From the book: The Story of PR Pather, the grand old man of Indian politics in South Africa - by Riashnee Pather


There is so much that is not written, people had so much to say 1

The quote that I have used in my topic can probably be applied to almost any historical situation or period. But it is particularly applicable to the history of the Indians in South Africa and in the case of this thesis to PR Pather and to a lesser extent his son Masla. It is pitiable that today we find ourselves in a position where we know so little about the activities and achievements of these individuals and others like them who devoted their lives to their principles and convictions. Although my thesis cannot possibly hope to look closely at all the individuals who have ever been influentially involved in South African Indian politics, what I am attempting to do is to look at one man, PR Pather. PR and others in his position were always being urged to write their autobiographies and memoirs but unfortunately not many of them got down to this, as they were so busy that they never had the time. This is sad since they led exciting and eventful lives that can never be captured in their entireties due to lack of sources and evidence.

My decision to examine the life of PR Pather was for the most part motivated by the fact that he was family - my grandfather's brother, and my interest in him was further stroked by a research project that I did on him for my History 3 class in 1997. What I found fascinating was that beginning in the 1920's PR's life became intrinsically linked to both the public and political stage in Indian politics in South Africa and I believed that looking at the broader political scene through the life of PR would make for fascinating reading. I was further convinced of this when I read Charles Van Onselen's The Seed is Mine . That book has to be one of the most successful social histories that South Africa has ever produced or will ever produce. And for me what makes this so is its location of an individual and his family within the broader political and economic developments in South Africa. 2

It would be very difficult though to produce such a comprehensive account of PR Pather and I can be fairly confident in saying this, due to some of the difficulties I encountered when trying to collect and assemble material in order to write my thesis. As I have stated earlier very few of the leading figures in the history of Indian politics in South Africa have written any autobiographical accounts. PR was too busy with official business, even drawing up an official document a few days before he died. But this has only been one of my problems. One of the major obstacles has been the fact that very few documents have survived. And this applies both to official papers as well as personal correspondence. Perhaps at the time no one really gave credence to the fact that the material might have been useful or significant in the future. In the case of PR Pather most of his material was either destroyed or lost when he moved office - material that would have been invaluable since in his capacity as secretary of various organisations he was the one usually in charge of drafting and receiving correspondence. Where documentation has survived in certain institutions, they are sometimes more of an obstacle than helpful because they are badly catalogued and organised. The haphazard storage of this invaluable material tends to create rather than resolve gaps and questions.

For this thesis I have found interviews very useful in bringing out information that is not readily available in books. My interviews with the family of PR Pather enabled me to get an insight into the personal side of the political actors. And I was thereby able to glimpse what the home was like when the political scene was turbulent. However even interviews are far from unproblematic. The difficulties with them range from the interviewee either not willing to speak about certain things or just plain not remembering. Matters can be further complicated when the interviewees remember thing inaccurately. Nevertheless my interviews have proved to be invaluable to my project.

Despite me not wanting to whine about the difficulties with sources I feel that I have to mention that the secondary material on the period and topics that I have covered are far from adequate. Most of it has quite a rigid political and economic focus and one cannot help but notice this tremendous gap. Maybe this is so because of the problems with primary materials but it is quite unforgivable when the older books had access to the documents and actual people involved. As a result of these hindrances regarding sources and evidence, I have to admit right from the beginning that there will be gaps and spaces in this thesis and hopefully this will not be interpreted as a consequence of any lack of research on my part.

I had initially planned to concentrate on the Natal Indian political scene in the 1940's and 1950's. However it soon became apparent that establishing these spatial and periodic boundaries would lead to more problems rather than solving any. The 1940's especially, were to be probably the most eventful and important periods in the history of South African Indian politics yet the period leading up to it and the period leading on from it could never be ignored. And in my attempt to look at the life of PR Pather I realised that I could not isolate his activities in just that period. It also became obvious that any examination of Indian politics could not practically be confined to looking at Natal. The links with the Indians in the Transvaal and to a lesser extent in the Cape were important and this could not be disregarded.

There are a number of themes that I have attempted to highlight in this thesis. For me perhaps the most important one is the fact that people, at least during the period that I have examined, were always concerned and took an active interest not just in political and public affairs, but in community and welfare projects as well. Though there might be those who insist that I am taking a very idealistic and naive look at the past it would be almost impossible to deny that in contrast to the apathy that exists today especially amongst the younger people, the situation at least from the 1920's was a remarkable one. PR Pather himself became involved in such activities while still a teenager at school and he was not an exceptional case. This is a theme that I intend to emphasise quite a bit. Despite PR's very active involvement in politics he also remained actively involved in numerous religious, cultural, sporting and welfare organisations. His involvement continued right up until he died.

A theme, which I also wish to highlight, was the remarkable degree of tolerance especially in terms of political orientation - which was prevalent during the period in question. And as I shall demonstrate through this thesis that even though PR had his many enemies and crossed paths with others, there was always an underlying respect for his hard work and commitment. And this is evident in the quotes I have found about him from people whose political beliefs were completely opposite to his. The reason that I have found this so interesting is that one has only to glance at the newspapers today to see that this courtesy and fairness does not exist anymore. However I must be careful to add that there were those in the past who did attack public figures personally but this phenomenon is much more prevalent today.

Other aspects that I have been interested in covering include the NIC and its evolution from a very elitist organisation to one that was more representative, a development that only becomes clearly visible in the 1940's. In this regard PR occupies a very ambiguous position in that he joined the NIC in the 1920's when it was still an elitist group bent on establishing and protecting the commercial advantages of the merchant class. But PR was to occupy ambiguous political positions for most of his life, a lesson to those who attempt to ever pigeonhole the beliefs of any individual. And even though this complicates matters, it was certainly very interesting to trace.

Something that I have hoped to tease out of my sources was the extent to which Indians mixed, especially socially across religious and vernacular lines. Although I am fairly convinced that they did, lack of substantial evidence prevents me from drawing to any definite conclusion. Though this is a theme that I have attempted to keep in mind through out this thesis. I have also attempted to explore the degree to which the Indians mixed across racial lines. And it was to become clearly evident that the occurrences of this changed considerably from one generation to another and from one specific period to another.

The role of women has generally been quite marginalised in most of the historical accounts of Indian politics in South Africa. I have attempted to redress that in certain sections. Unfortunately I have been unable to gain any insight into the activities of women before 1945 but I have been a bit luckier regarding the period following 1945. This meant that I could not provide much insight into the wife of PR Pather, which would have been immensely interesting. Nevertheless I have included material and figures relating to the involvement of women during the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946 -1948. I also touch on the 1960's when I look at Mavis Pather and her situation when her husband Masla was arrested and imprisoned.

Something that I have found immensely intriguing was the concept of the public and private spheres in Indian politics. This is something that I have attempted to keep just below the surface for the better part of this thesis. Furthermore the distinction between these spheres is not always clearly distinguishable and on many occasions there is a marked tendency to see them as one and the same. This will be more closely examined when I look specifically at PR's difficulties under the Pegging Act as well as the fact that Masla's political orientation was in such a contrast to that of his father. In this regard I also intend to bridge the gap between the political and the personal, something that is so lacking in conventional historical accounts. This approach which I have adopted, attempts to look at how the families involved coped with the political pressures which they confronted and how they perceived their respective situations. And this is where I hope my thesis will make a significant and useful contribution.

1 Interview with Mavis Pather. 17 November 1998. Westville

2 See Charles Van Onselen. The Seed is Mine. The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper, 1894 - 1985. [New York: Hill and Wang, 1996]