Ismail Vadi ‘s The Political Backbencher is a valuable resource to anyone interested in a pre- and post-apartheid South African society
The memoir is a welcome addition to the plethora of political biographies and autobiographies published in the post-apartheid era. Vadi's reflection on post-apartheid politics will be of interest to many given the current impasse haunting South African politics and the factional and moral crisis of the African National Congress. It is published by Digniti.
Perhaps it is an indication of the level of anxiety of many South Africans that non-fiction books outsell fictional books, and that the biggest sellers are those about the country’s political machinations, rolling blackouts, endemic corruption, state capture, deteriorating social services, and high levels of crime.
Equally, South Africans love biographies and autobiographies, especially those connected with South Africa’s traumatic legacy of apartheid and of those involved in post-apartheid politics. It is estimated that since the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990, over a thousand autobiographies and biographies have been published in South Africa.
The most popular genre is the memoir which focuses on aspects of people’s lives. Ismail Vadi’s The Political Backbencher is a welcome addition to this genre. It can be described as a political memoir in the sense that Vadi was directly involved in politics and while the book covers all aspects of his life, including his childhood, education, religion, and family life, Vadi’s reflection on post-apartheid politics will be of interest to many, given the current impasse haunting South African politics and the factional and moral crisis of the African National Congress (ANC).
Memoirs of the past decade differ from the immediate post-apartheid memoirs which focused largely on the trauma of apartheid. Readers are eager to know where things are going wrong and whether there are shoots that point to the imagining of new political possibilities.
It is generally acknowledged that biographies and autobiographies only capture slices of lives and Vadi, rightly, does not try to present a womb-to-tomb narrative. Now retired, Vadi was born in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955. He schooled in Lenasia and at Wits University, taught in secondary school for several years, was heavily involved in the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the South African Democratic Trade Unions (Sadtu) in the 1980s and 1990s, before serving as an ANC MP in the National Assembly and as MEC of Roads and Transport in Gauteng.
Vadi is a modest individual and his epigraph quotes Muhammad Asad; “I never thought of writing it, for it had not occurred to me that my life might be of particular interest to anyone except myself.”
However, reading this memoir makes clear that there is much here that would be of interest to followers of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Vadi’s beginnings were humble. He grew up in Kliptown in a tin shanty that lacked electricity and used a communal bucket toilet system. Like thousands of black South Africans in the apartheid era, the family were victims of forced removals and were dumped in Lenasia, the township built for Indians in the then Transvaal. It was a traumatic transition as networks and friendships were destroyed in the uprooting and re-rooting.
It was at Wits University, where Vadi was a student in the late 1970s and early 1980s that he became extremely involved in Congress politics and acknowledges the mentoring role of older TIC stalwarts in his politicisation. Faith is an important part of Vadi’s life and upon hearing that he was elected as an ANC MP in the country’s first democratic government, he writes: “I immediately performed ablution, offered a prayer of gratitude to Allah, and sought divine guidance for the future.”
He also made an important decision upon entering Parliament: to continue to wear his Islamic garb as he had abandoned his Western attire when he returned from pilgrimage a few years earlier. Vadi, like his family, is attached to Sufi Islam, and his faith very much shapes his service to humanity: “I learnt that… Islam was an integrated religion that encapsulated the socioeconomic, political, cultural, environmental, cosmic and ethical questions of life… Participation in the struggle for freedom and democracy was an act of faith itself.”
However, what does stand out is that in the various organisations in which he served, and continues to operate, religion was never a barrier to cooperation and mutual respect. On the other hand, I would have liked to know more about the opposition that he may have faced from Muslims around issues of participating in a secular form of government and having to implement policies that may have been against his Islamic belief system, and how he reconciled these.
Perhaps a portent of things to come, Vadi states that he limited his involvement in the ANC for around 18 months because of the organisation’s failure to address allegations of the misappropriation of funds of the ANC’s Department of Social Welfare, levelled against Winnie Mandela and Dali Mpofu in the years leading up to the 1994 elections. This “raised awkward questions in my mind over the ethical conduct of some leaders in the ANC. Already then I believed that the ANC was not willing to act on principle when confronted by alleged malfeasance or ill-discipline by some of its leaders.”
The consequences of this were to run through most of the ANC rule in the post-apartheid period, resulting in allegations of State Capture during the Zuma presidency. As if to exemplify the continuing rot, we had the minister of health being accused of corruption during the Covid-19 pandemic when the country’s finances are in such dire straits. The template had been set early on and this sleaze has only gotten more brazen over the years. So, what was it that made Vadi, and others like him, who could see the wrongs in government, choose to remain in government?
Vadi was in awe of being alongside his mentors and heroes, struggle stalwarts like Ahmed Kathrada. He takes us on a journey through the pre-1994 negotiations, his journey through Parliament, challenges of governance, the workings of Parliament, and problems faced in introducing changes in sectors such as education and communications nationally.
While activists like him may have had certain ideological aspirations as to the changes they would have liked to introduce, the reality of the domestic and international socio-political environment had to be taken into account when implementing policy. This was the dilemma of those who saw the limits of power but did not envisage any benefits in standing on the outside.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, for one, told the Zondo Commission into State Capture that he had four options when he witnessed State Capture: resign; speak out; remain silent, or remain in position and resist. He chose to “stay in the arena” as it was “the course of action that had the greatest likelihood of bringing State Capture to an end.” Time will tell how history will judge those who stayed in the ANC when it was mired in corruption from top to bottom.
Vadi is at his best when he takes us to the interior life of a backbencher. There are wonderful anecdotes and discussion of the problems faced by MPs who often live long distances from families (“the life of a parliamentarian is lonely and stressful… families had to be left behind. A good number of public representatives suffered divorces as they failed to manage the demands on time and family. Others had difficulty in managing their personal finances having had to run multiple homes and extended families”); the hard work in putting policies together (perhaps this may explain why we often see parliamentarians dozing off in Parliament!); the constant ministerial changes to suit the political project of the time which stymied policy continuity; his interaction with ordinary people (like Rashaad the taxi driver in Cape Town) and what they taught him about the country from the bottom up; and his visits to Iran, Algeria, Western Sahara, the UK and Brazil, among other countries.
While the contents of this book are serious, at times distressing and gloomy, there are many light moments (Vadi has a lovely sense of humour) that make it a wonderful read.
The book ends on a distressing as well as a hopeful note. The looting and riots of July 2021, which President Cyril Ramaphosa called a “failed insurrection”, meant that there “is no secret anymore — the factional fight in the ANC has been taken to the streets.”
That, in the absence of any intervention by the state and army, many ordinary members of the public stood up to defend democracy was a sign of hope to Vadi. He ends with a plea: “The fire of activism must burn bright. Where there is a cry for help, a family in distress, a person in hunger, activists must respond with nerve… We must never abandon activism. True activists respond with courage when the plight of humanity is at stake.” Vadi’s motto throughout his life has been “service to humanity”, underpinned by his deep faith.
What emerges from this memoir is that Vadi has always been committed to justice and worked hard during his time in government in the interests of “the people”. There were and are many in the ANC government who have dedicated their lives to better the country, and it is unfortunate that their time in government cannot be delinked from the Zuma presidency.
Vadi’s memoir is a valuable resource to anyone interested in a pre- and post-apartheid South African society in fundamental transformation. DM
Goolam Vahed is currently Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He holds a PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. His research interest focuses on the making of Indian identities in South Africa (1914-1949), and on the colonial encounter between Indians, Africans and Whites in KwaZulu-Natal; the transformations of Indian identities in South Africa; Islam and Muslims, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, and the role of sport and culture, especially cricket, in South African society.
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