Born: 26 August 1936
Died: 3 January 2016
Transvaal Indian Congress, Umkhonto we Size, African National Congress, South African Communist Party. Robben Island prisoner, 1963-1973. Member of Parliament, 1994-1999.
Author: Island In Chains By Prisoner 885/63. Ten Years on Robben Island
Although banned and house arrested after his release from Robben Island in 1973, Indres Naidoo immediately began playing an influential role in the development of a pro-Congress radical politics in Johannesburg.
For the young white left, mainly linked to the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and its wages commissions, he and his family became a centre of political discussion, information and connection between an older Congress-aligned generation and the group of ‘new radicals’.
The Naidoo family had lived for many years in a Rocky Street house in Doornfontein, just East of Johannesburg’s city centre. Indres’ banning and house arrest orders prohibited him from being with more than one person at a time, or from leaving the house at nights or over the weekends. Despite this, the house was a vibrant centre of politics and discussion. Alan Fine recalls that his
‘introduction to Indres and the rest of the Naidoo household in Doornfontein was through Steven (Friedman) and Jeanette (Curtis) probably some time in 1974. For me, and I daresay for many of the other wages commission members that were taken along, the most important political significance of the introduction to the Naidoos was that it was the first time I experienced the ANC being discussed relatively openly, with respect and admiration and – without specifics – where the concept of working for the organisation was conveyed as something fairly natural. Indres was the person who spoke most energetically of this. That’s where I learned the depth of meaning of phrases like “the movement” and “the party”.
‘For a couple of years, New Year’s Eve parties at Rocky Street became the routine, and there would have been a couple of visits each year in between. Ama’s cooking was legendary, of course.
‘Because Indres was banned, every knock at the door had to be treated as a visit from the security police (who arrived reasonably often). This meant that Indres had to disappear into another room so he wouldn’t be caught meeting with more than one other person. That was quite a thing for a home where there were always visitors coming and going.’
Those of us who began spending time at the Rocky Street house, meeting a slightly older generation of Congress-aligned activists and ex-political prisoners, knew that Indres has been shot by police during a failed MK sabotage operation. We knew he had served ten years on the Island, and assumed that he had become a member of the banned Communist Party some time before being imprisoned.
I do not think we knew, at that time, of his especially brutal treatment while on Robben Island, including his flogging, horrific even by South African prison standards.
In The New Radicals, I recalled how the Ahmed Timol Memorial Committee was formed in September 1973 and shortly thereafter renamed the Human Rights Committee. The HRC was
‘chaired by Mohammed Timol, who had been detained at the same time as his brother Ahmed in 1971 … Indres Naidoo, banned after his completion of a ten-year jail sentence for sabotage, played an influential behind-the-scenes role in the committee’s work.
‘According to Indres, the committee … was set up to “keep the spirit of the ANC alive amongst the people” …
‘Over the next few months, I worked closely with the Human Rights Committee, producing pamphlets and a bulletin from the (Wits) SRC offices, and meeting often with Indres Naidoo in Doornfontein. Reggie Vandayar and Shirish Nanabhai, who had been sentenced with Indres and also imprisoned on Robben Island for ten years, were often present. I assumed that they, too, were part of the group working to “keep the spirit of the ANC alive”.
‘Cedric de Beer accompanied me to one of these meetings at the Naidoo home one evening, where the indomitable ‘Ama’ – mother of the three (Naidoo) brothers and (sister) Shanti … - served us spaghetti for dinner. Cedric and I had been discussing SRC and Nusas politics with the group present when Indres pointed out that we were not eating. We attacked our plates of spaghetti, only to discover that the meal was very highly spiced.
For at least five minutes, we were racked with coughing fits, unable to speak, tears rolling down our cheeks while glasses of water were passed our way. Every time I tried to say something, m throat would constrict, and the coughing would start again. To general laughter, I asked whether the heavily curried spaghetti involved some sort of Indian Congress test to establish whether we were hardened enough to work with HRC members’
The next year (1974) saw what was probably Nusas’s most daring and radical campaign, focusing on the history of opposition to apartheid, and calling for the release of all political prisoners as a prelude to national negotiations. Student leadership had discussed this campaign with Indres and others associated with the Congress tradition, and although he could not actively participate because of his banning order, he did authorise me to announce that he was fasting in support of the demand for the release of prisoners.
This was done at a massive student gathering held on the piazza at Wits University in May 1974. Helen Joseph, herself under banning and house arrest orders until recently, was the keynote speaker. Just before she was introduced, I announced that Indres and other banned people were fasting in solidarity with the demand to release prisoners, even though this opened them to charges of contravening the terms of their banning orders, and me to a charge of quoting a banned person. The tactics of this defiance had been canvassed with Indres and others before the campaign began.
Meeting people like Indres was very important in the development of the ‘new radicalism’ evolving amongst the group of young Johannesburg-based white activists who were leading Nusas at Wits at the time. It was equally important for members of the wages commission who, under Steven Friedman’s leadership, were planting the seeds of worker organisation that would grow into the Industrial Aid Society.
For me personally, knowing that Indres had been an MK operative involved in sabotage helped crystalize my views on the place of armed struggle. His influence helped to reframe approaches to violence and non-violence in politics, and the issues of legality and illegality. This was particularly important in the efforts to move from an anti-apartheid ‘moralism’ to the demands of strategic interventions.
Indres Naidoo was an activist and shaper of history. He was one of the very first I met from the Island, and his influence and effect on that early 1970s generation of Johannesburg white radicals was significant. Looking at a photograph of the way I remember him in Rocky Street – the big beard, the wide smile, the charm and charisma – I mourn his passing. But we can also celebrate his life of courage, and the history it encompassed – from youthful membership of the TIC to the political underground, the first steps in MKs armed struggle, the Party, the Island, ANC activism in exile, and then participation in the newly formed democratic structures post-1994.