The life and times of Ebie Ebrahim

Published: July 11, 2017 - 00:14 Updated: July 11, 2017 - 18:36

Before the release of Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim’s memoir, a small booklet provides insights into the fearless life of the Africa National Congress revolutionary leader of Indian origin, son of a Gujarati migrant, who devoted his life to the cause of freeing South Africa from the clutches of a cruel, racist regime

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi


After spending most of his life fighting for the overthrow of the hated apartheid regime in South Africa, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim or Ebie, like many of his fellow revolutionaries, never really had a family life. So committed were these revolutionaries to the cause of seeing their country free itself from the unjust and cruel racist regime that they never thought of getting married. After 1991, when South Africa overthrew the abhorrent apartheid administration, President Nelson Mandela used to jocularly suggest that his fellow Africa National Congress (ANC) comrade and a fellow prisoner at South Africa’s infamous jail, Robben Island, Ebie, would only marry if a girl proposed to him.

Ebie, who rose to become South Africa’s Minister for International Affairs, managed to address Mandela’s concern on his own. He fell in love with a South African woman, Shannon Field, who was then working with the Canadian government. After a long courtship that also saw Mandela requesting her to return to South Africa, Ebie, 66, married Shannon, 30, in 2004.Now South Africa’s top journalist and foreign editor of the Independent Group of newspapers,she is not only a mother to Ebie’s two children but also “committed to paper.” Ebie’s dramatic story under the rubric of The life and times of Ebie Ebrahim, which coincided with his 80th birthday that was celebrated on July 1, 2017. If her short 36-page booklet is anything to go by then his memoirs, which is on the verge of completion, would make for a riveting reading. Shannon calls her book a snapshot of how ANC veterans displayed fearlessness and disregard for their personal safety and fought off a cruel and an immoral regime that did not really bother about human rights or any UN convention.

Ebie was born in Durban to parents of Indian origin. His father travelled from Chasa, a village near Alipore, Gujarat, in a small boat to South Africa. As the racist regime prevented movement of coloured people from one province to another, Ebie saw his father getting arrested twice for violating this draconian law. He could not start school early as the ones designated for Indians by the racist regime never had any vacancy. It was only at the age of 10 that he got admission in a government-aided Hindu Tamil Institute. By the time he was 13 years of age, he was attending political rallies and distributing pamphlets of ANC and Natal Indian Congress (NIC). The book details Ebie’s evolution as a young political activist in the crucible of anti-apartheid struggle. He took part in the “Defiance Campaign” and went from door to door drumming up support for the cause and also raising funds, subsequently, to finance anti-treason trials of ANC leaders. He was forced to give up his anti-violence beliefs after the Sharpeville massacre when 65 demonstrators were killed by the South African police. After the massacre, ANC was banned and it destroyed all hopes for Ebrahim and many of his comrades of winning a “free and democratic society through peaceful and non-violent means.” At this stage, the ANC decided to meet the “repressive violence of the state through the revolutionary violence of the people.”  

Ebrahim was instructed to join ANC’s armed wing, MK, and carry out sabotage activities against the South African state. In his unit were all amateurs, some of whom brought with them the experience of fighting the British in India, like Natwarlal Babenia. Other members of the group were also South Africans of Indian origin: Sunny Singh, David Perumal and Siva Pillay. The unit had no weapons initially, but chilli powder to shake off the police sniffer dogs that were brought in after they were through with the sabotage. Finally, the law caught up with them after some of their associates under extreme torture gave away Ebrahim’s whereabouts. He was arrested and sent to Robben Island penitentiary for 15 years. The inhuman conditions in the Island that have been detailed in the book would have broken ordinary people, but the ideological commitment of Ebrahim and his comrades and their belief that their cause was just, helped them survive the cruelty, violence and injustice. Ebrahim recalls, “In prison, we were assaulted, starved, under clothed, and exposed to bitterly cold weather. We were sworn at and humiliated in the most degrading manner. We broke stones and ate a measly meal. For years, we were made to stand stark naked for long periods of time in an open courtyard, sometimes in the biting cold weather. One of my close friends died of exposure.”

Many of the political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and Ebrahim, completed their graduation from jail. In many ways, the jail was a campus for revolutionary education where political prisoners were assigned different tasks to keep the morale of the prisoners high as well as strategise for the struggle outside.

Ebie was released in 1979 after completing 15 years in jail. Tough conditions were imposed on his movements, but it was a matter of time when he went back to his revolutionary work. ANC felt a threat to his life and he was sent first to Swaziland and then Lusaka. At that time, Ebrahim was given a passport by the Indian government that was helping ANC against the apartheid regime. It was in 1986 that some mercenaries employed by the South African security forces illegally picked him up from Swaziland and brought him back to Pretoria. During this period of custody, he was subjected to the most inhuman torture that included solitary confinement. In 1989, when he was 52 years of age, the Judge sentenced him to 20 years of imprisonment again to Robben Island. Soon thereafter, the wheels of history began to move rapidly. His sentence was dismissed and South Africa rid itself of the racist regime.  

Ebrahim became an MP and later a minister of international affairs. He is also immersed in bringing about reconciliation in areas torn by conflicts such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, amongst others.

Before the release of Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim’s memoir, a small booklet provides insights into the fearless life of the Africa National Congress revolutionary leader of Indian origin, son of a Gujarati migrant, who devoted his life to the cause of freeing South Africa from the clutches of a cruel, racist regime

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

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