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Ashwin Desai PDF Print E-mail

Ashwin Desai, the holder of a Masters degree from Rhodes University and a doctorate from Michigan State University, is currently affiliated to the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and lectures part time in Journalism at the Durban Institute of Technology and The Workers College. Dr Desai is an unusually prolific and wide ranging writer whose work has been published in academic and popular books and periodicals around the world. One of South Africa's foremost social commentators, Dr Desai's work is internationally celebrated for its courage and clarity of vision and for its focus on the lived experience of oppression and resistance. His work resolutely resists easy classification. It is not written in the service of sociology or journalism or poetry or analysis or ideology. It just is. And this independent presence has made it a material force. The Poors of Chatsworth is described as "in part, first rate sociology, then investigative journalism, then seething post-colonial writing" which is "indispensable reading for anyone attempting to understand contemporary South Africa". Dennis Brutus, Emeritus Professor, University of Pittsburgh, and former political Robben Island prisoner, writes about Desai's work, We are the Poors: "One of South Africa's leading activist intellectuals has produced a remarkable book detailing growing resistance to neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa. Desai gives a moving picture of desperate conditions in post-apartheid South Africa, where things have not changed for most of the people. But this is also a stirring account of a courageous fightback, the fight that is being globalized as we challenge corporate globalization".

In 2007 Desai co-published (with Goolam Vahed) Inside Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914.  Subsequently, in July 2010 he published The Race to Transform:  Sports in Post Apartheid South Africa.

In 2012 Desai released Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. This book examines how Robben Island prisoners smuggled in banned political literature like the works of William Shakespeare and the influence these texts had on them.

The next year he co-published (with Goolam Vahed), Chatsworth: the making of a South African township, which included reflective narratives by residents of Chatsworth.

In 2014 Desai released The Archi-texture of Durban: A Skapie’s Guide which provided an unromanticised personal account of the city.

His latest publication, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire, offers a critical counternarrative to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiring figure in world history and as a freedom fighter. The book was co-published with his long-time collaborator, Goolam Vahed and launched in 2015.

Selected Work

The Anamuthoo's from The Poors of Chatsworth (2000)

They said: "Old man, are you moving? And I replied, I am not moving." They said: "It is a pity father, for you will be crying for a little while" ... So I took my crowbar, pulled the house down ... I was afraid maybe they would arrest me if I was left alone - Mr Mapapu, Glenmore, Eastern Cape, Recorded in the early 1980s

... he took a note from his pocket. It stated: "You Venkatsamy, are notified by the City Council to leave your plot number so and so ... Ma, I've been living in this place for the last fifty years. Where do I go now?" When I went back a few weeks later, the old man had died. It was the death of one who did not want to live anymore - Dr K. Goonam

Among the first residents of Chatsworth were shackdwellers from the Amanzimnyama area of Clairwood. Indians had settled in the area from the 1920s and had access to market gardens adjacent to the settlement. Within twenty-one months the community was destroyed and many forced into Chatsworth. One of the first to move was Mr Anamuthoo who was employed at Consolidated Textile Mills as a spinner for over two decades. He had lived in shack A90 in Clairwood for twenty- two years. He moved into house 290, Road 328 on September 30, 1963. The records show that when asked the reason for his application to move from Clairwood to Chatsworth, Anamuthoo's response was, "We must apply."
Intrigued by the simplicity of Mr Anamuthoo's comment, I attempted to track him down thirty-six years later. I arrived at the residence of Ramiah Anamuthoo but he had passed away on November 29, 1976. His wife Ankamma still lived in the flat. She was eighty-one years old. Her son Antony, one of eight children joined us. He lived in a flat around the corner. He was fourteen when they arrived in Unit 3. The family lived at 262 Whitehall Place, Jacobs. Before moving to Whitehall Place they had a five bedroom house in Balfour Road but it was destroyed during the 1949 Indo-African riots.
Slowly Ankamma, without frills, told me her story. They were first offered a house in Unit 1 but they did not qualify as Ramiah was not earning enough. By the time they moved, Ramiah had already worked at Consolidated Textile Mills for twenty-seven years. After thirty-one years of service, Ramiah's take home pay was R8 a week. Gross annual remuneration, according to his 1968 income tax return, was R459.47. In Clairwood, Ramiah Anamuthoo supplemented the family income by going fishing to the "Wests". With the long distances from Chatsworth to the sea, this was only occasionally possible. Ankamma also worked at the Natal Bottle Exchange for eleven years and then Bailes for eleven years. Ankamma gets a pension of R520. Most of it goes on rent, lights and water which comes to between R345 and R360. She has bought goods at Shaik Supply Store for the last thirty years on a monthly credit system. She is up-to-date with her rent. However, she moans about the escalating costs. She shows me a rent slip for R28.46 from 1978. Another from 1982, R37.98. Now R350.
The son, Antony, has eight children; one of them from a previous marriage. His first marriage broke-up because his in-laws felt he was spending too much money on his father's funeral. At the age of fifteen, Antony went to work. He worked at R. Faulks footwear for fifteen years starting with the princely salary of sixty cents a week. After a period of unemployment in the 1980s, he found work at Delano Footwear in Unit 10, Chatsworth. He was put on indefinite short-time. He has not worked since 1997 and has pawned both his and his wife's sewing machines to get money for food. He believes that the shoe industry has collapsed because of "cheap imports from China". Unable to meet the rent and provide for his family, he has built a structure in his mother's back garden to try to do some sewing. But he needs money to get his sewing machine back. His son in Standard 8 seeks refuge at the grandmother's. Antony still hopes to get back into the footwear industry, but the odds are against that. Cheap imports have escalated in the last decade rising from 12.86 million pairs in 1989 to 50.83 million in 1996. A 1997 South African Clothing Textile and Workers Union (SACTWU) secretariat report indicated that since 1990, 13 000 jobs were lost in the footwear and leather industries. At the same time production has declined from 72.6 million pairs in 1990 to 48.3 million pairs in 1997.
I look at Antony and know that at forty-nine years of age he will never work again. He left school at fifteen to help his family as the cost of living in Chatsworth escalated. He has been put on indefinite short-time as a result of the government's tariff lowering policies which have destroyed the shoe industry. Will his kid in Standard 8, sharing a house with seven other people and aware of his family's plight, have any reason to hope for a better life?
But it is Ankamma's hurt that I feel. She is always so neatly clad in staid saris. Her house is immaculate. She keeps returning to the theme of why seventy percent of her pension is gobbled up by rent and electricity and water. One can sense she is worried about Antony.
My last image of Ankamma is of her unfolding her husband's certificate of twenty-five years service received in 1962.



1996. Arise ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian 1960-1995. Johannesburg: Impact Africa Publishers.

1999. South Africa Still Revolting.  Johannesburg: Impact Africa Publishers.

2000. The Poors of Chatsworth.  Durban:  Madiba Publishers.

2002. We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press.

2002. Blacks in Whites: A Century of Cricket Struggles in KwaZulu-Natal. (co-authored with Vishnu Padayachee, Krish Reddy & Goolam Vahed).  Durban: University of Natal Press.

2007. Inside Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914. Johannesburg: Human Sciences Research Council.

2010.  The Race to Transform: Sports in Post Apartheid South Africa. Johannesburg: Human Sciences Research Council.

2012. Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island. Pretoria: Unisa Press.

2013. Chatsworth: the making of a South African township. (co-authored with Goolam Vahed). Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

2014. The Archi-texture of Durban: A Skapie's Guide. Durban: Madiba Publishers.

2016. The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire. (co-authored with Goolam Vahed). Delhi: Navayana & California: Stanford University Press.