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


The events of the 1960's made the decline of the Indian Congresses quite inevitable. Unlike the ANC who had a larger rank and file the NIC, TIC and SAIC had made no plans to counter the increasingly repressive measures being passed by the Nationalist government. As I have discussed earlier many of the Indian Congress members had also begun to feel that a broader united struggle incorporating all black people, would be more adequate than movements which had an overt Indian focus. As a result of this many Congress members like Billy Nair and George Naicker joined the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe. 1 As a result of these developments there was almost absolute dormancy in the activities of the Congresses between 1961 and 1971.

In 1961 the South African government decided to establish a new body, the South African Indian Council. The government envisioned that this body would be the sole link between the Indian community and the government and it was made clear that "the state was not prepared to accept any other body as a channel through which Indians could express their opinion". 2 The decision by the government to establish this advisory body was not well accepted by the Indian Community and one gets a clear indication of this from the fact that even PR Pather, exemplar of the conservative wing turned down requests to serve on it. However in 1968 when the Council was given statutory powers PR and a few of his colleagues accepted invitations to serve on it. In addition to this he also accepted the invitation to serve as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Council. 3

In fact the last document that PR produced was an article detailing the work of the South African Indian Council. It was completed just a few days before he died. Despite the co-operative stance he adopted towards the government through his work on the council, it is abundantly clear that he really believed that the Council could be utilised as a means of uplifting the position of the Indians. For him there was no ulterior motive for the government to create a Council for Indians. As he wrote, "Every effort will be made during this year towards securing an even greater measure of goodwill for the Indian people." He went on to add, "The Council is starting 1970 with the intention of devoting all its energies towards the promotion of the welfare of the Indian people and proposes using every opportunity of doing so." 4

In his article PR mentioned that one of the most important matters that had come up during 1969 was the issue of the Grey Street area - an area that had been targeted by the Group Areas Act. However the Council whose members included the more conservative Indians, managed to negotiate with the relevant authorities regarding the future of the area. They were successful in this endeavour and managed to get the section in question proclaimed as falling within an Indian group area, though with certain restrictions pertaining to any residential development. PR expressed his hope that this area be developed fully as a commercial area which would provide for Indian participation in the central business area of Durban. 5

This approach adopted by PR Pather was exactly the one being opposed by the more progressive individuals within the Indian community. The latter felt that the former and his colleagues were interested mainly in furthering the interests of the Indian business community and were using their positions on the South African Indian Council to achieve this. The Grey Street issue was picked on as a typical example of this problem. It is very interesting how in this instance the old adage about history always repeating itself holds true. Many of the same individuals who had been in control of the NIC in the early 1940' - and had been accused of using the organisation to further the position of the wealthier Indians - were now being accused of perpetrating similar deeds, although in an entirely new body. Furthermore these traditionalist politicians were accused of carrying out their duties at the expense of the Indian masses, a claim that was echoed by many thirty years before. 6

Events such as these prompted a few individuals under the leadership of Mewa Ramgobin to reconsider the position and future of the NIC. In June 1971 definite plans were laid down for the revival of the body. According to Bhana these plans were fraught with problems, especially those created by the government. Ramgobin for instance had just had his first five-year banning order concluded when the government imposed a second five-year banning order in 1971. As a result he was unable to attend the NIC conference which he had planned. The Conference did go ahead though, at the Phoenix Settlement, which had been established by Gandhi. It is in 1971 that I choose to end my analysis though a few comments about the future of the NIC will have to be made. The period following the revival of the NIC in 1971 was a rocky period for the organisation. It was confronted immediately by the tensions (which I have discussed at an earlier stage) between being a multiracial organisation and being one that had an explicit Indian focus. Although it set out to include members of all races its members felt that the name would have to stay due to its historical significance and consequently its pulling power. For obvious reasons this proved to be very problematic. One major problem was its conflict with the South African Student's Organisation who felt that the promulgation of an Indian' organisation was tantamount to dragging the struggle backwards. Nevertheless the 1970's saw the NIC take an active role in the broader resistance movement and contrary to popular belief it did not gravitate towards a strictly Indian focussed stance. The 1980's witnessed the NIC's launch of a major campaign against the South African Indian Council. In addition to this many of the leaders and members of the NIC were instrumental in the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. Apart from Mewa Ramgobin who served as a treasurer of the UDF many other NIC members also served on the executive. The NIC were closely intrinsically tied into the protests against the new government constitution, which implemented the Tricameral system of government. 7 Despite a few attempts to kick start the organisation in the 1990's the NIC seems to be destined to remain in the past. According to Bhana its centenary celebration in 1994 was a dismal and poorly attended affair and underpinned the fact that the future of the Congress, if there is one, seems very bleak. For all intents and purposes the organisation has ceased to exist.

It is at this point that I wish to return to PR Pather. Through the duration of this thesis there are a number of themes around the life of this man that I have set out to illuminate. I began with a close inspection of his introduction into public and political affairs and I cautioned against any attempt to pin any ideological label to him. At least up until 1947 I can safely state that PR occupied an extremely ambiguous position on the political stage. This is first made apparent when he joins the then elitist NIC as an aspiring individual. And it continues through the 1920's and 1930's when despite protesting the reactionary policies of the NIC leadership he always chose to return to the fold. However by 1947 he had pretty much settled into a very conservative stance himself.

Despite this conservative stance though, there were definitely certain principles to which he clung strongly. These included the desire to see all Indians in South Africa be treated as foil and equal South African citizens. He also felt strongly about the maintenance of what he termed 'civilised' laws and regulations, beliefs he articulated clearly at his trial in 1944. Many of his ideas and beliefs were not entirely dissimilar to those of the NIC leadership, which had ousted him and his colleagues. He spent much of the 1950's protesting Apartheid legislation such as the Group Areas Act although I can be 100% sure that he never protested the Suppression of Communism Act! What made him a conservative though were the methods and strategies to which he subscribed. He strongly believed that any resistance must take place within a legitimate and sanctioned framework. And for him this entailed working within the white power structure following a policy of appeasement and accommodation. He came out strongly against the Passive Resistance Campaign on the grounds that it was unlawful and disrespectful and the minutes of the NIO strongly emphasise this.

But despite his exceptionally strong beliefs, it could never be said that he was intolerant. Even when his own son subscribed to the communist ideology PR remained supportive and understanding. Though I began thinking that maybe this was so because it was family, I was soon corrected. I began to uncover in my research much evidence to support the conclusion that despite great political opposition and struggle there was always at least some sense of camaraderie. In his retrospective look to Indian politics in the past I.C Meer wrote about PR and how much they actually had in common. Both of them fulfilled the roles of public relations officers in the NIC and the NIO in 1948. Meer describes how when the newspapers would try to portray the both organisations as just two quarrelling bodies he would walk over to PR's offices in Baker Street and reaches an agreement on the official statements that were to be released to the media. They would then release statements, which would discourage the media from promulgating any 'mischief. From 1948 onwards the NIC and NIO sent each other their press statements before they were released and this helped present a united Indian front on many of the major issues; And despite the NIC and NIO being on opposite sides there were many instances of collaboration such as on education and on the Phoenix Settlement. I.C Meer worked with PR on these issues right up until PR's death in 1970.8

This involvement across the lines of political orientations extended especially to community and welfare projects - an area in which PR was to be extremely active in. It was the field of education though that particularly interested PR. Up until his death he served on the Natal Indian Educational Committee and the Natal Indian Schools Grantees' Association. At his funeral RS Naidoo, the president of the South African Indian Teacher's Association stated that the Indian teachers in South Africa had lost a 'dear friend and a consistent champion of their cause'. He had been involved with the association since its inception in 1926. 9 PR was also to be very involved in the establishment of the ML Sultan Technical College. 10 Another project of PR's that not too many are aware of is that he was one of the principle actors in the move to obtain admission for Indian students in what was then the Natal University College, later to be known as the University of Natal. 11 As testimony to PR's commitment to education there is a school named after him in Merebank, Durban.

As I have mentioned earlier PR was also actively involved in community and welfare organisations. This involvement increased from the beginning of the 1960's, which it must be remembered marked a relatively silent period in Indian politics in South Africa. From the early 1960's PR served in the Durban Indian Child Welfare Society and the Natal Indian Council for Child Welfare but his involvement in this area can be traced right back to the 1920's when he was involved with the Aryan Young Men's Progressive Association, an organisation which later established the Aryan Benevolent Home in Pietermaritzburg. 12

PR was also very involved in religious and cultural organisations. Up until the late 1960's he was President of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha and the Natal Tamil Vedic Society. He was also a long-standing trustee of the Umgeni Road Temple. But despite this religious involvement religion does not seem to have occupied a central role in his life. Religion was important but as his son, Ambiga stated, PR was "never fanatically religious". 13 Masla Pather who explained that his father was comfortable with people regardless of their religious persuasions echoes this view. 14 Furthermore PR's involvement in these organisations was mostly of a very practical nature such as drawing up of constitutions.

I was also very interested in investigating the extent to which Indians mixed across racial lines. However my exploration of this theme was confined to the Father family. What I did find was that with PR's generation this kind of interaction was present but fairly limited. I have to be careful here and state that PR's situation was perhaps a bit different to that of most Indians. His political position both enabled and forced him to associate with whites especially those who held important and influential positions in politics and administration. In a footnote Bhana makes mention of this and notes that by the 1960's PR had established an influential network of white acquaintances and when his daughter got married in 1964 PR was apt to call the wedding a truly multiracial affair. 15 Unfortunately I was not able to ascertain just how multiracial this function was as it is almost impossible to investigate if PR really did associate with black and coloured people. Though what I can safely state is that there were definitely more interracial associations with Masla than his father. Masla who spent a considerable part of his life in the Eastern Cape associated much more frequently and freely with blacks, whites and coloureds. This could be attributed not only to the fact that the Eastern Cape was the hotbed of multiracial resistance politics but also that he was closely involved both with the ANC and SACP.

Something that interested me greatly was to delve into the question of how each generation of the Pather family appraised and considered the other ones. In interviews with PR's sons there seems to be a strong sense of respect and admiration, though I question how much they might have revealed to me about any conflicts, had they existed. One of the points that I have tried to keep in mind regarding the interviews is that sometimes people tend to remember the good and positive things while either consciously or unconsciously blotting out the negative elements. Nevertheless in the interview with Ambiga Pather there is an unmistakable sense of pride in and admiration of his father's achievements. But it has to be noted that there is also a slight element of regret that his father had not adopted a political stance with a more multiracial character. Both Masla and Mavis Pather adopt a very stoic attitude in regards to their own political and personal commitments and activities. Both interviews suggest that they believed that they had been given duties that had to be fulfilled and there was no other path their lives could have taken. As Masla states his political activities was the logical outcome of his life. In the interview with Bhavani, Masla's daughter it becomes apparent that she shares the similar attitude espoused by her parents, especially in regards to the life of her father. But her account is tinged with a bit more emotion especially when she relates how the move to Durban away from her mother was the most traumatic event of her young life. And although she emphasises a number of times that she could not be disappointed, one cannot help but detect exactly what she attempts to deny.

As can be gathered from this thesis, I have attempted to look at particular periods in the history of Indian politics in Natal. However I have also tried to steer away from conventional accounts of what I have discussed, in that I have looked at the personal sphere as well. And this is where I hope my thesis can make a positive contribution. In much of the material that I have consulted, this distinction is not picked up or even dealt with. Yet it forms an integral component in most of these historical accounts. As I have demonstrated the distinctions between the political and personal is a complicated one that is sometimes clearly distinguished yet at other times, seems almost the same. Yet the connection can never be ignored because there is such a comprehensive relationship between them.


1 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 - 1994. p 115

2 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 - 1994. p 116

3 Fiat Lux. February 1970. [Volume 5, No. I], p 10

4 P.R. Pather. "The Work of the South African Indian Council" in Fiat Lux. February 1970. [Volume 5, No. 1LP13

5 P.R. Pather. "The Work of the South African Indian Council" p 14

6 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 - 1994. p 117

7 For more detailed information on the activities of the NIC in the 1970's and 1980's see "Ch 7. Revival and Resurgence" in Surendra Bhana. Gandhi's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 — 1994.

8 The Leader 19 November 1993

9 The Graphic. 30 January 1970

10 Interview with Ambiga Pather. 25 September 1998. Durban

11 Fiat Lux. February 1970. [Volume 5, No. I], p 10

12 Fiat Lux. February 1970. [Volume 5, No. I], p 10 and The Graphic. 30 January 1970

13 Interview with Ambiga Pather. 25 September 1998. Durban

14 Interview with Masla Pather. 17 November 1998. Westville

15 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 - 1994. p 156