Subbiah Moodley is probably the most anonymous of the early uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), recruits.
He was born in Umgeni Road in 1944, Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).
His grandparents on both sides of the family came from India as indentured workers. His paternal grandfather, was versed in electricity, and gave classes in electrics at the sugar mill at Mount Edgecombe where he worked, most of his life.
His father was a poorly paid waiter at the Durban Country Club and his mother was a housewife. His mother lived to a ripe age and was able to vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. She passed away in the same year.
Being ground down in poverty was an abiding memory of Moodley’s childhood. From Umgeni, the family moved to Wills Road, where their neighbours included political activists N.G. Moodley, Phyllis Naidoo, and George Ponnen. It was here that the young Moodley honed his politics: he attended Centenary School in Asherville, excelled academically, and proceeded to Sastri College after passing the entrance examination with distinction. Subbiah thrived academically and also got ‘the feeling of politicisation.
He was also friends with young political activists such as Strini Moodley and Omar Badsha who lived in the area.
Science and socialism were Moodley’s passion – he was chairman of the Science Committee and found Einstein’s theory of relativity ‘far more interesting than schoolwork.’ Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim (Ebie), former Robben Island prisoner and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, recalled that Moodley was ‘a genius — he was giving tuition to matriculation (now Grade 12) students when he was in standard eight (Grade 10).’
A fellow student, Arvin Desai, invited him to attend Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the Natal Indian Youth Congress (NIYC) meetings. He then became a regular at M.D. Naidoo’s classes in political economy. Eventually Moodley became the Secretary of the NIYC when some officials were arrested.
It was at Sastri College that Moodley met Billy Nair, who recruited him into MK. He was seventeen years old, and had just completed his Grade 12.
Later with Ronnie Kasrils, Bruno Mtolo and Billy Nair, the group decided that they were going to target the Bantu Administration Offices in Ordinance Road, Durban on 16 December 1961. This marked the launch of MK in South Africa.
A lack of funds meant he could not attend university. He then enrolled at the Springfield College of Education (in Asherville, Durban) to study to become a teacher. On 15 April 1964 while he was at lectures, three Security Branch police came and arrested him.
From here they took him to a police interrogation centre at Wentworth. The police wanted to know if he had drawn up the posters and written the leaflets for the boycott of the graduation ball at the then Salisbury Island University College (now University of KwaZulu-Natal – Westville campus).
Moodley refused to answer any questions, in spite of him being severely tortured during interrogation; he demanded to see his lawyers. With the passing of the General Law Amendment Act political prisoners had no access to their lawyers.
After being severely tortured and no food, his interrogators took him to the Montclair Police Station. That night was the first of his ninety-day period of detention.
After three months, they took him to Amanzimtoti for another ninety-day period. That was his second ninety-day period.
He went on trial for “for defacing public property at the University. Moodley was found guilty, fined R300 and released. He just had time for a few words with his mother, and then was re‑arrested again and placed in a cell at Amanzimtoti police station.
This time he was charged for sabotage. During the course of his trial the police brought Bruno Mtolo to identify him, as the person who had committed sabotage.
That was in early 1964. He spent about two weeks in Central Police Prison, awaiting trial. As it was a serious case it had to be conducted in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court.
Moodley was sentenced to three years in prison and, in view of his youth at the time, received two years which was suspended.
They thought I was such a dangerous person they put me in leg irons and handcuffs and lead me down until I reached the Pietermaritzburg Prison where he was kept for about a month. Here he met Harry Gwala, also a political prisoner.
One morning he was transported to Kroonstad in the Orange Free State - OFS (now Free State Province). During the Apartheid era, Indians were not allowed to live in the OFS nor were they housed in prisons there. Following this he was sent to Leeukop Prison in the then Transvaal (now Gauteng).
Here an Afrikaner warder assaulted him with a leather cane, which had a bit of lead in it to give it weight. The pain was so searing that he grabbed a plate and I shoved it in his face. After that they knocked him unconscious and thereafter placed him in isolation for one week, where he had to live on mealie rice water.
Following his release from prison, his family got him an apprenticeship with an Irish person near Margate in the Natal south coast, while living in Port Shepstone. He stayed there for five years and qualified as a printer and passed the industry trade test. At the same time, he studied electronics and almost a year after qualifying in the printing industry, got a complete Radio and TV Engineering Diploma. He built his own oscilloscope and signal generators.
While living in Port Shepstone he taught mathematics to high school children.
Moodley subsequently married and has three children. He presently lives in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
- University Of Durban‑Westville, Documentation Centre. (2002) Oral History Project, "Voices Of Resistance", Subbiah Moodley, 3 July, online. Accessed 14 February 2018
When good men take up arms, Thula Simpson, Sunday Tribune, 6 March 2016