There is a legend in Delhi that when a male-child is born, the parents are visited by a group of ‘Hijras’, a derogatory term used to describe the Transgender community. The troupe gather en-masse outside the home of the parents of the infant boy and sing and dance, and offer blessings to the new arrival, while in return a small sum of money is offered to the visiting party and all returns to the relative ‘normalcy’ that prevails in a home that has just experienced the birth of a child.
These were the early 1970′s, and this story was told to me in great detail by my parents, who themselves were recently arrived political exiles in India, having to leave South Africa, where my father was arrested along with Nelson Mandela and 156 others in the infamous ‘Treason Trial’ of 1956. The ‘main’ “Treason Trial” lasted four years till 1960, though the entire trial lasted till 1961, when the 30 remaining accused (of which my father was one) were acquitted by the Supreme Court. The outcome of the trial was that all 156 were acquitted of the charge of ‘High Treason’.
During the 5 years of the trial my father and his co-accused had to travel daily to court in Pretoria from Johannesburg, some 60 kilometres away. The accused were all charged with ‘High Treason’ and faced the death penalty if found guilty. My father was the youngest accused at 22 years of age.
Later, in 1963, when my father was arrested again and held at Marshall Square Police Station in central Johannesburg, my father and three fellow political detainees managed to convince a young Afrikaner warder, Johan Greeff, into helping the four escape from the downtown Johannesburg prison. He was promised financial remuneration for his cooperation.
The news of ‘The Great Escape’ embarrassed the Apartheid state at a time when it felt that it had crushed the African National Congress (ANC), with most of its leaders either in jail, or having gone underground. The ‘Sharpeville’ massacre of 1960 resulted in the Apartheid state declaring a State of Emergency and banning the African National Congress (ANC) and other political organisations.
My father, Moosa ‘Mosie’ Moolla and his three fellow escapees (Abdulhay ‘Charlie’ Jassat, Harold Wolpe, and Arthur Goldreich) parted ways and moved from one safe-house to another, until my father, heavily disguised, managed to slip through the border into neighbouring ‘Bechuanaland’, now the country Botswana. Goldreich and Wolpe managed to disguise themselves as clerics and made their way to Swaziland, a British High Commission Territory, from where they flew over to Bechuanaland (now Botswana). The South African authorities offered a reward of 5000 Pounds Sterling for the capture of any of the escapees.
Following the escape my father and His fellow escapees were separately sheltered by members of the ANC underground for a few days. They then parted ways for safety reasons and Abdulhay Jassat made his way to Bechuanaland where he sought political asylum. By the time my father made his way about a month after the escape to Bechuanaland, the two white colleagues ( my father and Jassat are of Indian-origin) Wolpe and Goldreich had flown over to Tanganyka (now Tanzania) where the ANC’s external headquarters were located in Dar-es-Salaam.
It should be noted that a chartered plane to ferry ANC students and Wolpe and Goldreich was blown-up on the tarmac by South African agents in the early hours of the morning. Wolpe and Goldreich then flew over on another flight. Jassat followed suit.
An Interesting Fact –
My father and Abdulhay ‘Charlie’ Jassat were both born on June 12th, 1934, and the two were arrested and escaped from prison together, and subsequently lived 30 years of their lives in exile, and both men returned to South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners, and the unbanning of the ANC and all liberation movements, and the return of political exiles. As I type these words, my father and ‘Charlie’ live a few kilometres apart in Johannesburg and meet fairly regularly – mostly at functions or events held to commemorate the years of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa.
But more about my father in a bit.
A Flash Back –
My mother, Zubeida or ‘Zubie’, a nurse at the time, and expecting my brother Azad (which means ‘to be free’ in Urdu) was subsequently arrested and detained while having to endure interrogation about her husband’s whereabouts. Azad was born in late 1963, a few months after my father’s escape. Thus my father did not see his first-born son till 5 years later in 1968 when my mother and young brother and sister reunited with my father on the Tanzanian border. My father had by then joined the Armed-Wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto-we-Sizwe, or MK, ‘The Spear of the Nation’, which was formed in 1960 following the ANC’s decision to abandon non-violent opposition against Apartheid and to take up arms.
My sister Tasneem Nobandla, ‘Nobandla’ or ‘she who is of the people’ in isiXhosa was given her Xhosa middle name by my father’s comrade-in-arms and his Best-Man, Nelson Mandela, who couldn’t make it to my parent’s wedding because he was in detention at the time, a few years earlier! My sister Tasneem Nobandla Moolla was born on October the 14th 1962 ‘Nobandla’ was named when Mosie asked his comrade and Best-Man, Nelson Mandela, who could not make it to his wedding to name his new-born daughter.
The two men had spent time in jail together in adjoining cells a year earlier in 1962.Times were tough in those early years of exile, with my father off on military training with the newly formed ANC’s ‘Spear of the Nation’, and my mother having to shoulder the extreme difficulties of life in exile, in a strange country, having left her family behind, and having to essentially fend for herself and her two young children.
This led to a decision that continues to haunt my family to this day.According to my parents, the situation in exile in those early years of the Anti-Apartheid struggle abroad was so dire, and my father being away training in guerrilla tactics and the like, while my mother worked as a nurse trying to raise two young kids, suffering from bouts of Malaria and being short on money as well, a decision was made to send my young brother and sister back to South Africa to remain in the care of my maternal grandparents, in the hope that when things in exile ‘improved’ or at least settled a bit, the kids would leave the care of their grandparents and join their parents abroad.
This did not happen, and this is one of the most difficult parts of our family’s history to write and talk openly about. Due to circumstances beyond their control, and due to a myriad other reasons, my young brother and sister remained separated from our parents, and grew up in Apartheid South Africa with my maternal grandparents in Johannesburg.My mother, who passed away in 2008 after a lengthy battle with Motor-Neurone Disease, carried the pain and the guilt of that decision till she died. My father still lives with the guilt and the trauma of being separated from his children, and his family for over 30 years.
My brother Azad and my sister Tasneem, had to endure the unimaginable trauma of knowing that their parents were alive and on distant shores somewhere, yet being utterly helpless in joining them and living as a family, albeit a family in political exile. The wounds are deep, and the trauma is still raw, all these years later, and my mother died broken-hearted, having to endure the separation of a mother from her children, as well as having to deal with a husband who was engaged full-time in the ANC and the anti-Apartheid struggle in exile. It is only now that I can understand my mother’s strength of character and fortitude in remaining sane under circumstances that no parent should ever have to go through.
My siblings, on the hand, had to grow up with grandparents, and this has led to our family having to continuously grapple with the scars of a family torn-apart by Apartheid.My brother Azad, a lawyer, is married with two beautiful young girls, and my sister, a teacher, is married with four beautiful daughters as well.
We all live in Johannesburg, and though some progress has been made in reconciling our family, it is very painful to say that there are many unresolved emotional wounds, which are completely understandable given the circumstances.
…….to be continued