Poonoosamy Ruthnam Pather (PR) was born in Mauritius in 1895. His grandfather settled in that country after emigrating from Tanjore in India in the 1840s. PR's father was born in Mauritius and his mother was a Mauritian citizen. His father made his first trip to Natal in 1891 and worked as a jeweller in Durban for a few years before returning to Mauritius. PR along with his parents and brother, PA Pather immigrated to South Africa in 1903. The family moved to Elandslaagte, Northern Natal, the centre of coal mining, where they felt that there would be better opportunities.
PR attended primary school here and later completed his secondary schooling in Pietermaritzburg, in a private school run by an Indo-European teacher.
While still a schoolboy in Pietermaritzburg, PR began to take a strong interest in public affairs. He was made secretary of the Aryan Young Men's Progressive Association, an organisation that was to later establish the Aryan Benevolent Home in Pietermaritzburg. At the age of 19, he was also appointed secretary of the Young Men's Vedic Society, a position that he was to hold for twelve years. Around the same time he was appointed secretary of The Hindu-Tamil Institute.
PR Pather then came to Durban to complete his matriculation, which he did but was prevented from fulfilling his aim to study law due to financial constraints. He began work for a law firm where he gained considerable experience and a thorough working knowledge of the legal establishment. Not long after that he left the firm and began his own estate agency in Durban. In 1920 he married the daughter of a prominent jeweller who was also closely involved in community affairs especially with religious and cultural bodies.
In the early 1920's PR joined the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). In 1924 he was appointed as one of the joint secretaries of the NIC. The most serious development at the time was the split in the NIC with the likes of Advocate Albert Christopher and PR Pather breaking away to form the Colonial Born and Settler Indian Association (CBSIA) - this in opposition to the decision taken by the leadership of the NIC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) to work with the government at that time.
By 1938 the CBSIA was almost back within the NIC and the amalgamation of the two bodies at a mass meeting on 8 October 1939 at Curries Fountain resulted in a new organisation, the Natal Indian Association (NIA). However July 1943 saw the amalgamation of the NIA, (of which PR was a leading member) and the NIC (underAI Kajee) under the banner of the NIC. Within the NIC there emerged a group called the Nationalist Bloc. The Nationalist Bloc consisted of individuals such as Dr. GM Naicker and the trade unionist HA Naidoo.
Mrs Pather had purchased the property from the Dutch Reformed Church on 17 December 1942. By 13 March 1943 PR had paid enough to have full responsibility for the property and a relative occupied a section of the house before the Pegging Act came into operation on 22 March 1943. On 16 April 1943 the house was paid for in full and PR and his family moved in. The first person to be arrested and charged under the Pegging Act was PR, in July 1943, for occupying his own house, at 232 Moore Road, Durban.
On 29 October he appeared before Mr. H. Barren, the Chief Magistrate of Durban. The sentencing was postponed to November so as to allow PR to apply for a residential permit. However his application was turned down and in November he was ordered to pay five pounds or spend seven days in prison. PR Pather refused to pay the fine and was prepared to serve his prescribed jail sentence. As PR was getting ready to be escorted to prison the clerk informed him that somebody had already paid the fine. The question of who bailed PR out in 1944 remains unresolved up until today, with even his family still in the dark.
After the fine had been paid PR still refused to vacate his home in Moore Road. He was arrested and convicted once more and ordered to pay a fine of twenty pounds or spend a month in prison. Furthermore the sentence included a two months suspended sentence if he vacated the property by 30 June 1944. Again PR was geared to serve his prison sentence but someone anonymously paid his fine.
It was at this time that the SAIC which was led by the conservative elements attempted to negotiate with Prime Minister Smuts to reach some sort of agreement on the land and property issues. On 29 March 1944, the SAIC presented a memorandum to the Prime Minister in which they appealed that the Pegging Act be repealed.
From this SAIC initiative Smuts, his Interior Minister, the Administrator of Natal met with seven representatives of the NIC, which included AI Kajee, PR Pather and SR Naidoo. This meeting took place on 18 April 1944 and out of it emerged the Pretoria Agreement. The Agreement contained the possibility of segregated homes and the proposal for the ratification of the Committee. The Agreement was to be attacked from all directions and AI Kajee in particular, as the leading promoter of the Agreement was the main target of all the criticisms.
During the negotiations over the Pretoria Agreement, PR Pather voluntarily vacated his home in Moore Road. When it soon became apparent that the Pretoria Agreement was doomed to failure PR moved back into his home and on 2 November 1944 was arrested again and on this occasion imprisoned. A mass meeting was held on 3 November 1944 to protest PR's arrest. Eventually Mrs. Pather was evicted from her home in Moore Road while PR was in prison. This action prompted outrage and a subsequent mass protest meeting was held at the Avalon theatre in Durban. Despite these developments and more especially his ousting from the NIC in 1945, PR Pather continued to be involved in public and political affairs.
The Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act also prompted much protest from the Indian community. The South African Indian Congress (SAIC) of which PR remained a member convened a conference in February 1946 in order to organise themselves to protest and deal with the proposed legislation. This conference decided to send a delegation of sixty representatives to consult with Smuts and attempt to dissuade him from introducing the legislation.
When it became apparent that the meetings and consultations with Smuts were going to be unsuccessful, the NIC organised a mass meeting at Curries Fountain in Durban and declared the 20 February 1946 as a day of prayer on which people were requested to close down their businesses and not to go to work. In March 1946 the NIC announced its decision to launch a Passive Resistance Campaign and in order to facilitate this established the Passive Resistance Council. The Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) then under the new leadership of Dr. Dadoo expressed their willingness to participate in the campaign. The Cape Indian Congress which was still under the sway of the Kajee-Pather leadership of the SAIC decided not to participate.
The Passive Resistance Campaign was not the only channel of protest utilised by the South African Indians. The Indian Government was extremely perturbed by developments in South Africa and brought the matter before the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). The meeting began on 23 October 1946 with the main protagonists being the delegations from India, South Africa and the South African Indian political organisations i.e. the NIC, TIC and SAIC. The South African delegation was headed by Smuts and was accompanied by DG Shepstone amongst others. Vijaylakshmi Pandit headed the Indian delegation and the South African Indian delegation consisted of all their executive leaders including PR Pather.
In December 1946 the majority of the members of the United Nations resolved that South Africa remove all barriers and inequalities between all its races and peoples. The South African Government chose to ignore the recommendations of the UN. This attitude of the Smuts Government prompted the Indian Government to withdraw its High Commission in South Africa as well as to cut off all its trading relations. This move brought to the surface the many divisions that existed within the Indian community. The conservative Kajee-Pather element was of the opinion that the High Commissioner's presence in South Africa was vital especially to oversee the implementation of the UN resolution. In this regard the conservative wing lent their support to Smuts who insisted on the return of the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa.
In April 1947 PR and his colleagues held a public meeting to decide their political future. PR Pather addressed the meeting and stated that he and others who opposed the leadership of the NIC and the TIC should not remain silent especially since the leaders of the Congresses were under the control of the communists "who were prepared to bargain with the fate of the Indian community in order to advance the interests of the communists". He went on further to state that after the victory at the UN the NIC and TIC should have called of the Passive Resistance Campaign as a gesture of goodwill, but did not do so due to their arrogance and overconfidence after the positive turn of events. He proposed the formation of a new organisation, which would represent the interests of the Indian community but would also work in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill with the government, the European public and other races of the land." By 1947 PR had pretty much settled into a very conservative political stance.
At a meeting held on 4 May 1947, PR moved a resolution concerning the establishment of the Natal Indian Organisation (NIO). The NIO decided to seek affiliation with the SAIC. The new Organisation at its inaugural meeting opposed the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act and that it would "seek the repeal of the Act by all constitutional and legitimate means". The NIO also expressed its total opposition to the establishment of the Indian Board to deal with Smuts. In addition to these matters it was also decided that the NIO would send a delegation to meet with Prime Minister Smuts. At this meeting PR was appointed Honorary Secretary of the NIO. The NIO at their meeting with Smuts were able to convince Smuts to do away with his plans for the establishment of the Indian Advisory Board. They proposed instead a consultative council consisting of about six or seven members who would advise the government on matters pertaining to the Indian community.
By 1948 the conservative wing headed by AI Kajee and PR Pather had lost much of their influence in the SAIC. In March 1948 they called a South African Conference which consisted of the NIO, the newly formed Transvaal Indian Organisation (TIO) and the still conventionalist Cape Indian Congress. The Conference decided to send a delegation to India, a move that was completely rejected by the Indian government as well as the Indian congresses. Smuts whose common goal was the resumption of relations between India and South Africa however supported the conference. The South African Congress was never really taken seriously as a fully-fledged political Organisation and even theIndian government just regarded it as a breakaway clique. In September 1948 the NIO, TIO and CIC established the South African Indian Organisation (SAIO) and at precisely the same time the government confiscated the passports of Dr. Naicker and Dr. Dadoo who were due to leave to Paris. In a surprising though revealing move the government also confiscated the passports of the conservative leadership of the SAIO.
Up until 1948 PR devoted most of his time and energy to the cause that he believed in and despite the uphill struggle he remained with it. His business and his financial position suffered greatly but this did not inhibit his activities. The policy of accommodation and appeasement favoured by PR and his colleagues was undermined completely by the strong anti-Indian attitudes of Malan and his Government.
In 1961, the South African Government decided to establish a new body, the South African Indian Council (also SAIC). 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". The decision by the Government to establish this advisory body was not well accepted by the Indian Community. Initially PR Pather, 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.
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 forIndians. 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 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.
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.
Despite this conservative stance though, there were definitely certain principles to which he clung strongly. He also felt strongly about the maintenance of what he termed 'civilised' laws and regulations, beliefs he articulated clearly at his trial in 1944. He spent much of the 1950s protesting Apartheid legislation such as the Group Areas Act although he never protested the Suppression of Communism Act. 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.
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.
This involvement across the lines of political orientations extended especially to community and welfare projects. 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. He had been involved with the South African Indian Teachers Association (SAITA) since its inception in 1926. PR was also very involved in the establishment of the ML Sultan Technical College. As testimony to PR's commitment to education there is a school named after him in Merebank, Durban.
From the early 1960s 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 back to the 1920s when he was involved with the Aryan Young Men's Progressive Association, an organisation which later established the Aryan Benevolent Home in Pietermaritzburg. Up until the late 1960s 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.
Poonoosamy Ruthnam Pather passed away on 27 January 1970
• Pather, R. (Unknown). The Story of PR Pather, The Grand Old Man of Indian Politics. Unknown: Unknown.
• Unknown. (n.d.). Tributes to Great Leader -Death of Mr PR Pather. Retrieved June 23, 2010, from Fiat Lux [Onlne]. Available at: https://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/ [accessed on 23 June 2010]