By the Yunus Mahomed Memorial Committee
Respected anti-apartheid cadre, development activist and business leader, Yunus Mahomed, who played a pivotal role in the political and civic struggles of the seventies and eighties, passed away suddenly on 6 January at his Durban home. Underplaying his own discomfort so as not to upset the birthday celebrations of his long-time partner Dhaya Pillay, Yunus finally succumbed to a heart attack shortly after the last guests had left. This was a measure of the man who was always placed the needs of others above his own.
His outstanding traits of sympathy and humility were combined with steely principle and purpose, and his strategic acumen that was legendary in the democratic movement. Yunus was at the centre of the drive to promote mass organisation and action as the motive force for change in South Africa, rebuilding the Congress movement internally after the 1960s’ repression.
He exemplified a new generation of politically-conscious cadre who advanced the struggle both on the legal terrain and underground; through peaceful protest as well as armed action. This laid the basis for the militant mass actions of the 1970s and 1980s; to the growth of civic, political, student, youth, trade union and other organizations; the deployment of innovative mass mobilization methods; and the creation of a culture of political rigour, discipline and democracy. It finally created the conditions for the collapse of apartheid and the onset of negotiations, leading to a democratic South Africa.
Yunus Ismail Mahomed, “YM” or “Styles” as his comrades, friends and colleagues fondly called him, was born in Johannesburg on 30 December 1950 to Amina and Ismail Mahomed. He grew up in Jeppe, Johannesburg, attending Gold Street Primary School and William Hills Secondary School in Benoni, from which he matriculated in 1967. As a young scholar Yunus became conscious of the inequities of the apartheid system. His daily train journey to school passed through well-appointed white suburbs that contrasted starkly with the deprivation of Black communities. Thus began a lifetime’s devotion to ending the apartheid system.
“When Yunus believed in something,” says his younger brother Idris, “he saw it through to the end.” “With Yunus it was never a question of whether we will achieve; we had to!” Idris says.
At school, teachers of conscience helped develop Yunus’s political outlook. In 1966 as a teen, at a time of great fear in the community, Yunus courageously distributed pamphlets against the commemoration of Republic Day. Yunus went on to study at the University of Durban-Westville (UD-W), after working stints in Johannesburg and Durban. At UD-W he became involved in student politics, including a national class boycott organised by the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1972. Already, his strategic abilities were evident in the campaign for a democratic SRC. While at UD-W, together with peers such as Yunus Suleman, Zak Yacoob, Krish Govender, Roy Padayachie and Pravin Gordhan, he drew inspired organisational and strategic lessons from other struggles in the developing world, while building on the historical experience and tradition of South Africa’s struggle.
He committed himself to the vision of the Freedom Charter and the strategy to build mass-based organizations, developing a close comradeship with Pravin Gordhan and inspiring a generation of activists to engage in mass work under the banner of the Congress movement. “He was remarkable in combining political strategy, political conscientisation, mobilization, organization building, and creative tactics to engage the apartheid system,” says Pravin. “He was committed to non-racialism, to building the Congress Alliance under the hegemony of the African National Congress, popularizing the Freedom Charter, advancing and defending democracy, and fighting racism, injustice and poverty in every way possible”.
Yunus became involved in the revived Natal Indian Congress in 1970, serving on its executive from the late 1970s together with stalwarts George Sewpershad, MJ Naidoo, Ela Gandhi, Jerry Coovadia, Swami Gounden, Farook Meer, Mewa Ramgobin and Paul David, contributing significantly to the popular rebuilding of Congress, its values, outlook and programme.
By the late 1970s Yunus had joined the underground of the ANC and the SA Communist Party. In 1974 Yunus commenced legal articles with Enver Motala and Company in Durban, and in 1975 completed a B Proc degree through UNISA. He was admitted as an attorney in 1976 and became a partner in Shun Chetty and Company, representing anti-apartheid activists and causes. Fellow lawyer Krish Govender says Yunus was “extraordinarily dedicated, deeply honest and ethical in all his legal work”. “He represented hundreds of political detainees and trialists and helped many escape the brutalities of the regime”.
Following on the student uprisings of the 1970s, Yunus devoted himself to the day-to-day needs of communities, agitating community-wide unity and democratic participation in local issues, and painstakingly building the mass movement for fundamental change.
Yunus worked with the flood-ravaged Tin Town community as well as the communities of Chatsworth, Phoenix and Tongaat, among others. This work resonated across the country throughout the 1980s as a model of democratic grassroots activity. Valli Moosa, who as a student was recruited by Yunus, says: “He taught me how to take minutes at house meetings; write a letter to the authorities on behalf of families; draft and collect signatures for a petition; draft a constitution for an organization, and write a pamphlet. I will always be indebted to Yunus,” Valli says, “for teaching me that the best political education is gained from the women and men you encounter while doing door to door work”.
Yunus played an active role in many organizations, among them the Democratic Lawyers’ Association, the Chatsworth Housing Action Committee, the Natal Rates Committee and the Durban Housing Action Committee. He committed himself to building the democratic movement on a non-racial basis, working closely with the likes of Archie Gumede, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, Virgile Bonhomme, Jabu Sithole, Lechesa Tsenoli and Baba Dlamini.
Lechesa Tsenodi, who served with Yunus on a delegation that met the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group that denounced the PW Botha government, says Yunus was drawn towards local communities and their developmental needs. “I will always remember his quiet mannerism and the compassion with which he dealt with people,” Lechesa says.
For his activism Yunus suffered banning, restrictions, house arrest and, detention – including for about five months in 1981/2 under the notorious Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Yunus was a central figure in the sophisticated Anti-SA Indian Council campaign of 1981, which together with the growth of mass based community organisations, the national student movement, the Anti-Republic campaign, Wilson-Rowntree workers’ strike and consumer boycott, gave the mass democratic movement increasing cohesion and continuity of historical identity.
Yunus was on the steering committee that led to the next level of development of the mass movement, the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. He served as the Natal regional secretary of the UDF as well as on its National Executive Committee, and made a telling contribution to the campaigns of the UDF. He also served on joint UDF/IFP peace structures, working to put an end to the violence ravaging the Natal region.
Azhar Cachalia, who served with Yunus on the executive of the UDF, says his contributions were always “incisive”, particularly in discussions “involving strategy and tactics”. Yunus was central to an innovative, high profile strategy to push back detentions and illegitimate trials – the occupation of the British Consulate in Durban by several UDF leaders wanted on treason charges, in 1984. The tactic focused international attention on detention without trial and state repression. For several weeks neither the apartheid regime nor Margaret Thatcher’s government could do much to evict the UDF leaders from the consulate.
Yunus was again detained in 1985, under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, as the state sought to build a treason case against him and five others. Despite this, as Azhar says, “he did not flinch from his commitments” and continued his work for freedom, hiding from the Security Branch for several years during the State of Emergency that was declared in 1986.
In 1986 Yunus was deployed to the Economic Intelligence Desk of the ANC, working underground to develop its economic policies. “Yunus introduced sound management principles and operational rigour in our work,” says Shirish Soni who worked alongside him. “He inspired us to remain focused and optimistic, regardless of the difficulties of working in the underground”. A key initiative of this work was the launch of the Consultative Business Forum (CBF), to promote interaction between business and the banned ANC. With the establishment of CBF Holdings, this became the basis of Yunus’s involvement in business and economic transformation from the 1990s onwards. “Yunus promoted the highest degree of fairness, honesty and ethics as the core values of CBF Holdings,” Shirish says. “He was aware that the economic policies in place did not adequately address all our problems and that much work remained to be done,” Shirish adds.
In 1993 Yunus obtained an MBA degree, and over time, came to hold a number of trusteeships and directorships, including with the Centre for Community Organisation, Research and Development (CORD), the Community Banking Trust, Transitional National Development Trust, Johannesburg Housing Company, Ensign Container Terminals, and the First Rand Group.
In 1985, Yunus helped the late Eric Molobi establish the Kagiso Trust to channel European Union support to victims of apartheid. It grew as a social development agency that supported hundreds of NGOs across the country,and achieved self-sufficiency with Yunus's sound strategic vision, through its investment arm.
At the time of his passing, Yunus was Chairman of Kagiso Trust and non-executive Deputy Chairman of Kagiso Trust Investments. Yunus is survived by his partner Dhaya Pillay, siblings Zarina, Rabia, Idris and Husain, his parents Amina and Ismail Mahomed – and hundreds of comrades who loved him and admired him.