Govindasamy Reddy (Govin Reddy) was born on 16 June 1943 in Kranskloof, a farming area next to Claremont on the outskirts of Durban, Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal - KZN).
The seeds of Reddy’s activism were sown as a youngster around his passion for sport, especially cricket. Facilities were poor at the high school for Indians in downtown Durban - little more than dusty patches - and passing the immaculate greens of Durban’s whites-only high schools stirred a sense of injustice in him that led to his life-long involvement with politics.
Reddy, or “Billy” as he was known to family and friends, was the youngest of 11 children. His father Narain Chengal Reddy had come to South Africa with his mother as a 12-year-old from Andhra Pradesh in southern India. She returned to India shortly after, leaving the young boy on his own. Highly resourceful, the young Narain moved from a job as a sweeper to becoming a chef in the business of Sir Marshall Campbell, Natal’s pioneering sugar Industrialist, and politician.
He married 16-year-old Perumalamma and his relative success eventually afforded the couple a smallholding in Kranskloof where they built the five-bedroom farmhouse where Reddy was born.
The family was later dispossessed of the house and farm in the 1960s under the Group Areas Act, making way for the township of KwaDabeka and hostels for workers in the burgeoning business area of Pinetown.
The simple home was spacious enough for a large family. A generator provided lights, there was no fridge or telephone and water came from a borehole. Listening fixated to sports commentary or drama series on a car battery-powered radio was a large part of the young Reddy’s entertainment when not playing ball games with the farm workers and their children.
With his three oldest brothers joining their father in the farming business, revenues grew. The family soon purchased an additional 100 acres, turning the farm into a fairly profitable venture producing mostly bananas as well as vegetables.
Repeating the pattern of Indian families who were able to lift themselves out of relative poverty or indentured labour, the older children were expected to participate in the family business, supporting their younger siblings through higher education.
Following senior school years at Sastri College, the first high school established for Indian male students in Durban, Reddy acquired a place at the newly established Salisbury Island University set in the middle of Durban’s harbour. In keeping with the then government’s policy of segregation, Salisbury Island University was designated solely for students from the Indian community. Despite the strictures imposed on education at ‘bush’ colleges like Salisbury Island, where lecturers tended to be Broederbond affiliates, the meeting of avid and questioning young minds inevitably had a politicising effect. The university produced many of Natal’s leading Indian business people, educators and political leaders.
Reddy was a bright student graduating in history and continued to excel at sports. With growing political awareness, he was soon recruited with others such as Ebrahim Ebrahim, agitating primarily on campus, distributing anti-apartheid literature and demanding the end of segregated education.
During his studies, he taught briefly as a locum at Cooper School, founded by AS Cooper, the father of black consciousness leader Saths Cooper. It was here that he had his first run in with apartheid authorities. When the then south African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in 1967, teachers and pupils had to go to Pinetown for his memorial service. Reddy refused despite the headmaster’s pleading, and his services were terminated by the Inspector of Education. Prospects of getting a teaching post in a state school were short-lived for Reddy.
However, after graduating, Reddy had a politically energising period as the first Indian teacher at the prestigious, mission-funded school for African girls, Inanda Seminary, north of Durban. It was his first encounter with Africans as equals, where he attempted to go off-script from the official curriculum and teach a progressive, and at the time subversive, version of South African history to matriculants. Some of his students became prominent citizens in the new South Africa.
During this period, he met and forged a friendship with Steve Biko and was involved in the revival of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the formation of the Committee for the Clemency for Political Prisoners, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and others.
Amid these activities, he received a scholarship to study at Northwestern University in Chicago, his first experience of living in a multiracial democracy. Also, at Northwestern was Dennis Brutus with whom he joined in several anti-apartheid campaigns, including a meeting with the then International Olympic Committee chief, Avery Brundage, to demand Rhodesia’s (now Zimbabwe’s) expulsion from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Now on the radar of the South African security forces, Reddy found himself turned away from the University of Durban Westville (UDW) upon his return to the country. He instead took up a position as a research officer at the Institute of Race Relations, becoming even more deeply involved in the struggle.
Working closely with luminary activists like Biko, Rick Turner, and Pravin Gordhan, Reddy addressed numerous public rallies and wrote extensively in the press. After one lively mass meeting of UDW students on the eve of the 1976 Soweto uprising, Reddy was detained at 5.00 am the next morning.
Though hundreds were detained during that period, Reddy’s detention was witnessed by his professor who had been staying with him at the time. It made headline news locally and the traumatised professor publicised his eye-witness account of a police state in action in the American press.
Reddy spent almost six months in Modderbee Prison in Benoni, Transvaal (now Gauteng) under the new legislation of indefinite detention. Some 50 activists shared his large cell, among them Nthatho Motlana, Smangaliso Mkwatsha, Peter Magubane, and Joe Thloloe.
It was a trying period. Just before moving to Chicago, United States of America (USA), Reddy had married Kasturi Chetty, a Nursing Sister. In August 1975 they had their first child, Sudeshan. Kasturi would make the long trip from Durban to Johannesburg as often as she could when visits to prisoners were allowed.
Reddy was released from prison on Boxing Day 1976 and served with a five-year banning order and was forced out of his job at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Taking up one of the few opportunities open to him he started a bookshop, The Bookmark. But even that venture was legally ambiguous, as the shop was in a white part of downtown Durban and operated under a white nominee, Paddy Kearney of the Diakonia Council of Churches.
The Bookmark became an attraction for scholars and activists looking for African literature and politics, not normally available in the country’s main street bookshops. Of course, that soon brought the shop to the attention of the authorities. Frequent raids by the security police and the seizing and banning of books meant that as a business it was no longer viable, and The Bookmark closed its doors.
Any contravention of the restrictions of his banning order entailed court orders, legal fees and suspended sentences, while constant surveillance by the security police made normal life impossible. In this turbulent time his second child, Priya, was born in Durban on the first day of 1978.
In 1981, unable to earn a living and anticipating the usual five-year extension to his banning order, he decided to go into exile. In the early hours of the morning, he crossed the border into Swaziland. He was granted a United Nations (UN) refugee passport enabling him to go to newly independent Zimbabwe, his destination of preference.
Invited by the Ministry of Education, then refused permission of entry by Home Affairs, it took Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s personal intervention to grant him entry. As it turned out, Reddy was Zimbabwe’s first official refugee from South Africa, necessitating a crisis cabinet meeting to formulate policies around how the new government would handle refugees from the south.
He spent a decade in Zimbabwe working first for the Ministry of Education rewriting the school History books and then a couple of years with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. In the middle of the 1980s Reddy was headhunted to lead the English section at the respected news agency Inter Press Service, focussing mostly on the “Third World”. He was based in Rome for two years before moving back to Zimbabwe.
His marriage to Kasturi having broken up, Reddy married Tessa Colvin in 1984, the daughter of a friend and chairperson of the Black Sash in Durban, Ann Colvin. Tessa joined Reddy in exile, having left South Africa legally on a British passport but was then barred from returning. The couple has two children, Micah and Niall.
With the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), the family moved back to South Africa and settled in Johannesburg, Transvaal (Gauteng). Now immersed in the media world, Reddy brought back a magazine he had started in the last couple of years in Harare, Zimbabwe. Africa South was now published bi-monthly out of offices in Yeoville, Johannesburg, largely with the help of Scandinavian funding.
This was followed by a stint as the CEO of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), founded by his friend and veteran journalist, Alister Sparks. The IAJ offered courses in media development and practice. In January 1994, he was appointed CEO of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Radio, taking office under Zwelakhe Sisulu, the corporation’s first black chief executive and son of struggle luminaries Walter and Albertina Sisulu.
It was an often fraught period of transformation at the national broadcaster. Radio had long tentacles that reached deep into all communities in South Africa and had been under the tight control of the regime. It was a key instrument in the apartheid propaganda machine. Reddy, as part of a democratically empowered management, drove the project to bring radio in line with the values of a new South Africa.
Although some among the ‘old guard’ embraced transformation at the broadcaster, many were staunchly opposed. The reformation of the old Radio South Africa into SAfm, which made the English Channel more representative of all South Africans, provoked a national outcry from white English-speaking listeners, with hundreds of angry letters and columns featured in the English press. Reddy was subjected to hate mail, often with racist undertones.
Later appointed deputy chief executive of the SABC, Reddy was positioned to take over from Sisulu after the latter resigned to join the business world. Instead, the role went to the person who had taken Reddy’s former position in radio, and who had worked for the broadcaster’s Zulu service during apartheid.
Reddy’s questioning of the board’s decision to overlook him in favour of someone from the old guard – someone he asserted was less qualified and was an affirmative action appointment –led to a falling out between him and the corporation in 1998.
The following year he moved back to print and was appointed chief executive officer of what was then the paper of record, the Mail & Guardian, which had grown out of the fiercely independent Weekly Mail. Following that he joined the Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute at Rhodes University, Grahamstown (now known as Makhanda), Eastern Cape as director and was made professor extraordinaire in the journalism department of Stellenbosch University, Western Cape. He served on many advisory and media-monitoring committees as well as serving as a Member of the Council at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
Towards the end of his career, he started to move out of journalism and took up the offer of a three-year sojourn as the representative of the International Marketing Council of South Africa (later Brand South Africa), based in Mumbai, India. He formed a strong bond with the country of his parents’ origin, returning there many times over the next few years.
His final work role was as a director on the board of the National Lotteries Commission (NLC), serving two periods and once again finding the fulfillment in transformational work in the funding of charities, the arts, and sports.
Reddy struggled with ill health in his last two years and died at the age of 74 in Johannesburg in October 2017.
- Reddy, T. Email to SAHO, 9 November 2022