Krishna Rabilal was born on 6 November 1952 to working class parents in the township of Merebank, south of Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal – KZN).
A quiet and unassuming person, Rabilal was a brilliant student, excelling in both mathematics and physical science. He hated the Afrikaans language, calling it the language of the oppressor. He felt so strongly about this that he refused to study Afrikaans on principle.
He joined the active community organisations in the area in the hope he could make an impact on the community through his socio-welfare and community work.
He was a member of the Merewent Ex Students Society, Merewent Ratepayers Association, Merebank Community Centre, Merebank Bus Passengers Association and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC).
Rabilal’s first job was as a clerk for a construction company at the Shell oil refinery at Prospecton in South Durban where he joined Vis (Ivan) Pillay. Later he worked with Sunny Girja Singh, a former Robben Island prisoner, at Day-Glo Stationers in Durban. His last job was at a second-hand furniture dealer, managed by Daya (Joe) Pillay, Vis (Ivan) Pillay’s brother, who was also forced into exile.
Together with his friends, he was involved in campaigns, community projects and many civil society organisations, including the Anti-Republican Campaign, the Child Welfare Society, Friends of the Sick Association (FOSA), the Merewent Ratepayers Association (MRA), Merebank Bus Passengers Association (MBPA), Merebank Community Centre (MCC), Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). He was a founder member of The Sentinel, a community newsletter.
He was involved in the production of The Sentinel, which had a strong political slant, focussing on community issues such as the bread price, workers’ problems, etc. He did a great deal of social work with the families of detainees.
As the apartheid regime intensified its suppression of political activity, Roy Chetty, Ivan Pillay and Rabilal prepared for a clandestine struggle. They rented a house in Merebank, where they stored banned publications including tracts on guerrilla warfare. This venue provided a safe place for discussions that would shape their future as individuals.
By this time, Chetty was elected as the national organiser of the Black People's Convention (BPC). He was forced into exile in Botswana after a crackdown on Black Consciousness organizations which organized rallies to celebrate the victory of Frelimo over the former Portuguese colonisers in Mozambique.
The 1976 Soweto student uprising starting as a revolt against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of teaching in Soweto schools had a profound impact on Rabilal. In the words of his brother, Nundlall Rabilal, who gave evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - Case No ZJ/375:
He fully identified with the black students’ protests against the teaching in the medium of Afrikaans which culminated in the 1976 student uprising. He saw that attempts to get the white government to change were futile. He now began talking in terms of a just war, and he was now inextricably involved in politics. He would bring banned books home, books on Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, Chekov and so on...
His deep involvement in the struggle led to constant harassment by the Security Police. The Security Police then began harassing him at work. They raided Dayglow Stationers, in Durban, where he worked, and also Bargain Furniture in Beatrice Street, where he later worked. They began monitoring his movement from home to work and his social and community activities.
Sunny Girja Singh, a uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Commander who completed a 10-year sentence on Robben Island, upon his release from prison recruited Rabilal and fellow Merebank activist, Vis Pillay (Ivan) into the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Following the arrest of Shadrack Maphumalo, both Daya Pillay (Joe) and Pat Msomi had to withdraw to Swaziland in May 1977. Fearing further arrests, both Rabilal and Vis Pillay were instructed to also leave South Africa. They left in August 1977.
Both of them entered via Botswana and were arrested by the Botswana Police and detained. When they proved that they were refugees, they were released after one night into the custody of the Refugee Committee in Botswana. As members of the ANC underground, they were then allowed to proceed to the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
MK identified Rabilal as a potential combatant to return to South Africa. He was given the nomme de guerre Goodwin and sent to a transit house in Luanda, Angola and then on to Funda, a transit camp in Caxito (Northern Angola). These transit facilities were used to house cadres returning home after crash courses in political theory and military and combat training. At Funda, he was selected to be part of a platoon that was sent to the Ernest Thaelmann Academy in Rostock, East Germany. There, his proficiency in mathematics held him in good stead. He trained in firearms, explosives and artillery end excelled in topography, the art or practice of understanding natural and human-made features of a place or region. He used his skills to draw maps for DLBs (dead letter boxes) that assisted cadres to locate hidden arms caches.
Upon completing his training, he was sent to Mozambique. With the separation of the political and the military in the ANC, he was assigned to MK’s Natal Urban Command. Rabilal was stationed in Swaziland, under his commander, Mduduzi Guma, to receive and facilitate the return of cadres as well as to provide and support the supply of military equipment.
He trained MK members at the Miliwani Game Reserve. He also underwent further training from internal cadres to better understand the local physical terrain to prevent the detection, loss and deterioration of equipment.
On the morning of 30 January 1981, South African Defence Forces (SADF) members drove across the South African – Mozambique border to Matola, a suburb in the capital, Maputo. The ANC had several premises in this suburb that served as safe houses or operational bases for MK.
They attacked and destroyed three houses and killed 16 South Africans and a Portuguese national, Jose Ramos.
According to Sunny Singh, the MK Commander who was instrumental in recruiting Rabilal into the ANC and who was stationed in Mozambique for nine years:
Krish was sleeping on a mat on the floor and when the first rocket hit, a wall collapsed on him. Oozing blood, he managed to crawl out and go to the bathroom. But he was found and shot in the face at point-blank range.
The funeral of those killed in the Matola Raid was held on 14 February 1981 in Mozambique. The president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, and the Mozambican president, Samora Machel addressed the mourners. This day was declared The Day of Friendship between South Africa and Mozambique.
PERSONS KILLED IN THE SADF RAID AT MATOLA, MOZAMBIQUE, ON 31 JANUARY 1981
1. Mduduzi Guma
2. Lancelot Hadebe
3. Mandla Daka
4. Daniel Molokisi
5. Steven Ngcobo
6. Vusumzi Ngwema
7. Thabang Bookolane
8. Krishna Rabilal
9. Themba Dimba
10. William Khanyile
11. Motso “Obadi” Mokgabud
12. Collin Khumalo
13. Levinson Mankankaza
14. Albert Mahutso
15. Vuyani Mavuso (Vuyani Mavuso, was kidnapped during the raid and later executed by the apartheid security agencies when he refused to betray his comrades.)
16. A Mozambican citizen, Jose Ramos, was also killed.