‘The enemy is easy to fight. Building a new country is tough’

Elinor Sisulu,based in Pretoria,South Africa,is an intellectual,an activist,a feminist and a writer

Written by Seema Chishti | Published:May 14, 2012 3:41 am

Elinor Sisulu,based in Pretoria,South Africa,is an intellectual,an activist,a feminist and a writer. Married to Max Sisulu,the Speaker of the National Assembly,she is the daughter in law of Walter Sisulu,the other great revolutionary of the anti-Apartheid struggle — someone who shared the prison compound with Nelson Mandela for nearly two decades. She is also the biographer of her father-in-law and his wife,Albertina Sisulu,in a book called ‘Walter and Albertina Sisulu — In Our Lifetime’. Seema Chishti caught up with her in Pretoria,in the season of political and socially significant centenaries,the most prominent perhaps being the centenary of the African National Congress. Two years ago,it was the centenary of the first landing of Indians in South Africa,who went on to participate wholeheartedly in the fight for liberation from Apartheid. An excerpt.

In two years,South Africa will mark two decades of the end of Apartheid. How does the world look to free South Africa?

It is complex and there is a crisis generally in the world of how to go ahead. The certainties of the orthodoxies,both communism and capitalism have collapsed. In South Africa,it was easy earlier,the “enemy” had been identified. Now,with that eliminated,things have become more complex and while there is broad agreement on things like the need to eradicate poverty,we have yet to figure how material needs can be met equitably.

How do you see the situation developing here?

Between failed solutions of both nationalisation and neoliberalism,we don’t have a new paradigm. Inequality has increased. There is “democracy” but how do we deliver to those at the bottom? Earlier,it was easy,there was this one “enemy” to fight,but building a new country,equitably,after that,is a tough challenge. Commerce is still controlled by those who held sway 20 years ago. I think South Africa,along with countries like Brazil and India,has the problem of a large number of poor people,which has to be tackled within a democratic framework.

You are working for the Sisulu Centenary. How do you propose to mark Walter Sisulu’s legacy and his contribution to the liberation movement?

I have already done a biography of both Walter and Albertina Sisulu,his wife,not much centenary work yet. But I am now keen on directing attention to how the legacy of Mandela,Walter Sisulu,Oliver Tambo,Chris Hani and others can connect with today’s politics,focus on making debates today more substantive. The way we present history to the new generation is important. The old-style political rally and speech is now something in the past — how inter-generational transfer of knowledge and awareness of legacy is created is important,especially in the age of Twitter and Facebook. I am concerned about archives,which are underfunded. The Mandela Centre for Memory has presented archival material brilliantly and set up a vast archival warehouse .

The discussion usually centres around big historical characters. Does that overshadow every other thing in the South Africa-India story?

The connections between the two countries were multi-layered and complex,but the story is often only about “great men”. And now with Hollywood entering the fray,uninterested in complexity or layers,it distorts the picture. The role of the Indian community is very important in the South African liberation movement. For example,in Durban,Yusuf Dadoo made several trips to understand the Indian community,how they could be won over. Walter Sisulu too worked hard to develop a deep understanding of class and politics among Indians. There was a famous treason trial between 1958-61,and on every single day of the trial,one Mrs Pillay brought home-cooked food for the accused (including Mandela) without fail. We have to find some way of recording that kind of vital but invisible support and the strength it gave the movement. Maybe when we get ready to mark two decades after the end of Apartheid,in 2014,we can try and do that.

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