I am hereby sharing some letters Ismail Mohamed wrote to me in 1980/81/87. But first I give a snapshot of his life, achievement and involvement in the struggle for South Africa’s national liberation – this by no means does justice to a life wholly and selflessly dedicated to the struggle for the national liberation of South Africa. What is most significant to me in this snapshot is his return to South Africa after completing his studies in London and how, after he left South Africa for a second time, he continuously strove to situate himself in Southern Africa and ultimately inside South Africa: all he wanted was to be where,or as near as possible, the struggle was. He could have remained in Britain or USA, relatively free of racial discrimination compared to South Africa and of the risk of imprisonment for his political views or activity, to enjoy an easy life and a secure university job through which he could have explored his passion for Mathematics. His letters must be read in that context: how often he talked about what he called home and actually returned home – South Africa; and making a contribution to the struggle there, right inside the belly of the beast.

Snapshot of Ismail Mohamed’s life

Born: 27 July 1930

1952 or 53: While a student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he joined Non-European Unity Movement, attending its weekly meetings held under the auspices of the Progressive Forum in Doornfontein, Johannesburg.

1954: Obtained a BSc (Hons) in Mathematics, University of Witwatersrand.

1955: Teacher at William Hills High School, Benoni.

1957: Disillusioned with NEUM.

Obtained a MSc, University of the Witwatersrand.

Off to London to study for a PhD at London University.

While studying, financially supported himself by taking up assistant lectureships at the University of Wales and London University’s Queen Mary College.

Made contact with leftwing organisations, in particular Trotskyist groups, in Britain and with them was active in the Labour Party.

1959: Married Ellen Rygaardt, his former student at William Hills High School.

1961: Obtained PhD in Group Theory (Mathematics) from London University.

Returned to South Africa.

Re-united with ex-NEUM members.

1963: Offered to go to the Zeerust area to test the safety of crossing the border with Botswana by political activists fleeing arrest in South Africa: Fikile Bam and Marcus Solomon are the two he wants to help in this regard.

Returned to London.

1965: At end of year left for Zambia but not before he arranged – together with Barney Desai and Kenneth Jordaan - my own and wife’s entry into Britain without passports, both of us having left South Africa on exit permits.

1966: Assumed a post at the University of Zambia

1968: Assumed a post at Roma University, Lesotho
Together with Professor Heineken, made a breakthrough in solving a major problem in Group Theory which now bears their joint name: Heineken-Mohamed Group.

1975: Returned to South Africa as Professor at the University of the Western Cape

1976: Delivered an address at a  conference of the black consciousness oriented South African Students Organisation setting the tone for his active involvement with students in the coming years..

Detained without charge for three and half months for his political activity and sacked from the university.

Others detained with him included Cheryl Carolus, Johnny Issel and Trevor Manuel.

Henceforth a speaker at many student rallies in Soweto and other townships.

Active in organising Parents Support Committees in Newclare and Coronationville.

1977: Assumed an Associate Professorship at University of the Witwatersrand.

1980: On or about this time, joined the ANC underground in South Africa.

1983: Elected as one of the Vice-Presidents of the United Democratic Front in the Transvaal.

1985: Together with Albertina Sisulu, Frank Chikane and others charged with treason.

1987: Addressed the American National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC on the political situation in South Africa.

1986: Delivered the Academic Freedom lecture at Rhodes University.

1994: Enteredthe first democratic parliament as an ANC MP.

Date of death: 6 July 2013.

Introduction to the letters

While in exile, of the many letters I received from Ismail Mohamed Iam left with four.

Regrettably, the others were lost in London after I returned from exile. They were disposed of when I had to vacate the London flat I had been living in and was not there to salvage them. It is these four letters that I reproduce here. For me, knowing Ismail personally, his most outstanding characteristic was his two passions: pursuit of research in Mathematics and a striving throughout his life to be present and active at the coalface of the struggle for the national liberation of South Africa. Throughout his life, the two presented him with a conflict of interest: does he stay in Europe or United States where he could comfortably occupy a university teaching post that will enable him to pursue mathematics research; or does he forego such an opportunity to indulge his passion for mathematics by remaining in South Africa in order to play a part in the struggle? Every time, the latter option trumped the former. At all times he asked himself the two questions: what contribution can I make to the struggle, and where is it best I can make the contribution, abroad or inside South Africa? And always, his decision was: inside South Africa or as near as possible to South Africa, also making sure of taking into account the welfare of his wife Ellen and children. In these letters, the word contribute – in the context of what contribution he can make to the struggle – occurs several times. I do not personally know of a more devout foot soldier, not a mere talker but an utmost walker of the talk, of our struggle for freedom.[2]

On his final return to South Africa, in 1975, he threw himself into supporting the incipient militancy of students spurred on by black consciousness and culminating in the Soweto Uprising of 1976 –his mood was one with that of the students who too were not just talking. He addressed a conference of the South African Students Organisation, was sacked from his job at the University of the Western Cape for supporting students, became involved in the formation of Student and Parent Student Committees, especially in the Soweto, Newclare and Coronationville areas, and faced a charge of treason. He was elected one of the deputy-presidents of the United Democratic Front; and in 1994 the African National Congress sent him to South Africa’s first democratic parliament as one of its MPs.

Letter 1

Dept of Mathematics
University of the Witwatersrand
Jan Smuts Ave

17th December 1980

Dear Rose

It was very good to hear from you and also from Violet.[3] Give her our love and best wishes. I have had your address since our correspondence when I was in Roma[4] but somehow Ellen used the address given by the various visitors here.

I have not heard from Dennis Higgs[5] family for years, although they have sent us a card from time to time and also when they were in Guyana.[6] Give them our greetings if you correspond with them. I would like to get in touch with them again. I had an offer of a post at York University from D. Soliter but decided not to take this up because of various ties here. Gilbert Baumslag visited here in in December 1979/January 1980 and offered to arrange a position for me if ever I want to move.[7]

I hope to visit the University of Zambia during Jan/Feb 1981 if I can get a visa and hope to spend my sabbatical either there or in Zimbabwe when this is due within the next two years. I could probably also arrange to go to London (QMC) but I am not so sure that I want to go there in preference to Lusaka or Salisbury. (Kambule is in Maths with me[8].

I do not know if the various visitors here could give you a good assessment of the situation. I refrained from spelling out things as I see them because I could not detect any firm concern and desire to assist. To me it seems that we have entered a period of protracted struggle on many levels. There is a clearer understanding and involvement at school levels with SRC’s being formed and a build-up of COSAS. Many schools remain closed and it appears that this struggle in the schools will intensify next year.You know many children have disappeared since 1976. Our Andrew (17yrs) has been away from home since the end of July.[9] It has been a traumatic experience for us, and of course many other parents.

On the labour front there is growing strike action and often with community support. MWASA (Media Workers Association) (Black journalists etc) have been on strike for about 2 months. Support Committees are being formed in the community. These have interesting possibilities beyond the MWASA strike. I am sure such committees could very usefully be established abroad. There are tasks which can only be performed here but there are also tasks which can essentially only be performed elsewhere. These all at different levels. I shall write when I can more detailedly (sic) and what you can do (sorry this sounds arrogant). I understand PUTCO drivers came out on strike this afternoon.
(*It is probably best not to talk too wildly about this).[10]

With love from us all. Ask Violet to write to us.


Letter 2

Dept of Mathematics
University of the Witwatersrand
Jan Smuts Ave

24th April 1981

Dear Rose

We were glad to hear from you and hope next time you will tell us more about your family. Perhaps the various visitors here have told you about ours and so I shall I shall not say anything about them now.

I read with interest your various comments on events during 1980[11] prior to that. I would say that it is by and large accurate particularly bearing in mind the distance. It is hard to convey the mood that developed then and the repercussions on people’s day to day to lives and how these lives are undergoing a process of change. Parents Student Action Committees were more active than appear on the surface and the Student Committees could only take the stand and develop as they did because of the mood of the parents.[12] These developments are still there although more measured and considered.

I also read with interest & some misgiving the other assessment of the situation here and the tasks which flow from ( be pursued) from that assessment.[13] Of course, I already had some knowledge of this and the tasks being pursued. There is a task which can essentially only be performed here and a task which can be essentially only be performed outside and both these must be part of a unified whole.[14] It must also be recognised that the organisation and mobilisation of the people occur the way it does because of internal parameters and a conscious response to these parameters. The tasks outside are subject to certain external as well as internal parameters. A clear recognition of these parameters must clearly lead to the understanding that that task cannot be performed by certain elements and in as far as they attempt to do so it ultimately undermines the internal tasks.[15] This must be carefully assessed in relation to our goal and how & by whom it can be achieved and direct one’s efforts in this direction. Recognise that we already have, and have had for a long time, a basis for minimum consensus and so all efforts must be in the direction indicated.[16] This is a major problem and the people abroad must resolve this. I think you should work for this bearing in mind we are engaged in a national liberatory struggle.[17] I cannot spell out the parameters or the how whom. These must be honestly spelled out and forget aboutour pastdifferences (i.e. of various organisations) which are certainly not fundamental.[18]

Greet our friends and particularly Violet.

Best regards

Letter 3

200 East 33rd St, Apt 20E
New York, NY 10016

March 12, 1987

Dear Rose

I am sorry that we had to leave in such a hurry that night without any decent farewell – but I just did not want to be placed in a position where you might have had to take us home by car in such dangerous snowy conditions.[19]

Well we have arrived and settled in. Fortunately, Gilbert[20] with the support of the National Science Foundation and City College of the City University of New York, have arranged accommodation etc very well. It is an experience for the children of course for us to beon the 20th floor of a midtown Manhatten apartment block with the Empire State Building up the road.

I spent two days a week at City College, where I have a visiting professorship, and two days a week at the Graduate Centre of CUNY. City College is very interesting with about 65% of the student population Black or Hispanic. Generally it appears that Blacks do feature in influential positions in Universities, Colleges, Schools, Local Admin, Government, Banks, etc. My impression is significantly more so than I have seen anywhere in the UK. Of course, Blacks also constitute the greatest percentage of unemployed, dropouts from school, the homeless, the poor and the miserables of capitalist society. At College and University, as elsewhere, the Americans are more warm-hearted and less pompous than the English (establishment). So in many ways I would have liked to stay here but I am also offended by their capitalistic values and the way we know how they are subverting and undermining other countries. The UK is, of course, also disgustingly capitalist but there is a substantial leftwing that one can identify with. (I have met some on the left here.) More important, from our point of view is that London is a base from which one can have an influence on the S. African struggle.[21]

It is clear we cannot return home in the immediate future, but I have no told people at home yet because there are a number of issues to clear up. So apart from you and Anita[22] – I would also like to write to Baruch[23] – I have not discussed withanyone and so leave t there for the time being.

I am writing this letter particularly because I would like to ask your advice on our future. For the immediate future we have to settle here or in London. I can get a job here even if it has to be at a two year college and would receive a good salary, make some contribution to political struggle in SA as far as one can here and do some mathematics.[24] London however, has no university jobs, and I would have to look for a job in the schools, but I feel I can make a meaningful political contribution from there. Could you tell me what are the possibilities of obtaining a teaching job by applying from here.[25] Give me whatever help you can. Ivor is 15 years in March 1988 and I am not sure how he would fit into what appears to be a rigid education system in the UK.[26] Here education is flexible & there should be no problem for him to complete schooling here and enter university here. I shall appreciate whatever advice you can give – information on jobs, etc.

I was rather impatient with the problem you raised about a political organisation to carry out a socialist programme,[27] but when we have more time I shall explain. It is important to understand what is happening there now & what the present possibilities are, as well as our role.

Best regards from Ellen, the children and myself.


Letter 4

200 East 33rd St, Apt 20E
New York, NY 10016

May 12, 1987

Dear Rose

We were delighted to hear from you but with a heavy programme, many to write to at home, I have not found it possible to write earlier.

Your letter is so well written and logical that it is hard for me to take issue with anything. There is one thing though which is crucial and that is that I can do certain political work in London, or Africa, which would be difficult here because the basis for contact with relevant groups at home is not that well established.[28] We can discuss this when we come to London.

I spoke to a Symposium on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC end April. The talk was extremely well received. There were some 600 top scientists and mathematicians present. This paper will be published along with others. I also spoke with the Executive Committee of the NAS and presented a twenty page paper. The Washington meeting led to an invitation from the New York Academy of Sciences and I spoke to their executive. I gave a long lecture at City College and a short talk at Hunter College, both of CUNY, as well as meeting some other groups. When we come to London I shall let you have copies of the papers of the Washington papers.[29] It is clear that there is a level at which I can make a contribution here.[30]

An AMS member from Howard College, Washington DC, spoke to me about arranging a Maths position for me at Howard. The NAS called the other day to say they can arrange a Maths position for me at Brown University, Providence R.I. This is one of the top Ivy League colleges. I am sorely tempted. I told them to go ahead on the understanding that we have not reached finality on our future plans.[31] If need be we shall return after our London trip. As always I am torn between mathematics and making a worthwhile contribution in resolving the problems at home.[32] It just seems difficult to do both from this distance, and of course that applies to London too, particularly given my health problems.

About the UK I have no illusions that the going would be difficult and I hope that I have not underestimated the extent of it. I have not ruled out a plan like Zimbabwe but this also has problems for me. Am I correct in thinking in thinking that I can expect a salary of almost £12000 pa? We are concerned that for Ivor, who just turned 15 years, successfully completing school and getting into university may be problematical. We should at least give the two younger children the opportunities of an education the older ones had. Accommodations seems to be very expensive and this would make life even more trying. I hope we can surmount these things and thought a few years here may help us recover economically,[33] but then I would have no way of getting into the UK.

Rose there was so much to say to you when we briefly met that I said very little about your brother George.[34] Of course, I always had good intentions back home to write to you but we were caught up in so many activities and new situations that it was hard to keep pace with all one needs to do. But perhaps I can tell you that when I spoke at funerals, so many funerals, in Mamelodi and Soweto or meetings in Duduza, etc. I, and that goes for most, never forget to tell of those who have been killed in Casinga, Maputo, Manzini, Mbabane, Gaborone, Maseru and so many other places and I could identify with George even though I never knew him that well.

We are leaving here on 31st May for London and shall spend some time there and ponder more seriously the roads we should take. I hope to speak at greater length with you then.(35) We would need to reach a decision soon because you cannot survive without money and so all one hopes to contribute come to nothing.(36)

We send love from family to family.



Ps. I gave a talk on Group Theory at the Graduate Centre. It was well received.

End notes:

[1] a brief biography of Mohamed written by his daughter, Elaine.

[2]Roseinnes Phahle: Reminiscences of the Arrest of Fikile Bam and Marcus Solomon in 1963 - - also contains a biographical note on Mohamed but, more importantly, tells what he did to find a way to help Bam and Solomon skip the country into Botswana. 

[3]Violet Sibiya, a friend of Ismail and Ellen stopped in London on her way from South Africa to USA.

[4]Roma was the name of the university in Lesotho.

[5]Dennis Higgs, formerly a lecturer in Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He lived with Holly, his black girl friend, in the white suburb of Hillbrow, in contravention of the Immorality Act and other apartheid laws. A member of the Armed Resistance Movement (ARM), the first organisation in South Africa to embark on armed struggle.He was in charge of training ARM’s members in the use of explosives. A member of ARM, John Harris, dropped a bomb at Park Station, fatally wounding a white woman and sentenced to death by hanging. Dennis together with Holly fled to Northern Rhodesia which was a British colony subsequently giving birth to an independent Zambia. Agents of the apartheid regime abductedhim from Northern Rhodesia and returned him to South Africa. Because of the violation of British sovereignty, the British government demanded his return. The South African government denied responsibility for the abduction. An “anonymous” call was made to the Sunday Times that Dennis was bound to a tree at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg.That way the government played it as if it had no part in the abduction. Under escort of the British Embassy he was flown back to Northern Rhodesia. He and Holly were subsequently married and settled in Canada where he was a professor at the University of Waterloo. He distinguished himself by making a significant contribution to Category Theory, a branch of Mathematics.

[6]In a letter I had written to Ismail I mentioned that Dennis Higgs and his family were holidaying in London at the time and that he had been a Visiting Professor of Mathematics at the University of Guyana during 1972 to 1974 when I was a lecturer there.

[7]Ismail never had a problem of finding employment in universities in UK or USA. But he declined job offers wanting to be where the struggle was: in South Africa.

[8]TW Kambule was my matric maths teacher at Madibane High School. He was later employed by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) to teach on its special bridging course for students coming from disadvantaged schools in the townships. He was teaching in the same department as Ismail.

[9]Andrew joined the ANC underground, secretly left the country and was sent to the Soviet Union to receive military training.

[10]The year 1980 was characterised by the most intensive and protracted action by students against the government. It was not safe to say much about this in a letter in case it was intercepted by the special branch (state security/intelligence) police.

[11]This was in response to my article specifically on the 1980 schools’ boycott: We Don’t Want No Education in Solidarity, Issue No 4 1980, the official organ of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA). The article also appeared in Ufahamu Vol 11 Issue 3, Journal of African Studies, UCLA. It was very gratifying to learn from Ismail that my observations of the situation inside the country were “by and large accurate particularly bearing in mind the distance”, that is, me writing from outside the country.

[12]Ismail was fully immersed in the organisation of the committees and was hinting to me that they were much more active beyond what I had observed in my article We Don’t Want No Education.

[13]He is referring to Our Urgent Tasks which was a programmatic statement of the BCMA appearing in the same issue of Solidarityas We Don’t Want No Education.

[14]I well understood Ismail’s misgivings about the programme Our Urgent Tasks. By this time, he had thrown in his lot with the African National Congress (ANC) which, claiming the mantle of being the sole representative of the struggling people of South Africa, was brooking no rivalry from any organisation, internally or externally. Any rival organisation it dubbed a “third force”. Ismail, in a way, was supporting this position.

[15]By “other elements”, he presumably meant liberation or solidarity movements that were not allied to the ANC.

[16]His writing here as well as throughout was cryptic because of the likelihood of mail being intercepted by the security police. But, consistent with his standpoint at this time, what he was pointing at is uniting under the leadership of the ANC.

[17]By this time, I was involved in the Azania Liberation Support Committee and producing publications which gave publicity to the independent trade unions and which were broadly socialist and non-sectarian in orientation. We saw it as crucial to have a critically supportive and independent voice in the struggle – hence our publications. The aim of the publications is described in Allison Drew’s The Azania Liberation Support Committee and its Publications, an article which is on South African History Online ( We also carried on our political work in expectation of a workers’ party emerging out of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) to which we would give our support. We were encouraged in this expectation by FOSATU’s oft repeated criticism of what it called the “populism” of the national liberation organisations. [I personally was never averse to populism (a la Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) as long as it was not empty rhetoric and right wing.] Then in April 1982, Joe Foster’s address to the second national conference of FOSATU in Hammanskraal on the need for an independent political organisation of the workers raised our hopes even higher. In fact, all the issues of Azania Worker carried a statement in which we proclaimed that “we fully support the project of creating an independent political organisation of theworkers of South Africa”. “Bearing in mind we are engaged in a national liberatory struggle” was Ismail cautioning me that the struggle was not for socialism. So, according to him there was no need for a workers/socialist party.

[18]He meant differences between on theone hand those of us coming out of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM and on the other hand the ANC.

[19]Ismail, Ellen and their children spent an evening with me at my home in London on their way to USA.

[20]Gilbert Baumslag and Ismail completed an Honours degree in Mathematics at Wits at the same time and together went on to do PhDs in Group Theory.Baumslag was a professor in the USA. He got in touch with me when Ismail was sacked at UWC and asked me to convey a message to Ismail that a job in the USA would be available to him should he be forced to leave South Africa.

[21]This shows his everover-riding concern to be at a place, inside or outside South Africa, where he will be able to play an active part in the struggle.

[22]Anita Rodney (nee Thomas), a South African living in London, married to a Guyanese and cousin of Walter Rodney – she and Ismail grew up together, their families living at the same address in Doornfontein, Johannesburg.

[23]Baruch Hirson, formerly a member of NEUM, was one of the founders of ARM. In 1964, members of ARM including Hirson were convicted of sabotage and he was sentenced to prison for nine years. He lectured in Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand but in prison he turned himself into a historian and, after prison, wrote a number of books on aspects of South Africa’s political history.

[24]Always trying to reconcile his two passions, he sees the possibility of satisfying both by settling in either USA or London but feels he could make a greater contribution to the struggle from being in London.

[25]The bottom line was that he would rather be in London than the USA because from London he could make a “meaningful political contribution” to the struggle. He was prepared even to give up a university career and take up a teaching job in a London school just in order to be where he could make a greater contribution.

[26]His concern for the education of his children was equally paramount.

[27]By his own admission, he was impatient when I raised the question of socialism – that is because he did not now see socialism as relevant at that particular juncture in the struggle.

[28]Where is it best for him where he can do political work is a recurring theme in all his plans.

[29]In the end, he could not resist the incessant call within him to go back to where the actual struggle was taking place: South Africa. He may have gone back to South Africa directly from the USA because we never met as he said we would in London when he would let me have papers of the talks he gave in the USA.

[30]Wherever he would ultimately settle, the question foremost in his mind always was will he from there be able to make a contribution to the struggle?

[31]Another possibility of a job but he does not commit himself.

[32]In his own words: “As usual I am torn between mathematics and making a worthwhile contribution in resolving the problems at home” – home is South Africa. “It just seems difficult to do both from this distance.”

[33]“Recover economically”?Ismail engaged in politics at a financial cost that he bore out of his own pocket.

[34]George is my brother. His full name is Cecil George Phahle. He with his wife Lindi, short for Lindiwe, together with eleven others, most of them members of the ANC, were killed by the apartheid South African Defence Force (SADF) when it raided Gaborone in Botswana during the night of 14th June 1985. Amongst those killed was Joseph Malaza, a cousin of Lindi, who on that same day had come visiting from Johannesburg. Their intelligence having informed them that there were threepersons living in the house – George, Lindi and my younger brother, Livingston – the SADF killed Joseph believing he was Livingston, the third occupant of the house. They left the house after killing the three, satisfied that they had killed all the people living in the house according to their intelligence. That Livingston came out of the house in the middle of the night walking over the dead bodies of his brother and sister-in-law left him traumatised for the rest of his life till he died in exile in New York on 8th August 2017. During his last years he was living in the streets of New York and was no longer performing as a jazz pianist. So traumatised he still was that he turned down all arrangements by me to have him come back to South Africa.


The next time I met Ismail was in February, 1989. This was on the occasion when I was in South Africa for my father’s funeral. Thanks to Helen Suzman, she interceded on my mother’s behalf with the government to allow me to come into South Africa. I was allowed in for 10 days and, apart from a social call on Ismail, we did not have much time together to talk. But, in the middle of 1990, I was back in South Africa – again thanks to Helen Suzman’s intervention – to attend to the unveiling of my father’s tomb stone. A ten-day visa given to me was extended to 30 days. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and the rigidity of apartheid had begun to thaw. This time I spent sufficient time with Ismail, meeting him several times on the grounds of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Ismail had read my article Supporting MDM & Negotiations and Stopping Further Tactical Errors which appeared in our journal Frontline Worker No 2, April/May 1990. The main thrust of the article was directed at organisations that were opposed to the ongoing negotiations with the apartheid government and had excluded themselves from what was broadly known as the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). It was plain to most people and organisations and countries throughout the world that the apartheid government was now negotiating for a real change in its policies and not for cosmetic changes as was its practice in the past. Further, on the side of the movement for national liberation, the ANC was at this time the dominant organisation. The article argued for support to be given to the ANC as the leading organisation engaged in the negotiations.

I did not expect Ismail to disagree with the article given that he was a member of the ANC and that the article was calling on other organisations to close ranks behind the ANC. But, of course, my call was for support limited to a single objective and limited in time: negotiations regarding a democratic South Africa and for the duration of the negotiations throughout which each organisation retained its independence and autonomy. Simply put, the differences between us reduced to: working within the ANC as its members and working with the ANC in support of the negotiations.