There’s much to digest from this interview with Jay Naidoo, a now 68-year-old who grew up as the last-born of eight children – and whose life was overturned when Apartheid’s Group Areas Act collided with the location of a modest family home. The social engineering system switched him from medical student to trade unionist; but it was intellect and passion that propelled the iconic activist into the top rank of anti-Apartheid warriors. In this moving, reflective discussion, Naidoo explains why he still refuses to accept the obvious, and continues to publicly pose thorny questions in a personal quest to leave the world a better place. He spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.
Timestamps for the interview below:
- On growing up in a large family and what his father taught him – 01:20
- On the impact of Apartheid at a practical level from a very young age – 04:20
- On the factors that fuelled his inner fire – 06:25
- On how the world has changed – 12:25
- On his lifetime career and speaking his truth – 17:10
- On looking at current-day South Africa and how to instill hope – 24:25
- On how South Africa’s implementation and application of law and democracy is not as good as it could be – 26:40
Some extracts from the interview:
On growing up in a large family and what his father taught him
My father had eight children. Seven with my mother and I was the youngest. So my father was nearly sixty years old when I was born. He was born in 1898. That’s two centuries ago. It was a particular generation that was born that didn’t have the type of relationship with children that we have today. It was very much that the children are part of the mother’s work of raising and even if you wanted to talk to us, it was through my mother, tell the children to do this. So I come from that type of background. And I, of course, grew up at the height of Apartheid. My father was an interpreter at court. Interestingly enough, there always used to be people coming to the house and meeting with him. I never understood that because he would never have a meeting with me or show any emotional attachment to me. But I learned later that they were coming there with their cases because he was the interpreter. And if he really believed that someone was innocent, it didn’t matter what they said in the court, he would present the story and actually make the decision that the magistrate would have made based on the facts that my father gave to him. So in a sense, that was part of his struggle and his exercise of his power. But he did teach me even though I would resist – I tried to not cooperate, but it was difficult not to cooperate – to listen to BBC when I was ten and 12 years old and read Time magazine and Reader’s Digest. So he taught me about the world, even though he never went on an airplane.
On the impact of Apartheid at a practical level from a very young age
I think it happened throughout the country. The statistics are that 3 million people were moved out of their home. And so we were just statistics. I was four years old when we were evicted because we were on the wrong side of the wrong street at the wrong time. And so social engineering took us to a new place. It’s something I never understood and it actually made me quite angry because I loved the community I was born in. It was a beautiful little valley with a little river through it, with lots of mango trees, fruit trees, and a very established community. And then suddenly we were wrenched out and no one tells you why, because no one wants to talk about it. You’re just a four year old, but you’re wounded by that, and then you go to another place and so on. A year later, you learn that actually it was because we were the wrong colour. These things you may not be conscious of at the moment, but they do carry that sort of syndrome of that wounded inner child that I had – alongside millions of other people that we still carry as a world today within us, that we have to heal.
On the factors that fuelled his inner fire
There are many reasons. One was my mother. She had a great influence on the values that I hold very dear in my heart today. She unfortunately passed away in 1989, just a year before Mandela was released. But she was also at one point arrested and detained to be questioned about me in the late seventies. She had that experience and that fear. My father died when I was 17 years old. And it was a relationship with an older person rather than a father figure. So my mother was really important and she was a housewife, but she also drove a car in the thirties and forties. So she came out of a family that had resources and she got married when she was 28, which was really unusual in the Indian community at that point. She taught me values of integrity, of compassion, of service, and even in matters of faith and spirituality. She always explained to me, because we never went to the temple, but she did a simple ceremony at home every day. And she explained things to me that we are all part of different tributaries that go to a great river that carries us to one ocean of humanity. So it doesn’t matter what the person’s colour is, what their religion is, what their status is – there must always be a bowl of food for them. So right from those days, I grew up with this notion that in fact, service is the purpose of life. You know, if you can bring something greater to someone who is facing misfortune, adversity or is vulnerable.
Then suddenly, when I was 15, I was also a very angry young person like we see so many angry young people today in the world. I was taken to a meeting by my elder brother that was addressed by Steve Biko. I was 15 years old and I went into this Lutheran church. I can remember it as something that happened yesterday. It was surrounded by the police and with crowds of people there, a small church packed to the limit. And all of us were excited about this charismatic, philosophical leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. The thought of him speaking, I can remember it – we have nothing to lose but our chains, because the mind of the oppressed is the main weapon in the hands of the oppressor. He taught me about courage and about defence – defend your idea because that idea is what you live far beyond what we live physically in our life. So for my parents, I learned to protect your name. And that is through service and integrity. It’s a family name. You are the tip of a long spear of thousands of generations before you that have given you this name and you carry their memories in your body. So reflect on that before you do something silly. Because though we are born with free will, there’s this duality of opposites. We can be generous. You can be loving or fearful or hateful. These are the choices we have in life. Choose the one that takes you upwards towards a greater consciousness, a greater awakening. And that’s why I joined politics. I got inspired by Steve Biko. And it wasn’t that he had a business plan or a PowerPoint presentation, or he had money to give us free T-shirts. He gave us an idea. It was a direction. Then it was up to me as an individual to decide what I do with this wisdom, this inspiration. He has captured my imagination, and that’s what we should do today. But ask yourself, how many people can inspire us today in politics within our country or the world today?
On looking at current-day South Africa and how to instill hope
Take the Mandela generation – they have character. It is something you just look up and say, ‘how did that whole generation produce people of such character and courage who are prepared to sacrifice their whole lives for the freedoms we enjoy today? And that’s why I take a stand on issues. I’m not an analyst. I’m not a commentator. I don’t belong to any political party. I don’t, frankly, believe in them. I’m not in business. And I live off the grid, very simply. I have no need for anything from anyone. So the only truth I can stand on is my own truth. But I’m a grandfather. And I look at what we are leaving these children and grandchildren. And when I feel it’s wrong, I will say it. And I don’t care who is offended – the bigger and more powerful they are, the better for me because I love the challenge of that. But when I draw a line on the sand, people know that Jay Naidoo is not gone. So if you want to have a battle with me, come fully armed with all the facts. And make sure that you’ve done your research and labels don’t hurt me and words don’t hurt me because I’m not defending any ego or title that I have because I know how little I know and defending my right to think on my own. That’s who I am.