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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 47, New Delhi, November 7, 2020

A life in struggle against apartheid: An interview with E.S. Reddy | Archishman Raju

Sunday 8 November 2020


by Archishman Raju

We lost a great fighter for freedom, E.S. Reddy, on November 1st. I had first come in contact with E.S. Reddy as part of the yearlong celebration of W.E.B Du Bois organized by the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia in 2018. Subsequently, I became familiar with his works, explaining Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa, and the role of poor and working Indians in Gandhi’s satyagraha there. As someone who dedicated his life to fighting apartheid in South Africa and in that process interacted with the leadership of African liberation struggles, E.S. Reddy is a very important link in the chain that connects freedom struggles around the world, particularly between Asia and Africa.

E.S Reddy was a revolutionary, a pioneering figure who fought against apartheid and racism in all its manifestations. He participated in India’s freedom struggle as a student and went on to become the director of the Center Against Apartheid. He was inspired by Indians in South Africa like Yusuf Dadoo who had played a leading role in uniting Indians and Africans in South Africa. He came to the U.S. for his studed in 1946 and initially would spend time at the Council of African Affairs, an organization that housed leading African American figures like Paul Robeson and W.E.B Du Bois. Subsequently, he joined the UN and began a life-long commitment to the fight against apartheid in South Africa. He has thoroughly researched Gandhi’s time in South Africa. He is little known but he has left this generation a great legacy, which all who care for peace and justice must seek to understand and follow.

Following are excerpts from an interview taken in 2018 covering his association with Dr. Du Bois, the world peace movement and his experience in the struggle against apartheid:

Archishman: I wanted to ask you a little bit about Dr. Du Bois and Paul Robeson because they were at the Council of African affairs when you were at the UN. Could you describe Dr. Du Bois the man as you knew him.

ES Reddy: I came to New York in March 1946 to study. I was interested in Politics. In fact, I had admission, chemical engineering in Illinois but I didn’t want to go all the way to Illinois because there would be no news about India. So I got admission to study International relations at New York University. At that time, in South Africa, there was a movement, a passive resistance movement. 2000 people went to jail. It started in June, 1946. I was interested to find out more about this movement. I was told by an Indian exile, Kumar Goshal, that there was a Council on African Affairs and they have a library.

Kumar Ghoshal was a lecturer. He wrote a couple of books. He was black-listed and suffered much. He was on the board of Council on African Affairs. It was on 26th St. just west of Fifth avenue. They had two floors, one floor as the library, other floor was offices. They had two weeklies from South Africa, the Guardian which was communist and Bantu World which was owned by the Europeans. I started reading these two weeklies and taking notes about what was happening in South Africa. I learnt quite a bit about South Africa. Then I became friends with the people there.

Du Bois, a leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), was expelled from the NAACP in 1946. Robeson was the chairman of the Council on African Affairs, and a great admirer of Du Bois. The Council gave an office to Du Bois. They probably gave him a secretary. He wrote the book World and Africa there. I had very little to do with him. I just saw him at a party there and once at the UN. I can’t say I had a discussion with him. I was around him. I came to know of him, then I found out what he was doing, and so on. I met Robeson much more often. There was another man called Alphaeus Hunton, he was the educational director of the Council. Mccarthyism and all that started, and Du Bois moved to Ghana, he (Alphaeus Hunton) went to Ghana to work with Du Bois on Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois died and Alphaeus went to Zambia where he helped the ANC of South Africa. A very fine man and very little known.

I attended every concert and meeting that Robeson had in New York from then on. I met Robeson, I arranged to get a message for an Indian conference. I used to see Robeson at Soviet parties, particularly on national day. Alphaeus Hunton was a very good friend of mine.

Once, Du Bois came to the United Nations to meet Krishna Menon, the head of the Indian delegation who was formerly head of India league in Britain and became minister in India when it attained independence. He knew of Du Bois because he was very close to the colonial movements in Britain and Du Bois organized a Pan African conference in Manchester. I don’t know why they met. When he was leaving, the journalists went to him. The Americans hated Krishna Menon, he was supposed to be cantankerous. They asked Du Bois how was your meeting with Krishna Menon. Du Bois said very nice, he was very polite, humble and so on. Krishna Menon looked up to him and Nehru would have looked up to him. Paul Robeson was a friend of Nehru from London in the 1930s.

Archishman: That is interesting because Herbert Aptheker wrote in one of his introduction to Du Bois’ novels that at one point Du Bois was one of the most well known figures among the colonized peoples only surpassed by Gandhi.

ES Reddy: Among western writers, way back already in 1916 Du Bois was writing about colonial people. He was writing about hypocrisy of General Smuts who talks about freedom but with his feet on the neck of black people. Kwame Nkrumah was educated here and he was very much under Du Bois influence. Also I think Azikiwe from Nigeria. So in that sense, in terms of the statement, I think that would be a correct statement.

Archishman: I know that you have been interviewed about the anti-apartheid struggle many times. One question that I think many people have is the relationship between what is happening locally, and global politics. Since you are involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, you saw both sides of that. What was the relationship like, so for example, how was the consciousness of the Indian people affected by the anti-apartheid struggle?

ES Reddy: In different ways. In India, everyone was against apartheid. Not very conscious that there was untouchability in India. Or have excuses for that, even Gandhi used to have excuses.

There were agitations in South Africa and international solidarity by the students in Britain etc. A student movement developed against apartheid. It started spreading to other countries.

In Australia and New Zealand, the student movements boycotted the South African cricket team. Many people got arrested and beaten up. When that was over, there was international year against racism, proclaimed by the UN. Committees for the Year were set up in all countries; the people who got involved in anti-racism made good use of it to spread their propaganda. Then it occurred to them, but we have racism here, we have aborigines. That is when the support for aboriginal movement really developed.

This is an indirect effect of fighting against apartheid. There is a proverb in Telegu, you kick the cow in the back and the teeth fall out. Apartheid is very crude racism so it is very easy to be against it. But once you are against it, you start realizing, there is some racism in other places. That is what I can think of right now.

Archishman: So the local movements were generally dominated by student movements in other places, apart from South Africa.

ES Reddy: Not everywhere. For example, Britain started with the student movement, young people. The anti-apartheid movement was young people. Later it developed into a big thing. Trade Unions got in, churches got in. But in other countries, it might have been churches which got in first.

In Holland, they belonged to the Netherlands church which is a church in South Africa for the Afrikaners; they are of Dutch origins. The priests in South Africa, the Afrikaner priests, interpreted the Bible in such a way that they defended the oppression of the blacks. There was a revulsion in Holland which is more of a democratic country, so the churches got involved.

Archishman: In some cases, the state was involved.

ES Reddy: In India, the state was involved. It was a long-standing thing, starts from Gandhi.

Archishman: I wanted to ask you about the Palestinian struggle. The active form of solidarity for the Palestinian struggle in the US is the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement and they use the boycott of South Africa as a reference point and say they are inspired by it. What do you think they can learn from the struggle in South Africa?

ES Reddy: I think they have already learnt. Before boycott of South Africa, people used to say, academics, that sanctions never work. In fact they even used to say sanctions would strengthen South Africa because they would build up industry, become self-sufficient and stronger. But sanctions worked. When I went to South Africa in 1991 and met Mandela, he thanked me for what I did on sanctions. He said when I met De Clerk, he said sanctions hurt them and led them to release political prisoners and agree to abandon apartheid. Sanctions worked.

When we were campaigning for sanctions against South Africa, we didn’t bring in Palestine or brought in Palestine in a very vague way. Because, in this country, if you bring in Palestine then all the Jews will be against us. In fact the Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Congress, were hostile to the anti-apartheid movement. There were threats against me, someone in the World Jewish Congress said “we will destroy Reddy” or something like that. We negotiated conference resolutions with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and they were helpful in enabling us to formulate resolutions which would be accepted by all. But basically, we were all for Palestine. Many of the people who were active in anti-apartheid now are active in the Palestine movement.

Archishman: One question I had was, what was the role of the Soviet Union during that time?

ES Reddy: The Soviet Union was against apartheid South Africa, they provided arms for the South African liberation movement, they provided scholarships, airline tickets and other kinds of support. Except they didn’t have much foreign exchange. So we got dollars from Sweden and other Nordic countries. They gave hundreds of millions of dollars for humanitarian purposes, and later in support to liberation movements. But Soviet Union gave thousands of scholarships. They had set up a Patrice Lumumba University and many South Africans were taken there. It was a good university. Many of the graduates there are working in South Africa now.

Occasionally the West would want to use this for cold war but they had little success. The African countries, although many were conservative, they were fully supporting the Soviet Union, commending the Soviet Union, condemning the west for their collaboration with South Africa.

Archishman: You were awarded a medal by the World Peace Council in 1983. Why do you think the world peace movement played such an important role in many of these struggles?

ES Reddy: World Peace Council was founded after a conference in Paris in 1948 or 1949. Joliot-Curie of France was secretary-general (president), and the Council was western dominated. They didn’t want to touch colonialism. They were afraid that they would lose support in Western countries if they denounced colonialism.

The Indian affiliate fought against that for years. Romesh Chandra was the leader of Indian delegations. They said colonialism is the cause of wars. The All India Peace and Solidarity Organization was set up in New Delhi. Perin Romesh Chandra was the secretary; she was a great organizer and got a lot of support in India. Finally the Indians prevailed at a WPC conference in the 50s, 7 years later. Might have been late 50s. Romesh Chandra became the Secretary General of the the World Peace Council later President.

He came to the UN in 1965, I think. He came with a large delegation, former prime minister of Poland and people of that stature and Krishna Menon. The delegation wanted to speak at the Special Committee against Apartheid. The Special Committee chairman, Achkar Marof, was from Guinea. He looked up to Krishna Menon like all the delegates of colonial people at the UN. The WPC delegation came and spoke, and were treated with great respect.

The delegation was hosted at parties by the Soviet delegation, the Ukrainian delegation and others. I went to Romesh and said, “Romesh, you are having all your parties with the Russians and the Ukranians. That’s not the way to do it. You come here next time, you don’t need a big delegation, I will arrange for you to meet with the Africans and have parties with the Africans, that is what you need.” Romesh immediately saw the point. Next year he came, I arranged for the Chairman of the Committee against Apartheid, Chairman of the Committee against Colonialism and others, many Africans to honour them. It is not only parties. Romesh is a charming person, a very good speaker. And also very warm and could easily make friends. He became very friendly with many Africans in the UN. He had some contacts already in Africa. But at the UN, he could meet and work with groups of Africans.

He was a figure in the UN. We published a pamphlet on the world peace council meeting with the special committee. The Council gave an award – Joliot-Curie gold medal - to the chairman of the committee. They offered it to me some years later, but I got permission from the UN to accept it, especially the then chairman, Alhaji Youssef Maitama-Sule, said he would not accept it unless I can.

I arranged with Romesh to publish some things for us. They published a pamphlet on Solomon Mahlangu, martyr of South Africa. They published a bulletin every three months or so about international mobilization against apartheid.

Special committee against apartheid sent delegates to the world peace council conferences and headquarters, there were several joint statements.

Archishman: What do you think kept up your commitment all these years?

ES Reddy: I was in the UN from 1949 and I didn’t think highly of the UN. It gave enough money to buy my groceries. UN was dominated by the western countries at that time. It was a sort of neocolonial space. By 1963, the composition changed, many African and Asian became members. These countries now constituted a large majority. That also affected some of the secretariat which was dominated by rich countries which could make large contributions to the budget. When the Special Committee against Apartheid was set up, my director, my supervisor, wanted to be secretary. He asked me if i wanted to be deputy. I said, No I don’t agree with you. But then the Western Countries decided to boycott the committee, he lost interest. The head of the department, a Soviet ambassador, offered me the job. I accepted and said, You are giving me a lifetime job because South Africa will not become independent unless all of Africa becomes independent. There is so much foreign involvement – economic, political, military - in South Africa. That proved true, South Africa became independent after I retired.

Now my job and my convictions were identical. I found a great satisfaction in the job but also a determination to do the best. There was also a feeling that as an Indian, I should do the best.

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