack (another of Essak’s brothers) and Vishnu Tewary travelled to Johannesburg.
On the Monday, Essop informed the family that Essak had failed to report to the police in terms of his bail conditions, and that the notorious Van Dyk, from the security police, had come to Essak’s house.
Finally it became public knowledge that Essak had escaped to Botswana. The nature of the mission that Essop and Vishnu had undertaken then became clear. They went on to pave the way for Essak’s escape from Durban to Johannesburg, where he would be taken to Botswana.
No sooner had Essak reached Botswana, Madikwa released from “protective custody”. Madikwa had subsequently accused someone by the name of Vusani as his captor. Essak had a great deal to be grateful to Vusani, because if Madikwa was released while Essak was in detention, he would never have got bail.
In Botswana, he immediately applied to be admitted as an attorney. He opened a practice and soon was able to attract a clientele, and made many friends from the local population. Essak then left Botswana for Zambia, where the exiled leadership of the Unity Movement had assembled. Here Essak was forced to tender his resignation from the UM due to organisational conflict.
In normal circumstances, the consequences of the resignation of a refugee from his/her organisation meant being declared a prohibited immigrant and returned to the country of origin. To escape deportation, Essak resuscitated the fact that he was Indian born, and obtained the necessary documentation to study in India. At the age of 55, he chose to embark on a co-career, and went to India to study journalism. While in India, he befriended Benjamin Mkapa the future president of Tanzania. It was on the advice and at the invitation of Mkapa that Essak decided to relocate to Tanzania.
In Tanzania, the iconoclast in Essak was given free rein, and he chose to live in the urban decayed section of Dar-es-Salaam. His training in the Unity Movement in the political analysis of history, society and current events and as a speaker held him in good stead in his profession as a journalist. His lengthy analytical articles began appearing with increasing frequency. He also appeared on the radio both as a reporter and as analyst. He travelled the world attending conferences as a reporter, and built a vast network of contacts.
By the time he settled in Tanzania, his legal practice took a back seat, so to speak, as he had “thumbed his nose at the legal establishment”. He planned to take only two cases a month, and used his Volkswagen Beetle as his legal office where he interviewed his clients.
In Dar-es-Salaam, Essak forged friendships with exiles from various liberation movements. Whenever there was a struggle against a dictatorship or oppressive regime, Essak took up the cause of those freedom fighters without expecting anything in return.
When Kabila’s faction emerged as the most powerful, and he was appointed head of the new State, Essak, the newshound, could not stay away from the DRC. He had to meet and interview Kabila, whom he knew as a friend from the latter’s days of exile in Tanzania. In answer to one of his questions, Kabila asserted that Essak’s writing was would be considered a viable source. Essak then produced a pamphlet on the DRC including a photograph of Kabila and himself.
All who knew him felt that the peril of the trip to the DRC was what triggered his death. He was found lying on the ground suffering from a stroke and was rushed to the Agha Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam. On 29 April 1997, aged 72, he died in the Intensive Care Unit. Of his relatives, only his wife was present at his funeral, which took place on the same day. However, the funeral was delayed for several hours at the request of the Government of Rwanda, which insisted on sending a delegation to represent it at the funeral.
The next few days saw all the major newspapers in Tanzania give prominent write-ups about the death of this person, and were generous in their praise of him. Three presidents, President Mkapa of Tanzania, President Bizimungu of Rwanda and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, sent their condolences to the family of the deceased, and were lavish in their praise for him, an ardent activist who had spend over 30 years in exile.