The Meaning of our Freedom by Phyllis Naidoo

A speech delivered by Phyllis Naidoo on receiving her Honorary Doctorate from the University of Durban-Westville( Now University of KwaZulu-Natal) in 2007 as first published by Veteran Journalist Subry Govender.

“Why am I here? What did I do to deserve this honour?

Did I produce a mind-blowing dissertation on Mathsin Goki, Ngiyaki Kilde, Can Themba, and our own Mandla Langa?

“I did not, so why?

“Actually this is a masquerade. When Professor Ramashala offered me this degree for my contribution to whatever, I responded by telling her that I had acted as a member of various organisations and that I would accept the award on behalf of those who struggled for democracy and especially those who paid the ultimate price.

“She was delighted to do business with me, hence my presence here.

“Briefly the poverty of my family in which I was nurtured taught me valuable lessons of caring and giving.

“My thatha (grand-father) a market gardener after his period of indenture taught me an enduring love of the soil. My dad (Simon David) on a teacher’s salary of four Pounds a month took care of ten children, a Catholic wife, grandparents, and an aunt with five children.

“Clearly miracles do not live in the Bible alone.

phyliss naidoo
MD and Phyllis Naidoo with their children Sadhan on the left, Shah and Sukhthi( baby). Sadhan was killed by an apartheid agent in Lusaka and Shah died in South Africa in an unsuccessful medical operation., Picture Credit: Nirode Bramdaw

“Fortunately I was also a student at Woodlands High in Pietermaritzburg during the war years when we queued for bread and milk on the black market to have Mr. Stead our English master (I notice he’s not here), Herbie Govinden was a student with me and he would agree that Mr Stead broadened our horizon.

“My voluntary work at FOSA soon after school taught starkly that the solutions to poverty were not to be found in charity, but in politics.

“I stand here for the Unity Movement of the early 1950s who I D Thabatha, Goolam Gool, A K Essack opened my mind to the force of apartheid. As a teacher, politics was a no go area and our weekly meetings stimulated our discussions.

“I stand here as a member of the Natal Indian Congress for Dr Randeree, M D Naidoo, Paul David, George Sewpersadh, Dr Monty Naicker, and Mrs Nagamah Naidoo – a cook at Kapitan’s Cafe who told me her experience as a passive resister in 1946.

“The protests against the Ghetto Act sent thousands to prison to show their abhorrence of this Act. The Indian Government took up the issue at the UN thus internationalising the struggle.

Passive resistance Campaign of 1946

“The Passive Resistance of 1946 and the Defiance Campaign of 1952 were ommitted. “A letter from Dr Randeree, now resident in Canada, reminded me of an NIC meeting held at my flat in the 1950s, we decided to boycott the tribal bush college at Salisbury Island. Consequently a meeting was arranged at the Tamil Vedic Hall in Carlisle Street (Durban) where after several fighting speeches we sang loudly “Lead Kindly Light” with M B Naidoo and many others. So you see what irony this award is.

“We have gone full circle and it has come home to roost. “I stand here on behalf of the Human Rights Commitee formed to take care of the banished people in Natal. This is material for much-needed dissertation and I hope this institution does something about that. “Theo and Mario Kloppenberg, Dr Goonam, Elanor Kassrils were some of the people who worked in this committee. We reached Chief William Sekekunee a month too late. He had died from starvation in this very province and you thought you need it all from the TRC.

“I stand here on behalf of late Ernest Gallo, Kalise Sello (he’s not late), and others of a non-racial group at Natal University in 1957 who approached the ANC to allow us to operate an ANC branch at the University of Natal. The ANC constitution frowned on us and Joe Mathews and Baba Luthuli told us to go and start another human rights committee.

“I stand before you as a proud member of the South African Community Party where the idea of a non-racial South Africa was firmly planted. Here I met commitment and integrity that beg description – Moses Kotane, J B Marx, Ray and Jack Simons, George and Vera Ponnen, Govan Mbeki, Dr Dadoo, Marius Schoon, Bram Fischer, Ester Basle sitting here in front, Ruth Slovo, Joe Slovo and Gerald Freser-Moleketi and many others, you know them all, luminaries in our struggle.

“I stand here on behalf of MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) whose oath I never took although I worked in the undergound from 1963 to 1977. Incidentally after taking Moses Mabhida out of hiding to Newcastle on the way out of the country I was ordered to find high blood pressure tablets (I think the doctors have a name for this) for Govan Mbeki. Doctors and friends complained that these tablets were very expensive but we pilfered from hospital surgeries, etc., and we had a good number of tablets. These were sent through the late George Naicker to Govan. Back came a reply for more tablets saying a number of his colleagues at Rivonia of course had found great relief. Little wonder they did not kill themselves.

“Then on the 11th of July 1963 those of you who know anything will know that’s a very precious date when I received a note from Govan saying, “the mole is tired of the hole”. The arrests in Rivonia took place.

“Eh Ronnie what a break. The racist Government had to find the tablets from now on.

“I stand here on behalf M K veteran, Joseph Nduli. Joseph was one of the 80 MK soldiers of the Luthuli detachment, which crossed into Rhodesia in August 1967. Walking through the forests he and Biyela strayed away from the others. They hid in tall grass surrounded by Rhodesian forces. Biyela impatient, hungry, thirsty, lifted his head to check the enemy position. A shot robbed him of his head and Joseph was covered in his blood. Joseph came back to South Africa assisted by ZAPU comrades and got to Johannesburg with a passport and then fled to Swaziland. He operated from there until South African agents kidnapped him in 1976.

“When the death of Joseph Mdluli (now notice that the one was Joseph Nduli and this is Joseph Mdluli) in detention destroyed the underground routes out of South Africa. Joe and I had to establish new ones. “Shadrack Maphumulo who served a 10-year sentence on Robben Island and was killed in Swaziland in the presence of his children and I charted the road which took Mac Maharaj, Steven Dlamini, Sunny Singh there and so many others via Swaziland.

“Working with comrades returning from Robben Island was the most rewarding experience. Their commitment to the struggle was no sacrifice. It was their life. Some had done 10 years and more on Robben Island and were taking work that without a doubt would send them back as indeed it did. Harry Gwala, Mathews Mayiya, Zakele Mdlalose, Anton Xaba, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, and some others.

“To work with MK stalwarts like late Justin Khuzwayo, Jacob Zuma, Nduduzi Guma, Poomoney Moodley, Sunny Singh and others was a humbling experience. Joseph Mdluli whom they murdered was a gentle person who attended to comrades who were banished, house-arrested and unemployed. We packed his boot with food and clothes whenever he went around. Two weeks before he was killed he called to find out if I had anything to send with him. At the time we had over 75 persons in detention. Jeff Hadebe, who is now a Minister, will tell you that he was my articled clerk then, said he learnt no law in my office. He only packed food for detainees.


“But Mdluli counselled patients saying the struggle is long, next time he comes I will have something for him. He never returned. He was killed on the 19th of March 1976. “I stand before you on behalf of those killed in Maputo on the 30th of January 1981, especially my son, Nduguma, and 11 others. On the 9th of December 30 of my comrades and and 12 Basotho were massacred, among them Gazee, Zola and Ginee, then 12 were killed in Gaberone on the 14th of June 1985 and there was Thami Maniyela and my precious son, Mike Kamblan.

“I stand here angering for those in the ANC and PAC who were executed. I want to tell you about Vuyisile Mini, who was Woken Kayinja, and Zenatela Mahlaba who were executed on the 6th of November 1964.

Mini wore four hats. He was a trade unionist, SACTU, MK, ANC and SACP. The four treatment. Mini refused to give evidence in Wilton Mkwayi’s trial and lost the one and only chance to life. How many Minis’ crossed your path? Any?

“His rare integrity is our proud possession. Hamble Kahle Mini.

Vuyisile Mini

“A word here about the party that wraps its posters around our lamp posts screaming, ‘we will bring back the death penalty’. “Their predecessors in 1990 called a moratorium because the death penalty did not solve their problems.

“The state cannot tell you that ‘thou shall not kill and then process to kill you’. Don’t forget also that it is the blacks in the main both here and the USA to have their necks broken.”Is this the sum total of the proud recipients of today’s award? No!

“The UNHCR and the Human Rights Commission both report that South Africans are zenophobic to a disgusting extent. Notice the term ‘disgusting’, it’s not mine, it’s theirs. That is an extreme irrational fear of anything or anyone different or foreign. The ghastly killings of three Mozambicans a few months made pariahs of all of us. I think you know the name ‘Kwere Kwere’ it should also belong to the never again stable.

“Our ghastly treatment of ‘aliens’ makes a mockery of our call for increased tourism. I want to put this as a proposition to you. We have a ministry for both. It would appear that we despise the poor because the aliens are poor and we suck up to the rich. But think about that.

“South Africans need to remember that Samora Machel, erstwhile president of Mozambique, supported not only our struggle but of Zimbabwe as well, incurring the wrath of both Rhodesia and the racists here. Destabilisation was a war in which two million Mozambicans lost their lives and limbs, their economy destroyed and their president and others murdered. They paid heavily so that we might be free.

“What Angola did for our liberation begs description. Augustino Neto, President of the newly-independent Angola, said in his inauguration speech:

‘We shall never be free until South Africa is free’.

“Remember that when you find Angolans (watch my false teeth here) trading anger you, our landmines continue to live in Angola and continue to render children lifeless and limbless. Our President was in Russia to thank the then USSR for its mind-boggling solidarity with our struggle. Comrade Vladimia Shupin has written a book, which I recommend for your reading. The Organisation for African Unity(OAU), on its shoe string budget, supported us. We had assistance from Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia, and so many others. The whole of this poor continent came to our help, to our assistance and gave it with no strings attached. It was the kind of solidarity that begs description.

“India rendered immeasurable assistance to the ANC, poor Caribbean islands helped us, Cuba gave her sons and daughters to our struggle, over two thousand Cubans died in Africa so that we might be free. The victory of the Angolan and Cuban forces ensured Namibia’s independence and freedom. It was impossible after that to deny ours. Except for Sweden, most Western governments did not support our struggle. They supported the racists with constructive engagement.

“It was during this period that the SADF made most of its forays into Angola, destroying its people and land-mining most of the country.

“Be that as it may in the UN, USA, UK, Austria – all these places anti-apartheid committees, church, legal, sports and other organisations took our call for boycotts and sanctions. They took care of our detained, their families, they found the money for our trials. They campaigned against the execution of our comrades. Their solidarity was immeasurable. All of them, Toogutsie a Zimbabwean, sang gustily ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

“We have our President, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and the others as a result of the role the International Anti-Apartheid Movement played during the Rivonia Trial when we expected the death penalty. So you see our xenophobia cannot be maintained. It is not only misplaced, it is criminal.

“Malusi, the president of the ANC Youth League, complains that South Africans do not feel equally responsible for the Reconstruction and Development of our country but are at the forefront of demanding their rights. He speaks of a lack of social responsibility. I wish to add to that phenomenon of entitlement and corruption that has reached alarming proportions.

“The greed that characterised apartheid lives comfortably with us.

“Albie Sachs in his “Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter” says: ‘What has given honour and diginity to our lives was precisely the fact that we chose to combat injustice without thought or even hope of receiving personal benefit. “I know it’s difficult when Anglo American announced a profit of 3,7-billion, billion my friends, you will find that in the Mercury of the 26th of March and NEO tries to follow suit a month later. It is shocking to see so many of our trade union leaders now aspiring for personal wealth.

“Distinguished guests we tried against the worst possible conditions to establish a democracy, to establish and retain our humanity. We crossed barriers set up by the racists. You saw Oliver Tambo return home after three strokes and his body disabled from hard work. He worked ceaselessly so that you might be free. Those on hunger strikes put their lives on line for what we have today.

“Pixie Benjamin hurt her body and died after a hunger strike. Mini refused to dignify the request of the racists and went singing to his death. “Promise that you will never let the 6th of November pass you without remembering Mini.

“Wits has honoured David Webster. I want to ask you to claim Mini for UDW. Some trade unions have not forgotten him. So work with them, use some of the SRC funds you spend and give for the occasion. He gave you his life. I promise you, your sense of social responsibility will improve.

“Lastly I stand here on behalf of my amazing sons, Sadhan who was assassinated in Lusaka. All he wanted to do was to feed the people of South Africa. Sha, my second son, lost his life through a medical accident… his short life was spent in the struggle. I want to thank my family whose support throughout this period was extremely generous. I want you to know that as a family hurt by the Group Areas Act they refused to claim against the new democracy. I am very proud of them. Thank you. When Gandhi was incarcerated in the Old Fort he found that African prisoners were denied salt in their food. Gandhi refused to eat his salted food.

Picture 6
Phyllis Naidoo under house arrest in Durban with her three children Shah (left window), Sadhan( middle window) and Sukhthi( baby). , 1971. By Phyllis Naidoo Collection, Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal

“We should say with equal empathy that the disgrace of the squatter camps around here has no place in our society that we will not rest until the Jondolos are replaced with proper homes. Do I have a yes on that one.???

“A better life for all is our slogan, not a better life for any ethnic minority, not a better life for you or certainly not for me but for all South Africans.”

“Thank you for bestowing this honour on all those who sacrificed their lives for our liberation…….. ”

Dr Vasantha Phyllis Ruth Naidoo.


  1. Thank you ma for sharing. I have learnt so much just reading your message.
    Long live the spirits of comrade Phyllis Naidoo, long live
    We salute you
    God bless Africa


  2. Great liberator
    An astonishingly good human who strove for the freedom of South Africa
    Long live the gentle giant
    A struggle veteran worthy of emulation
    Thank you graciously


  3. Thank you DR Phyllis Naidoo. This speech delivers so many unsung heroes and heroines. It does so much to deliver us out of the narrow discourse the struggle arrative has become. You render it a bottomless well to ever nourish our memory of those who paid athe ultimate price to bring about our freedom.


  4. You never change things by fighting among you own people with similar circumstances , to change something , build a new model that makes the existing model absolute,

    Great respected recongissed revolutions often start very humbly with a sense of resp[ect and percussions.

    If we WL , rwebel within the system than outside to achieve change that is absolute.


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