In Memory of Shirish Nanabhai
Comrade Shirish was among the first soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe – the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was among those who rallied to the call made by Madiba not to submit but to fight racial oppression. We know that together with Reggie Vandeyar and Indres Naidoo, Shirish was arrested in 1963, the apartheid media derogatorily calling them “the dynamite coolies.”
Shirish and the others were badly tortured and he was eventually sentenced to 10 years imprisonment which he served on Robben Island.
I met Shirish in 1964 as a prisoner on Robben Island. This was a time when conditions on the island were at their cruelest stage. The prison authorities boasted of destroying our movement, and claimed they would rule for another thousand years. We were made to work in a stone quarry, breaking stones and pushing wheel barrows next to the sea.
Beating, deprivation of meals, swearing and insults were the order of the day. We slept in cold cells on hard mats with threadbare blankets. In the cold winter months we could feel the cold penetrating our bones as we had very little clothing.
The idea of the oppressors was to demoralize us and break our revolutionary spirit.
I believe that a person’s character, commitment, courage and values is best tested when put through harsh and difficult conditions.
When I met Shirish, what impressed me was the tranquility in his face and the calmness of his character. He always had a smile on his face. He never flinched under difficult conditions, and stood up to the prison warders’ cruelties. He was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners, and always set an example of courage, commitment, and discipline.
He taught us that no matter how hard the prison conditions were, that ultimately our cause was a just one, and we would emerge victorious. The authorities failed to break our spirit, and Comrade Shirish was an outstanding example of the calibre of our ANC cadres in prison.
Prison is a place which required maximum discipline. Shirish was among the most disciplined of our cadres, and involved himself in political education and also assisted comrades in their primary education lessons. When he was released from prison he continued his political work. Recently he was a member of MKVA, and I would see him at our meetings with his green blazer and MKVA hat. For his courage he was awarded the Order of Mendi for Bravery in 2014.
Shirish was a quiet person. In his quietness was an iron discipline. He never faltered from the values and principles of the movement he was proud to serve. His strength, discipline, and revolutionary values are an example we need to emulate. We are proud of his contribution to our liberation, and we should all follow his example and rededicate ourselves to upholding the discipline and values of the liberation that we fought for.