20/20 vision for the kingdom of the blind.
29 August 2014 17:53 (South Africa)
Opinionista Michael Neocosmos

Remembering Phyllis Naidoo

  • Michael Neocosmos
Phyllis Naidoo divided the world into “comrades” and “assholes”. She was dismissive of the corrupt leadership of the ANC, and though it saddened her that many around her betrayed the principles of the struggle, she remained fundamentally committed to the idea of human equality. She was a mother to all.

Phyllie, as I used to call her, was my “mum”. Like several others, most of them highly placed cadres in the ANC today, I was adopted as her son, something I am extremely proud of. One of the advantages of choosing a mother or a son is precisely that choice is central, you do not inherit the social burdens of family and commitment must be renewed.

We adopted each other sometime in the late 1990s I am not exactly sure when. I had met Phyllis in Zimbabwe in 1987 and spent a lot of time at her house throughout 1988. At the time I had been doing support work for what we termed “the movement”, i.e. the ANC in exile. Phyllis’s house in Harare was a necessary stop for all leading and middle-ranking cadres of the organisation, where meetings would take place in an informal atmosphere and where activists from inside the country would meet exiles. The house was guarded so it was presumed to be safe, although Jacob Zuma would always turn on the radio when talking to you about important matters. In addition a large number of supporters, Zimbabwean and foreign radicals as well as Swedish and other funders, would visit; such visits were de rigueur among the left at the time and they were always extremely pleasant, unless some “big meeting” involving bigwigs was happening. Phyllis would conjure up tasty meals often from leftovers or vegetables grown in her garden and she would mother if not the nation itself, at least most of its genuine representatives at the time. The luminaries I met there included Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Alfred Nzo, John Nkadimeng, TG (Thomas Nkobi), Francis Baard, Ray Alexander, Michael Lapsley, John Osmers and many, many others. The younger comrades would refer to her as “Aunt Phyl”. In addition, many diplomats from supporting countries came through (especially Cubans; she had a particular admiration for Fidel and Ché). Not wishing to simply eat at her expense, I busied myself fixing the house. In particular, I constructed an extensive shelving system for all her pamphlets and documents and did quite a bit of cooking. Judy Todd mentions Phyllis’s generosity during this period at length in her reminiscences (Through the Darkness).

Born in 1928, Phyllis was at home in the role of mother to all. Of course she had a number of anointed “sons”, Ebrahim Ismael Ebrahim (“Ebie”) and Ngoako Ramathlodi come particularly to mind. At the same time, she would be engaged in campaigns, writing, in particular, a pamphlet against the death penalty which took up much of her time (this was when Robert McBride was on death row). She was always concerned about the plight of her comrades, and was particularly insistent that if the ANC was unable to look after its own people when they were in trouble, it could not pretend to transform the country in a way beneficial to all. Unfortunately when cadres were no longer useful, they were abandoned by the organisation which did not have any welfare system to speak of and they had to fend for themselves. I remember one person called Duma, who had had his hand blown off in Swaziland as he was opening his post-office box (he had been the ANC rep there for a while, a very dangerous position to hold). Phyllis was keen on seeing that he could survive and was giving him money. He eventually died and she was to make all the funeral arrangements herself as the man was far from home. There were many cases like this. When Albie Sachs was blown up by a car bomb in Maputo she was the one who arranged to send him a get well card and have it signed by the leadership. As a matter of pure chance I ended up signing it alongside Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. When I lived in Lesotho in the 1990s she turned up with her brother and wanted to visit the graves of those murdered by the SADF in 1982.

Phyllie was totally non-sectarian in her politics and friendships. Although she soon moved away from the NEUM (Non-European Unity Movement) where she had begun her politics, she retained her friendships in that organisation. Although an atheist she had befriended the nuns at Marite whom she got me to visit when she came to Lesotho. The latter had been harbouring ANC guerrillas and nursing the wounded ones. Phyllie wanted them remembered in South African history. Along with her walking up to Bruce Springsteen in Harare in 1988 and thanking him (“thank you, Mr Stingsteen”) for his support for freedom in South Africa, this constitutes one of the loveliest (and funniest) memories I have of her.

All this simply to make the point that Phyllie was primarily a human being. Her humanity guided her political principles. There could be no politics for her in the absence of a commitment to humanity. Politics without principles was a contradiction in terms, and such principles meant a total commitment to equality, not as a future ideal but as a current practice now, today. She pursued a fidelity to this axiom when she returned from exile, right up to her death. There have been many clichés written about her and no doubt there will be many more; a “stalwart of the struggle” is one, a “mother to all exiles” is another as is a “fearless cadre”. The difficulty, however, is that such clichés cannot capture the politics of such a committed activist and extraordinary human being. Looking after the welfare of Robben Island prisoners and their families (most were poor) when the former returned after serving their sentences in the 1970s took up a lot of her time, but this was not done for charity reasons; it was how she believed politics should be conducted, with humanity uppermost at all times. Losing her two sons, of whom she was so proud (one killed by an Apartheid agent, the other dying as a result of an allergy to anaesthetics), devastated her but she was extremely resilient.

On her return from exile, she refused the offer of a parliamentary position because she could never see herself as a professional politician; her politics were not of that order. She insisted on living on her MK pension only, in a small flat on Umbilo Road in Durban filled with memories of struggle. Not exactly the “leafy suburbs”, she preferred to be close to the people she had the greatest respect for, the poor and exploited (everyone knew her at the shopping centre and all were puzzled when she would introduce me as “my son”), and it was there that I stayed when I visited Durban, sleeping on the couch under the ground floor window. Many of her comrades found her difficult to deal with because of her acerbic tongue and her cussing, which offended petty-bourgeois sensibilities, yet she was generous to a fault. She divided the world into “comrades” and “assholes”, the latter term usually being applied to those who lined their pockets at the poor’s expense. After liberation of course and as she grew older, she witnessed many of the former transmogrifying into the latter; and her mood could best be described as frustrated resignation.  Whenever she could, she would intone that “the struggle continued”, but she was well aware that this slogan meant very little unless the struggle and its methods were clearly defined. She had spent all her life in the ANC and SACP, so understandably found it impossible to see them all of a sudden as “the enemy”; she remained therefore a “disciplined comrade” in public, not least, she said, because she was afraid of losing her pension if she were to be too openly critical. Of course, it was not difficult for her to intone against corruption in government – the ANC leadership recognises that itself – yet for her, corruption was not simply the liberal concern with the use of public position for private gain; rather, more profoundly, it referred to the rapid evaporation of political principles, their replacement by crass opportunism and the collapse of a commitment to equality in daily practice. It was the latter features which provided the conditions for private accumulation. What could be done about it, of course, was the point where she got stuck, as did many other committed cadres who thought like her. To say that she thought that many of her comrades had betrayed the principles the struggle had stood for, would be an understatement; I was quite amazed to hear her being totally dismissive of the corrupt leadership of the ANC, yet I did not detect anger, only sadness and a realisation that the baton would now have to taken up by a younger generation of activists. Rather than pour out acerbic commentary on those of her comrades who had lost their way, she immersed herself in writing short biographies of those who in the past had committed and sacrificed their lives to liberate the country. She was adamant that these people should not be forgotten in the scramble for riches and wanted to show that a different set of values underlay the idea of freedom than is the case today. It was out of this commitment that her books were produced. It would be to misunderstand her completely to dismiss these as simplistic hagiographies, as some have done (sotto voce of course). 

Phyllie had a prodigious collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings and pamphlets which supplemented her extensive memory; this helped her to write her biographies, but her data could also get her into trouble when the truth as she recalled it did not conform to the truth as the powerful wanted it remembered. Her flat was burgled twice while she was present. The first time she was extremely upset as she felt betrayed by the masses themselves; I teased her that the burglars represented the people of this country just about as much as the government did, and she laughed. More ominous was the second burglary, during which only computer equipment was taken. She was convinced that the culprit was the “public” rather than the “private” sector, so to speak, as someone in power was unhappy with the fact that she knew about his talking under torture and wanted the evidence removed. Of course, we will never know for sure now but the paranoia of power is notorious and the break-in was clearly a professional job, not an attempt by the “lumpen-proletariat” to increase its chances of survival. This led her to rethink the previous break-in.

During one of my visits she told me excitedly that there was someone she wanted me to meet. This turned out to be AK M. Docrat (“Doc”), who was penniless and lived in a crummy flat on Grey Street I seem to recall. The man had a mind sharp as a razor but could not look after himself properly and Phyllie would take him food and give him a wash. He was reduced to selling his books in order to survive and many landed at Ike’s bookshop. He was an extraordinary character who harangued me about how it was necessary to rise in revolt against Thabo Mbeki who had betrayed the revolution! How this was to be achieved was less clear, but it denoted frustration among Phyllie’s generation of cadres. I was totally astounded by the forthrightness.  Soon after meeting him he passed away but got an important mention in Phillie’s Footprints in Grey Street

Phyllie had many health problems and not simply because she smoked like a chimney; she also had a piece of shrapnel permanently lodged in one of her kidneys (as a result of the parcel bomb in Lesotho) which made urinating painful and sometimes unpredictable. As she grew older she had greater and greater difficulty in walking and moving herself about more generally. Walking up to the café for coffee was becoming more and more difficult. I was extremely honoured, therefore, when she agreed to give the keynote speech during my inaugural address at Monash University outside Joburg in 2008. The theme was migration and the organisers seemed to expect some kind of prayer session, but Phyllie came forth with a speech on the horrors of the slave trade and indentured labour which insisted on reminding universities of the importance of research in breaking the silence surrounding these crimes against humanity in Africa. It was a committed intervention such as one rarely hears in universities these days, where managerialism and commercialism provide the parameters of thought. Phyllie was fed up with receiving honours and awards, she said, and would have preferred the money to be spent on more socially useful projects. A committed political activist to the end, she was very dismissive of the political class (irrespective of party affiliation). Towards the end of her life she was largely ignored by the leadership of her party and it was only thanks to the generosity of one of her junior comrades that she was able to end her life beyond poverty. After all the work she put in for others she may have been abandoned by the “assholes”, but she lived to the end, faithful to the idea of human equality.

She would always end her many obituaries with Hamba Kahle!  So, Hamba Kahle! Phyllie, my mum. I will miss you badly but you will be in my thoughts always. DM

Michael Neocosmos is a Research Professor at UNISA and lifelong activist.

  • Michael Neocosmos
michael neocosmos.jpg

Michael Neocosmos is currently Professor of Sociology at UNISA in Pretoria. He is the author of a number of academic books including a recent one on xenophobia in South Africa. He has taught at various universities on the African continent. During the 1980s, like hundreds of others, he did support work for the ANC. He is currently working on a book on popular politics in Africa for UKZN Press.

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