Mewa Ramgobin

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

President of the Natal Indian Congress, Student leader active in NUSAS, President of the then ‘non-European’ SRC at Natal University,  banned person, Treasurer of the United Democratic Front former National Vice President of the Congress of South African Writers and Author

First name: 
Mewa
Last name: 
Ramgobin
Date of birth: 
10 November 1932
Location of birth: 
Inanda, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal)
Date of death: 
17 October 2016
Location of death: 
Cape Town, Western Cape

Mewalal “Mewa” Ramgobin was born on 10 November 1932 in Inanda, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). His grandparents arrived in Natal as indentured labourers. His father was born in Inanda and from humble beginnings became a successful farmer. Ramgobin attended the Inanda Government Aided Indian School. In 1949 he attended the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) run high schools in Greyville, Durban.

He enrolled at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal-UKZN) and was active in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), heading the non-European section of the Students Representative Council (SRC) at the University as it was then known. At a NUSAS meeting, Ramgobin tabled a motion for the organisation to elect Chief Albert Luthuli as Honorary President of NUSAS.

In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the liberation organisations, Ramgobin participated in a five day fast at Phoenix Settlement together with Nokukhanya Luthuli, the wife of Chief Albert Luthuli, the African National Congress (ANC) President and Sushila Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1960 Ramgobin married Ela Gandhi a fellow student activist at the University of Natal. He became the organising secretary of the Phoenix Settlement Trust and over the next four decades, together with his wife Ela, became the driving force in the remaking of Phoenix Settlement into an important site of political cultural activity and a monument to the teachings of Gandhi.  As secretary of the Phoenix Settlement Trust he spearheaded the establishment of a clinic, museum, the running of a school on the premises and other community projects at Phoenix.

In 1965 he was banned for the first time. In total he was banned and house arrested for 17 years. Despite his banning, Ramgobin became one of the leading figures in the growth and the revival of the anti apartheid movement.

His first banning order expired in 1970. He immediately launched the multi faith Committee for Clemency in 1971 together with Advocate Lewis Skweyiya, Rick Turner and Alan Paton, which spearhead the call for the release of all political prisoners to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the apartheid republic.

Growing out of this campaign he started discussions with activists in the community to revive the NIC. On 25 June 1971, Ramgobin initiated a meeting at the Bolton Hall, Durban to revive the NIC, which was strongly opposed by members of the Black Consciousness Movement.  An executive was elected under his leadership. 

In 1971 he organised a tour for the visiting United Sates of America Congressman Charles Diggs around the sugar estates in Natal, which led to the growing call for sanctions against South Africa in the USA.  In September, just before the launch of the NIC at the Phoenix Settlement Ramgobin was served with a two year banning and house arrest order.

In March 1973 he received a parcel bomb, which exploded in his office in Durban. Fortunately it did not cause any serious injuries to him or his son and a colleague who were present.  

The government then restricted him, meaning he could no longer work in Durban, so he moved his office to Verulam, north of Durban. In 1975 he was banned for another five years.

One of the first assignments Ramgobin carried out, after his unbanning, was to drive the very next day to Brandfort in the Free State to show support for Winnie Mandela, who was banished to this small village from Johannesburg by the apartheid regime. The colleagues who accompanied him were M J Naidoo, George Sewpersadh, Paul David and Subry Govender.

In 1983 he was elected as one of two national treasurers of the United Democratic Front (UDF) — the other was Cas Saloojee. He was arrested in 1984 and released after 19 days. He went underground  and then sought refuge in the British Consulate in Durban, in September 1984, together with leaders of the UDF and the NIC,  Archie Gumede, M.J. Naidoo, George Sewpersadh, Ramgobin, Billy Nair and Paul David. Following this Ramgobin was arrested again on 6 October on charges of high treason in 1984.

The treason charges were based on the accused singing liberation songs and making anti-government speeches, which they had either done themselves or had been on stage when others had done so. The lead up to the trial began in 1984 following anti-Tricameral Parliament protests organised by the NIC, TIC and the UDF. 

On 21 December 1984, The “Consulate Six” (as they were referred to) appeared in the Supreme Court in Pietermaritzburg. On 3 May 1985 the Supreme Court set bail at R170 000. The indictment did not charge the accused with any type of violent action, but suggested that their speeches and actions indicated violent intent.

The state prosecutor, Gey van Pittius, began the case by saying the UDF was used by its leaders and by the ANC for their own purposes to overthrow the state violently. The NIC and Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) had also allegedly allied themselves with the ANC. The TIC and NIC also helped operations from inside the country. This, he said, became clearer when the use of symbols of the banned ANC appeared at meetings.

On 9 December 1985, a year after the first seven had been brought to court, the state withdrew charges against the “Consulate Six” as it failed to prove conspiracy and links to the ANC.

When former President P W Botha established the Tri-cameral Parliament in 1984, which gave limited parliamentary representation to Coloured and Indian people only, Ramgobin together with many others, launched one of the most successful election boycott campaigns in the history of South Africa.

Under the banner of the revived NIC and Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), they mobilised the vast majority of South Africans of Indian origin to deliver a devastating blow against the Tri-cameral parliamentary system, thereby denying it any legitimacy in the community.

He was acquitted on charges of high treason in December of 1985. He continued his work with the UDF.

He was elected an African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament (MP) in April 1994 and served in this position until 2009 when he retired.  As an ANC MP he served as a Member on the Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs (Subcommittee on African Union and Subcommittee on International Affairs).

Ramgobin is the author of ''Waiting to Live'' and ''Prisms of Light'', as well as the former National Vice President of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).

Mewa Ramgobin passed away at the age of 84 in Cape Town on 17 October 2016.

 

He is survived by his wife Mariam, former wife Ela Gandhi and children Asha, Arti, Ashish and Kidar and a younger son, Imthian, from his second marriage.


References:
• Govender, S. (2016). Mewa Ramgobin – A struggle stalwart who made enormous sacrifices for the creation of a non-racial and democratic South Africa. Available at http://subrygovender.blogspot.co.za/2016/10/mewa-ramgobin-struggle-stalwart-who.html?spref=fb . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• Khoza, A. (2016). Zuma saddened by the death of ANC stalwart, Mewa Ramgobin, from News24, 216-10-19, online. Available at www.news24.com . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• ANC-KZN. African National Congress KZN Province Salutes Cde. Mewa Ramgobin, Pamphlet issued 2016-10-23
• Who’swho-Southern Africa. Mewa Ramgobin. Available at http://whoswho.co.za/mewa-ramgobin-7666. Accessed on 21 October 2016. 
• Govender, S. (2016). Mewa Ramgobin – A struggle stalwart who made enormous sacrifices for the creation of a non-racial and democratic South Africa. Available at http://subrygovender.blogspot.co.za/2016/10/mewa-ramgobin-struggle-stalwart-who.html?spref=fb . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• Khoza, A. (2016). Zuma saddened by the death of ANC stalwart, Mewa Ramgobin, from News24, 216-10-19, online. Available at www.news24.com . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• ANC-KZN. African National Congress KZN Province Salutes Cde. Mewa Ramgobin, Pamphlet issued 2016-10-23
• Who’swho-Southern Africa. Mewa Ramgobin. Available at http://whoswho.co.za/mewa-ramgobin-7666. Accessed on 21 October 2016. 
• Govender, S. (2016). Mewa Ramgobin – A struggle stalwart who made enormous sacrifices for the creation of a non-racial and democratic South Africa. Available at http://subrygovender.blogspot.co.za/2016/10/mewa-ramgobin-struggle-stalwart-who.html?spref=fb . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• Khoza, A. (2016). Zuma saddened by the death of ANC stalwart, Mewa Ramgobin, from News24, 216-10-19, online. Available at www.news24.com . Accessed on 19 October 2016
• ANC-KZN. African National Congress KZN Province Salutes Cde. Mewa Ramgobin, Pamphlet issued 2016-10-23
• Who’swho-Southern Africa. Mewa Ramgobin. Available at http://whoswho.co.za/mewa-ramgobin-7666. Accessed on 21 October 2016. 

Last updated : 17-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011