Activist Amina Cachalia Honoured by Family, Kgalema Motlanthe and Shireen Hassim at Memorial Service
Amina Cachalia – political activist, champion for social justice and women’s rights – never got to see the publication of her autobiography, When Hope and History Rhyme. She passed away on 31 January this year and her book was launched at her packed memorial service at the Wits University Great Hall last Saturday afternoon.
Ahmed Essop managed the programme for the service and noted that it was fitting that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe should be the guest speaker as he had paid a visit to Cachalia last November and they had reminisced about the past and discussed the challenges facing South Africa today.
The Deputy President described Cachalia as a larger-than-life figure who, together with her husband Yusuf, counts among the greats in envisioning a post-apartheid state. He said that the current generation has a responsibility to keep the Cachalias’ legacy alive and that they need to understand how her legacy is relevant today. The goal of liberation was not the end of the struggle; South Africa is still a work in progress and the present government has a moral imperative to improve conditions for all in the country. The five main priorities that need to be addressed are education, health, decent work, rural development and land reform, and fighting crime and corruption – this last being most important.
Cachalia threw in her lot with the gender struggle. She co-founded the Women’s Progressive Movement in 1948 and became its general secretary. Motlanthe expressed shock at the acts of gender violence we are witnessing today and said that the issues of gender oppression and gender-based violence are as important as the struggle against racism, and that overcoming these starts in the home. He said that Cachalia lived for a higher purpose. She is a hard act to follow, but her vision is in the realm of reality. We should not fail her.
Cachalia’s four grandchildren paid moving tributes to her. Yusuf told of how Cachalia was very strict about cleanliness and how she reacted when he got into her bed without washing his feet. He treasured the traditional Saturday lunches with “Mama” as the highlight of the week, where the family would all weigh in animatedly about the state of the nation. Tariq told of how he realised her public prominence when she was quoted in his school history book! Chiara said that Mama was uncritical about her tattoos and discussed their meaning with her. Luiza had worn a sari in honour of Mama, as she remembered human rights lawyer George Bizos describing how Cachalia had stood out on a march in her white sari.
A collaborator on the book was Professor of Politics at Wits, Shireen Hassim. She said that Cachalia did not live the life of the traditional Indian woman. The whole family was political, and her older siblings passed on to her the tradition of passive resistance they had learnt from Mahatma Ghandi. She was independent early on, and was inspired by the women of the trade union movement. She was only 18 when she co-founded the Women’s Progressive Union in 1948, which she ran for six years, and which taught sewing, music, shorthand and typing. She remained a mentor to women well into her old age.
Hassim described how Cachalia and her husband were banned and harassed for many years, sending their children out of the country to be educated. She told of Cachalia’s extreme sadness when her son was refused entry to return to visit his parents. She also mentioned that Cachalia was very critical of the conspicuous consumption she had witnessed in recent years.
Cachalia’s sister, Dilnaaz Kazi read a poem dedicated to Cachalia by her nephew Ziddy. Titled “The Sugar on My Tongue”, it was named in remembrance of a story he was told of the time Yusuf Cachalia smuggled a letter out of detention in 1968. This was discovered, and two security policemen came to their house in Fordsburg. In protest, Cachalia bit one of them and threw a glass of sugar water in the face of the other!
Cachalia’s daughter Coco spoke movingly of how Cachalia received an honorary doctorate from Wits in 2004 in recognition of her fight for social justice and human rights and mentioned the many tributes that have poured in since her passing. She praised Cachalia’s honesty, integrity, and strength in the face of banning orders and house arrest, visits by security police and the exile of friends. Above all, she was a mother with strong family values, and her children far away in Swaziland and London felt her presence strongly through her constant letters, phone calls and tape recordings.
Her son Ghaleb described how his parents lived modestly and happily in simple abodes, from a small flat in Vrededorp to Nugget Street and then in Fordsburg, where they were under house arrest. He described Cachalia as “the midwife at the birth of freedom in South Africa.”
The title of her autobiography is taken from a poem by Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney.