This is a short autobiography of Vella Pillay written for his 80th birthday party held on 18th October 2003 at Lauderdale House, Highgate, London.
Vella Pillay was born on the 8th of October 1923, Johannesburg.
My family, father, mother, sister and myself lived in two rooms in an extended courtyard of separate rooms occupied by Coloured and Indian families. I learned later that this courtyard had been owned by my father but that it was heavily mortgaged to the banks. My elder brother at the time was living in Durban (with my uncle) where he went to school.
Moved to a larger house where my mother had several more children, six in all. By then, as I remember, I attended school which under the then laws was limited to Indians and Colored (the best definition of the latter I can give is that this community derived from along history and over several generations of miscegenation between European migrants and the native population). Today, S.Africa possesses four distinct races which over the three centuries have become more and more distinct through a deliberate policy of racism, managed by an organized system of white domination and cheap labour, initially pursued by the British colonialists to meet the labour needs of the gold mining industry and further refined by the Boers in what came to be known as ëapartheidí.
Our family steadily fell into increasing poverty. And as I recall we acquired a small Hand-cart on which was filled with vegetables bought in the markets and my mother and I hawked these in the neighbouring ëwhiteí areas. It seems that by then my father had lost all his properties and as a result we sled into increasing poverty, forcing the family to move to cheaper accommodation. By then my elder brother returned from Durban and became the bread-winner of the family. I by then had passed the proverbial sixth grade at school and attended secondary school with a view to passing the matriculation examination, a prerequisite for entry to university.
It was at University that I met a number of Indian and African students as well as several Whites with a Marxist bent. They had formed a new student organization called the Federation of Progressive student in opposition to the Students Union and the National Union of Students, both primarily composed of white students. I became increasingly involved, despite the fact that I was a part-time student reading for the Bachelor of Commerce degree and attending lectures and classes in early morning and evening sessions.
To finance my studies, as well as contribute to the family ís welfare, I worked during the day as a book keeper for an Indian company. Being drawn towards politics, I become active in the Transvaal Indian Congress and established contact with a number of progressive Indians students who introduced me to the Communist Party. In the course of my studies and despite my full-time employment, I became active in various anti-apartheid causes. I recall having led a small delegation of poor tenants in Western Johannesburg to the local all-white Johannesburg City Council which had turned off their water supply for failure to pay the 'water-rates', and threatened to organize demonstrations against the Council. At the time Hilda Watts (now Bernstein) was the only Communist elected to the Johannesburg City Council. She put great pressure on the Council to resume the water supply. Our joint pressures succeeded: they - the poor tenants treated us as heroes. A satisfying experience then and which was to teach us then never to be far from the needs and problems of the common people./p>
These events almost naturally led me to join the communist party, an act which enabled me to acquire a larger view and an understanding of the nature of class society, and the crucial importance of the liberation of the African people from the oppression of apartheid and system of organised 'cheap labour'. This enabled me to meet up with a number of increasingly influential African leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and the then President of the African National Congress, Dr. Xuma. I joined the leadership of the S.African Indian Congress, which by then had voted out the old guard and brought into its leadership Drs. Dadoo and Naicker. Dr Dadoo was already a leading member of the Communist Party.
It was in this rather politically active situation within the liberation movement that I met Patsy who later I married in June 1948 with both of us traveling to the Cape where marriages between black and whites were still officially recognised, that is before the apartheid regime formally banned 'mixed' marriages between members the white and non-white races. It was then, having been awarded the degree of Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Witwatersrand, which I applied for admission to the London School of Economics to read for an honours degree in International Economics. On being accepted, we began our move to London.
Apart from my membership in the CPSA, I was elected a council member of the Transvaal Indian Congress and attended conferences of the SA Indian Congress... At the time the Indian community was denied the right to acquire and own landed property and to only live in designated areas and more generally restricted to own landed property outside such designated areas. This resulted from the enactment of new legislation by the all-white parliament which was called 'The Pegging Act'. We organized campaigns of defiance by sending Indian volunteers to occupy plots in such restricted areas in Durban. My younger brother joined as a volunteer and was arrested and spent 14 days in a Durban prison... As volunteers were arrested and released new volunteers were recruited to sustain the campaign. I was also a member of the Anti-Pass campaign, a campaign to defy the requirement by adult African males to carry a pass, an official document which designated whether or not they were entitled to live in urban areas. In support of this campaign I traveled in the company of my African colleagues (in particular the late Dan Tloome) through-out the Transvaal province with a view to generating support from local and tribal African leaders in support of the campaign..
My Life and Times in London
Patsy and I sailed from Cape Town arriving in London in the depths of the English winter marked as well by continuing rain in January of 1949. We were met at Waterloo Station by Morgan Morgans, the brother-in-law of our old friend Hilda Bernstein. The Morgans lived in Harrow and it was from there we gradually began our settlement in Britain. I had already arranged before leaving Johannesburg for my employment in London as an office clerk with an export-confirming house in the City of London at a salary of £8 a week. The work was far from interesting. After working there for a period we moved to London ñ Muswell Hill ñ through a remarkable stroke of luck. The Daily Worker, the organ of the British CP, organized a visit to Paris on the occasion of the Easter annual fair organized by the then French CP daily newspaper. On that visit we met an English family, Joan and Steve Bodington who became our life-long friends and comrades. They bought a house in Londonís Muswell Hill and invited us to rent the upper floor (two rooms and a kitchen) at what then was the reasonable rental of £3-10 shillings (£3.50p) a week. Steve was a well-known Marxist economist and the author of several books. I, as a budding economist with a South African degree, now enrolled (as an evening student) at the London School of Economics to read for my degree under the supervision of the Nobel laureate Professor James Meade. I worked during the day for a shipping company and through the influence of Steve I then was appointed research officer in the Bank of China in the City of London. At the time Joan worked in the British civil service and Patsy at the Indian High Commission in London, as secretary to the then High Commissioner and old time campaigner for Indiaís independence from British rule, Mr. Krishna Menon. When Patsy fell pregnant, Joan also chose to have a child on the understanding that each would take turns in caring for both their off-springs. An excellent arrangement. Alas! These wonderful comrades are no longer with us, though we see their children intermittently...
The other centre of contact on our arrival was the British Communist Party. We called at 16 King Street seeking a meeting with Palme Dutt, who's Labour Monthly, had been compulsory reading for us in S. Africa. He was very helpful and invited me to give a talk on the S.African political situation at his monthly international affairs meetings, and received, until his death his advice and assistance in the various tasks I was given by the then illegal SACP and the African National Congress of S.Africa, as well as then newly created S.A Congress of Trade Unions. The period saw a growing number of S.African students arriving in Britain and this formed the basis for the creation of the SA Students Association in London. Among these students were several who had been active in anti-apartheid activities in S.Africa, with links with the underground liberation movements including the SACP. They arrived with ëcredentialsí from the ANC and the Communist Party in S.Africa. Among those that arrived and who became prominent in the Anti-Apartheid Movement were Abdul Minty, Rosalyn Ainslie and Ethel de Keyser. There emerged from this inflow of activists a nucleus of highly dedicated students, several of whom committed themselves to undertake military training in the socialist countries with a view to joining in the then policy of the SA liberation movement for the armed overthrow of the apartheid regime. Groups of young revolutionaries were sent for training in the then USSR and in China. And I was called upon to assist in that movement. This task was soon expanded with the arrival of Oliver Tambo, (the then President of the ANC and Yusaf Dadoo of the SA Indian Congress and the CPSA. The apartheid authorities had already declared a state of emergency following the Sharpeville massacre of young student demonstrators, and sought to detain people known to be activists, and this included the leadership of the ANC and the SACP. I was concerned about the fate of the movementís leadership in these conditions and consulted John Gollan, then secretary of the CPGB. I suggested he send a British comrade to SA to establish contact with liberation movements which now operated underground. Gollan readily agreed and sent a comrade - the lawyer Ralph Milner - to make contact with the now underground leadership of the SACP and the democratic movement. This was to prove a highly important for the S.African comrades many of them living underground. From London I sent messages to through various avenues for Ralph to meet what remained of the underground leadership. Some years later I was with Mosas Kotane in Moscow and there he met John Gollan. Moses made an emotional statement, declaring, ìhere we were in hiding with the SA police and army scouring the country for us and there comes a messenger of solidarity and support from our British comrades. We then knew that we were not alone and that fact ensured that we were to in our people's liberation. Thank you Comrade Gollan. This reflected the existence of a deeply ingrained solidarity on the part of the British progressive movement signified not only in what I relate here but in the creation and development of perhaps one of the most significant campaigns of solidarity in the struggle against apartheid and racism, namely the Anti-Apartheid Movement, managed as it was by dedicated leadership and outstanding functionaries. I hope the S.African authorities and its various organizations will at some point provide a formal avenue of recognition of this powerful movement of international solidarity and which had played such a significant part in burying the curse of apartheid and racism in South Africa.
Throughout this period of substantially sub-rosa activities for the SA liberation movement, I maintained a quiet but very productive relationship with the late Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC and then living in London as the ANC's representative. And here I would like to my pay homage to him for the friendship he gave me and the wisdom of his advice throughout his period of his exile in the UK.
Back in S.Africa the late Ruth First was then a journalist on the progressive weekly, initially the Guardian and following its banning became the New Age . I became its unpaid London correspondent and was able to scoop stories such as the pressures being put on Britain by the governments of India and several African newly independent countries for the expulsion of S.Africa from the British Commonwealth. Of considerable significance in this period was the 'British Boycott of S.African products' campaign, largely in response to the revelations by Ruth First in the Guardian of the slave-labour conditions ruling on the fruit farms of S.Africa. In time this campaign, and its growing support, led to its transformation into the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Prime initiators of this Movement were Ros Ainsley, Abul Minty and myself, and later the indefatigable Ethel de Keyser and following her, Mike Terry- and several others. The growing support we received from the trade union and student movement, Labour Party branches, local city councils and members of Parliament apart from a rising membership all this transformed the Movement into a major political force bringing about the isolation of the apartheid regime and providing support to the struggle within S.Africa. Father Trevor Huddleston, our President, Bob Hughes MP, our chairman, were indefatigable as were other members of parliament such as Richard Caborn, who became in time the movementís treasurer. For much of the early period I was the movement 's treasurer and vice-chairman. The United Nation, under pressure from the new independent countries of Africa and Asia, became a force in generating a powerful anti-apartheid international policy, further isolating the S.African regime... This led to the creation of a permanent unit within the UN system to monitor developments in S.Africa, and provide support to the growing international anti-apartheid movement and a platform for the SA liberation movements. Within S.Africa the freedom struggle reached new heights with the emergence of a militant African trade union movement which within the context of the trade embargoes against and the isolation, of the apartheid regime, the downfall of apartheid became possible and was indeed realized with the liberation of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues from prison, opening the phase of negotiations for the peaceful transition towards a new and democratic S.Africa.. And I am pleased that I played a part in this historic transformation in the S.African situation.
Apart from serving the AAM as Treasurer and later Vice Chairman, I was also active as chair of the editorial committee of Anti-Apartheid News, the monthly organ of the movement edited first by Ros Ainlsie, then by Ann Darnborough and finally by Christabel Gurney. I was also the author of several pamphlets and studies, mainly related to the nature of the apartheid economy for the United Nations. My studies on the structure of the SA Gold Mining Industry, SAís trade and labour policies and the role of British capital in the SA economy all proved significant inputs into the campaigning work of the AAM and indeed of the UN Centre Against Apartheid. I published a major study on major international capital flows to and borrowings of the apartheid regime, including the role of international bank lending to the regime.
Throughout this period I was the representative (if that is right term) of the SA Communist Party in London. This involved, among other tasks, the production of the SACPís journal - the African Communist and distributing it all over Africa including SA through various contrived posting devices. Apart from this I was called upon to represent the SACP at conferences and events in the then socialist countries, manage the funds of the SACP, and take care of visitors from the SACP and a host of other discreet functions. However, the emergence of the Sino-Soviet dispute and the decision of the SACP to take a strong pro-Soviet stance meant that I became suspect given my Chinese connections including the position at the Bank of China in London. I refused to give up my employment at the Bank of China. The SACP then decided to side-line me, and since then I ceased having any connection with them. But my relations with Oliver Tambo and the ANC remained close and undisturbed.
My next venture, despite my full-time employment and involvement in the AAM, was to accept the invite of Ken Livingstone (who had became the head of the London County Council) to join a new organ being established to develop employment and the economy of greater London. That organ was the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), to which a part of the income of the Greater London Council was to be employed as capital for investment in the generation of the London economy, creating employment in the London economy with particular regard to generating enterprises favouring the Black people of London. My expertise as an economist, banker and accountant apparently was what he wanted and more so because I was 'black' and regarded as on the left. For me that was a valuable piece of experience though not full-time since I was still being employed by the Bank of China. I came to understand much about the structure of local government, and the problems of the London economy. In the process I was called upon to examine proposals for investment ventures, and much else, and this meant spending a fair amount of my spare time on GLEB.
Returning to my involvement with S.African affairs, my concerns moved increasingly towards the manifold inherited legacies of apartheid economy distinguished as it was by the manifest poverty of the African people. It was in this connection that I was invited to direct the Macroeconomic Research Group based at the University of the Witwatersrand, with a view to preparing a report on policies required for economic growth with an emphasis on substantially improvements in the level of employment and next, generating the conditions for balanced growth of the economy. The programmed which emerged from that project called for an active macroeconomic policy on the part of the authorities at all levels of government with a view to not only break the impediments to economic growth resulting from the apartheid system but the liberate the economic and social forces for substantial growth and gradually lifting the standard of life of the greater majority of the African people. Alas! this programmed entitled 'Making Democracy Work' was not accepted for reasons of STATE, arising from what seemed to us as unrelenting pressures by the key Western powers on the government led by President Mandela.
Through-out this period I remained in the employment of the Bank of China as their economic adviser. I began as a research economist given my academic qualifications. The Bankís management was very supportive of my various interests and allowed me to visit China on a number of occasions. The work was interesting given the importance of the City of London in international finance and the management of Chinaís foreign exchange reserves through operations in the London financial and other markets. I was, I believe, able win the esteem of the Bank. After a period, I was promoted to the status of assistant general manager. I visited China some eight times, and during those visits I had the opportunity of meeting the late Chairman Mao Tsetung, Premier Chou En-lai and other leaders.
During my years at the Bank I maintained my interest and studies in economics and international finance; and I found the time to obtain an M.Sc (Econ). from Birkbeck College, and later, resulting from my work on the macro economic programme I directed, for the ANC in S.Africa, an honorary Ph.D from the University of Natal (Durban-Westville).
This potted story of my life may perhaps be seen as approaching a relatively ‘full life' - a life as a political activist, husband, and a father to two sons both of whom have achieved high academic standing and have lovely families - all of this which gives Patsy and I considerable satisfaction..
Vella sadly died on Thursday, 29th July, 2004, at the Whittington Hospital, Highgate.