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Monday, 18 January 2010 08:53
“I make no apology for the many NAMES. Some reading this account were confused by the names. Blacks even in the “new South Africa” are a nameless phenomenon. They are statistics. Some statistics leave out the majority of our people… blacks are ghosts in our society. I tried in a small way to remedy that.”
[Phyllis Naidoo, Le Rona Re Batho - We are also People, p. 6]

Did you know that  President Zuma received only 10 cards while on Robben Island, and that they were all sent by Phyllis Naidoo?

Did you know that Zuma’s  senior  wife, Sizakele  Khumalo, to whom he always gives priority,  drank wintergreen in the 1970’s as a protest against  her  parents, who prevented her from marrying Zuma? Her  action resulted in a disability that has left her childless.  Zuma could not marry Sizakele as he was arrested, and was away in Robben Island for 10 years. Although he did not pay lobola, she remained loyal to him, and they were reunited when Zuma was released.

When we saw Zuma mount the Union Buildings steps with her on the day of his inauguration, many of us knew little of the suffering of this valiant woman behind the scenes for 35 years.  

Why was Willy Leslie, from a humble home in Wentworth, Durban, appointed one of South Africa’s High Commissioners to Lesotho after 1994?  Well, many of us may not know that Willy Leslie played a leading role in the anti-apartheid cause in the Southern African region.

This, and much more  information unknown to the “average South African”,  may be found in Phyllis Naidoo’s recent book, Enduring Footprints [2009], published by Rebel Rabble in Durban.  Assisted in the production by Viroshen Chetty and Jackie Sewpersad, Phyllis Naidoo’s latest collection is the fourth book in the popular Footprints Series.

The collection  traverses much ground, moving with ease from lesser known facts, to large and  far-reaching events. We appreciate again and again that  Phyllis Naidoo’s  world is a large, interconnected, inclusive and all-encompassing one. Her regional and global consciousness,  honed during her many years in exile, continues to define her thinking. She is exemplary in moving away from the parochial and insular, that has come to define so much of  recent political and socio-cultural life in South Africa.

Indeed, Phyllis Naidoo paints a wide canvas, stretching across the length and breadth of the world, intertwining history and geography. So the book begins with a surprise – the  story of Cheddi Jagan and a map of  Guyana.  What has this go to do with us in South Africa,  one may ask.

But we soon learn that Jagan, of Indian ancestry and married to  a Jewish woman, rising from a working class, indentured background in the sugar estates in Guyana,  participated  in the struggle against British domination, and eventually became the first Head of State of a democratic Guyana.  He is connected to our history, as Jagan was posthumously  awarded the Order of Companions of O R Tambo for his contribution to the international struggle against racism and oppression. In concluding this particular profile, Phyllis Naidoo also points out  that “the study of indentured labour should be undertaken in its global footprint”.

It is natural, too, to find Che Guevara mingling with ease on the pages of Enduring Footprints. Phyllis Naidoo rightly lambasts  those who objected to the re-naming of Moore Road in Durban after Che. She is dismissive of those ignorant of the fact that the liberation struggle in South Africa had innumerable midwives, many from the four corners of the world.

At times Enduring Footprints reads like a collection of extended obituaries and eulogies. And this is timely. Many stalwarts have died since 1994, and quite a few died in 2009 alone. Among them are Anton Xaba, Sister Christine Obotseng, Richard Dudley,  Ronald Albino, Dennis Brutus, Janet Jagan and Monty Moodley. Given that so many are neglected in the press, or given scant and brief treatment, Enduring Footprints provides a worthy memorial to them.  As I  noted elsewhere:

Through her writing and tireless work in setting the record straight in respect of the many who died in the years of struggle, Phyllis Naidoo is attempting to avert the production of  an official narrative of the past that could so easily “filter out” lesser-known persons and events. [Sister Outsiders, p.312]

The story of UKZN Professor Emeritus, Ronald Albino, who died in 2009, is a case in point. Not many know of Albino’s sterling contribution to the legal  community in its struggle against apartheid, nor  of his experiments  to prove that solitary confinement was psychologically harmful.  His passing away went unrecorded and unmarked, and Enduring Footprints fills a void.

The stories show that activists were found in different contexts, and that all were propelled by the single objective of responding fearlessly to apartheid and oppression. Academics, trade unionists, End-Conscription Campaigners, priests, nuns are among those who people the  collection.  Phyllis Naidoo also draws from a wide supporting cast. We see the inspirational role that luminaries such as Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Ronald Segal, among others, have played in foregrounding oppression and injustice wherever it was found.

Throughout Phyllis Naidoo’s writings, there is a tacit democratic principle at work. Anyone - established icon or not, and of any race or social grouping – is given space if they have earned the right through their life and example to champion the cause of freedom. They are all part of the community of liberation heroes and heroines that she sets up in her writings. We tend to separate  those who went to Robben Island, the ultimate badge of honour in the struggle, from those who went into exile. However in Phyllis Naidoo’s writings there are many more categories of heroes and heroines.  Names are important in Phyllis Naidoo’s work, as she tirelessly counters the political amnesia that  marks much of our present time.

An interesting  feature of the collection is that it is a book about books. Many books are profiled and an extensive community of thinkers and writers is portrayed.  Apart from newspaper cuttings, we have references to many books, such as Rick Andrew’s Buried in the Sky, Charles Hooper’s Diary of a Country Priest and Brief Authority,  Vera Inber’s Leningrad Diary, and Patrick Noonan’s They are burning the churches. The ready availability of  scanning technology these days helps to give the book an intertextual feel, and  levels the writing fields.

An important, yet little-known,  book that Enduring Footprints foregrounds is Soweto Explodes, by Mosala Mosegoni.   It gives valuable information on the youth and student movements of the 1970’s, and shows the courageous and sustained activities of young people in the resistance to apartheid. A poignant portrait  of Andrew Moletsane, also known as Kgoti, is a fitting tribute to a relatively unknown hero. What a remarkable story of courage and commitment! It is sad that he did not live to see the fruits of his labours, dying as he did in 1984.

Underlying all this is the sub-text of a personal narrative. We piece together many more interesting snippets of information on  Phyllis Naidoo’s illustrious life, and we are able to colour in many blank spaces. We learn a little more of her life in exile, of the unstinting support she quietly gave to many activists in times of need, of her legal work, and of the reasons why she became an atheist.

Her critical stance towards the double standards of the Church is well-known. We learn in the collection, however,  of her own pain and disillusionment with the Church when, a long time ago,  her brother was discriminated against and not accorded funeral rites.  Notwithstanding, she remains a good friend of eminent church people who were stalwarts in the struggle. Among them are Archbishop Dennis Hurley, Revd Mike Lapsley,  and Fr Osmers, who appear and re-appear in her many pen-portraits.  Cynical of the Church as an institution, she appreciates the life and example of some of the Church’s more courageous adherents.

An impressive dimension of her work  is the seamless weaving of the  geography of the region, and of further afield.  People in the Southern African region  and beyond come and go effortlessly through her life, and narrow understandings of nationhood are dispensed with. At a time when xenophobia is becoming rampant, Phyllis Naidoo’s writings remind us of the interconnectedness of our histories.

It is easy - given the swift, collage-like presentation of the material - to minimize, even trivialize, the value of  Enduring Footprints. But the importance of the collection becomes slowly evident as one reflects on the total impact of the portraits presented.  Phyllis Naidoo does not write pompously, with all the grand themes we have come to routinely cite -  the politics of identity, cultural pluralism and democracy, global and corporate capitalism, to name a few - sitting conspicuously on her shoulder!  Yet, Enduring Footprints, like Phyllis Naidoo’s other writings, dramatizes a new community without borders. With her feet firmly on the ground,  with attentive eyes on the many newspapers of the day  and ears attuned to the political goings-on around her,  she writes her body, brimming with memories, facts and names from the past, but also aching for justice in the world today.

Indeed. Enduring Footprints, while uncovering truths of the past,  is located very much in the present moment.  Phyllis Naidoo is clearly writing with the noise of the world all around her. She is immersed in the goings-of the contemporary world, and writes out of the concerns of the present time. Given the ideals she held dear during the liberation struggle, she is conscious of the need to practise them more faithfully in this post-apartheid era. Her life and writings is a constant reminder that the goals of the liberation struggle could easily be trampled over. It is not surprising that the book is “dedicated to children worldwide”.