Jay Naidoo - Fighting for Justice

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Fighting for Justice
Author: Jay Naidoo
Publ: Picador Africa, 377 pp
Reviewer: AwaaZ

How COSATU was built and developed to become the backbone of South Africa’s internal mass struggle against apartheid; how deep ethnic, ideological and linguistic divides generated by the brutally racist regime were overcome; how neo-liberalism infiltrated South African politics in the post Mandela government and amongst many retrogressive changes, how Jay Naidoo, for the first time was made aware of his ‘Indian-ness’ – read it all in this vividly written autobiography by the first General Secretary of COSATU who continues to devote his energy, intellect and amazingly varied talents to the service of humanity in South Africa and the world.

Jay Naidoo has his roots in a distant village in South India. His maternal great grand-mother, Angamma a single mother, sailed to South Africa in 1852 to escape the drudgery of colonial India. She arrived as an indentured labourer to work the sugar plantations. Over a century later, in 1954, Jay Naidoo was born into a lower middle class family which revered education. His early childhood was frugal but happy.

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre followed by the banning of the liberation movements heralded a decade of fear and political silence. As Verwoerd tightened the noose of apartheid Jay became acutely aware of his ‘blackness’. By the early 1970s worker and student unrest was building and the injustice drove Jay to rebel. He was inspired by Muhammed Ali’s courageous refusal to fight in the Vietnam War – ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong . . . no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’, he had declared. But it was Steve Biko who was the catalyst to Jay’s early political stirrings. ‘Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude’ was his mantra.

In the university’s student movement Jay learnt important lessons in strategy and tactics. In the political rallies he learnt how to pre-empt disruptive elements and to identify infiltrators. In the Natal Indian Congress formed by Mahatma Gandhi he met Jayendra Naidoo, son of a renowned political family and no relation, who became a life-long comrade and mentor. Disillusioned with student politics and its study circles, Jay abandoned his medical career. He decided to spend his life ‘dissecting society rather than bodies’. As a political activist he came under the radar of the apartheid state. He toyed with the idea of joining his comrades who were leaving the country but then resolved to stay. Police crackdowns and thousands of detentions continued.

From Black Consciousness Jay graduated to Socialism and was attracted to the ANC and the SACP (South African Communist Party). Organising in the Indian community gave Jay skills and contacts but he realised that while the Indians were unanimous in their opposition to apartheid, some feared black majority rule. And on the factory floor, the system created tensions between black and Indian workers.

Jay turned his attention to the trade union movement and launched into a painstaking and arduous journey to win the trust of workers; build democratic yet disciplined unions; navigate the minefield of obstacles, laws, police arrests and killings; protect the unions from political affiliations and sidestep the Inkatha betrayals in order to reach the goal of a national union which could help bring the apartheid state to its knees. ‘While I considered myself an ANC activist I believed firmly that my primary loyalty was to the union movement,’ writes Jay.

The book is a fascinating account of how to unite, organise and empower workers to fight their own battles. Jay learnt how to talk to workers terrified of losing their jobs and to the police when confronted by them; to relate to families and traditions in rural communities; to always ensure sufficient checks and balances. In 1985, Cyril Ramaphosa convened the launching of COSATU, Jay Naidoo was elected the General Secretary. In addition to his responsibilities within the country, Jay travelled internationally to build solidarity with the ANC in exile and with supportive unions and individuals.

The destination was total liberation, the locomotive was COSATU. For the next few years as the apartheid state lashed out viciously with its dying kicks, Jay survived on adrenalin and a few hours of light sleep. Death was just a grim reality. His beloved mother passed away in hospital when he was attending a trade union meeting in Copenhagen!

1990, Nelson Mandela was released. COSATU’s role in the new scenario; the transfer of many of COSATU’s leaders into the negotiation process and later into Government; and the overarching need to maintain unity and strength; were some of the challenges to be met. But for the first time in 1990, Jay could give a thought to his personal life. And that is when he met Lucie Page, a French Canadian journalist and fell deeply in love. Lucie had been married before and had a young son.

They were married in 1991; Madiba, the Sisulus, the Tambos and comrades of the labour movement were all there. Albertina Sisulu warned Lucie: ‘You know he is already married – to the nation’. Prophetic words indeed. Jay’s relationship with Lucie was turbulent, often nearing breaking point almost entirely due to his commitments to his country and his unavailability to Lucie. She returned periodically to the peace and order of her homeland to get away from the tension, the threats, the fear of assassination that was ever present.

COSATU drew up the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and it was incorporated into the ANC Manifesto. The elections were held in 1994 and Madiba requested Jay to join Government as the Minister in charge of the RDP. It was an exciting challenge; the RDP was a transformation agent with a mandate of the people and Jay was totally immersed in its implementation.

But, imperceptibly at first, the political culture began to change. Tension between the ‘inziles’ and the exiles and the business class’s disapproval of the RDP, became manifest. The Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (GEAR) – a home-grown structural adjustment policy -  replaced the RDP - Thabo Mbeki was its prime mover. Jay resigned from Government hoping to work in the Ministry of Communications; Mbeki informed him there was no opening. That was the last time the two met.

Jay linked up with his old comrade, Jayendra Naidoo, and they formed the J&J Group with the objective of bringing the economy into the hands of the majority. And this was when whispers about their Indian-ness began to surface. ‘Never in all my years as a leader in the student, community and union movement had the fact of my Indian ancestry been used against me. But here in the democracy we had all fought so hard for, it became a material issue,’ writes Jay ruefully.

With a lengthy sojourn in Canada, Jay embraced again Lucie, his children Kami and Shanti and stepson, Leandre. An overland trip across Africa and a return to his roots in India helped Jay to heal his soul but his heart was in South Africa. The J&J Group continued to expand. Jay was appalled by Mbeki’s take on the AIDS epidemic ravaging his country; in 2002 Kofi Annan nominated him as chair of GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition).

And then in December 2007, South Africa changed course. For the first time since 1952, a sitting ANC President was voted out. Mbeki lost his bid for an unconstitutional third term. The working class and the people opted for Jacob Zuma, the wily grassroots leader who, in spite of all his faults, would at least understand their desperate pleas for help. Settled back in South Africa with his family, Jay is optimistic about his country’s future. He recognises the urgent need to ‘quieten the demagogues that fan division and strengthen the dialogue on the most controversial issues that divide us’.

There is a wealth of knowledge in this book for Kenya’s trade unionists and workers, for its national leaders and for Kenyans of South Asian origin.  Fighting for Justice gives the reader an insider view of how the battle for liberation was won and its turbulent aftermath. Jay’s statement that, married to Lucie, he considers his three children to be his greatest achievement; is evidence of the humanity of this great South African.


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