Reggie Vandeyar was born into a poor family on 15 July 1931 in Newclare. His father was originally from India, who had come to South Africa to seek fortune. His parents travelled throughout the then Transvaal , moving from Hammanskraal, Heidelberg, Vereeniging, and finally settled down in Johannesburg.
He schooled in Fordsburg where his family of nine members, of which he was the youngest, eventually settled down.
Vandeyar attended the Bree Street Indian Primary School, a few hundred metres away from the Afrikaans-speaking Helpmekaar Höer Skool.
At about 13 or 14 years of age, Vandeyar together with three friend were swimming at the river near Crown Mines when some Afrikaner boys stole their clothes and burnt them. They had to run naked to the Grovenor Station in Mayfair, covered only by gum tree leaves. They then decided to go to the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Wemmer Pan, a safer place to swim. There he met African children and mingled with them.
One day when he was at the Jubilee Library a man from Fordsburg walked in and Vandeyar and his friends asked him for money. He suggested that they go to Chancellor House, which housed the offices of Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) where a meeting was in progress and in exchange for performing little tasks for the war effort they would receive coffee and sandwiches.”
At Chancellor House they met Patsy Gilbert and Ruth First who asked them to distribute some leaflets on the war effort. They were asked to return that evening for a meeting of the Young Communist League.
Vandeyar and his friends were called upon to support and campaign for the political bloc led by Dr Yusuf Dadoo, was contesting the moderate leadership of Suliman nana within the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC). Vandeyar was involved in the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign (against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act).
By the age of 17 or 18, he was a fully-fledged member of the Young Communist League. I used to read a lot of Marxist and Congress literature.
Vandeyar found work at the Ambassador Hotel as a porter. Over the years I was promoted from porter, to floor-waiter, dining-room waiter and senior waiter. He spent a total of about fifteen years in the catering trade. At work he politicised a number of Indian and African waiters who had grievances. Many joined the TIC and ‘Mervie’ Thandray, a TIC and CPSA member played a leading role in politicising these workers
Vandeyar was formally recruited into the TIC in 1948 and participated in the Defiance Campaign of 1952. He was a delegate to the Congress of the People held on the 25-26 June 1955 in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter initiated in late 1953 by the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC); the South African Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO) and the South African Congress of Democrats (COD), later known as the Congress Alliance. He worked for the full length of the campaign.
In many areas they went out in linguistic groups - Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil so as to facilitate communication with elderly people. When thy went to African areas, an interpreter went along. When they went to Alexandra and Kliptown, for instance, Indian and African comrades went together. Some areas were racially mixed residents.and people responded quite well to a mixed activist grouping.
They also held meetings, for example, at the Wolluter Hostel in Jeppe. Vandeyar recalls going with Thomas Nkobi (the former Treasurer-General of the ANC) to such meetings.
The TIC did extensive work in Fordsburg, Vrededorp, Doornfontein, Alexandra Township, Jeppe, Malay Camp, Pretoria (Asiatic Bazaar and Marabastad), Benoni, Nigel, Springs, Germiston, Kliptown, Coronationville, Noordgesig and Albertsville (with SACPO). At the time, SACPO was not a very powerful organisation and they would assist when it worked in its constituency.
In 1958, the Congress Alliance called for a national stay-athome. TIC members, Ameen Cajee, Ebrahim Moolla, Solly Esackjee and Vandeyar worked for a number of days preparing for the stay-away, called mainly because of the White elections. The stay away was a success.
The TIC also played a big role in 1959 in the Potato Boycott. For this campaign we concentrated mainly on propaganda work, which exposed the atrocious working conditions of African workers in Bethal. The TIC WAS very active in the potato boycott. Vandeyar and other TIC members went to the Indian Market and spoke to B.T. Naidoo, (an ex-treasurer of the TIC), who was the chief agent for potato farmers. He actively supported the boycott and played a key role in getting Indian shop owners not to buy and sell potatoes. The boycott was highly successful.
By 1960, Reggie’s political role changed substantially. this was partly in response to the changing political climate and the intensified repression confronting the Congress Alliance.
Following the Sharpeville massacre on the 21 March 1960, a state of emergency was declared and the ANC and other liberation movements were banned. This forced Congress alliance activists to operate clandestinely. Iit also precipitated an intense debate on the launching of an armed struggle against the apartheid state.
Vandeyar was among the first to agree to join the armed struggle, and the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
In 1963, his name appeared prominently together with that of Shirish Nanabhai and Indres Naidoo in the daily newspapers. They were the first three members of Indian origin to be arrested for MK activity in the Transvaal. They were sentenced to ten years each and were transferred to Robben Island.
According to Vandeyar, the SACP was the first to initiate the armed struggle. It had already decided to carry out acts of sabotage. The first act that they, as a cell, carried out was in Springs. Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba was also part of this cell.
A month or two after that, they were informed that there was going to be a concerted campaign of sabotage by the ANC and that MK was going to be formed. Vandeyar’s cell was composed of Wolfie Kodesh, Paul Joseph and ‘Isu’ Chiba. They were the first multi-racial unit in MK. They received training from people like Wolfie Kodesh and Jack Hodgson.
Later, he was placed in charge of another unit made up of Indres Naidoo, Shirish Nanabhai and one Gammat Jardien, who turned out to be working for the Special Branch and eventually got them arrested. Jardien supplied them with small arms and explosives – but he had succeeded in infiltrating our unit.
Their first attack was on the Johannesburg Pass Office, then the Fordsburg Post Office and the Bantu Commissioner’s Court in Newtown.
When he got home, the cops raided again and they found potassium powder and arrested him, for being in possession of explosives and a firearm. He was charged and locked up at the Johannesburg Fort over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. They released him on bail and later he was sentenced to a fine of R100 or 50 days on the first charge; and 50 days or R100 on the second charge.
Reggie and his fellow combatants, Indres Naidoo and Shirish Nanabhai, were arrested on 17 April 1963 at the railway signal site near Riverlea. It was clear that they had been betrayed by Jardien, who had accompanied them on the mission.
Lying in wait for us was the notorious Lieutenant van Wyk, Captain ‘Rooi Rus’ Swanepoel and Major Brits. A shot rang out and it hit Indres on his right shoulder. At the police station Vandeyar was severely tortured and assaulted whilst Naidoo did not receive medical attention for his gunshot wound.
Subsequently, the police detained Chiba and Abdulhay Jassat. Finally, charges against Chiba and Jassat were withdrawn due to a lack of evidence. However, both were immediately incarcerated under the 90-day detention law. Chiba was released from detention in August 1963 and Jassat escaped on 11 August 1963 from the Marshall Square Police Station with ‘Mosey’ Moolla, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe.
After being tortured Chiba, Jassat, Naidoo, Nanabhai and Vandeyar found themselves in one cell at the Johannesburg Fort. Eventually, on 13 May 1963, the five appeared before Justice Becker. The charges were withdrawn against Chiba and Jassat, because they didn’t get any information from Nanabhai, Naidoo or Vandeyar. They were each given a ten years sentence. They were taken to Leeuwkop Prison, where they remained for about two or three months and then taken to Robben island Prison in Cape town.
Here they slept on sisal mats and were given thin blankets. There was nothing else in the cell; except a section which had a bathroom, cold water showers, some basins for washing, four washing tubs and two buckets that served as toilets. They slept on the floor. They were awoken early in the morning and had their heads shaved off all their hair.
On the Island, they initiated political classes and established a News Committee.
Vandeyar was elected Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee. In 1964, a group from the Natal ANC joined them in prison, which included Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, Curnick Ndlovu, and Jacob Zuma. Later they were joined by Harry Gwala and Steven Dhlamini, a trade unionist. Then there were got the Yu Chi Chan prisoners - Marcus Solomon, Gordon Hendricks and their leader, Neville Alexander.
They would to pick up big plastic bags, cut out two holes on top and for the neck, and when it was very cold used that to protect themselves against the cold. They worked in the quarry, chopping stones with no protection for their eyes against the splints of the stones.
Before he reached home in Lenasia after his release, Vandeyar, together with Naidoo and Nanabhai, was served with five-year banning and house arrest orders at the gates of Leeukop Prison, where they were brought to from Robben Island. This meant that he had to remain in-doors from seven o’clock in the evening until seven in the morning on weekdays; and from 2pm on Saturdays until 7am on Mondays. He had to report to the police station on a weekly basis and was prohibited from communicating with another banned person. He was not allowed to leave the Johannesburg magisterial district or to enter a place of learning and teaching, publishing or printing. He was not allowed to address any meetings or to give press interviews.
Vandeyar returned home and, it was a whole new episode in his life, with people visiting and talking to people. For a while, he lived in a caravan in the backyard of Teddy Govender’s home. His family was fragmented and he was having difficulty readjusting to family life. His family were also not well off.
He gradually made clandestine contact with a younger generation of activists such as Prema Naidoo, former Minister Mohammed Valli Moosa and Ismail Momoniat. In a little while, they had re-established contact with an earlier generation of TIC activists and community leaders.
The 1980S saw countrywide schools boycotts in the Indian and Coloured townships and the anti-South African Indian Council (anti-SAIC) campaign. Behind the scenes, Reggie played an instrumental role in reviving the TIC on the 1 May 1983 at the Ramakrishna Hall in lenasia. After the expiry of his second, five year banning order, he was elected as one of the Vice-Presidents of the TIC.
As such, he and Chiba were among the senior ANC members that attended the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) on the 20 August 1983 in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town.
In 1986, Vandeyar was able to pay a three month visit to his exiled comrades in London. Here he received medical treatment for his back that was injured during his arrest.
In October 1988, Vandeyar was part of the historic meeting between the TIC/NIC and the banned ANC leadership in Lusaka, Zambia. The talks with the ANC were initiated by the government of India.
In May 1989, Reggie was part of a South African delegation that travelled to India to meet officially with the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi and other Ministers. The ANC’s Chief Representative in India, Moosa “Mosey” Moolla, also attended the meeting. During this mission, the South African delegation sealed an agreement with the government of India allowing for a selective cultural boycott; the blacklisting of apartheid collaborators who had participated in the racist tri-cameral Parliament; and the granting of bursaries to underprivileged black students. In addition, the Indian government agreed to provide assistance to Gandhi’s Tolstoy farm near Lenasia and the Phoenix Settlement in KwaZulu-Natal.
Vandeyar’s crowning moment of honour came in 2002, when he received from the former Minister of Defence, the late Joe Modise, and the former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, MK’s gold, silver and bronze medals for long and distinguished service in the struggle for freedom and democracy.