Hamba Kahle Shirish Nanabhai!
Good Afternoon, Namaste, As salaamualaikum, Sawubona, Vanekum
Comrade Programme Director, distinguished guests, Comrades and friends, ladies and gentlemen.
We are gathered here today to pay our last respects to comrade Sirish Nanabhai – a courageous, selfless, humble, dedicated and disciplined stalwart of the ANC’s struggle for the liberation of our country. His sudden and untimely death has left us shocked and shattered, and we express our sincere condolences to his family and relatives. We are all the poorer for this tragic loss because, despite his advancing age, he still had the capacity to contribute so much more.
We can only imagine the enormous strain which this sudden and tragic loss has placed on his family, and more especially on the shoulders of his son Kamal. Although right now the future appears to be bleak, it is our fervent prayer that all of you shall summon the strength and the courage to overcome these dark and difficult times in your lives with grace and with dignity. And it is our sincere hope that that you shall find some solace in the knowledge that your loss is our also our loss, and our country’s loss.
This tribute to comrade Sirish is restricted to the early days of the establishment and activities of Umkhnto we Sizwe, – the Spear of the Nation, or MK for short – and the role which comrade Sirish had played in the underground structures of that organisation, and the consequences of his involvement in it.
By June 1961, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party had reached consensus on the need for a military wing to pursue the armed struggle, and Umkhonto we Sizwe was launched and went into action on 16 December 1961.
The original unit of 4 cadres, headed by comrade Wolfie Kodash, then embarked on recruiting members from the Indian suburbs of Johanneburg, and by early 1962, an MK platoon consisting of 4 units of 4 cadres each, had been established. Comrade Sirish belonged to one of these units which was headed by Reggie Vandeyar, and whose other members were comrade Indres Naidoo, and an informer named Gamat Jardine, who had managed to infiltrate that unit.
Bearing in mind the need for discipline and security, they occupied themselves with the making home-made bombs with locally available chemical ingredients; Molotov cocktails; the manufacture of gun powder; became conversant with the workings of detonators, fuses, dynamite and gelignite; and were constantly on the look-out for possible targets to be bombed when required to do so.
Equally important was their task to be on the look-out for the of cadres, whose discipline and dedication to the cause of liberation would serve as important assets to the Movement.
In addition to being humble and a man of few words, comrade Sirish turned out to be a dedicated and disciplined cadre of MK. Among the other cadres who had been recruited at the time, was his elder brother Jatendra, who was popularly known as comrade Nanoo. Many years were to lapse before they discovered that both brothers were members of MK. The same applied to the recently deceased comrade Bobby Vassen, who only discovered 32 years later that his elder brother Tommy was also a member of MK. Such was the discipline of MK cadres of that time.
Among the acts of sabotage in which comrade Sirish participated was the bombing of a signal relay box in April 1963 at the Riverlea railway station, where he was arrested with comrades Reggie Vandeyar and Indres Naidoo. Their arrest was the consequence of Gamat Jardine informing the Security Police about the intended act of sabotage.
They were taken to the Lanlaagte police station, where they were severely assaulted and tortured, and later taken that same evening to the head-quarters of the railway police in Braamfontein, since the attempted act of sabotage was on railway property. They did so despite the fact that comrade Reggie’s shoulder and a few of his ribs had already been broken, and that comrade Indres had been shot at Riverlea.
Comrade Abdulhay Jassat and I had also been arrested at home during the early hours of the same morning. We were also severely assaulted and tortured with electric shocks at railway headquarters.
By the end of April 1963, all 5 of us had been transferred to the prison at the Johanneburg Fort. The inmates, who were also awaiting trial-prisoners, welcomed us with open arms, and made our stay there as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. It is here that I was to discover that comrade Sirish was an extremely generous person, who never hesitated to share with the other inmates the few goodies he received from home, twice or thrice weekly.
We appeared in the magistrate court, where bail was denied. Our trials were separated into two groups – with comrades Reggie, Indres and Sirish who had been arrested in Riverlea in one group, and with comrade Abdulhay and I who had been arrested at home in the other group.
The 3 were then charged, convicted and sentenced to 10 years each with hard labour. They were the first MK cadres to be sentenced in what was then known as the Transvaal, – which now comprises of the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and Gauteng.
10 years !! We were unable to conceptualise the sentence in terms of time. Comrade Reggie’s response that “It’s like a bloody lifetime” has been firmly etched in my memory ever since. Comforting words had frozen on Abdulhay’s lips and on mine. With heavy hearts and teary eyes, we bid farewell to one another – not knowing if and when we would ever see one another again.
Initially, the sentenced comrades were taken to Leeuwkop Prison, where they were treated with great cruelty by the warders. They were transferred to Robben Island Prison in December 1963. Upon their release in 1973, they were banned and house-arrested for several years. We were to discover later that Gamat Jardine, who had betrayed them, had been traced to Cape Town, where he was assassinated – presumably by MK cadres.
When I was released from prison in December 1982, I made it a point of reconnecting with some of the comrades – only to be told that comrades Sirish and Prema were serving a year’s sentence for assisting comrades who had managed to escape from prison. This was yet another of comrade Sirish’s important qualities – namely, to help out when required to do so – irrespective of the risks and dangers involved in doing so.
Both Sirish and I had long retired from an active life and the accompanying hustle and bustle of earning a living. But with the establishment of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation several years ago, we both became frequent visitors to the offices of the Foundation in Lenz. It was during the course of these visits and the interaction which flowed from them, that the bonds of comradeship between us had further strengthened significantly. So much so, that when I was banned from driving beyond the confines of Lenasia by my ducor Chummy Saloogee, I had no alternative but to fall back on comrade Sirish’s services, driving around me to a variety of destinations. I can’t recall a single occasion when he failed to accommodate me and my wife, even if it meant that he had to re-arrange his own commitments and programmes to suit my needs. My wife and I shall forever remain grateful to him for his generosity.
Comrade Sirish’s qualities and conduct was given recognition by the Presidency in December 2014 when he was honoured with an important award: the Order of Mendi for Bravery in Silver.
I wish to emphasise in conclusion, that with comrade Sirish’s passing, I simply could not help reflecting on how ironical it is that people like comrade Kathy and I, who are now in our mid-8Os, should still be around to sadly witness the passing of our much younger comrades, who would have contributed so much more had they been around.
I am deeply saddened by the knowledge that of the dozen-and-a-half or so cadres of the original MK platoon of the early Sixties in the Indian suburbs of Johannesburg, many of them had passed on over the years. Among them are comrades Wolfie Kodash, Solly Vania, Ameen “Doha” Cajee, Magan Narsee Chhiba, Narendra “Nanoo” Jasmat, Joe Cajee, Reggie Vandeyar, Indres Naidoo, Bobby Vassen, and now the sudden and latest loss of comrade Sirish Nanabhai.
Although this event today is a memorial service for comrade Sirish, I take the liberty of saluting these gallant pioneers of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who made a valuable begining to the eventual establishment of a just, democratic, non-racial and non- sexist society.
And finally comrade Sirish, we who have gathered here today say to you with one united voice: HAMBA KAHLE Comrade. In these deeply troubled times in our country today, we shall miss your wisdom and your experience. We shall miss your humility, your guiding hand and calming influence As a disciplined member of Umkhnto we Sizwe, we shall miss your deep sense of loyalty to the principle of rendering our country a better place for all its citizens, rather than loyalty to individuals, which is contrary to the traditions of our Movement. And last but not least comrade Sirish, we shall continue to be inspired by your generosity of spirit, and by your revolutionary sense of sacrifice.