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Thursday, 13 October 2011 09:18

MEN OF DYNAMITE- -Pen Portraits of MK Pioneers

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Ed.: Rashid Seedat and Razia Saleh.

Publ: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, 2009,


Reviewer: Meg Samuelson, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

This collection of ‘pen portraits’ focuses a band of young Indian men (with one or two exceptions) who operated as clandestine saboteurs in the Johannesburg area during the early 1960s as members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).
Beautifully produced and illustrated (the photographs in themselves comprise a rich archive), Men of Dynamite is published by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which is dedicated to the task of archiving and disseminating the history of resistance in South Africa, advancing non-racialism and promoting the history of the Indian contribution to the struggle in South Africa. The complex relation between these objectives occasionally bubbles beneath the surface of the book, but is not subject to explicit scrutiny.

While containing many interesting snippets of information on MK and the anti-apartheid struggle, on the one hand, and the Indian community and individual freedom fighters, on the other; Men of Dynamite generally shies away from extended reflection on the relation between the two. Instead, the focus on Indian saboteurs is presented as being almost incidental, though this reader feels that this is far from the case: on the contrary, part of the unspoken project of the book might be that of articulating citizenship claims in a post-apartheid nation that has not fully lived up to the ideals of non-racialism.

The book opens by establishing the context in which they operated by outlining the history of the Indian community in colonial and then apartheid South Africa and its radicalisation through anti-apartheid activism. That this historiography is motivated becomes evident in its emphasis on non-racialism and a united anti-apartheid front and its avoidance of divisive historical moments such as the 1949 riots in Durban.
The individual ‘pen portraits’ that comprise the bulk of the book are (necessarily) uneven, given the varying quantity and quality of available information on the saboteurs, who range from politically visible and well-documented figures such as Kathrada and Mac Maharaj to the obscure and forgotten. It is largely in its excavation of information on these figures that much of the book’s value lies: the stories of many of those profiled have to date barely surfaced in the public domain. Yet, while many of the individual portraits are very suggestive indeed, the book as a whole has a rather fragmentary feel and lacks an analytic meta-narrative. It can best be understood as producing an archive that future research might analyse and theorise.

I would in particular have liked to have seen more commentary on reported connections and circulations between India and South Africa and between Indians and Africans, and reflection on how this shaped political consciousness (as, for instance, Zarina Patel’s study of Makhan Singh achieves in the Kenyan context). For example, Laloo ‘Isu’ Chiba recounts in his portrait numerous movements back and forth between South Africa and the subcontinent and is suggestive on the influence his time in India had on his political consciousness. Similarly, the final chapter on ‘People, events and songs’ presents lyrics of imported Hindi songs sung at South African rallies to inspire the anti-apartheid struggle: once again an implicit invitation is offered to consider the ways in which cultural flows between India and South Africa have produced particular orientations within South Africa. Finally, if Men of Dynamite is keenly attuned to the dearth of women and calls forth further research on this point, it is less engaged with the ways in which gender roles shaped the forms of struggle and political engagement, although the portraits include a number of un-remarked upon comments that might invite such an exploration.

In conclusion, though thin on the analytic side and lacking a clear meta-narrative (largely, I suspect, due to a squeamish avoidance of the prickly topic of Indian-ness within an avowedly non-racial front and a post-apartheid nation), this collection of ‘pen portraits’ offers many rich seams of historical data that future research can profitably mine.


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