Launch of In Pursuit of Justice by Mohamed Enver Surty (Deputy Minister of Education, 26 April 2019
As a professional historian I feel truly proud tonight. I am delighted that my dear friend, comrade and relative has published an autobiography of sorts entitled, In Pursuit of Dignity, while being in office as the Deputy Minister of Basic Education. What is particularly pleasing is that the latter part of the book deals with his years in the Senate, the National Council of Provinces, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Assembly and the Cabinet.
In the last 25 years we’ve been heartily exposed to biographies and autobiographies of leading figures from our liberation movement, the African National Congress. We are familiar with Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; the work by Elinor Sisulu on her in-laws entitled, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime; Ahmed Kathrada’s Memoirs; Luli Callinicos’ Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains; Mark Gevisser’s book, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream; Shades of Difference by Padraig o’ Malley, which explores Mac Maharaj’s role in the struggle for freedom in our country; Pippa Green’s Choice Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel; Aziz Pahad’s Insurgent Diplomat: Civil Talks or Civil War?; Ronnie Kasrils’, Armed and Dangerous; and Kader Asmal’s memoirs, Politics in My Blood. Also, one cannot forget to mention former President F W de Klerk’s autobiography entitled, The Last Trek – A New Beginning, and Ebrahim Harvey’s biography of Kgalema Mothlante.
Then there are several other notable, published biographies of great freedom fighters in South Africa published prior to 1994, such as Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go.What is somewhat irksome is that recently there has been a flurry of publications of figures from the opposition parties, notably the Democratic Alliance, even as many of them had no meaningful involvement in the struggle for freedom and democracy or very limited parliamentary experience.
It’s almost as if biographies are published as part of a designed project to popularize DA leaders and to expand its electoral support. So, we’ve seen an unauthorized biography by Donwald Pressly on Lindiwe Mazibuko entitled, Owning the Future: Lindiwe Mazibuko and the Changing Face of the DA; Raenette Taljaard’s book on the “arms deal”, Up in Arms: Pursuing Accountability for the Arms Deal in Parliament; Out of Step: Life-story of a Politician by Jack Bloom; and Mmusi Maimane’s Believe in Tomorrow. More credible though are Tony Leon’s Opposite Mandela and Helen Zille’s Not Without a Fight: The Autobiography. Even as we read some of these books with a degree of skepticism, we do not burn them.
In the true tradition of the ANC, we don’t burn books!From the ANC benches in parliament there has not been many publications from backbenchers. This may reflect the political modesty of its public representatives or perhaps a believe on their part that theirs is not a story worth narrating. We’ve only read Andrew Feinstein’s, After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC; Ben Turok’s With My Head Above the Parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC in Power; and James Ngculu’s, The Honour to Serve: Recollections of an Umkhonto Soldier.
From an administrator in the Constitutional Assembly, we’ve had Hassen Ebrahim’s The Soul of a Nation:Constitution-making in South Africa, which provides a detailed and documentary account of the development of our democratic constitution.It is because of this paucity of historical, parliamentary literature from the ranks of the liberation movement that Enver Surty’s book is so important. It deals with one of the most exciting periods of our history – the transition to a democratic order, and his experiences in the early years of our parliamentary democracy and the constitution-making process.
In Pursuit of Dignity is neither a complete autobiography nor a comprehensive history of parliamentary politics since the advent of democracy in 1994. Written in an easy, flowing style, Surty’s book is largely anecdotal. It’s a composite of personal and family history, social and community history, and parliamentary and legal history. It celebrates his parents and siblings; it recognizes his family’s support for his involvement in the struggle for freedom and democracy; it adorns local community leaders and dear friends such as the late Rashid Ahmed Patel; and it acknowledges the contribution to his personal development of his teachers such as the veteran educator, Mr Billy Morgan, and his legal associates such as the veritable A K Mia and Mike Khunou, including Afrikaners such as Magistrates Tantjies and Van der Merwe from Rustenburg.
Surty records memorable experiences of his work in the Senate, the NCOP and the National Assembly with well-known and recognizable politicians such as Baleka Mbete, Thandi Modise, Kobie Coetzee, Govan Mbeki and former President Kgalema Mothlante. Importantly, in a diffident and self-effacing manner he describes his personal contribution to the crafting of our widely-acclaimed, democratic constitution. With literary flare and in broad brush strokes, he highlights his work as Senator, Chief Whip in the NCOP, Minister of Justice in a politically tense climate after the recall from office of President Thabo Mbeki, and as the Deputy Minister of Basic Education.
That he has rubbed shoulders with Presidents and Ministers – the good and the not-so-good – is evident, but not with a tinge of arrogance and conceit. That he discharged his multi-faceted political responsibilities with integrity, honesty, humility and distinction is beyond doubt or question. For this sterling contribution to our country and its people, we must thank him and his family.
The title, In Pursuit of Dignity, presupposes a state of indignity. That was the indignity of human existence under apartheid, colonial domination and patriarchy. That indignity was experienced at multiple levels. At an individual level it took the form of not being able to visit a library or swimming pool because it was reserved for Whites-only; not registering at a local school or university that was not designated for ‘Indians-only’ or people of a particular race, except with a special permit; not being able to play cricket with White colleagues from the legal fraternity at the municipal sports complex; not being able to buy property or trade in the city centre; and not being able to marry across the racial divide.
At a communal level, it meant that Indian South Africans – or what Premier David Makhura often refers to as South Africans of Indian descent – from Rustenburg and elsewhere had to abandon their lucrative businesses in towns and move to Oriental Plazas within Indian-only localities, resulting in significant loss of business. It meant that the mosque or temple in the town will remain as the only and lonely symbol of opposition to the rampant, destructive and brutal implementation of the Group Areas Act. It meant looking for a White nominee in whose name a business had to be registered to trade in the city.
It meant that settled communities in bustling little suburbs such as Vrededorp/Fietas were uprooted and relocated to racial ghettoes such as Lenasia and Zinniaville. At a national level the indignity and inhumanity of apartheid meant the stripping of one’s human dignity; race classification, discrimination and inequality in every facet of life; the negation of political rights and freedoms, and the diminishing of the human spirit. Apartheid and colonialism represent the highest systemic form of man’s inhumanity to man. Apartheid was an institutionalised and rigid system of national oppression and racial discrimination against African, Coloured and Indian people. It destructed an individual personality, shattered human dignity and perverted a nation’s psyche.
That we were collectively able to defeat it politically and dismantle its legal edifice since 1994 is an achievement of the ANC.In Pursuit of Dignity provides a shorthand narrative on the process of writing of our new constitution; the internal debates within the ANC on constitutional matters and with the opposition parties on contentious constitutional issues; the crafting of the Bill of Rights and the delicate balancing of rights and freedoms. The book provides an insider view of constitutional victories scored by the ANC against the erstwhile National Party and the Democratic Party. Today, communities in need tend to focus their protests and grievances around tangible demands for housing, better education, clean water and sanitation and primary health care.
These socio-economic rights had to fought for during the constitution-making process. The most striking achievement of our struggle for national liberation led by the ANC is the restoration of the human dignity of every South African, irrespective of race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, culture or religion. In a highly personalised way the book traces the contribution of an ordinary and humble attorney from Rustenburg in this epoch-making process.What I enjoyed most though was reading the unreported community struggles fought – and won – by the Rustenburg Muslim Jamaat and the Zinniaville business community against the white-controlled Rustenburg municipality and the racist Tricameral parliament. Equally entertaining is Surty’s philosophical musings on the meaning of life and existentialism, his dabbling in poetry and his memories of Fietas.
Surty fondly recalls his maternal grandfather, Suliman Nana, whom he had never met as he passed away at the tender age of 38. Nana was the Secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress. It is understandable the Surty will have the highest respect for his grandfather, who by any measure was a significant political leader of Indian South Africans in the late 1930s and 1940s in the Transvaal. Largely a self-educated man, Nana was instrumental in improving the socio-economic, educational and general welfare of the Indians in the province. It is said that 20 000 people, including Dr Yusuf Dadoo, attended his funeral in 1944, a mark of respect for any leader at the time.
In assessing Nana’s contribution to Indian community life, one must remember that Nana was a product of the social milieu of his time. Some may see him as an outstanding leader who did a lot to improve the living conditions of the Indian community; others may be more critical branding him a conservative political leader. In Pursuit of Dignity is an easy read. It’s a must for all who want to better understand life under apartheid and in the first quarter of a century into our democracy. It does seem that Surty will be looking forward to his retirement from public political life; with him relocating to Johannesburg, tending to the garden and playing with his grandchildren. I hope that in the leisurely time that he will now enjoy, he will get down to writing poetry, reading Philosophy and reflecting critically on political developments in our country.
If there’s one “take home” from this book for all of us, it’s to be found in a single, powerful sentence on page 88, uttered after the Rustenburg Muslim Jamaat won a victory when it all seemed impossible: “There was so much to learn and so much to do.” Today, we all have so much more to learn, and so much more to do, to build on the foundations of our constitutional democracy and set our country onto a path of political recovery under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Let me conclude by applauding Surty on his book and complimenting Awqaf South Africa for publishing it.