South Africa

Remembering Laloo Chiba: Brave, unyielding and principled to the end

By Shareen Singh 9 December 2017

Laloo Chiba was one of the last of the Mandela era veterans. He was a modest man who lived by his values till the end. By SHAREEN SINGH.

There is Laloo Chiba, Mr L, as I call him; my dear friend, comrade, brother. There is no space enough to write about him. Kind, caring, generous and modest to a fault, brave, loyal and dedicated. Much can be written about these adjectives, but none can do sufficient justice to describe him. Salt of the earth.” Ahmed Kathrada 2009

They lingered in the bleak room on the third floor of the Railway Police headquarters downtown Johannesburg when Laloo Chiba entered apprehensively.  There were six or seven of them, all burly men, Afrikaners employed in the apartheid police force.

On the ground level, coal-laden trams chugged in and out of the city centre while passengers arrived and left in coaches marked, “whites only” and “non-whites”. It was 1963 and racial segregation was tearing SA apart and igniting a revolution out of necessity. Thousands were being detained, banned or placed under house arrest. Political organisations were outlawed.

Laloo and four comrades, all young Indian activists in their 20s, were driven there from Marshall Square prison where they were held earlier. They were amongst the first Umkhonto we Sizwe recruits cutting their teeth as saboteurs.

The police escorted them to the third floor where they waited in a room stocked with piles of boxes and uniforms on hangers. One by one they were summoned to a big sparse room with only a desk and a few chairs.

Laloo was strikingly handsome with dark hair, greenish brown eyes, and light olive skin. He was married to Luxmi whom he met in Gujarat India and had two gorgeous daughters under 10. With his basic income as a foreman at a dairy he was supporting his immediate family as well as financing his two brothers’ university education.

With his life cut out for him the last thing he needed was an encounter with apartheid’s henchmen, especially Major Brits from the Railway Police and the notorious special branch cops, Lieutenant Van Wyk and Brigadier Theunis Swanepoel, known as Rooi Rus (red Russian).

Swanepoel had received specialist torture training in France and Algeria. A big guy with broken veins on his face, he looked menacing. It was probably his reddish tone that explained his nickname, Rooi Rus. Or perhaps it was because of his hatred of communists and his determination to break them, that he was called the Afrikaans version of Red Russian.

It was late afternoon when Laloo was taken to the baleful chamber where the police strongmen had finished interrogating three other comrades.  Abdulhay Jassat, a soft spoken and gentle comrade had just staggered out, in a daze.

Now it was Laloo’s turn and he had no idea whether his comrades had revealed anything incriminating.  He was one of the last ones to go in and was more vulnerable. Plausibly, if the cops had failed to get information from the others, they would probably have been in a foul mood and restless by the time they got to him.

They surrounded him in a half moon semi-circle and began the interrogation with the obvious question. Who was his contact? Laloo pleaded ignorance. He said they were mistaken and he knew nothing.  The badgering continued like a stuck record. No matter how hard they tried, Laloo kept on pleading ignorance.

He remained defiant, determined not to give them anything. The police henchmen realised that Laloo was a hard nut to crack and they began punching him like a punching bag and kicking him on his face and body. The questions kept on coming with each kick and blow. Laloo must have been struck so hard on his face that his left eardrum was “punctured”.

If he could give them just one name, perhaps a made up one, they would probably stop. Many under torture had contemplated doing that but realised it was too risky and could backfire.

At some point during the assault, Laloo felt a wet hessian sack being flung over him from the back. It covered his head and body and it hung just above his knees. Almost straightjacketed, he was thrown on the floor and his shoes and socks were removed. He could not see what was going on but he felt wires being tied to his toes, knuckles and fingers.

While he lay on the floor helpless, bruised and writhing, the cops watched mercilessly.  They were hardened men and slaves to their masters. Again and again they began hurling questions. Every time Laloo pleaded ignorance, the dynamo was turned on and the electric current violently shot into his body. The voltage kept on increasing until Laloo’s body could take no more.

Abdulhay was waiting in the storeroom room with the other comrades. He could hear Laloo’s ear-splitting screams coming from the end of the corridor. He blocked his ears and feared the worst. Just how long the torture lasted neither Laloo nor Abdulhay could tell, but both assumed it must have been an hour or two.

When it ended Laloo had collapsed. He could barely walk and Abdulhay and the policemen helped him downstairs and into the police Rambler station wagon that was waiting for them. They drove back to Marshall Square wounded, silent and sickened to the core.

All five MK operatives including, Reggie Vandeyar, Shirish Nanabhai, Indres Naidoo and Abdulhay were badly beaten up and endured various degrees of torture. By all accounts however, it appeared Laloo suffered the worst.

“His face was swollen severely. His eyes appeared to be coming out of their sockets. He was walking with great difficulty and was supported by a policeman. His legs were rigid. His knees did not bend. His hands were almost like he had severe arthritis. He looked like a Frankenstein monster.”  This was Vandeyar’s recollection.

Miraculously, Laloo survived and recovered physically. But that was not the end of his incarceration, he was tortured again when he was arrested a second time. He was forced to stand still on a piece of paper for hours on end. Again, the cops failed to break him.

That was Laloo Chiba, very brave, unyielding and principled who  never betrayed his comrades. He kept his prison experience bottled up for years, not even telling Nelson Mandela or his close friend Ahmed Kathrada during their 18 years together on Robben Island.

It was only during his testimony at the truth commission in 1996, that Laloo spoke out.  Mandela was moved and sent Laloo a special tribute on his 80th birthday. “Your bravery as an MK soldier will never be forgotten, nor will your courage in withstanding torture after your capture. We respect the iron discipline which prevented you from telling us about those experiences, until years after we left prison.”

Laloo was a latecomer to the liberation struggle. Unlike Kathy who was an activist in primary school, Laloo was in his 30s when he got involved in in the Transvaal Indian Congress, and subsequently the Communist Party of SA in 1961.

He worked a full day at a dairy near Mayfair, Johannesburg and in the evenings embarked on his double life of amateur bomb maker and saboteur. His wife and parents believed he was going to Congress meetings.

Laloo was both a communist and a Ghandian. He fervently disagreed with the bombings that occurred in the name of MK that killed human beings. His sabotage activities were strategically aimed at apartheid symbols and infrastructure like electricity pylons, empty pass offices and telephone poles. That was the official MK policy that he knew and supported because it resonated with Ghandi’s passive resistance stance.

In 1963 Laloo had to hit the ground running so to speak, when the MK top leadership was arrested and he was thrust into the position of second command, heading several sabotage units.

When Jack Hodgson, his handler at short notice instructed him to conduct a sabotage, he obliged knowing it was going to be a tough call. He quickly got a unit that included Abdulhay Jassat and organised a bomb.

He placed a bomb on a railway line in Fordsburg, expecting it to go off within a certain time but it didn’t. According to MK protocol in such instances the unit must abandon the sabotage and never go back to the target. But Laloo, as Jassat recalled, went back and bravely rejigged the bomb, which eventually did go off and made headlines.

It was a reckless act that could have compromised himself and his comrades and ordinarily would have warranted a court martial, but it was overlooked because it was such a spectacular blast. For Laloo, he had delivered on his mandate and that was what counted.

Laloo was not averse to taking risks since he was a teenager. He hated high school and began bunking and hanging out with some dodgy characters. One of them was the notorious Shariff Khan, the local gang kingpin.

His father, a tailor who had high hopes for him to get an education was disappointed when Laloo failed matric and refused to repeat the grade. All Laloo was interested in then was the high life –  parties, girls and hanging out with the big shots who happened to be the Mafiosi.

His errant behaviour was intolerable and his family shipped him off to India and found him a lovely Gujarati woman Luxmi, whom he married. He returned to SA a changed man – hard working and responsible. He helped his brothers get educated, one became a doctor and the other an aeronautical engineer.

When he joined the liberation struggle, he became a tireless and loyal cadre. He was found guilty of sabotage and belonging to a banned organisation in 1964 and jailed in Robben Island.

On his release in 1982 after 18 years, Laloo worked at Motani Furniture and immersed himself in the United Democratic Front. Two years later he was arrested for third time and spent eight months in jail.

The young prisoners with whom he shared a cell with were in awe of him. As a veteran Laloo immediately took leadership in the prison. Faizel Mamdoo recalled a hunger strike that lasted 10 days.

Laloo helped everyone prepare for it psychologically, make sure there was consultation and clear demands. He also did odd things like split matches in two to last longer. Once when a young prisoner spilt something and did nothing about it, Laloo took the broom and cleaned it up rather than telling him to do it.

In 1994, the liberation that Laloo sacrificed for had arrived and he became an MP for two terms. He was one of the few MPs, alongside Andrew Feinstein who questioned the arms deal in parliament.

After parliament Laloo spent time with his family and his dear friend Kathy in the work of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Though he was not always publicly robust about state capture and the corruption that was tearing the ANC apart, he backed Kathy all the way.

Laloo was one of the last of the Mandela era veterans. He was a modest man who lived by his values till the end. It was deeply painful for him to see the looting of state resources since he meticulous went about making sure every cent counted. Once when he got reimbursed by SARS, he believed the amount was too much and did an estimate and sent a cheque.

Kathy’s death last year left a deep vacuum in his life and he seemed lost. When Kathy was very ill he told one of the staff members at the Foundation. “I hope Kathy goes first, I don’t want him to have to deal with me dying.” DM

Photo: Laloo Chiba. Photo: Yunus Chamda

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