I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Nanabhai family, the ANC and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation for the opportunity to say a few words of tribute to Shirish Nanabhai.
The relationship between the Naidoo family of Doornfontein and the Nanabhai family of Fordsburg runs long and deep. My father’s friendship with Jasmatbhai, Shirish’s father, goes back to the 1940s, meaning that we have a shared relationship running well over 70 years. I am sure that the old men established their friendship because of their shared political ideals in relation to freeing India from the yoke of colonialism and ending apartheid in South Africa.
These revolutionary ideas were passed on to the next generation. Shirish first met my eldest brother Indres in 1952 when they both played football at the Natalspruit Sports Ground. This soon turned political when Shirish and Indres both joined the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress and eventually became joint secretaries.
Shirish soon became a regular visitor to our home at 18A Rockey St, Doornfontein where he closely interacted with all my family members – Ama, Shanti, Murthi, Ramnie and I; and our wider network of friends and comrades.
I only became aware that Shirish and Indres were recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe after I was rudely awoken by a policeman who had brought my brother home drenched in blood. It was a difficult time for both our families since Shirish, Indres and Comrade Reggie Vandeyar were amongst the first MK recruits to be arrested and sentenced. We had no idea about what to expect in terms of their trial, sentencing and imprisonment.
I know that my mother, Reggie’s wife Asu and Shirish’s father were filled with apprehension whenever they had to visit their sons on Robben Island. They had to endure the long train journeys, difficult ferry trips and racist abuse by prison warders. It just deepened their concern about the plight of their loved ones on the Island. I must say though, that there were always people who helped and assisted us during those dark days such as the hospitable Patel family of Cape Town.
After Shirish’s release, we remained close friends, and he continued to visit us in Doornfontein. Throughout those years, Shirish was always willing to assist in the day-to-day activities of the Congress movement and assist anyone who came to his door.
One evening in 1979, I was watching the news on television which announced that “three dangerous terrorists” had escaped from Maximum Security Prison in Pretoria. These we Stephen Lee, Tim Jenkins and Alexandra Moumbaris. At that moment, Shirish appeared at our doorstep and called me aside. He whispered that he had Stephen Lee in his car and Stephen needed assistance.
After recovering from my shock, Shirish and I found him accommodation and assisted his escape from the country. Of course, this came back to bite both of us. As is well known, Shirish and I were arrested and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment at the Fort.
From the time of our sentencing – for 365 days – until our release, I spent every night and every day with Shirish. Being confined in a small space brings out people’s characters in a real way. Since Shirish had been in prison before, he knew all the prison routines and activities and how to deal with difficult warders.
Perhaps even more challenging for us was the fact that we shared our cells with hardened common law prisoners. All of them were members of the notorious prison gangs such as Big Five, Twenty Sixes and Twenty Sevens whose main interests were stealing food, money and sex. They had zero interest in politics. It is a testament to the character of Shirish that he helped me negotiate this inhospitable environment and I am happy to say that we came out unscathed.
I also got to learn during my time with him that Shirish was an incredibly meticulous person in everything he did. For example, he carefully folded his clothes at night and placed them under his pillow to straighten it, in the same way that he would carefully roll his cigarette. I was also told that during his Robben Island years, he was an excellent record keeper for the Island soccer club.
After our release, we remained close comrades and friends. He was always active during the exciting years of the revival of the Transvaal Indian Congress and the formation of the United Democratic Front. He was especially delighted when the ANC was unbanned and remained an active member of the MK Veterans Association until the end. He proudly wore his green blazer and military medals at every official function he attended.
I know that Shirish was deeply concerned about the state of our movement and the governance of the country. I am certain he would call upon our leadership to take the right decisions in the best interests of our country.
It was a great personal shock when I learnt about the passing of this wonderful, warm, generous and humble servant of the people. Go well my friend! I will always cherish the memory of our friendship and comradeship.
Hamba Kahle Shirish Nanabhai!
Hamba Kahle Umkhonto!