The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is deeply saddened by the passing on of Comrade Tommy Vassen (aged 86) on 28 September 2022 in East Sussex. The Foundation extends its sincere condolences to the family, comrades, and friends of Comrade Tommy Vassen, an ANC veteran and member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. We remember his bravery and lifetime friendship with Ahmed Kathrada.
Tommy was born in Fordsburg on 27 January 1936, the eldest son of Rangee and Tozey Vassen. He recalls that Fordsburg was once a mining town and, all too frequently, the sirens would blare out the terrible message of a mine accident. It was here that lifetime friendships were formed and resistance
to apartheid forged. Tommy attended the nearby Bree Street Primary School, followed by secondary education at the Johannesburg Indian High School. Here Indian teenagers from all over the then Transvaal converged
and reinforced shared sentiments of dissatisfaction with state-sanctioned discrimination. It was in high school that he would meet his wife Dela. It was also during this time that he was introduced to the “remarkable Chiba family” – because of the role they would play in nurturing and supporting him as a political activist. Tommy elaborates: “Raman and Govind taught me so much. Because of them I can understand enough of Einstein and Darwin to make some sense of the world. Isu led political classes and revealed Marx to us. How can anyone go wrong with such brothers,
friends, and comrades?” After completing high school in 1955, Tommy enrolled for teacher training at the first all Indian training college in the Transvaal. Two years later, he started his career in Kliptown, historically
known for the adoption of the Freedom Charter. His first teaching experience had a profound impact on his life and Tommy would forever be haunted by the appalling conditions in which South African
youth were expected to learn and grow: crumbling walls, mud floors that shifted in the rain and a roof that sheltered only selected parts of the campus Tommy describes his attitude to racial segregation thus: “Whereas Fordsburg, Doornfontein, Ferreirastown etc. were ‘non-white’ areas, we were now hived off into ‘Indians only’ residences, the African majority into Soweto and Coloureds into Eldorado Park.” During this period Tommy was approached, in early 1962, to join MK. Tommy began his work as an
MK operative. Under the leadership of Abdulhay Jassat, his cell group was tasked to scout for potential government installations. At the time of his MK involvement, Tommy was teaching in Lenasia. Much of his work involved
reconnoitring for potential sites to sabotage. The activity mainly, but not exclusively, involved daily travel routes used by comrades. For Tommy this meant carefully scouring the landscape of his train ride from Braamfontein to Lenasia. While they never did bomb any pylons, Tommy remembers Abdulhay and his first attempt to use Molotov cocktails. On the appointed evening they waited for a goods train to pass under the Harrison St bridge. As it arrived, they dropped their lethal bottles and flames went up almost
instantly. Tommy remembers that after Abdulhay’s instruction that they not run, the two calmly but briskly walked away, passing a policeman on the way, their hearts thumping throughout the drive back to Fordsburg. Pleased with their initiation, Tommy and Abdulhay walked into Herby Pillay’s house in High Road, Fordsburg and met Kathy, on a social visit.
The obvious excitement beaming from their faces, Kathy casually provoked them, saying, “Ah, teacher by day and bomber by night.” But as well-disciplined cadres neither of them rose to the bait. Such was the level of their discipline that none of them ever talked about their actions except to
members of their cell. While many of them had suspicions of who were likely to be MK activists, they never dared ask. When Abdulhay was arrested, Tommy was obliged to go underground with his cousin Herby Pillay. His brother Bobby was also involved in MK activity and was forced to leave the country. After a few months of hiding, it was judged “safe” for Tommy to emerge and, quite mundanely, he had to appear before the education authorities and explain the missing months. As a result, he was
demoted and offered a temporary position. On 14 April 1965, at the then Jan Smuts Airport (now OR Tambo International), Tommy said goodbye
to a throng of comrades, friends, and family. Over a year later, his wife Dela and his children came to him in London. In contrast to the warmth of his departure, his arrival was characterised by incessant drizzle and dull grey sky. He travelled to his family on a bus and remembers that it was his brother Bobby and sister-in-law Ursula’s warmth that made London bearable.
He also had to conquer the challenge of finding teaching employment while in England. From 1966 onwards he steadily climbed the rungs on the English educational sector’s ladder and received several promotions, including a consultancy and headship. All the while he continued his political activity on an ad hoc basis. In the mid-seventies all ANC members in London and further afield were organised into branches. Tommy renewed his affiliation with the Communist Party, and, in time, he
represented both organisations at international conferences and solidarity workshops. He also sat on many regional committees set up for the many functions the ANC undertook. At the end of a life spent fighting for freedom, Tommy says: “No revolution travels in a straight line. There have always been detours or even backward steps; such is the nature of struggle, where it sometimes moves only at the speed of evolution. Change is not without pain and judgement can only, at best, be deferred. No beginning, no end.”
Returning to South Africa after twenty-five years of exile in 1990, Tommy Vassen vividly remembers Ahmed Kathrada’s warm embrace upon his arrival. A generation of absence was unable to dull the strong feelings of comradeship that bound these freedom fighters together. For Tommy the ANC is best described as a family that gave his life purpose and direction, “It gave us the noblest cause that humanity can undertake – to break free from the shackles of greed and power and determine our own destiny.”