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Explained: Who was Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, the Indian-origin anti-apartheid veteran?

Ebrahim Ebrahim, who was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), spent over 15 years in the Robben Island prison along with Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada for taking a position against the apartheid government.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 9, 2021 9:33:27 am
Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim dead, Who was Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, Indian-origin anti-apartheid veteran, anti-apartheid veteran, Indian ExpressEbrahim Ismail Ebrahim

Indian-origin South African anti-apartheid veteran Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, also known as “Ebie”, who was also the former deputy minister of international relations, died at the age of 85 Tuesday.

Ebrahim, who was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), spent over 15 years in the Robben Island prison along with Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada for taking a position against the apartheid government. “I have a deep commitment for peace, freedom and prosperity for all my fellow human beings and have an equal distaste for injustice and oppression,” Ebrahim is quoted as saying in his biography.

The apartheid regime of South Africa ended in 1994, during which year democratic elections were held in the country for the first time.

The ANC was banned in 1960 and the ban on it was lifted three decades later, in 1991, after which Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the current President of South Africa, became its General Secretary.

According to a statement released by the ANC, Ebrahim died at his home in Johannesburg after an illness. “Comrade Ebi, as he was affectionately known, was a longstanding member of the ANC, a patriot who served his country in different capacities with humility, dedication and distinction,” the statement said.

Who was Ebrahim Ebrahim?

His official biography titled, “Ebrahim Ebrahim. A Gentle Revolutionary” compiled by his wife Shannon Ebrahim and published by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation mentions that Ebrahim was born in 1937 to parents of Indian origin. Both his mother and grandmother were born in South Africa and his father, Mohamed Adam Modan, traveled to South Africa in 1933 by boat from Gujarat. He belonged to the village of Chasa near Alipore and adopted the surname of the family he had accompanied to South Africa, which was Ebrahim.

While Ebrahim was eager to enroll in school, his grandmother who took care of him, was repeatedly told that the primary school designated for Indian children was full and could not accommodate him. And so, he was prevented from enrolling in school for five consecutive years until he reached the age of ten, during which time, he was able to find a place in a government-aided school called The Hindu Tamil Institute, the biography says.

Political involvement

Around the age of 13, Ebrahim started attending mass rallies in Durban where speeches delivered by leaders of the ANC and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC)–which aimed to fight discrimination against Indians in South Africa–inspired him. By 1952, during the Defiance Campaign his political involvement grew and Ebrahim joined the NIC.

In 1952, Ebrahim joined the liberation movement as a youth activist and participated in the Congress of the People Campaign through the National Indian Congress (NIC). In 1961, he joined the armed wing of the ANC called the Umkhonto We Sizwe that was meant to carry out sabotage activities in the country.

About joining this wing of the ANC, Ebrahim later said, “The use of violence was a painful necessity, not something I welcomed for its own sake. I knew it would lead to suffering of the enemy as well as oppressed people. But there was no other way out. One hated the racist system and knew it was violent, and one found oneself forced to use force. If they called for armed struggle out of necessity, one followed because one’s whole life had been in the struggle,” as per his biography.

In 1963, Ebrahim was listed as Accused Number 1 alongside 18 others in the Pietermaritzburg Sabotage Trial. He was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in jail. Upon his release in 1979, he was banned from participating in any political activity.

In 1986, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason after he was kidnapped by the South African Security Forces from Swaziland. But he was released in 1991, after the court of appeal ruled that the South African court had no jurisdiction in a foreign country and that his kidnapping was illegal.

He served as a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC for over 26 years, until 2017.

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