Sumboornam (Sam) Pillay, who later became known as Sam Moodley, was born in 1948*. She grew up in the multi-cultural community of Dundee, Northern Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), where African, Indian and Coloured families lived together peacefully before the Group Areas Act tore the community apart.
Her father had a major influence on her upbringing. His work in housing, welfare, and school building projects within their community taught her the importance of treating others with compassion. This was further reinforced by his religious teachings in Shaivism, one of the pillars of the Hindu religion. Later, this religious background would influence Moodley to join the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) as she felt it was the only philosophy that spoke directly to humanity and human rights.
In 1961 the apartheid government declared the country a Republic. Every school – separated into White, Indian, Coloured and African – was forced to raise the new apartheid flag in celebration of the Republic Day and to show allegiance to the regime. During this time, thirteen-year-old Moodley was a pupil at Dundee High School, which was preparing for the upcoming celebrations. However, the young Moodley found it difficult to celebrate something which was discriminatory in nature and which did not uphold the human rights of the people, as her religious beliefs taught her. As a result, she refused to take part in the flag-raising ceremony and boycotted the event by staying at home.
During her matric year in 1965, her political activism gained momentum when she led a delegation to the Principal to speak out against the substitute teachers that had been sent to replace their Mathematics and History teachers who had resigned. Moodley voiced her disapproval of the teachers who were unqualified to teach these subjects, thereby forcing the pupils to teach themselves.
As the only breadwinner of a family of six, her father had to get a loan for her to go to the only university for students of Indian origin in Durban – the University College for Indians at Salisbury Island (later the University of Durban-Westville (UDW), now the University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN). She enrolled in 1966 for a teaching degree; it was here that her involvement in the BCM began.
She met student activists like Strini Moodley (who she later married), Dennis Pather, Asha Moodley, Roy Tathiah, Kriba Pillay, Kogs Reddy, Nash Naina, Ben David and Archie Augustine, all of whom became involved in a Black Theatre protest group – the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON). One of their works was a satirical review of the political conditions in South Africa called Black on White which ran for three years from 1966 to 1968. This would be the beginning of her life as a cultural activist, conscientising communities through theatre about the socio-economic and political situation in the country.
For Moodley, the years from 1970 to 1973 were the most politically active. Within the South African Student Organisation (SASO), the Black Community Programmes (BCP), and alongside front-runners of the BCM like Steve Biko (leader of the BCM), Mamphela Ramphele, Debs Mashoba, Vuyi Mashalaba, Strini Moodley, and Barney Pityana, they undertook several community development projects such as building schools, engaging in self-help projects, establishing literacy programmes, women’s programmes, and health clinics. The Special Branch kept a very close eye on them and followed their every move.
This was also a time of using theatre as a form of revolt, as part of our Cultural Revolution. We held Theatre Festivals bringing theatre groups from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and made Durban a buzz place of cultural activities (Govender, 2017).
In 1970, Pillay got a job as a teacher at Witteklip Secondary School in Chatsworth, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, teaching English and Drama. However, she soon found herself unemployed after the authorities and the security police caught wind of her Black Consciousness activism (which she was still very much involved in) resulting in the then Indian Education Department refusing to renew her contract at the end of 1972. This inadvertently allowed her to work with Biko in January 1973 as his research assistant at the SASO offices in Beatrice Street in Durban. She researched for the annual yearbook, the Black Review, which chronicled events in the Black community in the mid-1970s, published by the BCP.
In August 1973, Moodley was banned and put under house arrest for five years. This was a difficult period for Moodley who struggled to put food on the table as she no longer had employment. Furthermore, very few doors were willing to open to her out of fear of intimidation from the Special Branch. However, during the last year of her banning and house arrest, she got involved with the Natal Indian Cripple Care Association and later the Spes Nova School for Cerebral Palsy Children at Clare Estate in Durban. Although the Natal Indian Cripple Care Association had fought for her to get a job as a speech therapist, she was not allowed to be on an educational campus. The Special Branch continued with their harassment, forcing her to obtain a special permit from the Durban Magistrate so that she could continue with her work as a speech therapist. Every month after that she had to get a letter to avoid getting arrested. This carried on until her banning order expired in 1978.
In the 1980s, Moodley got involved in the Disability Movement in South Africa, the Women Teachers Movement, the Children and Women’s’ Programmes within Umtapo Centre, and she became the Vice President of the Teachers Association of South Africa (Tasa) Women Teachers Organisation. She started the Participatory Education Through Theatre (PETT), working with learners at high schools, universities and teacher training colleges. Under the organisation called Very Special Arts, Moodley spent a lot of her time holding workshops and empowering people living with disabilities through the arts.
When South Africa had its first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 following the successful negotiations between the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) in the early 1990s, Moodley did not agree with what she felt was the divisive stance of the candidates who were calling for votes based on racial lines – the African vote, the Coloured vote and the Indian vote. She felt that this did not reflect the ‘One Nation, One Azania’ BC principle and, therefore, did not vote.
In post-apartheid South Africa, Moodley has continued with her activist work, engaging with various communities focusing primarily on women and the youth. In 2008, she was one of the women who started the Women in Action South Africa (WIASA), an organisation concerned with addressing various social issues facing women and the youth in different communities around KwaZulu Natal.
She has lectured at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Social Justice Issues as well as at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in Cultural Diversity and serves on the board of Action in Autism. In 2018 she published a compilation titled Time to Remember – Reflections of Women from the Black Consciousness Movement. The book pays homage to the often forgotten role of women in the liberation movement and the BCM.
Moodley has voiced her dissatisfaction with the ANC post-1994, criticising it for its shortcomings in creating a better South Africa for all. She continues to hold strong views about Black Consciousness and still believes in its relevance today.
- Govender S. (2016). Ms Sumboornam Pillay (Sam Moodley) – Black Consciousness activist part of our rich history, [online], Available at: http://subrygovender.blogspot.com/2016/11/ms-sumboornam-pillay-sam-moodley-black.html. (Accessed on 15 September 2020)
- Govender, S. (2017). Sumboornam Pillay (also known as Sam Moodley) – one of the doyens of Black Consciousness in South Africa, [online], Available at: http://subrygovender.blogspot.com/2017/05/sumboornam-pillay-also-known-as-sam.html. (Accessed on 14 September 2020)
- Rising Sun Overport. (2019). Women of the Black Consciousness Movement tell their stories, [online], Available at: https://risingsunoverport.co.za/68389/women-black-consciousness-movement-tell-stories/. (Accessed on 14 September 2020)