Struggle stalwart Amina Cachalia’s legacy betrayed
Struggle heroes would have been horrified by present corruption and patronage
Amina Cachalia, my mother, would have turned 90 on June 28. What would she have made of the country she so loved and devoted her life to?
I went on a march last week with hundreds of small black sugar growers from KwaZulu-Natal who were protesting against the dumping of imported sugar that is affecting their livelihoods in an industry that is only beginning to transform from the days of tight white control of the British colonists.
The story of sugar touches on aspects that would have been close to my mother’s heart.
To quote Grethe Koen writing in City Press in 2015: "SA’s sugar history was born out of rampant colonialism, indentured labour and massive profit."
The Coolie Law No 14 of 1859 enabled the colony to import Indian workers on contract.
Indenture was different from slavery. Workers received food and board and a small monthly stipend in return for their labour. They would also receive crown land and citizenship after five years. They laboured from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, and reports of the curtailment of rations and wages and severe ill treatment were common.
Koen writes: "In 1891, Act No25 withdrew the original promise of land and citizenship. Only 51 Indians received crown land from the colony. Anti-Indian legislation had intensified as SA became increasingly segregated, and the act was to discourage permanent Indian settlement…. By 1888 Indians had to carry passes, and could not own land, vote or live outside designated areas."
My mother was inducted into political struggle in Durban, having followed her elder sister, Zainab, to the city. Zainab was participating in the Passive Resistance Campaign and was sentenced to six months in jail. Passive resistance was supported by the descendants of the indentured labourers. From then on, Amina’s life was dedicated to the struggle for the freedom of all SA’s people.
The trials and tribulations of the indentured workers Amina and Zainab’s father had railed against, alongside Mahatma Gandhi, who was secretary of the British Indian Association, were an important part of her induction into politics. Amina’s father-in-law, Ahmed Mohammed Cachalia, was chairman of the association at the turn of the past century, and Amina’s father, Ebrahim Asvat, succeeded him.
Amina was born into a family of struggle stalwarts and the political legacy continues.
More than 150 years later, sugar workers and small growers are still taking to the streets. They are making inroads to transform a hidebound industry.
It is a metaphor for the lack of general transformation and the inability of the very government Amina proudly helped shoehorn to victory, to deliver on the aspirations of the most needy. It also shoots a shot across the bows of Julius Malema’s and the EFF’s most recent repugnant utterances about Indians. Amina would have found this appalling.
What would she have made of the issues the sugar workers and fledgling owners were protesting against? While she would have had empathy for their demands, what would she have made of their call for protectionist tariffs in an era of a Trumpian return to mercantilism, protectionism and tariffs?
She would have had deep compassion for the sugar workers and farmers in their struggle to establish a foothold in an industry that denied them fair access. She would have stood in support of their freedom. And while she would have baulked at the protectionist rhetoric, she would have called for fairness in a world engulfed in tit-for-tat protectionism. She would have demanded that they were granted the chance to succeed. This is what Amina stood for.
In her memoir, When Hope and History Rhyme, she muses fondly about important men in her life: my late father, Yusuf Cachalia, and Nelson Mandela: "Memories of the past flood through me, oh so often: memories of Yusuf and his wise counsel at crucial times. In his last interview with Business Day, a few months before Yusuf died, he warned South Africans to guard against absolute power and greed. ‘It’s so easy to slide down a slippery slope’, he said.
"Looking back over the decades, I feel I am blessed to have had men like Yusuf and Nelson in my life, loving, guiding and inspiring me. Yusuf is gone but his wise and loving nature remains with me. Nelson is only a phone call away and I pray that it will remain so for a long time."
All three have since died. Madiba would have been 100 years old now, Yusuf 103 and Amina 90. Their struggle and sacrifice, with many others, helped deliver the freedom of 1994. I think they would be horrified by the corruption, patronage and still parlous state of people such as the black and Indian sugar workers and farmers about 25 years after delivering on a lifetime’s endeavour.
They would have called for a change in the course of history. One can only hope that their wishes be granted, and that successive generations seek to ensure this.
• Cachalia is a DA MP. He writes in his personal capacity.