The Solidarity of Oppressed Peoples: A Tribute to E S Reddy, Anti-Apartheid Activist

E S Reddy with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress from 1967-1991. Tambo passed away in 1993; the Government of South Africa conferred on Reddy the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in 2013.

On the 1st of this month, Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy passed on.  Not many people have heard of him, outside some circles of Gandhian scholars, anti-apartheid activists, and a smaller number of scholars and students of human rights.  The New York Times noted his passing with a warm and generous obituary, and the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was effusive in his praise of Reddy, whom he lauded as “a man of principle and commitment to human rights; but above all we remember him for epitomizing social solidarity.”  It is characteristic of the shocking insularity into which India has fallen, and the near total disregard in the middle class for what happens in the world outside the US and Pakistan, and to some extent China, that the Indian press took no notice of the passing of this gentle colossus who was born in India in 1925—except, not surprisingly, for an obituary penned by Ramachandra Guha.  The first volume (2013) of Guha’s biography of Gandhi bears this dedication:  “For E. S Reddy — Indian patriot, South African democrat, friend and mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities.”  Guha is generous with his praise, rightfully so, but his judgment that Reddy was the “mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities” is rather erroneous:  the pity of it is that few were even familiar with Reddy, and even fewer used Reddy’s work—those being the ones who had an abiding interest in Gandhi’s South African years and, contrary to the received view, his continuing interest to the end of his life in what was transpiring in South Africa.

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*Ranjith Kally, Photojournalist Extraordinaire

(First of two parts)


With the passing of Ranjith Kally in Johannesburg on June 6, apartheid-era photography has lost one of its stalwarts. From his appointment in 1956 as a photographer to Drum, a magazine which Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey launched in 1951 as a vehicle for the expression of black urban life, until his retirement in the mid-1980s, Ranjith Kally worked assiduously and yet creatively to furnish a record that is nearly without equal of the racial element in South African life and, just as importantly, of both the heroic and everyday transgressions of the insidious racial boundaries that make South Africa’s struggle against apartheid one of the most arresting chapters in the modern history of the triumph over oppressive adversity.  His sprawling oeuvre is a veritable library of what are now recognized as iconic snapshots of the principal political and artistic figures who brought the struggle in South Africa to the world’s attention.  But Kally was equally a chronicler of Indian life in and around Durban, working-class culture, the politics of the street, and the quotidian element in the social lives of South Africa’s black, colored, and Indian communities.  His camera was to become an object lesson in how one might begin to understand the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

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Ranjith Kally

Kally was born in 1925 in Isipingo, which lies just south of Durban and had been a ‘whites only’ area before it was reclassified as Indian.  His grandfather had been among those who had worked on the sugar plantations; his father, Kallicharan, was similarly born into this work, leaving for the fields at 3:30 am where he executed his duties as an overseer.  One of Kally’s earliest and most moving photographs is of his father poring over a Sanskrit text:  reproduced in Kally’s Memory Against Forgetting (2014), it conveys an impression of his father as a learned man rather than as a farm worker.  His father is foregrounded against a black sheet, which accentuates the early morning light; as Kally was to write, “I had wanted to use an old book which he would read often and this is the pose by which I’ve come to remember him.”

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Ranjith Kally’s father, Kallicharan, poring over a Sanskrit text.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Kally walked the three kilometres along a dirt road to school every day.  Schooling among Indian and black school-children seldom extended beyond adolescence in his days, and Kally took a position in a shoe factory after finishing standard six.  Meanwhile, a Kodak Postcard camera, which Kally had picked up at a jumble sale, had spurred his interest in photography, and after a part-time stint at the Durban-based newspaper The Leader, Kally assumed a paid position with Drum and the Golden City Post.  Sometime, perhaps in the early 1950s, a photograph by Kally was selected in a competition sponsored by the Japanese firm Pentax for third prize among 150,000 entries.  (However, in an interview that Kally gave to my friend, the historian Goolam Vahed, on 9 February 2016, he placed this event in 1957; however, in the introduction to Memory against Forgetting, as well as in The Indian in Drum, by Riason Naidoo, the competition is described as having taken place in 1964.)


Kally’s first photographs of anti-apartheid figures would be taken in the late 1950s.  At a break during the Treason Trial in Pretoria in 1958, the young photojournalist saw his opportunity.  Among those on trial were Monty Naicker, a doctor who turned to trade union activism before assuming leadership of the Natal Indian Congress and offering the NIC’s cooperation in the Defiance Campaign.  Monty played a key role in making possible the close cooperation between Africans and Indians that would signal the solidarity that would mark the distinctiveness of the anti-apartheid movement.  In his photograph, Monty commands the center; a young Nelson Mandela and the communist leader Yusuf Dadoo are in the background.

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Monty Naicker at the Treason Trial, Pretoria, 1958; in the background, Nelson Nandela and Yusuf Dadoo.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Monty remained among Kally’s favorite subjects, and he was one of the Indian political leaders who was featured regularly in Drum; but Kally’s proximity to the Indian community, and his own awareness of the political moment, led him to other Indians who were staunch advocates of racial solidarity.  A photograph from the 1970s shows the attorney Phyllis Naidoo who engineered the escape of many prominent anti-apartheid activists:  taken at her offices in Maseru after she had herself gone into exile, a pensive Naidoo reflects on her narrow escape from an assassination attempt.

Kally would capture, in a series of striking photographs, the travails of the Meer family.  In the early 1960s, Ismail Meer, then in detention, sought a portrait of his wife, Fatima, and their three young children to keep him company in his prison cell.  In Durban’s Botanical Gardens, Kally seated Shamin, Shehnaaz, and Rashid around their buoyant-looking mother.  There is no hint here of anxiety, fear, or the oppressiveness of racial terror.  Less than twenty years later, Kally would snap a photograph of Fatima Meer, a gigantic figure in the struggle in her own right, emerging from a courtroom with steely determination flanked by three lawyers who represented her as she sought to fight the repressive apparatus of the state.  Taken together, the two photographs do not only point to the passage of time:  writ large there is the tale, inter alia, of women assuming a place in the public sphere, the many guises of the political, and the little-discussed role of Indian Muslims in shaping secular narratives of freedom.

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However, for reasons that likely tell us something about Kally’s own political disposition, it is above all the figure of Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, to which he was likely most drawn.  Kally was despatched to Groutville in 1961 when the news of the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Luthuli, who was under a banning order, was made public.  Kally photographed Luthuli against a rustic window frame, looking out at what is perhaps an uncertain future.  He is dressed in a workman’s overalls—rather apt, if we consider that he was a man of the people.  The frame tells its own story, of a man who had been framed by the state.  We may say that the framing device surfaces elsewhere in a different register, as in Kally’s photograph of a peace rally where a handful of men are holding aloft a huge photograph of Luthuli—a photograph also taken by Kally.  It is perhaps fitting that Kally concludes Memory Against Forgetting with a facial portrait of a smiling Luthuli who never stooped to the level of his opponent while reminding his readers that “as we celebrate freedom, we would do well to equally remember the legacy of the other great man of peace, Inkosi Albert John Luthuli.  While Madiba taught us how to forgive, Chief Luthuli first taught us how to love.”

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Chief Albert Luthuli:  photograph taken of him in Groutville after he had been informed of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally was 91 years old when he passed away.


Note:  I met Ranjith Kally thrice on my second trip to South African in November 2015.  I was keen on doing an exhibition of some of his works and arranging for him to visit UCLA.  But, alas, I was too slow in moving things along. Kally was kind enough to share with me high resolution images of some of his work; the photographs here are all under copyright with him and his heirs.  This part first of my tribute was published in The Mercury South Africa as “Photographer’s oeuvre a vision of urban black life” (14 June 2017, p. 7).







*Death by Inches:  Sanctions and the Destruction of Iraq



[A review article on Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani, Genocide in IraqThe Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States (Atlanta:  Clarity Press, Inc., 2012); 258 pp.]



Since sanctions have assumed a critical place over the last few years in the foreign policy of the United States and its dutiful allies, with consequences that have often been chilling and ominous, it becomes imperative to understand how sanctions came to be deployed as a blunt instrument of terror and domination in our times.  With the formation of the United Nations in 1945, and the resolution taken by member states to attempt to resolve conflicts between themselves through means other than war, sanctions were bound to assume an important place in the international regime of governance.  It was in 1959 that Albert Luthuli, then President of the African National Congress, implored the international community to impose comprehensive sanctions against South Africa and so “precipitate the end of the hateful system of apartheid.” Three years later, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the economic boycott of South Africa, but as Britain, the United States, West Germany, and Japan, which between them accounted for by far the greater portion of South Africa’s exports and imports, chose to remain indifferent to resolutions expressing the general will of the rest of the world, sanctions against South Africa did not then come into force.


The General Assembly, repeatedly drawing the attention of the Security Council to the threat posed by South Africa to international peace and security, insisted that action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was “essential in order to solve the problem of apartheid and that universally applied economic sanctions were the only means of achieving a peaceful solution.”  Under the terms of articles 41-42 of this chapter, only the Security Council has the power to impose mandatory sanctions, and attempts to render South Africa compliant were vetoed by the three Western nations that are permanent members of the Security Council.  However, the tide of international opinion could not altogether be resisted, and in 1977 an arms embargo against South Africa was mandated.  In 1993, the African National Congress, which was then almost on the verge of officially acquiring power, pleaded with the world community to remove the sanctions against South Africa and restore it to a respectable place in the community of nations.


These few nuggets on the history of sanctions suffice as a prelude to the understanding of how the most draconian regime of sanctions ever imposed upon a nation led to its devastation.  Abdul-Haq Al-Ani & Tarik Al-Ani’s Genocide in Iraq, published by the small and independent Atlanta-based Clarity Press, presents a severe but cogently argued and well-documented indictment of the United Nations Security Council, the principal vehicle through which the United States, the rogue-in-chief of all nation-states, effected the wholesale destruction of Iraq.  The authors of this book—Abdul-Haq is an Iraqi-born, British-trained barrister who holds a doctorate in electronics engineering as well as one in international law, while Tarik Al-Ani is an architect, translator, and independent researcher who makes his home in Finland—mince no words in either describing the outcome of the sanctions or the inability of people to understand the implications of what transpired during the course of a decade.  “Imposing sanctions on Iraq”, they state in their conclusion, “was one of the most heinous of crimes committed in the 20th century.  Yet it has received little attention in the Anglo-American world.  Despite the calamitous destruction resulting from the sanctions, no serious attempts by legal professionals, academics or philosophers have been undertaken to address the full scope of the immorality and illegality of such a criminal and unprecedented mass punishment” (p. 222).

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.


No one doubted that after Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, it was incumbent upon the so-called ‘world community’ to show its strong disapproval of Saddam Hussein’s irredentist designs by enforcing comprehensive sanctions against Iraq.  This was accomplished by Resolution 661 of the UN Security Council, which urged all member states to adhere to a strict embargo on all exports from, and imports to, Iraq.  The resolution exempted from the embargo “supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs.” Another committee of the Security Council, known as the Sanctions Committee, was set up to ensure that there would be compliance with the resolution, and to report its observations and recommendations to the Security Council (pp. 196-214).


Before sanctions were first enforced in the late summer of 1990, Iraq unquestionably had among the highest standards of living in the Arab world, a flourishing and prosperous middle class, and a formidable social welfare system that provided enviable material security to ordinary citizens. The economists Jean Dreze and Haris Gazdar noted that the “government of Iraq has a long record of active involvement in health care, education, food distribution, social security and related fields.  Notable achievements in these fields include free public health care for all, free education at all levels, food distribution at highly subsidized prices, and income support to ‘destitute’ households . . .” One of the more significant contributions of Genocide in Iraq is not merely to reaffirm the views of knowledgeable observers of Iraqi society, but also to offer a more sustained account of the achievements of the Ba’athist regime under Saddam Hussein. Chapters 3 & 4, on the economic development of Iraq, and “the progressive social policies” of the Ba’ath regime, ought to be nothing less than a revelation, particularly to those in the United States and Britain who allowed themselves to be led like sheep into believing that Iraq was nothing but a backward state full of hateful Muslims led by a blood-thirsty dictator, detailing as they do the strides made by Iraq in attempting to give a greater number of its people the benefits of a reasonably advanced social welfare state—an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering that Hussein was doubtless a brutal ruler who did not hesitate an iota to send to their death those politicians, activists, army men, public figures and opponents who might even remotely be construed as a threat to his own political survival and well-being.


According to the authors, the transformation sought by the regime was such as would confer the “benefits of development” upon “workers, peasants and other poorer classes” (p. 97); if this is at all true, that is certainly far more than what the United States attempts to do for its working class population.  “Prior to the 1990 Gulf War,” the authors state, “93% of Iraqis had access to health care and safe water.  Education was free, calorie availability was 120% of actual requirements, and GNP per capita was more than double its 1976 value” (p. 97).  The book is rich in empirical data:  we learn, for example, that between 1960 and 1990 the infant mortality rate diminished from 117 to 40 while the under-5 mortality declined from 170 to 50 (p. 108), just as the number of doctors grew by over 500% from 2145 in 1968 to 13621 in 1990 (p. 110).  Impressive as are these achievements, a testimony to the Ba’athist government’s progressive social policies, it is the authors’ delineation of a multicultural society that commands even greater attention and will certainly invite outright skepticism from the critics of Saddam Hussein who were pushing for war.  The authors argue that “up until the 2003 invasion, Iraq had been a very tolerant society with very responsible policies on religious freedom.  People grew up in mixed neighborhoods with no segregation between sects or religions” (p. 100).  They describe growing up in neighborhoods where Muslims, Christians, and Jews “lived side by side without any problem”; and each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays, a privilege that is not conferred on Muslims in predominantly Christians nations such as the US, UK, and Germany.  Though it is simply assumed by most people that religious minorities have always faced persecution in Iraq, leading to their migration and diminished numbers, the authors point out that Iraq’s Christian population grew from around 149,000 in 1947, or about 3.7% percent of the population according to census figures, to about 1 million in 1987, or close to 5% of the population (p. 103).

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007.  Source:

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007. Source:


A campaign of sustained bombing, and seven years of the most severe sanctions ever inflicted against any nation, were to relegate Iraq, in the words of an official UN fact-finding team, to the “pre-industrial” age.  [United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights.  Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. “Forth-third session:  Summary Record of the 10th Meeting.” E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/SR.10 (20 August 1991), 10.]  Insofar as socio-economic indicators are reliable criteria, Iraq joined the ranks of the under-developed nations and become economically regressive: as oil revenues shrunk dramatically, the little that remained of its decimated infrastructure after the bombing fell to pieces.   Iraq would soon have the highest rates in the world of maternal and infant mortality, and correspondingly the fewest number of hospital beds; an astronomical increase in diseases and mental illnesses was documented, and malnutrition, which had all but disappeared from Iraq before 1990, was estimated to have affected the majority of Iraqis by 1995. A report released in 1997 by UNICEF described 1 million children in Iraq under the age of 5 as being chronically malnourished, a condition that leads not only to stunted physical growth but considerably reduced capacity for development and education, and it ominously adds the following words:  “Chronic malnutrition is difficult to reverse after the child reaches 2-3 years of age.”  One year after sanctions first went into effect, the real monthly earnings for unskilled laborers in Iraq had declined by nearly 95%, and were lower than the earnings for unskilled agricultural laborers in India, where levels of poverty are endemic.

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,  1979-99

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,


Severe as were the sanctions, they scarcely made a dent in the public imagination.  There can be no more notorious sign of this indifference than the remarks of the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who when asked whether the sanctions could be justified in view of the mass starvation and death of Iraqi children, replied without a moment’s hesitation:  “We think the price is worth it.”  (Of course this notoriety surrounding Albright did not prevent her from receiving the usual accolades from the establishment.)  Some scholars take the view that the sanctions policy of the United States cannot be impugned, since it is conducted under the rubric of the Security Council; if this is the case, then it becomes incumbent to conduct a close examination of the human rights implications of the sanctions policy of the Security Council.  This is the other signal contribution of Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani’s book:  its subtitle, “The Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States”, hints at the boldness of the argument, since the authors are quite certain that the Security Council, which ought to act strenuously to prevent genocide, became the agent for the genocidal destruction of a people and their nation.  Their argument, however, would have derived yet greater force if they had considered that, rather ironically, another (and far more widely representative) body of the United Nations, namely the General Assembly, would draw attention to the “Security Council’s greatly increased use of this instrument”, and to “a number of [attendant] difficulties, relating especially to the objectives of sanctions, the monitoring of their application and impact, and their unintended effects.”  The General Assembly was to recall the “legal basis” of “sanctions”, which are described in Article 41 of the UN Charter as “measures not involving the use of armed force in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”, in order to “underline that the purpose of sanctions is to modify the behavior of a party that is threatening the international peace and security and not to punish or otherwise exact retributions.”


In making a representation before the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1991, the non-governmental International Progress Organization made the more forceful point that “the continuation of the sanctions policy implemented through the United Nations Security Council” constituted a “grave and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” of the entire population of Iraq, who were being denied even the most basic right, the right to life.  The figure often mentioned to indicate the number of Iraqis killed since the imposition of sanctions is about one million between 1991-95 alone; the respected British medical journal, Lancet, gave a figure of 567,000 children who had died as a consequence of sanctions by 1995, while UNICEF estimated that 500,000 children had been killed on account of sanctions and the collateral effects of war.


Sanctions constitute a form of nearly invisible death, and ought to alert us to the fact that oppression in our times is increasingly masked.  We associate war with death and violence, but sanctions with human rights and non-violence:  as the former United States ambassador to the UN, Thomas Pickering, put it in a Security Council debate, “sanctions are measured, precise and limited.  They are a multilateral, non-violent and peaceful response to violent and brutal acts.” [United Nations, Security Council, “Provisional Verbatim Record of the Three Thousand and Sixty-Third Meeting.”  S/PV.3063 (31 March 1992), 67.] This is, to put it mildly, a perverse, even macabre, view of sanctions, and just as strikingly it displays a singular naiveté about the nature of non-violence, which is erroneously equated with the mere absence of force.  Non-violence is not only, or even, a doctrine of abstention from force:  it requires us to take active measures for peace and the well-being of all, and it is obscene to suppose that the denial of basic amenities to people, including the right to life, might be construed as a respect for human rights.


There has been little endeavor to recognize the economic oppression of an entire people as a crime against humanity, indeed as a form of terrorism.  The prospects for the international rule of law can be nothing but appalling, as the American scholar John Quigley has noted, if the United States continues to act on the presumption that multilateralism is a worthwhile enterprise only if it “can control the outcome.”  It becomes imperative, then, to ask what ought to be the place of sanctions in an international world order that purports to base itself on the principles of equity, ‘rule of law’, and democracy?  Are sanctions only viable when they have the force of moral opprobrium of a world-wide citizenry, as was evidently the case when sanctions were at long last imposed on South Africa, or should they continue to be available, as they are at present, to any modern nation-state that chooses to impose sanctions unilaterally?  There is almost nothing to warrant the belief that the wide and systematic use of sanctions will serve the dual ends of ensuring a just world order and help to make societies that are targeted by sanctions more open, just as there is compelling evidence to suggest that such wide and seriously abusive use of sanctions exacerbates political repression within targeted nations and paves the way for greater inequities between nations, eroding both the ‘rule of law’ and respect for the international system.  I have discussed the legal and political implications of sanctions in greater detail elsewhere, but readers can turn to Genocide in Iraq with immense profit to understand both how sanctions are deployed as a modern means of ‘pacification’ and to understand how crimes against humanity came to be perpetrated against an entire people without any consequences for the perpetrators of such crimes.


*Apartheid and the West: A Few Thoughts on the Life of Nelson Mandela

I first heard of Nelson Mandela in 1983 when, on a five-month long trip to Australia where I was traveling as a Thomas Watson Fellow, I encountered an Australian peace activist who had the audacity, as I then thought, to mention him alongside Gandhi as a heroic figure in the fight against oppression.   There was a time, though the present generation has no awareness of this fact except as an abstraction that concerns them little, when there was no internet; and, in the Australian outback, though I hungered for more information, stunned by my interlocutor’s invocation of Mandela’s now famous speech at Rivonia, I had no recourse to a library.

Several months later, back in India, I was distracted by other thoughts and it was not until I commenced my graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1984 that Mandela once again came to my attention.  The anti-apartheid movement was then in full swing; on university campuses in the United States, the call for sanctions and divestment from corporations that traded with South Africa’s apartheid regime was loud and clear, though it is my impression that university administrations remained largely indifferent to student-led demands that universities disengage in every respect with the brutal system of apartheid.  At the University of Chicago, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement was an Indian graduate student, Sahotra Sarkar, who now holds a professorship in the philosophy of physics and biology at the University of Texas, Austin.  At the end of every rally, invariably accompanied by shouts of ‘Free Mandela’, the motley crowd of radicals and activists would raise their fists to the chorus of ‘Amandla’, the Zulu word for ‘power’ that had become the rallying cry of the African National Congress (ANC).  On one occasion, sometime around 1986, Sahotra announced a 48-hour hunger-strike in an effort to make the university administration more responsive to student demands.  A handful of supporters, myself included, joined him in a sympathetic fast.  This was my most substantive initiation into activist politics.  It will be for the historians to judge how far thousands of such actions, carried out across the world, contributed to Mandela’s release from prison, the eventual dismantling of apartheid, and the birth of a free South Africa.

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison.  Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison. Photograph: AP

Mandela is no more; yet, as Obama put it in his public pronouncement hours after Mandela’s death, echoing the words said to have been uttered by Secretary of War Stanton upon being told of Lincoln’s assassination, ‘now he belongs to the ages’.  Still, however apposite this thought, there are many critical questions that linger on, and some are called to mind by the deafening noise with which Mandela’s life is now being celebrated even as the last vestiges of everything he stood for have disappeared from our moral compass.  Mandela himself always recognized, even if the American media with its obsessive addiction to the ‘Great Man of History’ theory is too dim-witted to allow for any such admission, that the movement was much greater than him, and that he alone was not called to sacrifice:  countless others, some named, an equal or greater number unnamed, were lost in the struggle against apartheid and its supporters, among them the so-called leaders of the Western world (nowhere more so than in the US) who continued to offer unstinting support to the white despots of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo: the names—and there are many more—roll off the tongue, one after another, each incessantly engaged in a principled struggle to recover the dignity of human beings.


Nelson Mandela (left) with Walter Sisulu at Robben Island. Photo: Robben Island Museum

All this was known to me by my own reading of South African history, but I was brought to a visceral awareness of the ugly facts of apartheid—and the repertoire of creative and extraordinarily responses to such forms of dehumanization—by a chance meeting with the artist Ronald Harrison on my only visit to South Africa in 2006.  Harrison recognized Albert Luthuli, the greatest exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance in South African history, as his political and spiritual mentor.  Harrison, who passed away virtually unheralded in 2011, has related in his memoirs that he was struck by an epiphany shortly after he embarked upon his career as an artist:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by recalling the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ”?  And so came about Harrison’s painting, ‘The Black Christ’:  unable to recognize the living Christs in their midst, apartheid’s ideologues and assassins, who had already claimed the great Luthuli as one of their victims, staging his death as an ‘accident’ on the railway tracks close to his home, would go on to imprison and torture Harrison.  For thirty-five years, Harrison’s painting, which the apartheid state’s censors would not permit to be exhibited, languished in a London basement home.  Yet, when I met Harrison for the first time in 2006, he held no grudge against his oppressors:  much like Mandela, he worried that we might become akin to those we despise.  As he was to write movingly in The Black ChristA Journey to Freedom (2006), “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”

Ronald Harrison, "The Black Christ," oil on canvas, 1962.  Copyright: Ronald Harrison

Ronald Harrison, “The Black Christ,” oil on canvas, 1962. Copyright: Ronald Harrison

It is, of course, these very qualities of generosity, forgiveness, and compassion that have endeared Mandela to people around the world.  It is also precisely these qualities that were never even remotely on display among the political leaders and elites of the West, when the African National Congress called for a worldwide resistance to the apartheid regime, who are now outdoing each other in their craven attempt to be viewed as being on the right side of history.  If this is the time to remember what Mandela stood for, it is also the time to remember that the United States, France, and Britain insistently, repeatedly, and unfailingly vetoed mandatory United Nations resolutions in the Security Council calling for sanctions against South Africa under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  Many will suggest that such ‘hypocrisy’ is indisputably a part of the game of politics, but why then celebrate Mandela’s life at all?  The African National Congress was, of course, closely allied to the South African Communist Party, and Mandela remained keenly aware, to the end of his life, of the immense price paid by Dadoo, Slovo, and others stalwarts of South African communism.  It is to Mandela’s credit that he never disowned those friends and supporters who stood by him during his difficult years, among them the much reviled Fidel Castro and even Muammar Gaddafi.


Nelson Mandela with Muammar Gaddafi in 1997. Photo: AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images

There are, for those interested in Mandela’s life and even more so the history of the long struggle against apartheid, many questions that remain to be asked.  While Chief Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Peace (though this is commonly forgotten), and the principal architect of the ANC’s policy of boycott in 1959, offered nothing but unwavering support to Mandela, notwithstanding his own principled conviction in the power of nonviolent resistance, Mandela’s own part in having contributed to the partial evisceration of Luthuli’s legacy and even the public memory of Luthuli will no doubt be investigated in years to come.  One could also probe whether Mandela’s three-decade long term in prison had, in various ways, the effect of obfuscating his understanding of globalization. But these considerations, and many more, pale before the most pressing question that should be present to those living in the US, Britain, and France, among other countries in the global North.  Why did not these countries do more to offer support to the African National Congress and the movement of resistance to oppression?  Whatever damage apartheid did to Mandela, it surely also caused irreparable damage to the West.  There is perhaps no more glaring evidence of this than the fact that growing inequality strikes at the very root of these societies.  To take cognizance of Mandela’s life is to acknowledge that various forms of apartheid have crept into what are ostensibly free societies.


For a translation into Spanish of this article by Anibal Goransky, see:

A Polish translation of this article by Marek Murawski can be found here:

*Journeys of the ‘Black Christ’: Art & Resistance in Apartheid South Africa

Ronald Harrison – courtesy: Damian Samuels

In Memoriam:  Ronald Harrison, 18 March 1940 Cape Town – 28 June 2011 Cape Town


Ronald Harrison, a Cape Town-based artist whose painting ‘The Black Christ’ provoked the apartheid regime of South Africa to fury, has passed away.  ‘Uncle Ron’, as he was affectionately termed by his younger friends, had been suffering from cancer over the last two years, and he died of a heart attack just as he had finished the last of a series of five new paintings.  Those who had the great fortune to know him also know how deeply his loss will be felt among his friends, fellow artists, and soul-mates in South Africa’s journey from apartheid to freedom.  I still recall our first meeting in Cape Town, in the fall of 2006:  Ronald, a man of intense energy, softness, elegance, and compassion, not to mention fortitude, left an extraordinary impression on me as he must have on everyone else.


To understand the contours of Ronald Harrison’s life, one must begin with Albert Luthuli.  A majestic figure, a hereditary Chief of the Zulus, Luthuli was clearly the most inspirational figure of his generation in South Africa, and his untimely death at the age of 69 in circumstances that can only be described as suspicious robbed South Africa of its most creative exponent of nonviolent resistance to apartheid.  Luthuli had joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1945, and he rose to become president of the provincial Natal branch of the ANC in 1951; the following year, Luthuli was among those who organized resistance to the notorious pass laws.  His part in the Defiance Campaign earned him the opprobrium of the government, and he was offered the choice of renouncing his membership in the ANC or being stripped of his Chieftainship.  Luthuli, characteristically, was never in doubt about his decision – but even as the South African government sought to demote him in the eyes of his people, he was elevated to the Presidency of the ANC.  Many honors were to come Luthuli’s way, including the Nobel Prize, the first ever awarded to an African, for Peace:  but the most lasting testimony of this gentle colossus’s fortitude and valor is the fact that the apartheid regime ‘banned’ him for much of the last fifteen years of his life, restricting his movements and preventing any mention of his name in public.  Luthuli nonetheless remained President of the ANC until his death, allegedly an accident on a train track close to his home, on 21 July 1967.  Few people doubt that Luthuli’s death was engineered by the apartheid state.


It is under Luthuli that Mandela, who was his deputy and president of the ANC branch in Transvaal, attained political maturity.   Though robbed of his Chieftainship, Luthuli clearly remained Chief to all his people – not only black South Africans, but all the oppressed of his nation.  Among those who viewed Luthuli as their political and spiritual mentor was Ronald Harrison, who was born in 1940 and grew into adolescence as Luthuli was coming into his own as one of the principal architects of the anti-apartheid movement.  Harrison was nearly fifteen years old when apartheid’s enforcers arrived at Sophiatown, near Johannesburg, and dismantled the entire black township within a few hours.  Later that summer, in 1955, the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter, whose Preamble stated that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based upon the will of the people”.   Twenty thousand women – African, colored, Indian, white – marched the following year to demand an end to injustices against African women.  The government’s response to the rising tide of resistance appears to have been to unleash more oppression:  at Sharpeville, nearly 60 peaceful demonstrators were killed in a police firing.


Harrison, meanwhile, had been gravitating towards art, and he has described himself as having the feelings of an angry young man as oppressive political events unfolded around him.  His “role model”, Chief Luthuli, had been exiled from the political world, and the ascendancy of Hendrik Verwoerd, described in Luthuli’s autobiography as “the author of our destruction”, to the Prime Ministership of South Africa in 1958 signaled to apartheid’s opponents that the regime would step up its repression.   In his inaugural speech, Verwoerd declared himself as “absolutely convinced that integration in a country like South Africa cannot possibly succeed”.  Where the US Supreme Court, in its famous 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had signified that it was prepared to overturn the century-old dogma of ‘separate but equal’, in South Africa Verwoerd was reaffirming precisely that discredited view:   “The policy of separate development is designed for the happiness, security and stability provided by their home language and administration for the Bantu as well as the whites.”   Verwoerd appointed as his Minister of Justice and Police B. J. Vorster, who lost little time in introducing the notorious Detention Without Trial Act:  though it conferred on the state the right to hold detainees without any right to legal representation for a period of 90 days, in actuality it was designed to permit detention for indefinite periods of time.


Faced by apartheid’s onslaught on humanity, Harrison pondered whether he, as an artist, could somehow contribute to the liberation movement.  As a Christian, Harrison felt immensely troubled that the apartheid regime claimed the mantle of Christianity; however, Luthuli, himself a man of intense if quiet religious conviction, represented the other, more ennobling and emancipatory, face of their faith.  Late in 1961, Harrison was to write in his book The Black Christ:  A Journey to Freedom (Claremont, South Africa:  David Philip Publishers, 2006), he was struck by something of an epiphany:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by equating it with the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ” (p. 26)?  An Asian St. John and a coloured Madonna, Harrison surmised, would complete the picture.  So came about the birth of “The Black Christ”, the painting around which revolves Harrison’s multi-layered narrative of the struggle against apartheid, the terror tactics of the South African state, the relation of art to politics, his own troubled life until the dismantling of apartheid, and the fate of “The Black Christ” itself.  Though Harrison does not reflect on the history of representations of Christ, we might say that with “The Black Christ” he was also returning Christianity to its true origins in black Egypt, in defiance of Europe’s attempts to escape the Afro-Asiatic roots of Western civilization.


Completed in June 1962, “The Black Christ” could be exhibited in public only briefly before the state pounced upon Harrison.  The Dutch Reformed Church, to which apartheid’s proponents belonged, asked Luthuli to repudiate publicly this representation of him as a crucified ‘Black Saviour’, little realizing that, as Luthuli was under banning and gagging orders, it was strictly illegal for any newspaper or other media to even mention his name, much less reproduce anything attributed to him (p. 31).  Summoned to appear at a police station to explain his conduct, Harrison issued a statement describing Luthuli as a man of peace, someone in whom the artist had found his “perfect image of Christ” in the here and now.  Urging everyone to recognize the “predominant spiritual atmosphere of the painting”, Harrison felt that the painting showed that “racial discrimination should not be practiced, for we are all united in one bond with Christ” (p. 35).  Harrison was not only let go, but shortly thereafter informed that he could hang the painting in any church of his choice – one of those gestures through which a totalitarian state lulls its subjects and even opponents into a false sense of security.  Apartheid’s “two main icons” had, however, been ridiculed, and Harrison never supposed that his offence would be overlooked.  Sure enough, only a week or two after it appeared that Harrison had been granted a reprieve, the Ministry of Interior issued orders prohibiting any further display of “The Black Christ” until the Board of Censors had certified that the painting was not calculated to offend the religious sentiments of a section of the public (p. 39).  Harrison himself was briefly taken into custody and roughed up:  this may have sufficed to persuade him to heed the advice of friends and activists, who were keen that the painting be smuggled into London where funds obtained from its public displays would be channeled to the political victims of apartheid (p. 41).


Even as “The Black Christ” found its way to Britain, Harrison’s own crucifixion commenced.  Over the following year, he would be hauled into torture chambers on several occasions.  His interrogators sought to know at whose instigation he had painted “The Black Christ”:  they wanted an account of a conspiracy to humiliate Verwoerd and South African whites when there was none.  Harrison describes the merciless beatings, the constant abuse, the nights in dark cold cells huddled up in the nude (pp. 47-60). There is a chilling account of a doctor brought to ‘heal’ Harrison’s wounds:  as two men held Harrison down, the doctor yanked out the nail of his right foot’s infected big toe with a huge pair of pliers (p. 57).   After several days of confinement, Harrison was released; but several months later, he was again hauled into custody and ruthlessly beaten up into a piece of pulp (pp. 71-85).  Enveloped by darkness, Harrison might well have become a statistic were it not for the unexpected kindness of two jailors, in particular an African woman whose gentle touch brought him back to life (pp. 79, 83-84).


In the second half of his autobiography, Harrison moves in considerable measure from the travails of his own life to the turmoil in the nation and the history of resistance to apartheid. The odious nature of apartheid, Harrison suggests, is most visible in such barbarisms as the Group Areas Act (1950), which entailed large-scale uprooting of coloreds, blacks, and Indians and decimated entire communities, among them the famous District Six in Cape Town.  As his narrative shifts to the early 1990s, to the period when Mandela and ANC leaders were released from jail, and Mandela was elected to the office of the President of South Africa, Harrison recalls the long-term effects of apartheid.  He notes with sadness how a majority of colored people in many Western Cape communities, who had doubtless imbibed some of the racist rhetoric about the unworthiness of black people, voted for their former oppressors rather than the ANC, declaring that they would not consent to be ruled by ‘kaffirs’ (p. 157).


Over a period of 35 years, Harrison’s “The Black Christ” had found shelter in the basement of an English home, and Harrison movingly recounts the painting’s triumphant return home and its eventual acquisition by the South African National Gallery.  Though the original is now stored in the gallery’s basement, a replica is on display at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.  Madiba is among many of Harrison’s admirers and friends, and Dr Albertina Luthuli, daughter of Albert Luthuli and author of the foreword to Harrison’s book, was present at the funeral ceremonies along with Cape Town’s mayor.  As one contemplates the course of Harrison’s life, however, what unfailingly strikes one is the manner in which, to the very end, he continued to display remarkable qualities of compassion and forgiveness.  Nowhere in his book, or (as is commonly said) in his book of life, is there the slightest touch of hatred against his former oppressors.  Even the assassination in September 1966 of apartheid’s chief architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, elicits from Harrison the remark that he could not share in the jubilation experienced by apartheid’s victims:  “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”  As he cautions us, we must ever endeavor not to become like those whom we despise.  The author’s generosity is present throughout his book, in his celebration of somewhat lesser known heroes of the struggle such as Barney Desai, who was instrumental in having the UN declare apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’, and equally in his willingness to accept the most elevated thoughts, whether their source be the Quran, the teachings of Christ, or the life of Gandhi.  Ronald Harrison’s life is palpable proof of how fortitude, equanimity, and a simple faith in the goodness of people might yet prevail amidst crushing adversity.