Author: Mohamed M. Keshavjee
Reviewer: Soli Osman
There is an old African proverb which says that when an old man dies a whole library goes with him. Oral history has an important role to play in capturing the heritage of many societies and cultures which were unable to record historical events in any other way which Mohamed Keshavjee, in his book “Into that Heaven of Freedom” captures historical moments with a vivid imagination which provides the reader with food for thought and an increased awareness of the roles played by Indians in shaping present day South Africa.
The title of the book comes from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem “Where the Mind is Free” from his Nobel Prize winning collection of poems “Gitanjali”.
Having interviewed a number of people from his large extended family and visited the various countries where they lived, the author traces the history of the Ismaili community in South Africa and the people among whom they lived during a very interesting period of colonial history. Starting with the arrival in 1894 of his great uncle Jivan Keshavjee in South Africa, the book examines the reasons that compelled him to leave India for South Africa. Ironically, he did this, to better his future and the future of his family and his descendants. The author shows how his great uncle, like the majority of the Indians who settled in the country, had no idea of the racist nature of the system when he first arrived. It was largely economic circumstances that prompted Indians to leave Kathiawar in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and come to South Africa.
Set against the backdrop of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s early struggle against racism in South Africa, the book focuses on an urban location near Pretoria called Marabastad to which Indians were relegated under the racist legislation.
The Ismaili community, from which Mohamed Keshavjee hails, organized themselves mainly around their community centre where they set up institutions of social development as a bulwark against the detrimental effects of a political system that was bent on destroying the fibre of the lives of all Non-Whites. He shows how these institutions were staffed by volunteers who worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the local people. Despite the lack of security in respect of their homes, the inhabitants of Marabastad went about their daily lives with a degree of resignation as they confronted a maze of laws designed to stifle their economic survival, particularly the Group Areas Act which gave the government powers to forcibly evict them to other areas far away from town.
The book describes the encounters the author’s family had with petty apartheid which over time became so mind-bogglingly ludicrous that the system was bound to implode under its own weight.
He describes a funny incident involving a cousin’s haircut when the barber felt compelled to shut the shop as he had reached the closing time imposed by the City Council. This entailed the cousin walking around the town having had a half a haircut! While these are funny incidents, there were some that went to the very core of people’s existence such as the demolition of their homes and businesses which seriously disrupted their day to day lives.
In the struggle against apartheid, the writer chronicles the role played by some individuals in Marabastad such as the legendary Thayanayagee Pillay who cooked each day, despite the opposition from the apartheid police, for the 156 people who were charged with treason. There were others like Nana Sita who fought the Group Areas Act, which was one of the legal foundations of apartheid, and, in Gandhian fashion, courted imprisonment rather than capitulating to an unfair law, and Ismail Mahomed, a jurist, who went to school in the area and eventually became the first Chief Justice of multi racial South Africa. The book highlights the role played by India in internationalizing the whole apartheid question, starting with Gandhi’s struggle with Smuts followed by the case in 1946 at the newly formed United Nations Organization led by MrsVijaya Laxmi Pandit, ably assisted by leading Indian jurist MC Chagla and the Passive Resistance Movement in the country led by DR Yusuf Dadoo and Dr Monty Naicker in which a group from Marabastad participated.
The book describes life in an urban location evoking its sounds, its scents and its multifarious colourful characters which is so reminiscent of other parts of South Africa, such as District Six in the Cape, Cato Manor in Natal and Fordsburg in Johannesburg where Indians lived their lives during the apartheid period only to be removed later under its draconian laws. This aspect of the book shows how creative people were and the obstacles they faced.
Later in the book, Keshavjee provides a glimpse into colonial life in Kenya where some members of his large family went in the 1950s. He recounts the Mau Mau insurrection which led to the incarceration of Jomo Kenyatta and his release in 1961 which eventually led to Kenya’s independence. Keshavjee describes his family’s involvement in and assistance to the independence struggle.
The book delves into the writer’s early life, his education in Kenya and later in the UK where he studied law and his return to Kenya to practice as a barrister. The book provides an insight into the social problems that the indigenous population in Kenya faced following independence. Keshavjee goes on to describe the plight of the Indian community in East Africa who fled or were expelled from places such as Uganda and finally found refuge in Canada where they flourished and contributed generously to philanthropic causes.
Soli Osman is a human rights lawyer and author of a forthcoming book “Under the Shade of the Mango Tree” based on the struggles of a Memon Family in colonial Nyasaland and Mozambique.
Mawenzi House Publishing, Toronto, 2015
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