Yusuf Cachalia was born in Johannesburg on 15 January 1915. A leading figure in the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) in the 1940s and 1950s, who was instrumental in bringing about African-Indian co-operation during the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He finished primary school and went to work as a shop assistant. In 1936 his older brother, Maulvi, arranged for him to travel to Mecca, where he began the study of Islamic philosophy.
He then spent five years in India. Returning to South Africa in 1941, he gradually rose to prominence in Transvaal Indian politics and was involved in early meetings between the Transvaal Indian Congress and Natal Indian Congress and the African National Congress (ANC) that resulted in the signing of the "Doctors' Pact" of 1947. Thereafter Cachalia was closely associated with joint efforts by the SAIC and the ANC. As a secretary of the SAIC, he was involved in planning for the protests of May 1 and June 26, 1950, and in 1951 he became one of the two representatives of the SAIC on the Joint Planning Council for the DeÂfiance Campaign. He was arrested several times for civil disobedience and was tried and convicted with 19 other leaders of the Defiance Campaign in December 1952, receiving a nine-month suspended sentence.
Throughout his political career, Cachalia was a close colleague of Yusuf Dadoo. His personal philosophy combined elements of Gandhism, Marxism, and orthodox Islamic thought. In the early 1950s he was married to Bettie du Toit, an Afrikaner trade unionist. Continuously under bans since 1953 and under house arrest from 1963 to 1973, Cachalia lives in Johannesburg.
In 1963 his second wife, Amina, was issued a banning order forbidding her to communicate with any other banned person, making it necessary for her and Cachalia to obtain government permission to speak to one another. Cachalia died on 10 April 1995. Former President Nelson Mandela flew to Cachalia's funeral to pay his respect to his old friend.