Personal Reminiscences

Zainab Asvat

I became aware of Yusuf Dadoo in 1936, when he had just returned to South Africa as a qualified doctor. I was a standard six school pupil at the time. He was so highly respected that I wanted to be just like him, a doctor.

We lived near the station and our common mode of transport was the train. I went to school by train, and anyone who visited us, came by train. We could see them coming from the station and Dr Dadoo was one of them. He came to see my father because he liked my father's politics and believed that he could work with him. The Transvaal Indian Congress was in the hands of Mohamed Jajbhai and Suleman Nana and their political approach was one of compromise, which my father rejected. Dr Dadoo came often and he and my father would be locked in conversation. My mother could not see what they had in common, and she would say, "Why does this "joowanyo" (youngster) keep coming to talk with you? and my father would say, "This "joowanyo" will put Congress on the right line." Mota, as we called him had a wonderful reputation as a doctor. Soon after his arrival, Hussein Coovadia contacted meningitis. He diagnosed it on the spot, and his fame travelled like wild fire. My mother said if you wanted to see him, you had to queue up. He was also a very dedicated doctor. My sister, Apa contacted typhoid and he came daily, travelling eight or nine miles to see her. By then he had acquired a small car. He never drove himself. Boxer, his man of all jobs, drove for him.

Dr Dadoo formed the non-European United Front in the Transvaal. My father was elected as the first president and Dr Dadoo as the first secretary. I went to the inauguration meeting with my father and my brothers. Mota had a profound influence in my emancipation as a Muslim girl. He came over to our house one day, looking for my Aunt's house. She had suffered a stroke. I was alone. He said I should go with them to direct them. Boxer, looked at him in surprise and inquired whether my father would not object. "No, " he said, "she is just like my little sister." I went with them. That in itself was quite a forward move, a girl of thirteen, escorting two men.

He encouraged my family to send me to high school. I was the first Muslim girl to go to high school in the Transvaal. There were Tamil girls there, but no Muslim girls. He later persuaded my father to allow me to help them in their political campaigns. The TIC elections were on and my father and Mota were organising to take over control. Both sides, Nana's and Dadoo's saw the potential of the women's vote, and brought them to the polls. I was amazed by the Nana women, who were brought in cars, in their awdnies and miesars. We did not have cars to bring out our women in such large numbers, so we lost out to Nana.

Mota also had a profound effect on the youth. My brothers followed him to the city Hall steps in Johannesburg. Things could get quite rough there. I trailed along behind my big brother Saleh who tried to shake me off. I would cry and my father would say, "Take her!". We used to stand with placards. By then we had moved from Newclare to Fordsburg.

When Mota and my father formed the non-European United Front, I was a regular attendant at the meetings, encouraged by both Mota and my father.

I told my father I wanted to be a doctor. I always played at being doctor and would dispense a medicine" (sugar) to the young children who called me doctor. My father said he would discuss it with Mota, which he did, and it was due to Mota's influence that he supported my medical career. To finance it he planned to build a semi-detached cottage on a plot of land he had in Fordsburg. The idea was that we would live in the one, and the rental from the other would pay for my fees and for the mortgage. The plan was never effected. My father died in a motor accident. He was 80 years old. Mota organised the funeral.

Six months later, I passed my matric. It did not seem possible for me to pursue a medical career. I planned to teach and save and go later, but Mota just said, "She will go to university." He felt obligated to my father, for he knew that it had become as much my father's dream as mine that I should become a doctor.

He tried hard to get me admitted into Wits, and when that failed, I went to Fort Hare. He gave me 30 to purchase clothing. Professor Mathews was one of our tutors at Fort Hare . Among my fellow students was Seretse Khama.

Mota was a member of the Communist Party and many of the young people, including my brother had joined it. I too was attracted to it, but my brother insisted that I first read and understand Marxism. I never joined the Party.

One day Mota came and told me he wanted to go to Natal as a Passive Resister. I was in my third year at Medical School at the time. My mother was reluctant. "What about her studies she is arrested?" she asked. "No problem," Mota said, "she'll be following in the footsteps of her father " We organised other women, Chella Naidoo, daughter of Mrs P.K. Naidoo from Doornfontein, and Mrs Naiger from Pretoria. Zohra Bhayat, Zubeida Patel, Amina Pahad and Jamila Bhaba . I.C. Meer and J.N. Singh came to see us off at the station. We travelled second class, to Durban. Mota told me that I would have to speak on behalf of the TIC and gave me a Gandhi cap for Dr Naicker.

We were met at the station by a huge crowd and many photographers. We were camera shy and tried to hide our faces. My brother-in-law who kept out of politics and was some what conservative was angry that I had been photographed. A.I. Meer, Dr Naicker and Debi Singh drove us to Dr Naicker's house where we had breakfast. I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law in Old Dutch Road.

On Sunday, there was a mass meeting at Red Square where I gave my maiden speech and presented Dr Naicker with the Gandhi cap. After that speech, Dr Naicker and Debi Singh explained to us that we would have to break the law. We had not intended to do that. I spoke to Mob over the phone. Mota said the NIC had decided that I should lead the first batch of women resisters, and he expected me to do so. I told Mob to inform my mother. She raised no objections. I discussed the matter with the other women. They were happy to resist. Zohra, however, had to consult her mother, Choti bai, who said that Zohra was young and unmarried, what would people say? Choti bai decided that she would replace her daughter.

We pitched our tents on Gale Street. For three weeks the authorities ignored us. We slept in the tents, but went home in the morning to wash and refresh ourselves. There were six tents, two for women and four for the men. M.D. Naidoo led the men. I led the women.

We drew a lot of attention from the local Muslims. Some Muslim boys came, just to get fresh with us. They complained that I was cheeky.

I had two Aunts in Durban. The one said that I was disgracing her because people were bandying "her niece's" pictures around; the other Aunt however, was supportive, partly because when she came to visit us at the tent, she found me reading "ya sien from the Quran. She brought us "godras" (eider downs) and food.

The Durban women, from the Meer family, Deenama Rustamjee, Mrs Hajra Seedat, had formed the Women's Passive Resistance Council, and they gave us support.

We accompanied them to canvass funds in the Grey Street complex. Our reception was mixed, some welcomed us, others criticised us; some shop keepers even threw us out.

Eventually we were arrested and imprisoned.

I owe my politicisation to Dr Dadoo, but for him, I may well not have been a doctor today.

I visited him a few days before his death. He knew that his time was ending. He said that I knew what had to be done upon his death, and he left it to me to ensure that the Muslim ritual was faithfully performed. He said he would have liked to have been buried in South Africa, but he knew that that was impossible.