This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
10 Apr 2002: Nair, Billy
BN May I smoke?
POM Smoke away. What I want to talk to you about is in particular your participation in Operation Vula. But first, I'd like to hear about yourself.
BN My father actually hailed from India, Cochin in India, Southern India, which is well known for its resistance and today has the Communist Party and is regarded as progressive – he hailed from there. He did not come to SA as an immigrant but worked all his life on the boats.
He worked on a sugar vessel called the SS Frontier as an assistant to the Engineer and they called that assistant a 'donkey man'. He fed the coals to the engine. But because of the years of service and experience on the boat, he managed the boat, he could actually steer and handle the boat when, say, the Engineer was absent for a short while visiting the toilet. He was not educated or qualified as an engineer. This boat was largely a coastal vessel delivering mainly sugar from Durban to the ports in and around South Africa and they also went to Madagascar, to Mozambique and to Mauritius and the surrounding areas. During the second world war they went even beyond that.
BN I was born on 27 November 1929 in Durban –in Sydenham, it's a suburb which is about five kilometres from the centre of Durban.
POM There wasn't strict segregation?
BN No, well this area where I was born was largely Indian occupied but Indians – of course there was segregation even in the old British colonial rule in Natal and in that you had strayers, a few who were wealthy enough living, for instance, on the Berea, but Indians largely were about five or ten kilometres from the centre of Durban. Similarly Africans, for instance, were in locations outside Durban central. Take, for instance, a place called Cato Manor, you had Africans living there. I will tell you about that in a moment.
We were a small family, my mother who was actually a housewife, did not actually work, she reared the family. There were four of us, actually five, my brother died in 1942. So there were four of us in the family. He died pretty young, died of typhoid, and the others, my two sisters and two brothers and I, there were five. My father who was mostly on the boats used to visit us once every two months whenever the boat docked in Durban to reload its cargo. Only then only we saw him but otherwise my mother tended the family. We were poor. We did not have electric lights at home. When we studied at night doing our homework we had to do it by candlelight but mainly by the use of paraffin lamp. There was no electricity.
POM What I'm interested in is where your family moves along to the point of where you develop a political consciousness. Was politics talked about in the house? Did Indians see themselves being treated differently than whites, seeing whites having privileges and resenting them, or did they accept by and large what they had? When in your eyes did you start becoming aware that something is wrong here?
BN Political consciousness developed much later. It did not grow out of the family having discussions, etc., etc. I'll tell you in a moment how this happened. So we then grew up not absolutely poverty stricken in the sense that we did not have any income. My father's earnings were not large. My mother had a little stall in the market where she sold fruit and vegetables. From her little earnings she helped improve our lives.
POM When you were at school you felt normal?
BN Now in school, for instance, I'll illustrate the point, you see we had to make do with clothes that were made to last as long as possible. Sometimes they used to be patched if they wore down. Often we went to school without shoes. These were secondary. In fact you had numbers of children in the same position so you did not feel awkward. Some of them were wealthy and well provided for.
POM That's because even when you were going to primary school –
BN I'm referring to the primary school.
POM And then secondary school, the schools were segregated even before official apartheid came into effect?
BN Oh yes, in fact, as I said, from the old British colonial days you had discrimination, you had separation. Now at the primary school level you had, generally speaking, children largely from poor families. You had a few among the children who came from wealthy families. For instance some of them brought extra food which they shared with us. Poverty permeated the entire community. My mother, however, ensured that we had sufficient food. Clothes maybe were at a premium but we had food. We lived in rented homes and never owned our own. We did own property which was taken away because of my father who was illiterate. He built a home and ceded the home to a crooked agent.
This was in 1942. It was during the war, I remember it clearly. So this was taken away, not by the state, but there was some cheating on the part of the agents who built the house and my father who was illiterate actually used his thumbprint on certain documents ceding the property to the agents and that property was lost. But in any event since 1942 we were living in rented accommodation, never owned a property, so we had to move from one place to another. Rents were pretty small. My parents were able to manage the rent.
Otherwise poverty did not mean that we were not provided for, especially with regard to food. The school was of course strictly segregated, it was for Indians only. This also applied to the secondary school. There were three of us in the family who went to the primary school. When we passed our primary school exams, Standard 6 –
When we passed none of us were able to go to the secondary school. We used to pass first, second and third in class.
This was in 1945 and none of us were able to go to secondary school and therefore had to work. I came first in the class throughout and even beat my sister who was my senior and she came second. So we used to compete. The third one was a cousin of ours who was also in the same class. To the shock of the teachers, none of us was able to go to the secondary school. All of us would have been accommodated without any problem at the secondary school.
I then started work in 1945. I worked for an Indian employer, he was a timber merchant, and worked basically as a shop assistant initially and then had to double up as a clerk, do invoicing, etc., etc. This is what you would normally do in a small shop. I was paid eighteen shillings and seven pence a week. I worked from seven thirty in the morning to five in the afternoon and from five thirty up to seven thirty I attended evening classes. I did my JC, Standard 8, got through JC, that's the Standard 8, within a year. I worked and studied part time. This was at the Natal Technikon in Durban. Thereafter again I jumped a stage and did my matric and then side by side I got an accounting diploma. That took two years alone to qualify.
I worked part time as a book-keeper. While working as a shop assistant I also worked part time as an accountant for a number of firms. I earned about £3 a month. You can do a firm's books over the weekend so I used to work over weekends and in order to rake up sufficient for the family's upkeep.
While at the Technikon we had what was called the Technical Students Union. This was a student body which had just formed at the time. We had political debates and discussions. A few of the students were becoming increasingly politically conscious.
At that time, by the way, in the late forties, early fifties African, Indian and coloured students were part of the Technikon. It was non-racial. We even had white lecturers. The Principal, for instance, of the Technikon was a white, Mr Natrass, later on there was an Indian, Mr Jack Naidoo became the Principal. These teachers were all full time teachers at secondary schools during the day and they part timed at night and this was of tremendous help to those who were workers and who were unable to afford full time studies. The other interesting thing was that it was non-racial. The Technikon was open at the time to African, Indian and coloured students. We had a few whites, but very few in number, because they were well catered for, they had their independent Technikons
During this period there was the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign conducted by the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress constituting themselves into the South African Indian Congress. They conducted a campaign against the discriminatory law of the old Smuts government which was called the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act in 1946 where Indians had to accept discrimination insofar as their residential areas were concerned in return for Indian representation in parliament, to be represented indirectly by three white representatives. That is why it was called the Asiatic Land Tenure (that's the one leg of it) and Indian Representation Act. It was an omnibus legislation where Indians had to accept segregation and at the same time they will be given indirect representation in parliament, represented by whites. The Indian Congress, which was at that time the major body representing Indians in SA, although not recognised by the government, opposed this legislation. There were some among the business section and a few among the professionals who were prepared to work with the then Smuts government to put this legislation into practice.
POM So in your mind Jan Smuts was not very much different than Verwoerd?
BN Oh no, in fact they were of the same school but this was a package deal that he was making, Indians were not represented in parliament at all. At the time the so-called Native Representatives in the Senate represented Africans indirectly. What they wanted to do is to accommodate Indians in an indirect way but provided they accepted segregation. The Indian Congress opposed this scheme altogether and embarked on the Passive Resistance Campaign which was launched in 1946 and continued up to 1948. It rallied the overwhelming majority of the Indian people.
POM Any influence from Gandhi?
BN Mahatma Gandhi actually organised the Indian Congress in 1894 and conducted the first Passive Resistance Campaign in South Africa in 1912/13.
POM Was that tradition of non-violence passed through from generation to generation? You fought but you fought non-violently?
BN Yes there was a bit of that but largely, you see we were influenced; I'm going to link this, let me show you – what happens is the campaign, the Passive Resistance Campaign, the philosophy behind it was similar to that of the Gandhian philosophy. The Indian Congress was conducting this campaign against the Smuts scheme to segregate and to impose indirect representation which was opposed by the Indian Congress, the same Congress founded by Gandhi in 1894 and it was opposing in the same way as Gandhi did through passive resistance in 1912, 1913 when a series of passive struggles were launched, for instance crossing the borders into the Transvaal without a permit and rejecting segregation. Thousands of resisters were jailed, Gandhi himself was jailed. Similarly a campaign was launched here to resist passively, without using violence, following on the true tradition of Gandhi. So what the Congresses did was to occupy a piece of land.
POM What I'm interested in is when you were growing up, was Gandhi – if in the community was it something that somebody had done in the Transvaal, crossed into the Transvaal, the marches he made across the border, were those things part of the mythology of the Indian approach to the struggle in SA?
BN You see it's a philosophy, a Gandhian philosophy of passive resistance. Now this didn't come suddenly or through a whim. We read about this. Quite a number of students who were part of the student body and who became interested, I want to show you the link just now, who became interested in the struggle were influenced by what was happening outside the student body, that is already in 1946 the Indian Congress under Dr Naicker, Dr Dadoo, they were the two leaders. Dadoo represented the Transvaal Indian Congress and Dr Naicker here in Natal. Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Y M Dadoo. They were leaders of the Congress in the forties and in 1946 Congress totally rejected the Smuts scheme. An active passive resistance campaign began and what was done was to occupy a piece of land in a white area, you could visit it even today. It was actually in Gale Street in Durban, it was chosen as the spot where the passive resisters will voluntarily go and sit, squat on the plot. A tent was pitched where if, for instance, it rained or they had to actually stay overnight on that plot, would squat in that tent. So passive resisters, it depended on the numbers, when they garnered a particular number they marched from what was called the Red Square in the centre of town, where you have the Nichol Square Garage built on it, it's a public garage where cars are parked. Now the people used to assemble there and were then given a send off. The masses of the people, sometimes tens of thousands of people, marched behind the resisters who were going to occupy that particular plot and to court imprisonment.
They actually defied the laws of the country where there was discrimination, where this area was set aside for whites only. What used to happen was that a number of volunteers had to go through a process, completed forms, etc., and these volunteers were then assembled. A certain number of volunteers, say 20 or 30 of them, were mustered and were given a mass send off by the people who marched behind them and these volunteers then squatted on that plot of land which was chosen in Gale Street. A monument has been erected there now to honour of all those volunteers who resisted.
POM That's 1946.
BN 1946. The campaign, incidentally, went on from 1946 to 1948, three years. Over the period there were thousands of volunteers who courted imprisonment. They were immediately arrested, taken to court, charged for occupying the land illegally and sentenced to imprisonment. This happened week after week. In total thousands of volunteers courted imprisonment.
There were other volunteers who crossed the border from Natal to Transvaal without permits. Indians were not permitted to enter the Transvaal, the Free State or the Cape without a permit. You had to have a permit from the Immigration Department which will allow you to enter.
POM At this point there was no connection with the ANC?
BN No, the campaign was conducted by the Indian Congress.
POM OK, that's the Transvaal and the Natal Congresses.
BN Indian Congress constituting the SA Indian Congress which conducted this campaign. You had African leaders, say Dr Xuma, the President of the Indian Congress, and other leaders, whites like Rev. Michael Scott, who addressed the rallies. Rev. Scott was one of those who was also an active resister in the sense that he opposed discrimination and went to prison. Then you had others, other whites who used to address these mass rallies. So you already had in the offing at that time the possibility of unity between whites and Indians, the coloureds and the Africans or, more importantly, the possibility of the Indian Congress joining hands with the African Congress. That came in 1947.
In 1947 during the Passive Resistance Campaign the ANC under Dr Xuma, Dr Dadoo and Dr Naicker of the Indian Congress jointly concluded what was called the Three Doctors' Pact bringing the Indian Congress and the African Congress together. A declaration was made that progress can only be made by the Indian and African Congresses joining hands and jointly resisting discrimination. This was the forerunner of unity that came in 1950 onwards. I'll tell you about that just now.
But just to complete that part, in 1950, three years after the Doctors' Pact in 1947, and incidentally this Doctors' Pact was signed and a declaration made in 1947 during the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign, the Defiance Campaign came later in 1952, a direct result of the Three Doctors' Pact was the Joint Indian and African National Congress struggle against the banning of people under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. In 1950 you had this joint campaign which resulted in a number of deaths, I think nine of them were killed by the police through shooting.
In 1952 the Indian and African National Congress jointly conducted the Defiance Campaign, that was a joint campaign where Indian and African volunteers went to prison defying six different types of discriminatory laws, segregation at the railway stations, pass laws and so on. These were chosen for attack. I, for the first time, went into prison in 1952 as part of that Defiance Campaign.
POM How did you arrive at that? When you were in school, a normal Indian kid –
BN What I was showing you is the forerunner to the Joint Congress activity in 1952, or the 1950 joint campaign and so on, or the Three Doctors' Pact, and the ANC and the Indian Congress coming together in 1947 by the three doctors meeting and declaring that we will have to jointly struggle to bring about change and so this inspired quite a number of other things. It also brings about the extension of this Joint Congress to incorporate the coloured people, that is the SA Coloured People's Organisation and the SA Congress of Democrats in 1954 resulting in the Congress of the People in 1955. So you will see a pattern developing.
POM Where did your consciousness cross the line from being - ?
BN OK. No what I am showing you is the development of the Congress. Now to get back to my point of departure, at college, inspired by what was going on during the Passive Resistance Campaign, a number of our students including myself attended the rallies that were conducted by the Indian Congress regularly at the weekends or in the evenings. Sometimes after classes or even sometimes we sacrificed classes and attended the rallies if they were held during the week. Because the passive resisters courted imprisonment over weekends the mass rallies were held then. But if a rally took place on a Wednesday or a Friday we attended that as well, sometimes at the tail end.
Now the other part of it. While we attended these rallies we also marched with the resisters to Gale Street. The Passive Resister issued by the Congress to explain on a more or less daily basis the details of who was being imprisoned and details of the Campaign was an educational bulletin. This was printed and we used to actively distribute this to the students at the Natal Technical College. Later on it was renamed, the M L Sultan Technical College, that's what it's known as now but in those days it was the Natal Technical College. The name changed largely because Mr M L Sultan, an Indian, donated, I think, £10,000, at the time it was a big sum of money, towards the college and that was why the name change took place and later on I'll show you how the Nationalist government imposed segregation where they asked that the college be exclusively for Indians and not for Africans or other racial groups. Africans were then excluded from the college after the Nats came to power. We'll come to that just now.
Let me come to the consciousness part, how it grew and so on. You see it's a combination of factors. I was seriously influenced by the struggle, the Passive Resistance struggle conducted by the Indian Congresses from 1946. I was pretty young, 16 years or 17.
POM That was a real influence.
BN Yes. What was happening, the fight, the battles that were taking place, chimed with my own situation, the poverty and the background, my inability to go to secondary school. I had to work and so on. Then we had to educate ourselves. We actually wanted to join the struggle that was going on. We read widely. I became a member of the library. I read documents, pamphlets, etc. I began to learn more and more.
POM What influence, if any, did what was happening in India have, the whole conflict have here on you and people your age and whatever?
BN We were still young, probably immature, unable to fully appreciate this thing. During the passive resistance campaign India became independent in 1947, there was a massive celebration. This, through an extraordinary coincidence, took place while the struggle was being conducted here. It preceded India's independence by a year. In 1947 India's independence was celebrated in a big way. We took an active part in that with flags and buntings, the screaming and shouting and so on and this inspired also the Indian people. It inspired the African people as well. It inspired the Indians because they were actively participating in resisting Smuts' scheme and they were already courting imprisonment. This accelerated resistance and greater numbers went to prison inspired by what was happening in India. In later years India also inspired the struggle in Africa as a whole, apart from us here. In 1949 for instance you get the ANC with Mandela and Tambo and others making a declaration for freedom in a famous document, 'African Claims'.
POM That emanated from?
BN Inspired by.
POM By what happened in India.
BN Dr Nkrumah of Ghana was also influenced by what happened in India and later what happened in Ghana also influenced us and inspired us. So India did play a vital role in influencing resistance, inspiring the struggle as it were. Now we became, for instance myself, a number of us who became activists were now increasingly participating in Congress activities. In and around 1950 while I was still a student I became an active Congress member.
POM I want to just move a little backwards to put what I always see as a dilemma in understanding. The independence of India was accompanied by massive slaughter and murder of Hindus and Moslems, millions, eight million slaughtered. How did that enter its consciousness?
BN The battles fought out there in India between the Hindus and Moslems were largely engineered by the British, a scheme to separate the two into two independent states. We were totally opposed to the Hindus and Moslems clashing in the way they did.
POM Who was?
BN That's the Indian Congress, the Indian people. The Indian Congress and its members in South Africa ensured that that the India/Pakistan clashes did not divide us. You had the Hindus and the Moslems uniting behind the Congress, uniting as one behind the Congress movement. We had our own battles to be fought here. We had an enemy called Smuts, later on the Nationalist Party.
POM An enemy called Smuts and later an enemy called the National Party. As to today, where did the caste system play into this?
BN The caste system indeed operated in India. It was a feudal system, like the slave system here where the African, Indian, coloured and white communities lodged into different compartments with the whites dominating the rest.
On Robben Island I was imprisoned I n the same section as Mandela. We were lodged in the B section on Robben Island. If you visit cell no. 23 and that's where I was for 20 years. Mr Mandela spent 27years altogether.
When he left us, he went to Pollsmoor Prison first and then he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison. Because he was getting visitors from overseas and elsewhere they gave him a house to stay in, he was not in prison but he was under constant police guard.
There were hundreds but we are fortunate to be still alive. A number of my very good friends were hung, some were killed. Many were tortured to death. Some were thrown down thrown six floors, the police claimed that they had committed suicide. We are lucky to be still alive.
BN But those were sacrifices that had to be made for freedom. Now, the question you posed last?
POM Hindu, Moslem.
BN The caste system.
POM The caste system, apartheid.
BN The caste system, a feudal system was imposed by the British Raj and of course the Maharajahs in India. It's still alive there in India but it's a dying factor. It serves the interests of the ruling class in a particular milieu where the ruling class through its policy of divide and rule enslave, as in India, the so-called untouchables. You had a similar thing permeating our society for 300 years where Africans, coloureds and Indians were relegated to the same position. The coloureds and Indians were granted certain privileges unlike the African who was relegated to the bottom of the pile as it were. They were the real untouchables. Similarly in the caste system in India, the so-called pariahs were the untouchables; they were unable to intermarry and so on. The caste system was indeed carried over to our communities as well.
POM Within the Congress?
BN No, no, not in Congress. Congress breaks that down, the Congress singularly fought all discriminatory practices. That is, although it was called the Indian Congress it extended its hand of friendship to the Africans, to the coloureds and the whites. The Indian Congress ensured that the Hindu/Moslem clash in India did not permeate our ranks here. Moslems should not clash with the Hindus although there were the rich and poor of us. The massacre of Hindus by Moslems and vice versa, that did not happen here. No. What the Congress did was to concentrate its effort in uniting the Indian people in fighting against a common enemy here which was discrimination, apartheid and segregation and the sop of the Smuts government was to grant us indirect representation in parliament. Congress united the Indian people against all forms of discrimination.
POM Now you have to go.
BN Yes, it's half past.
POM That is fine. Will I see you tomorrow?
BN We'll settle that just now. You see I've got to do work in my constituency office.