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A Fortunate Man

A Fortunate Man

Autobiography of a man who helped shape modern South Africa, and in turn was shaped by it
Meer, Ismail

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A Fortunate Man

Author: Ismail Meer
Zebra Press
Cape Town, 2002
ISBN: 1868726649
Hard cover, 15x23 cm, 368 pages, several photos


When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he invited Ismail Meer to be his travelling companion and speech writer on his trips abroad. Meer is one of the unsung heroes of South African history. A prominent Indian activist, he helped convince the young Mandela, decades earlier, to broaden his vision beyond Africans only.

The book takes the reader back to conversations with figures such as Albert Luthuli, paints a picture of Nelson Mandela and other political leaders as young men, and gives little known details about Joe Slovo and Ruth First.

This is the autobiography of a man who helped shape modern South Africa, and in turn was shaped by it. It is a wonderfully crafted tale and an invaluable document that supplies missing pieces in the puzzle of our past.

With its elegant writing style, its vivid recreation of past times, and its touches of humour, this is a substantial life story, in the tradition of Long Walk to Freedom and Rivonia's Children.

Ismail Meer was born in the village of Waschbank in KwaZulu-Natal in 1918. As a teenager he showed his proficiency in journalism when he wrote articles for South African publications. He studied law in Durban and at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In Johannesburg he befriended young, up-and-coming political figures such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and Joe Slovo. One of the longest-serving activists against apartheid, Ismail was an active member of the Communist Party and the Indian Congresses.

He participated in the 1946 passive resistance campaign and the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, and was instrumental in the creation of the Freedom Charter. Ismail married Fatima Meer in 1951 and raised three children while working as a lawyer. He was one of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial, and was detained, listed as a communist and banned from publishing or speaking in public.

After 1994 he served in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature. Ismail Meer died in 2000. Over and above his political activities, Ismail Meer was recognised as a fine storyteller. Nelson Mandela describes him as 'light-hearted and amusing, with a treasure of anecdotes that could keep you entertained for hours', and chose Meer to be his speech writer for this reason. These qualities shine through in the elegance and humour of his writing in A Fortunate Man.


1 Waschbank
2 Durban
3 Political Activism
4 Events During World War II
5 Johannesburg
6 Passive Resistance
7 The End of Indian Passive Resistance and the Beginning of Apartheid
8 Violence and Unity
9 Settling Down to Family and Work
10 The Defiance Campaign
11 The Verulam Practice and Some Cases
12 Freedom Charter
13 The Treason Trial and the Family
14 Sharpeville, the State of Emergency and the Birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe
15 Students Take Over
16 Travelling Abroad
17 Moving into Non-Racial
South African Democracy


Introduction by Dr Michael Sutcliffe

Like his close friend and political colleague, Nelson Mandela, IC Meer inspired many of us in our pursuit of peace, democracy and a better life for all. South Africa owes IC a special debt of gratitude for his unrelenting fight against evil and his principled stand against injustice, no matter where it came from.

IC, by birth, was a country bumpkin, growing up in Waschbank. While forced out of school through economic difficulties, he continued studying part time, and was rewarded with a matric from Sastri College. Whilst working as a trade unionist, he studied for a BA degree at the University of Natal, but the same university’s racist policies denied him the chance of studying law in Natal, and so he left for the University of the Witwatersrand. There he studied law, and also shared a flat with the young Nelson Mandela.

IC was charged for treason in 1956, and for the life of the National Party government was banned from writing or speaking in public. He was detained without trial, banned, listed as a communist, suffered terrorist attacks on his home, but through all of this his determination to outlast and defeat the National Party regime never wavered.

Fortunately for the ANC, as we moved towards the election in 1994, Nelson Mandela reminded us of the importance of stalwarts like IC Meer. While not known for their toyi-toying prowess, or even widely known at branch level, such veterans as IC Meer brought into the legislatures of our country a deep well of wisdom from which we have all drunk. In IC’s case, he found additional energy to continue his more than sixty years of struggle against apartheid from the days when he was a founder of the Liberal Study Group in 1934, to his founding the Liberation History Foundation in 1996.

The province of KwaZulu-Natal as a whole benefited enormously from having had IC Meer in its legislature. Without fear of contradiction, I can say that IC was probably the person most popular across all party lines in the provincial legislature, and he stands out as the pre-eminent debater listened to by all, from presidents and premiers to traditional leaders and us juniors.

IC Meer’s art was to continually trace the trinities in our religious and secular lives. There are few people around who were as knowledgeable on the unity of religious life as IC. But he would often talk of those unities that guided our liberation struggle against colonialism and racism. Whilst Shaka left a legacy of unity in action, and Dube emphasised the need for Africans to reassert themselves, it was Chief Albert Luthuli who left a singular message that no matter what race you were, unite against apartheid. Of course, when you were dealing with IC Meer, it was almost as if he not only grew up with Chief Luthuli, but with King Shaka and Dr Dube as well!

IC brought together all those who fought for liberation. He counted among his personal friends not only Nelson Mandela and many other ANC leaders, but also Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi and members of other political parties. However, he reserved his fondest admiration for our former president, and loved telling stories about who was actually the more handsome beau of the two! After all, Nelson Mandela was unable to recite love poems in Urdu and Gujarati, so could there have been any competition for IC Meer?

The deeply philosophical underpinnings that spurred IC on to even greater writings and speeches are contained in his oft-quoted trinity of Tawhid (the unity of our maker), Ahimsa (that without peace there can be no unity) and Ubuntu (the powerful tradition of tolerance).

Personally, I am deeply privileged to frequently have had as my passenger IC Meer, when we drove to meetings in the legislature. Of course, I would not admit to members of the IFP that one of the advantages of a dual capital (Ulundi and Pietermaritzburg) is that I had the opportunity to be educated by IC Meer in our travels. We shared the terrible loss of his son, and the way in which he and Fatima found peace through their weekly visits to Rashid’s gravesite. We shared his reminiscences of his student days with Nelson Mandela, and the lonely dark years of his trials, bannings and restrictions. And we shared his deep pride in the accomplishments of not only Fatima, but also of his children Shehnaz, Shamim and Rashid. IC remained one of the most optimistic people in the world, always able to turn adversity into victory.

To have had leaders of his stature once more able to talk publicly, organise locally and negotiate with our enemies, gave us all great inspiration. The joy of the unbannings in 1990 often led to despair, such as that associated with the security force slayings in Boipatong. However, having the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and IC Meer around, meant that for us there was no going back.

The ANC in 1993 and early 1994 had to organise its party lists for the various legislatures. Given the ongoing political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, it was decided that Jacob Zuma would ‘remain’ on the provincial list and be the ANC’s candidate for premier. A process of popular selection interspersed with strategic deployment led to the list for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal being finalised. IC was number thirteen on the list, and while many activists had not had the privilege to work with him because of his long years of banning, we soon realised what a giant of an intellectual he was.

Once elected, he was deployed on the Portfolio Committees of Education, Finance and Public Accounts, although there were very few areas in which IC did not have something significant to say. He was always delighted to speak, and throughout his speeches in the committees and assembly and in the motions he prepared, he balanced a historical analysis with a focus on the issues confronting us post-1994. But never did he allow us to become complacent. And the word ‘hegemonic’ did not exist for him, because while the ANC may have enjoyed great majorities throughout the country, all leaders had to be reminded that no one is truly free until the poor are freed from the shackles of racism, capitalism and sexism.

Ismail Meer served two terms in parliament, and he used those terms not only to scrutinise the bills to ensure their legality and grace of language, but also to engage on their moral correctness and their consistency with the Constitution and human rights.

IC never hesitated to criticise his Party, the ANC, when criticism was due. He brought a richness to the deliberations through his knowledge of world religions, cultures and history. He never demurred when the opportunity presented itself to introduce Indian languages and proverbs. He also used the provincial parliamentary platform to celebrate South African historical events and personalities. IC did this in conjunction with the Liberation History Foundation, which he had established. He was an overwhelming moral force, and never compromised his position to party loyalty or prejudices against his opposition.

IC’s addresses reflected his personal history, his cultural background, his strong sense of religion and his commitment to democracy and to the Constitution. He manifested a dignity and authority born out of his years of action. His speeches reflected his obvious enjoyment of them, due, to some extent, to his sudden freedom to address audiences. He loved to illustrate points with Indian proverbs, which he introduced in the Indian languages without being self-conscious.

We include some excerpts from the Hansard of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, which reflect some of these characteristics.

Note to readers:

In the South African parliamentary system, one of the first items on an Order Paper allows members to introduce motions that may be debated by the House in subsequent sessions. IC Meer used these to continually remind us of historic milestones and of people who laid the base upon which we were able to enjoy the fruits of a negotiated settlement.

While the parliamentary procedure was, for many of us newly elected parliamentarians, completely new (after all, we were activists, and at times debate was about arguing until the best point won), IC ensured that he taught us the basics. He was a stickler for the rules and had no problems with taking on everyone who erred, no matter what office they held or political party they came from.

The excerpts that follow are a selection taken from Hansard. Only minimal editing has been made, though some addresses have been shortened and at times a few contextual notes have been added. The excerpts are roughly arranged in subject, not chronological, order.

Condemning Apartheid and Moving to a New Order:

28 March 1995

KZN Provincial Protector Bill

Ismail continually questioned and brought into historical perspective what we take for granted in a democracy. At the same time, he kept ensuring that we think about the words we use and how they have been misused in the past.

Mr Speaker, this Bill is borne of centuries of suffering in South Africa. It arises from a situation where maladministration, corruption and abuse of power came to be written into the laws of our country. And I can say without fear of contradiction, that the Native Administration Act was maladministration of the vast majority of our people in this country. It was under that law that I, as a young person, saw the banishment of AWG Champion from Durban to Kingsley at the height of the ICU. He was the first person to give us a non-racial workers’ movement, which was an important contribution to the development of the trade union movement, which came later. It was under that law that tribes were broken up and people were banished from their familiar surroundings in which they grew up. It was that law that regarded the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in South Africa as a danger to South Africa, and deprived him of his chieftainship. Maladministration said he was not fit to govern his own people.

This law results from the Commission which was dealing with human rights at the negotiation table at Kempton Park. There are three sub-sectors; first the Constitutional Court, second the Human Rights Commission and third, the Protector. These combined to give you sir, me, and every citizen of this country the rights which had been denied us from 1652 onwards.

They ensure there is freedom of the press, a freedom we did not have before. Some newspapers were murdered: the first to be murdered was the Guardian, then came a number of papers that took over from the Guardian. They too were murdered. The Bantu World was murdered. Then there were papers which committed suicide, and one of those was the Rand Daily Mail.

It is under this maladministration that we saw family life destroyed and the evils we face today of poverty, illness and lack of housing. Those who ruled this country with an iron hand imposed maladministration and corruption. We have to ask honestly, have we eliminated maladministration in our own Government? Have we eliminated corruption in our own Government? We must reply honestly if we are going to implement this particular law.

I am very unhappy about the term ‘Protector’, just as I would have been unhappy if he was called a ‘Native Commissioner’. [LAUGHTER]

The term ‘Protector’ arises in South Africa when the Indians were brought to work in semi-slave conditions as indentured labourers and a person was appointed over them as ‘protector’, and that Protector did not protect a single one of those Indian indentured labourers. He imposed the racist laws of the country. So the term ‘protector’ is objectionable, but then what is in a name? If under a democracy this person is to make his contribution, then let him be the bridging personality between the Province and the Centre. Nation building is an important part of the duty of the Protector, and we are going to make our fullest contribution in that direction.

It is with great pride that I support this measure; my political party supports it. We feel this is born of our pain and suffering. Let us as legislators remember that we must legislate wisely in the present so that the past may be happy to look upon and the future pleasant to contemplate.

7 May 1997

KZN Appropriation Bill

We have to cleanse this House. This building was not built for you and me. This building was started in 1887 and completed in 1889. In this very Legislature, year after year, laws were passed to oppress everyone who was not white.

We are now going to find a solution to that. We will have to cleanse this ‘house’. ‘Geza Umuzi’, no matter where we are, in Ulundi or Pietermaritzburg, we are not bound physically by one place, we will talk of the errors of the past which spread from Ulundi to every part of this beautiful land, which Shaka gave us and told us we must unite and govern, not divide and govern. We have self-government; how do we proceed to good government?

Education and Culture

31 March 1995

KZN Adjustments and Appropriation Bill

Ismail analyses the education budget. He pays tribute to the Communist Party.

Mr Speaker, in answer to a question I put to the Minister of Education, the Hon Minister has replied in writing. The question was, ‘What will be the shortfall on education for the coming year?’ The answer is, ‘The shortfall in education expenditure for 1995/1996 is R764 m.’

Let me make this important point: when we are historically trying to trace the long journey from the morality of Ubuntu to the morality of democracy, it is also the journey, from the immorality of domination by a minority race, to where we are today. We need to record in this House that from the earliest of times the people created wealth in this country, and that wealth did not return to the people. Under colonial domination, cheap labour was the powerful profit motive. The Western powers drew billions of rands from our people to benefit foreign countries. Let us also record that every homeland, including KwaZulu, was an expensive and costly exercise affecting the rights of South Africans, who were our black people, and they have suffered tremendously. When we are now called upon to balance the budget, we find ourselves in great difficulty in trying to bring morality into the classroom. There should be one teacher to 20 or 21 pupils; that morality is difficult to achieve because of lack of money.

When we were young and we were marching on this great road to democracy, we found that the church, the synagogue, the temple, and the mosque, remained silent for too long. The only political party which I could belong to as a devout Muslim, deeply immersed in the Quranic teaching, was the Communist Party of South Africa, which had no segregation and which was promoting the interests of all South Africans on a non-racial democratic basis.

Let us pay tribute to all those who made possible our participation in this democratic House today, and recognise that the African National Congress from 1912 and the Natal Indian Congress from 1894 have been treading this path. At the end of this journey, may the prodigal sons who were with us in the 40s and 50s return to the rightful fold and make a joint contribution. Unity is not just a slogan. Unity is based on the dedication of service to the people as a whole.

1 April 1996

KZN School Education Bill

Ismail was passionate about education as the real liberator of the human condition. But for him, education was as much about community organisation as it was about bricks and mortar, pencils and paper. He showed that commitment to education was not about party politics.

I want to assure the Honourable Minister of Education that this House gives him the backing that he deserves in the interest of our children of today and of the future generations.

Birbal, the wise man of the East, companion of the Maghul Emperor Akbar, once said that the Minister of Education is more powerful than the Prime Minister. His words are very important. He said if the Prime Minister makes an error, even if it is a royal error, that can be corrected easily, but if the Minister of Education makes an error, that error dogs the life of the nation and the nation’s children for generations to come.

I think today is the most historic day for this Parliament, and I hope for the country as a whole. I say this, not mindful of the fact that it is 1 April, I say it in great seriousness. [LAUGHTER] We have defeated the human error which began in 1652. We recall the tremendous disadvantage which the majority has suffered under colonialism. ‘Thou shall not steal’ and ‘Thou shall not kill’ were abandoned, and people were killed and the land of the people was taken away. The people who had lived on that land were treated as serfs. The educational system developed out of this relationship between master and slave. We have to realise that that particular philosophy in education is still with us.

Sir, to you as the Minister of Education, we want to pledge that we will work with you together to end that philosophy and replace it with a truly democratic philosophy of education.

We have tremendous baggage, particularly in those people who were involved in the oppression of the majority. They have come to us with a tremendous baggage of past guilt.

We also carry the baggage of slave mentality, which so many of us suffer among the majority. We have to formulate an educational policy that realises that the most important heritage of education is tolerance. We have our own philosophy of Ubuntu, which lies crushed, but it can rise from the ashes and become a powerful Phoenix if we formulate the right type of education policy.

In fact, we have a greater problem than Germany had at the end of Hitler’s regime, because that regime only lasted a decade or two. We have here in our country over 300 years of guilt, over 300 years of denial of resources, which has to be put right. Sir, I can say this in all sincerity, that my political party and I intend to bring about the changes, and we will work in complete unison and harmony with you.
Thank you, indeed.

THE SPEAKER: Thank you very much, Mr Meer. Before calling upon the next person on the list, I would like to read Rule 69. Rule 69 says: A Member shall as far as possible refrain from reading his or her speech, but may refresh his or her memory by referring to notes. I say that because Mr Meer has been a classic example of what we should be doing in this House. Instead of reading our speeches, which we have collected from some other people outside the House, we should ourselves, as representatives of the people, speak our minds. Thank you very much Mr Meer for that.

8 May 1996

KZN Technical Colleges Bill – ML Sultan and John Dube

Ismail celebrates the abolition of racist laws and pays tribute to ML Sultan, who pioneered technical education for blacks, and John Dube, who established Ohlange Institute.

The most significant part of this law is not the law itself, but the series of laws that this particular law repeals. The historian of the 21st century will be paying tribute to us, that we, as a Legislature, ended job reservation that made our people the holder of tools and not technicians. The work of Jesus of Nazareth, carpentry, became racially classified as a job reserved for people who had white skins. I recall the verse we composed in jail:

The racist is afraid to go to church at night
Should he find a black Jesus sitting there he would get such a fright. [LAUGHTER]

Today we pay tribute to each and every person who sacrificed his or her life, his or her time, to bring about a fundamental change in this country, change which enables us to make this law possible. So, our first tribute is to those people who defeated the apartheid system. Many of them are sitting here in this House. Years of exile, years of imprisonment were suffered by them, and they made it possible for us today to get this law passed.

Apartheid tried to kill the creativity of every black person -- African, Indian and coloured -- in this country. I have been brought up to sing with the great poet, Iqbal, who declared that a human being is a creator as God Himself. Iqbal said:

You created the night, I created the light.
You created the clay, and I created the cup.

But we in South Africa were not allowed to create the light in terms of the Technical Colleges Education Act in this country, which reserved creativity for whites only. I remember as a very young articled clerk, I met in my office a person who had come down to this country as a ‘bonded labourer’. In South Africa, there were two powerful arms of the monster of apartheid. One was the indentured labour scheme and the other was the migrant labour system that applied on mines. And through that we were crushed in our development. That monster was powerful. We have not yet overcome the harm done by this monster over the centuries.
This elderly person who came to my legal office was earning 10 shillings a month as an indentured worker. He said he had accumulated funds through starvation, through depriving his own family of the basic things of life. He had saved almost 20 000 pounds over the years of indenture. He said he wanted to give that total savings on a non-racial basis for education. He said in the Quran nowhere is Allah described as the Lord of the Muslims. Allah was the Lord of the whole universe, and he must benefit God’s creation without any distinction as a believer.

He said he wanted technical education to be made available to those who were being classified as not being intelligent enough to become lawyers and doctors and teachers. He wanted them to acquire technical education and greater creativity so they could say, ‘We are thankful to the Almighty that we too are humble creators. We can make cups from the clay which the Almighty made, and the night can be illumined by the light we create.’

This ex-indentured man’s name was Mohammed Lappa Sultan. That name has to be written into our educational history, and every child under your Department of Education must know the history of this man who gave us the ML Sultan Technikon with his hard-earned money, as every child must know what John L Dube did when he built the Ohlange Institute.

John L Dube is as important as the African National Congress, which he founded in 1912, and to which all of us owed obedience and loyalty. The name of Sultan and the name of Dube have to be recorded on an occasion like this when we are in this Legislature, discussing education. Not a single one of you can deny the greatness of Dube. He held two torches, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Education’, together. He said you cannot separate these two. You cannot say liberation first and education later, because you are then creating a dichotomy in what is one and the same. It is only education which liberates you, and liberation is part of your educational programme.

The third nail in the coffin of apartheid, before we bury it for all time, is in abolishing the Population Registration Act, on which the Minister of the Interior reported in Parliament every year: ‘This year four Indians became Chinese. This year two Chinese became coloured. This year one African became coloured, and this year so many people became this particular race.’ [LAUGHTER] No one had the courage to ask how many people became human beings in a Parliament reserved for whites.

Jesus Will No Longer Be a Prohibited Immigrant in this Land

The credit goes to us today that we are returning the Prince of Peace to his rightful place. We are returning Jesus to his deserving glory. If he returns to this country today, he will no longer be declared a prohibited immigrant. [LAUGHTER] He will not be told that he is not white, and all will be able to go to the church at night and not be frightened away by a black Jesus.

We are involved in a moral responsibility, and for that the credit goes to many, many people outside this particular Legislature. We are merely the humble servants of the people of this Province, who were long deprived. As I pledged before, I fully pledge myself in this great sacred task in which you historically have been placed as the Minister of Education, a leading position.
Thank you.

6 June 1996

Vote 5: Department of Education and Culture

It is an honour to follow after the last speaker, who has been known to be a teacher in South Africa, a teacher in exile, and has returned to teach us what we should do.
My address is going to be in general terms to the Honourable Minister himself.
Lead us from the bondage of the so-called wrongly named Christian National education to education for democracy. We suffered under those systems of education, which would have denied a place even to the young Jesus in schools reserved for whites. We want to see a future where, with the right philosophy of education, you can lead us to the Promised Land.

Miracles could happen on the way. Even the waters could part to enable us to reach our ultimate goal. We haven’t reached our destination yet. I want to say to the Honourable Minister, please draw from the lesson of Hector Peterson, who died in 1976, so you and I could live to debate the question of our education today.

Our Debt to our Youth

The fundamental changes in the history of this country came from our youth. The youth have a tremendous past, for which we are in a way responsible. I can tell you that when the 1976 arrests took place, and they took my son from my home, and he was in prison at Benoni, I went there and the young people who were waiting outside said to me: ‘You, Mandela and others have failed us. Afrikaans has been imposed on us. We shall bring about a new educational policy in South Africa.’ I say to the Minister that when I decided to take an interest in educational matters, my Gujarati teacher told me, ‘The storm is your destination. Why do you then seek the shore?’

This poem is a couplet. It is a Gazal. Shakespeare believed in sonnets, 14 lines to express one complete thought. Ghalib taught us that you can do it in two lines and he said:
Toofaan to thari imanzil che-sodheshe kinaro sha mate.


MR IC MEER: You must say ‘Wah, wah’ at the end of the recitation, which means ‘Wonderful’. [LAUGHTER] Wonderful for the thought, ‘the storm is your destination, why do you then seek the shore?’ I see that there is at least one cultured man in this Parliament who understands a Gazal. We have to learn, not only from the students. We have to learn from the teachers. I had my highest education coming from HIE Dhlomo, who was a student, from Anton Lembede, who was a teacher. Lembede taught me my dignity as a black individual in South Africa. I learnt that from him, long before the black consciousness movement appeared on the scene. I learnt from a teacher called Oliver Tambo. He will be remembered long after the name of Verwoerd is forgotten in South Africa.

Oliver Tambo was indeed a great man who was able to weld the unity of all our conflicting personalities overseas in exile. This is difficult to do. He brought our leaders back from foreign countries into a land where we had made promises.

The prophet of Islam, in his great message on the plains of Arafat, said that an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab at a time when Arabs regarded themselves as the super people of the world. He said no black person is superior to a white person. A Catholic is not superior to a Protestant. In prison, my teachers were two outstanding educators of South Africa, Albert John Luthuli and Professor ZK Mathews, principal of Fort Hare. They were imprisoned because they had realised that the storm was their destination. They were not ‘seeking the shore’. They became part of the storm and that storm destroyed every poisonous weed, and in their place, flowers of different hues blossomed and gave forth their sweet fragrance:

Toofaan to thari manzil che-sodheshe kinaro sha mate.

Let the waters of the sea part so we can march along that path of truth until every child in this country sees equal opportunity.

6 May 1997

Self-help in Education Must Continue

At the same time, let us realise that in the days of apartheid we had to rely on our own self-help in the field of education. We went around and collected money from our own community. The Divine Life Society built something like over 30 schools, and I know nearest to me at Ndwedwo, at Itfamasi, the AM Moolla Trust built a school. That programme must be encouraged to continue. Unless we have that spirit of self-help, we will not be able to get rid of the gaps that apartheid has left behind. In other words, the crushing imbalances that we face today can only be eradicated if we have that community spirit of self-help.

20 May 1997

We built schools in the past. When the Public Works Department budgeted for schools costing 20 000 pounds, we were able to build schools for 10 000 pounds. We were dealing with public funds. We knew how to use it carefully and frugally.

In my own area, that is the Inanda district, at Ottawa we got the whole community on the weekends to come and build schools. This is what you call a community driven programme. The Ottawa School is perhaps a monument to the spirit. Lawyers, doctors, school inspectors, shopkeepers, all came under the supervision of qualified bricklayers and we laid bricks on Saturdays and Sundays. The Tongaat Bakery, which was owned by a Greek gentleman, gave us free bread for those weekends. Vegetables were also donated. We cooked a big pot of food, we ate and we built that school.

19 March 1999

Ismail encourages self-help in education, and points to Indian partnership in African education. He points out that salaries should not constitute 93% of the budget, but be scaled down to 65--75%.

KwaZulu-Natal Appropriation Bill

I want to say to the Honourable Minister that this Province has perhaps the proudest record in South Africa in respect of self-help in education. It was in the closing years of the 19th century that the Reverend John Dube raised high the flag of education when he founded the Ohlange Institute, and it was in this Province in the year 1903 that the African National Congress had its Natal branch, before the founding of the national ANC in 1912. And that person, the founder of my political party, was committed to serving education for the whole of South Africa. It is to the credit of the ANC that from its founding days it has consistently tried to do its very best in advancing education.

I want to say that I am part of the product of the so-called government-aided Indian school system (which should rightly be called the community built Indian schools). Three hundred of the schools were built in this Province, some of them in the rural areas where they did not have toilets. Some of them did not have water, and they had no cleaners, they did the cleaning themselves.

We had a very big meeting in Durban at Curries Fountain. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was the guest of honour, and at that meeting I happened to be a co-relative of the chairperson of that committee. Fatima said that we have now founded an educational committee which will build schools in the most deprived areas, the African areas. A school with 16 classrooms was built near Port Shepstone. And Chief Buthelezi, in his speech, said that in South Africa the poor have helped the poor in providing education. That is our history. Now can the poor continue to help the poor. They must and we must inspire them to do so.
We were criticised by some left-wingers, who said we were doing the work of the Government. We should not be building the schools. We must make the people more militant, that a revolution takes place by denying them education, and yet we continued to build schools. Why is that self-help not forthcoming? This is a pertinent question which has to be analysed and answered.

The Indian teachers were getting 56% of the salary of white teachers; they taxed up to 5% of their salaries and built more schools. It was the time when they were getting 56% of the white salaries. They built the Teachers Centre in Albert Street. We are setting a bad example when we spend R26 million for the renovation of one school in Ulundi and neglect the rest. We lose the confidence of the people.

Personnel expenses should not exceed 65% to 70% of the total education budget. We have got to find the difference of 25% from somewhere. We have got to find that money. We will be able to find it; we have found it in the past. We will be able to find it from the private sector, from overseas donations. We have got to get down to understanding that we cannot with the present amount of expenditure, which is 93% of the total grant on personnel, provide the textbooks and carry out the necessary repairs. Thirty-two schools require toilets; many schools have no windowpanes. We phoned Baker Brothers: ‘Will you send somebody and go and put in all the windowpanes that are required?’ And it was done the very same day. ‘Will you get the toilets fixed that were required in that school?’ It was done the very same day. We did not pay them the very same day. We went with the hat in hand to the same firm and said: ‘Look, what is your donation towards education?’ He said, ‘My donation is R10 000. Deduct from that the R5 000 you have spent in carrying out the repairs,’ and we continued to do that.

Until we can inspire our people to contribute to our education, we won’t have the necessary money.

12 May 1997

Department of Education and Culture

Ismail criticises Bantu Education and praises Anton Lembede.

Mr Chairman, I thank you for drastically reducing the time that is on the paper to ten minutes. It is not the first time that there has been an interference with my freedom of speech, but we will not comment further on that. [LAUGHTER]

From the day when Hendrik Verwoerd stood up in the Parliament of the white racist regime in South Africa and moved the Bantu Education Bill, to the time when the Hon Dr Vincent Zulu became our Minister of Education, is not a long time, but that time will ever remain in the memory of those who have dedicated themselves in the field of education because of the fundamental change that has occurred. The whole philosophy has changed from education for a minority, to education for the majority. I want our Honourable Minister of Education to bear in mind what has been said by the Chairman of our Portfolio Committee. We as a Portfolio Committee are dedicated to advance this new philosophy in education under the Minister in charge. We pledge our support as a united body for that purpose.

I want to stress that we have many problems that face us, but greater problems were faced by our forefathers in this country. When Verwoerd stood up and spoke -- and those words must never be forgotten; we can forgive but never forget -- he said that the African people must be trained for their fullest capacity as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

I am thankful for the impromptu remarks from the back. I require them now and again. Verwoerd was bound by the philosophy that every Indian in South Africa should be sent packing to India – repatriation -- and until repatriation became a reality there must be economic pressure brought against the Indian people in respect of every field in which they made progress, so that they would be made economically impotent and accept repatriation.

In that philosophy our youth rose and gave us, eventually in 1976, a torch of liberty in the darkest period of the history of our country. Today, when we want to plan that education, it is for us to find out what did Anton Lembede have to say on education.

Anton Lembede

Here, sir, I appeal to you that this is the 50th year of the death of Anton Lembede, who died at the age of 33 in July 1947. Let us make his philosophy known to every child and every grown-up person involved in education, no matter at what level. He was KwaZulu-Natal’s product and a great gift to all of us who were then studying under tremendously difficult conditions.

We have a historical duty to those people who led us in those dark days. We have a greater duty now to carry out transformation. Should we fail in that, we would have let our people down.

The Natal Education Department used to get five pounds per Indian child in school, when NED controlled education of the Province. After that, three pound fifteen shillings was spent on Indian education, and the other diverted to white education, which was then getting 12 pounds per every white child. We know that the Africans were getting three pounds and less.

My particular involvement in education began 60 years ago. Because I am a veteran, do not start calculating how young I am. At the time when Albert John Luthuli became a teacher, the salary was three pounds a month for Africans and five pounds a month for Indians. Forty-five per cent of Indian teachers were pegged at five pounds a month without any increment. That is why I was elected as secretary of the trade union; I was not a teacher, and I remember very clearly in that great hall when one man from Pietermaritzburg, Mr Dookran, stood up and said, ‘We shall not exploit our secretary. I move that he be given six pounds a month,’ and the meeting unanimously carried that resolution and I earned a very powerful sum of six pounds a month during that period.

Let me say this, that today every person in KwaZulu-Natal who pays VAT, pays tax.

13 August 1998

Debate on the Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities

Ismail discloses his knowledge of the origin of languages.

Mr Speaker, the first question this House must ask is why Section 185 was incorporated in our Constitution. I was present at CODESA when the matter was discussed, and the answer was, we are in an abnormal society, and to make that society normal we have to apply our mind to the question of culture, language and religion. If religion, languages and culture had been given equal treatment from 1652 to now, we would not have had the need to include it in our Constitution. It is an admission of the horrible wrongs done to human beings in this country for over 300 years.

The language question is important, and I would like to remind my friend, Mr Narend Singh, that the first Indians in South Africa did not come with the SS Truro in 1860. They came in 1657 as Bengali-speaking slaves. Fifty two percent of foreign slaves in the Cape were from Bengal (after whom we have got the Bengal Tiger1 here). [LAUGHTER]

Bengali is the language of Rabindranath Tagore.2 That language mingled with the Malaysian language, and there was high Dutch, spoken by the rulers. Arising from that amalgam came the Afrikaans language. We want now to ensure in South Africa that even the dying languages of the day, which were neglected over the long period of white domination in this country, do not die.

All the money, hundreds of millions of rands, went towards promoting from 1924 onwards the Afrikaans language, falsely and artificially advanced at the expense of other languages. Afrikaans was financed so that they could have a theatre of their own, they could have poetry of their own. They forced that language even on our people. In Soweto in 1976 our students rebelled against that language being forced on them.

I tried to get a definition of culture. I thought I would consult the most available and the nearest sociologist,3 and I was left a bit more confused than when I started consulting her. But let me point out that food is an important item in culture. It is a miracle that the samoosas and the breyanis survived the apartheid era. [LAUGHTER] Samoosas and breyani and curry and rice were found on the shores of the Indian Ocean, where no Indian was allowed to swim. That food culture survived racism.

My culture is the amalgam of Tawhid, Ahimsa and Ubuntu. The dovetailing of these three is my culture. The most important cultural weapons that I possess are PEACE and TOLERANCE; these are the greatest gifts that God has given to humanity.

The philosophy of Tawhid is the cosmic unity of the Maker and all Creation and of Humanity; all are indivisible, one, in the indivisible God. The unity of Ahimsa was developed by Gandhi on the soil of South Africa. Without peace there can be no real unity: ‘Ubuntu’ is the powerful tradition that says that tolerance is essential for unity, and for peace. Christianity, as interpreted by our rulers, became a religion of oppression in this country. So much so that Judge Searle in 1913 in the Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa gave a ruling, whilst Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was in this country, that every Hindu marriage, every Muslim marriage, was in fact not a marriage at all, that my father and my mother were living in sin and I was an illegitimate child. Only marriages conducted in terms of Christianity were recognised in this country (otherwise the rest of the husbands and wives were living in sin).

The majority in this country, the largest language group is the Nguni group, and the largest sub-division of the Nguni group is Zulu, and their rights were not respected in terms of the marriages, and it had serious economic consequences in the law of our country. We have a duty now, as this Legislature, responsible to the majority in South Africa and to the majority in this Province, to put right this wrong of history.

Language, religion and culture, in these respects we are different. I grew up in Waschbank, and my most important dish was isijabane. I do not see this in Durban any more, although you find imfino, but nobody prepares isijabane as my mother did. We must revive our traditional foods.

We must awake in the way that Tagore wanted us to wake. He said, to paraphrase: ‘Let my country awake to that heaven of freedom where there is reason, justice and respect for every human being.’

We have reached a milestone in our destination in the long walk to freedom. Indeed, we have reached political and legal equality, but the long walk to equity on religion, on language and on culture, still lies ahead of us. Let us on these matters forget our party-political differences. Let us together pledge ourselves to uphold AHIMSA, TAWHID and UBUNTU, and let us say that the only weapons we have as peace-loving people are peace and tolerance. With those powerful cultural weapons we can make South Africa a new Garden of Eden.

6 June 1996

Debate on the Premier’s Address
Tribute to Dr Frank Mdlalose

This tribute to Dr Frank Mdlalose brings out the best of Ismail. He captures the very essence of the Premier without taking advantage of the difficult circumstances the Premier found himself in, as he often had to implement instructions that went against his basic humanity.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. History has placed the Premier Frank Mdlalose in a very important position. History will record that when the Pharaoh shifted his place from the North of Africa to the South, the people in this part of the world had to be led to their freedom and out of bondage. We had people at the national and provincial levels to carry out that task. In KwaZulu-Natal, that task was placed on the shoulders of the honorable Dr Frank Mdlalose. We salute you, Mr Premier, for leading us the way you have.

Dr Mdlalose had the privilege to lead this Legislature away from the land of bondage towards the Promised Land. It is a long walk to freedom. We have reached a very important milestone. The dividing line between the executive and the Legislature is very thin, in our Legislature. Our task is also to see that within that executive we do not allow conditions which were allowed in Europe. The birth of Mussolini, the birth of Hitler and even the birth of Stalin came from the executives having greater powers than they should have had. You have given us a picture of your executive here. It is an executive worthy of respect.

You have made me free. Even more important is the fact that you not only liberated those who were oppressed, but you were at the head of the Government that liberated the oppressors who come to this Parliament today as the proverbial Hindu cat which, after eating a 100 mice, claims to be a vegetarian. Very difficult to believe that. [LAUGHTER] Very difficult to believe that with all the burden of apartheid on their conscience, they are democrats.

No, that cat remains the feline and can never become a vegetarian. Mr Speaker sir, with your permission, let us rise and pay tribute to this man for the great work that he has done. We salute you and we say that in this historic period you have played your role as powerfully as you could have done. Let us show Parliament’s greatest respect by giving him a standing ovation that he deserves. [APPLAUSE]
Thank you indeed.

6 May 1997

KZN Appropriation Bill

Mr Speaker, it is the duty of the Whips, and I do not see the two main political Party’s Whips here, to tell us why there is such a poor attendance in the House. [LAUGHTER] It is their duty as leaders of the House to explain absences, to avoid the type of gossip that goes on in their absence that truancy does not stop at the level of schoolchildren in schools. [LAUGHTER]
I am thankful to my teacher in the old days in Waschbank, Mr Malinga, who taught me Zulu. So I am able to follow speeches in Zulu, notwithstanding the technological sabotage in translation elsewhere. [LAUGHTER]

We are getting something like R17 billion from the Central Government. And we now have a new formula. We decide how we allocate this amount, following the national formula laid for all nine provinces. When that is the position, two things happen. Unless we apply frugality, efficiency and a clean Government, we will make a mess of things. This is the message that must go out collectively from all political parties present in this House.

I want to ask the Honourable Premier to become the modern-day Oliver Twist. That is a message to the entire Cabinet. They must ‘ask for more’ because we are entitled to more. We must, however, place on record sensibly that the days of the National Party, when we were essentially made the Cinderella Province, have ceased. We have a right to say that 25% of the population is in this region; we have the largest school-going population of any part of the country, and we are entitled to sufficient funds to be able to discharge our duties. This becomes a prime responsibility, collectively, of all political parties in this Province.


30 November 1995

Motion: Necessity of November Sitting

Ismail never lost an opportunity to chide Parliament and the executive for what he saw as a wasteful use of the public purse. On occasions when free stamps for postage were issued to members, he took the stage arguing that this was not only wasteful, but indicated that there was no internal audit control over the funds of the legislature.

At the next session I will be moving the following motion:

That in the interest of utilising public funds wisely and beneficially in the economic interest of the people of KwaZulu-Natal, the Honourable Mr Speaker, without displaying the spirit of Scrooge at the beginning of the festive season, appoints an all-party committee to evaluate objectively and publish its findings on whether the present session of KwaZulu-Natal Parliament was necessary, taking into account the lack of an adequate legislative programme for implementation by the Provincial Legislators, and the huge cost in public funds of assembling legislators with little or no proper legislation for enactment.

4 February 1997

Computers and Ghosts

It was brought to the attention of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature that salaries had been paid to non-existing teachers (ghosts), and the blame was placed on computers. Ismail, in humorous vein, moved the following resolution:

Noting with deep concern that in the closing years of the 20th century the machine is taking over from man; further noting that the computer is in the lead to nominate both men and women now in the pending 21st century of the future; and recording the serious computer errors committed by the machine in both the recent matric examination and in paying salaries to non-existing Provincial employees and possible existing recipients of salaries as young as two-year-olds. This Provincial Legislature of KwaZulu-Natal, in order to end the machine-growing threats to all human beings, male and female, records that is no more correct to say that to err is human -- it is correct to say that to err becomes non-human. That when the computer is creating, with media help, machine errors, and the crime of ghost payments to human beings, this House appoints a legal committee to draw legislation to nip the machine threats to man and woman in the bud, and draft legislation that would punish and extract the pound of flesh -- or rather the pound of metal -- from the computer. [LAUGHTER] To prevent computer crime being carried into the 20th century without a machine portion being allowed to defend the computer or to raise the defence of mens rea. These machines are necessary to stop the buck at the computer that, whilst absolving man of any errors, has continued to bring the very good name of this Legislature into disrepute. This matter transcends party affiliation and even gender solidarity. This Legislature calls for closing of all human ranks to fight the erring criminal machines.
Mr Chairman, I am not going to be the prosecutor, the judge and the jury. I am merely here as a member of the Legislature, laying the law. I believe in the impartiality of the judiciary independent of us to try and punish the machines. [LAUGHTER]

There is an inherent right, which is God given, that all wrong should be opposed, and I rely not only on this Legislature but on the Almighty to end this intrusion of the machines, which makes our executive find a scapegoat in the machines. [LAUGHTER]

19 March 1997

Adjustments Estimate Bill 1997

And I have pleasure in responding, sir, without any notes and nothing up my sleeve and no draughtsman from either this country or outside South Africa.4 [Laughter] All religious groups should have told us that gambling is a sin, and condemned that sin. I want to say that on this particular measure now under discussion, there is room for transparency, and I want the lamp of transparency to be focused on the Finance Committee. I think if one person from that Committee merely stood up and said that we have reached unanimity on the issue in question, it would have been resolved.

I want to stress the two tests, efficiency and frugality, to which we should be committed, and not to any particular political party. The Finance Committee is the watchdog of the Legislature, ascertaining whether the executive has carried out its responsibility in respect of the budget of the previous year and subsequently making necessary adjustments. There is improvement from the previous years, but we are not sufficiently satisfied. As has been mentioned by the last speaker, each Minister presents an adequate report. I want to compliment those who have. We would like Peter Miller to be particularly congratulated for always presenting to us a detailed statement of activities of his own Department.

There are other members of the Cabinet who also deserve to be praised. I do not like to speak behind people’s backs, I like to praise them in their presence. Minister Zweli Mkhize is another person who requires to be given particular credit. In that breath I second the measure before the House.

6 May 1997

The Cabinet must plan things with frugality, efficiency and commitment to have a clean Government. If we can abolish the ghosts and have greater efficiency, then I agree entirely with the Premier when he said that R6 billion was a lot of money. Let us stop complaining and get down to using that money as efficiently as possible. Those words must be written in gold for all our individual Cabinet Ministers to see so that we carry on that way in a spirit of frugality and efficiency.

7 May 1997

IC calls for the cancellation of the apartheid debt and condemns interest.

South Africa has to find and pay in interest alone over R3 billion per month, in respect of the satanic expenses of the National Party, which oppressed us and oppressed our neighbour states. That is the interest alone. R39 billion per year in all. If that money was available to us for normal expenditure, we would have given every one of your Executive members a higher amount, and we would have got a higher amount from the Central Government!

This is a very important point, and again I say, I am making this as a personal observation. [LAUGHTER] This is not our debt. It is the debt of our oppressors. o one can say that we must pay the debt incurred in the wrongdoings of the past. The only people who have come out with this clearly are the church leaders, who have said that that debt should be wiped out, and that applies in many parts of Africa. he government must cancel paying apartheid debt and divert the money to education, health, etc. A large portion of our tax goes towards paying interest on the R39 billion debt created by the National Party for counteracting the people’s liberation struggle, not only in this country but in our bordering countries. How much of that money is contributed by KwaZulu-Natal each year? The minimum amount that one can calculate is over R9 billion.
Voices are being heard at present. The organisations that are operating within the community have demanded that this debt be written off. If that debt is written off, there will be R9 billion further available to KwaZulu-Natal, for services.

Interest is Haram

I was brought up theologically on the Islamic principle that interest is haram -- sinful. y father gave big loans to farmers on long terms as a shopkeeper when there was drought. They paid even five years later -- not a single cent was charged as interest, because he believed in the Quranic concept, that that was wrong and not payable. Similarly, the R39 billion and even the total amount owing is not payable by the indebted nations. In democratic South Africa, that debt must be wiped out and wiped out by those who made money out of apartheid, in cheap labour and large profits.

We must understand this tremendous burden from the past. That is why poverty is still with us. That is why we cannot find enough money for education, which is why we cannot find enough money for health services. I learnt my politics under a great socialist woman. Her name was Mabel Palmer. She was a Fabian, a very interesting person. I saw a photograph of her in a bathing costume with George Bernard Shaw on a beach in Britain. She taught us in those days, when not a single colony was free. She told us to ask for self-government, not good government. ‘Don’t let them tell you that Britain provides good government and you should give up on self-government.’

7 May 1997

KZN Appropriation Bill

In this speech, Ismail takes the Premier to task for reported comments that he wanted to change the IFP representation on the Finance Committee, because he felt that they had allowed a finalisation of a report by the committee that was too critical of wasteful expenditure and the like within his Administration. Ismail also raises the issue of apartheid debt.

Mr Chairman, I want to compliment the Honourable Premier for his valuable contribution today. I was going to make copious notes on the Premier’s address. I was so gripped by what he was saying that I made only one note and, as you know, I do not speak from notes. The only thing I wrote is, ‘Sobriety thy name is Dr Ben Ngubane’. I want that tradition to remain with the Premier. You know, I learnt that changing horses in midstream creates great problems. I now find that changing Premiers in midstream does not create that kind of problem.

Sir, we would like to give you even more money, and I speak now as a member of the Finance Committee. I say that it is very important that we make this house realise why we cannot allocate more money. The same applies to every member of the Cabinet over whom you preside. here was a time when we said that when democracy comes, all the important points that were raised by the Honourable Mkhize, poverty etc., etc., from the constitution of the IFP, would have been fulfilled. We know that that is not possible. hen I made that note, ‘Sobriety thy name is Ben Ngubane’, I was interrupted by the press-cutting service memo. My mind went up to the first page: ‘Ngubane threatens to alter Committee’.

In Defence of the Finance Committee the Premier Intended Changing

I want the Honourable Premier to do me a personal favour. I am a member of the Finance Committee, sir, and I must say when he made that statement that night I went and I thought and thought and thought as to where I had gone wrong. Sir, please attend the Finance Committee meetings. We have collectively tried our very best to eliminate anything which can be exploited by the press against the dignity of this House, and the dignity of a first black Government of this God given part of South Africa.

I want to say this -- that my own experience in that Committee has been that we have by and large worked together. If we have made mistakes we are prepared to admit them, but please come there, discuss this matter with us, because your statement has caused much pain. This is not the Ngubane I know. ou have come from the National Parliament. You have come down to us, but we do not want you to come further down and descend into the arena, where the conflict will create such a powerful dust that i