Ahmed Gora Ebrahim was born in Durban on 29 May 1936. Ebrahim cut his political teeth in Trotskyite circles while studying at Sastri College and Natal University (now University of kwaZulu-Natal) in Durban and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). He joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1957 and went into exile in 1963, returning to South Africa after the unbanning of the organisation in 1990.He was chief representative of the PAC in Egypt, Iraq, China and Zimbabwe, and at the United Nations in New York. In 1969, he became Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the organisation, while based in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. For many years there was a concerted international campaign to withdraw recognition of the organisation as a liberation movement in favour of the African National Congress (ANC) as the only representative of the oppressed in South Africa.
If this had happened, the PAC would have been excluded from the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations (UN), among other international platforms. Ebrahim fought hard to maintain recognition for the movement, using his considerable debating skills to argue that it was not for outsiders to choose a liberation movement for the people of South Africa. When the time came, they would choose for themselves, he said.Ebrahim did more than anyone to persuade the Scandinavian countries, most notably, that the PAC was an organisation of sufficient credibility to warrant the material support they provided, and without which it could not have survived. He did this largely through the force of his own personality, intellect, eloquence and sophistication.
Before Ebrahim went to Beijing under the auspices of the Afro-Asian Journalists Association in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, China knew little about South Africa and nothing at all about the PAC. His intellectual analysis of the situation and astute marketing of PAC strategy impressed President Mao Tse Tung, and opened the doors to aid from China. When frequent internal bickering and power struggles made donor countries doubt the wisdom of their support for the PAC, it was Ebrahim who, working through his impressive network of foreign contacts, contained the damage. In so far as the PAC projected an image to the outside world of unity and purpose, it did so through the person of Ebrahim. In short, he was the PAC's lifeline to the international community.While serving as the PAC's chief representative at the UN, the esteem accorded him in international diplomatic circles helped the organisation rally more support for certain causes it took up than might otherwise have been the case. Its success in mobilising support for the 'Sharpeville Six', sentenced to death under a common purpose ruling for the death of a person killed during unrest in the Vaal Triangle, is a case in point. Due mostly to Ebrahim's powers of persuasion even Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, agreed to take a personal interest in their fate, and their sentence was commuted.
Ebrahim helped form the South Africa Non Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) in the early 1960s, and was the Acting President when co-founder Dennis Brutus was arrested and jailed. He rallied the international community behind the anti-South African sports boycott, and the early response to the campaign he initiated and pursued virtually single-handed was not welcoming for some time. Eventually the boycott became one of the sharpest thorns in South Africa's side. Ebrahim's value to the PAC did not make his position in the organisation as secure as one might have supposed. During a particularly major internal ruction in the mid-70s he was obliged to leave Tanzania hurriedly after a fall-out with the acting President, Potlako Kitchener Leballo. He was never able to determine whether his expulsion was the work of the Tanzanian government or at the behest of the PAC itself.
With his French wife, whom he had met in China while she was working as a translator, and his two Tanzanian-born children, he went to Iraq and became editor of the Baghdad Observer, an English daily newspaper. Somewhat improbably, given the reason for his presence there, he became the PAC's chief representative in the capital and stayed for around five years, raising its profile in Iraq as well as securing important financial support.The seeds of Ebrahim's ultimate disillusionment with the PAC were planted shortly after the organisation's return, after its unbanning, to South Africa. His problems were chiefly 'it's refusal to end the armed struggle, ditch its rabble-rousing slogans which he believed had been overtaken by events, and commit to negotiations'. Its withdrawal from the Patriotic Front it had formed with the ANC and Azapo, and its on-off-on-again attitude to Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa), where he was a key member of the negotiating team, upset him.
Slowly, his views transcended what he increasingly felt was a limited, dogmatic party line out of touch with new realities. Ebrahim saw sharply that continuing to characterise the nature of oppression as colonial racism was making the PAC as racist in its own way as the racism it sought to replace. He believed the new challenge was how best to translate its policy of Africanism - always the core of his loyalty to the PAC - into a meaningful force in the post-Apartheid era. He wanted a broad, open-ended Africanism to replace what he felt was the PAC's narrow, nationalistic version which no longer served the country. For him, Thabo Mbeki's talk of African renaissance was the language of PAC founder Robert Sobukwe. He believed it paved the way for a merger between the PAC and ANC. However, his attempts to change its thinking led to his marginalisation by more extremist elements in the party until, after the 1999 elections, he lost his seat in Parliament. His growing disaffection with the party was reflected in his decision to take a holiday in Harare during the PAC's local government election campaign two years previously, and his negligible role during its run-up to the general elections.
He believed his skills were wasted on a party he saw going nowhere, and could be better used as an ambassador in Africa where he had close friendships with many leaders. The government agreed, and had him in mind as a future ambassador when he died of a suspected heart attack. In 1999, Ebrahim joined the ANC.Gora Ebrahim passed away on 25 November1999, at his home in Berea, Johannesburg, Gauteng.He is survived by his wife, Xaviere, son, Yasir (named after his friend Yasser Arafat), and daughter, Zareena.
Barron C. (1999). Standing between the PAC and extinction from the Sunday Times, 5 December. Available at www.mail-archive.com online. Accessed on 7 October 2013