Dr. Yusuf Dadoo once told me that Nelson Mandela had Indian friends in college and used to visit Indian homes. He would not accept the food they offered until he became convinced of the need for unity with the Indians (and other communities) in the liberation struggle. Then he began to like curry.
This may not be strictly correct as Mandela wrote in his autobiography that he used to go often to Amina Pahad for lunch, even before she left for Durban to join the Indian passive resistance of 1946-48.
It was in 1952 that Africans and Indians began the repeated and long journeys to prisons, and developed strong bonds within those walls. Families were allowed to bring food to prisoners before conviction. Indian prisoners always shared their food with their African colleagues.
Many leaders and activists were tried in the notorious Treason Trial in the 1950s. When the trial was in Drill Hall in Johannesburg, Dr. Zainab Asvat organising a team for cooking and delivering the lunches for the accused.
The trial was moved from Johannesburg to the Synagogue in Pretoria after many of the accused were released. Thirty of the most prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were tried in Pretoria from August 1959 to March 1961.
Ms. Muthal Naidoo interviewed Ms. Thayanayagie (Thailema) Pillay, daughter of Thambi Naidoo, who organised the delivery of breakfast and lunch to the prisoners at a church near the court. The text of the interview, which was published in her book, Stories from the Asiatic Bazaar, can be found at: http://www.muthalnaidoo.co.za/stories-from-the-asiatic-bazaar-othermenu-96/118-thayanayagie-pillay-thailema-. Here is an extract:
During this period, Thailema's home was a hive of activity. By seven every morning, Mrs. Moodley, her friend and neighbour, and one or two other women, appeared at her door to prepare breakfast for the thirty accused. They cut up the bread that came in every day from voluntary donations, made sandwiches and filled one of those old-fashioned metal milk cans with coffee. Then Thailema's brother-in-law, Sooboo, and her son, Visoo, after packing the breakfast into the green-and-cream station wagon, headed for town. As the trial was being held at the old synagogue on Paul Kruger Street just around the corner from the Good Shepherd Church, Father Nye had made the churchyard available for serving the meals. Sooboo drove into the churchyard where he and Visoo served the breakfast. The coffee and sandwiches were always there in time to refresh the accused before the day's session began.
Meanwhile, back at the house, the women, cutting up vegetables and meat, were preparing lunch. When this was ready, the green-and-cream station wagon carried the women with their pots to the Good Shepherd Church. In the half-hour for lunch, Thailema and her helpers made sure that everyone was served. They had no time for anything else. When they returned home, they washed all the dishes and set them up for the next day. The green-and-cream station wagon became something of an icon of the Treason Trial. Years later, an attempt to hijack it was aborted when the hijackers recognised it as the vehicle used to support their comrade leaders.
In order to provide her meals-on-wheels service, Thailema had organised a supply of vegetables and groceries from the people in the Asiatic Bazaar, who very willingly dropped off contributions at her house. There was even a Mr. Cohen from the city who sent in bulk amounts of oil and other groceries that lasted for several weeks at a time. When they ran short, Thailema went to the traders and shopkeepers in the location, appealing for donations or for goods at reduced prices. Generally, the shopkeepers were very obliging; only a few, afraid of showing open support for the treason trialists, turned her away. …
On three or four occasions during these years, a harsh knocking on the door in the early hours of the morning woke the family. When the door was opened, two or three security policemen barged in to confront Thailema, demanding information about her suppliers and funders. Thailema, a tall, plump woman in her fifties, with black hair pulled back into a bun, always stayed calm. She gave vague answers: the money came from overseas; she didn't know the people who sent supplies. Once or twice, they took her off to the police station, but Thailema remained unruffled.
In many other trials since then, Indian women organised delivery of food to prisoners, defying intimidation by the police. Ela Gandhi in Durban was one of them.
These women, who helped to keep up the morale of political prisoners, with love and curry, deserve to be remembered as fighters for freedom.
Mandela remembered all those who were associated with him during the struggle and made a point of meeting them after his release in 1990. The Naidoo family of Johannesburg has a photo of Mandela with Thailema (and Ama Naidoo whose home he used to visit often for crab curry).
I have invited many South African freedom fighters to Indian restaurants for lunch or dinner. They all loved curry.
I hope some researcher will identify the women who were involved in support for the prisoners and collect their stories.
Do you know of any?