Obituary – We’ll miss you, Amina
Another struggle stalwart passes, leaving our political landscape even more barren.
Diminutive in size but mighty in courage and generosity, Amina Cachalia shined in the golden circle of anti-apartheid leaders.
Born into a political family and married into another, she found her own voice and used it all her life to speak out against tyranny and injustice.
Amina Asvat was born in 1930 in Vereeniging, the ninth of 11 children of Ebrahim and Fatima Asvat. At home she was inspired by the examples of her father, a companion of Mahatma Gandhi, and her older siblings.
At school she was tutored in key political texts by Mervy Thandray, a communist teacher who saw in her a young woman not prepared to be simply a dutiful daughter, wife and mother.
She railed against her youth when she was firmly told she could not participate in various passive resistance campaigns while still at school.
As soon as she could, she began to develop a fierce involvement in the broader Congress movement and in the women’s movement.
After a less-than-stellar matric, during which she was heavily distracted by the passive resistance campaigns in Durban, she taught English to children of Indian immigrants in Joburg.
Teaching was not a career she wished to pursue, and she soon found an office job at the Allwear factory in Jeppe.
It was a happy time for her: she got on well with her employers despite the fact that she was organising their shop stewards under their noses.
She met the love of her life, Yusuf Cachalia, while being gratifyingly courted by all the young bucks in town, and she was thoroughly immersed in her political work with the Transvaal Indian Congress.
She dashed every day from Allwear to her political offices, where she spent the evening working on leaflets and posters for various campaigns and debating events in the country.
Raised on the Gandhian principles of satyagraha, and inspired by the example of her beloved older sister Zainap Asvat, Amina’s politics were her lifeblood.
In 1948, she formed the Women’s Progressive Union with a group of friends and began to develop a network of female activists who were to stay with her for the rest of her life.
In 1952, she was the youngest member of a passive resistance group in Germiston led by Ida Mtwana.
With Mtwana, Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph, among others, she founded the Federation of SA Women, an organisation that brought women of all races together in the common cause of justice and equality.
She was one of the planners of the Women’s March in 1956, despite a difficult pregnancy that prevented her from marching.
Together with her friend Helen Joseph, she traversed what was then the Transvaal to document the cruel form of political punishment known as banishment.
Google searches turn up her friendship with Nelson Mandela most frequently, typically underplaying her work in recruiting support for the Congress movement, building a network of support for the Treason Trialists, and helping to spring Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe, Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat from prison.
Amina Cachalia was a modest person, Gandhian in her mode of working for justice without ego. Her quietness belied her sharp political analysis and keen understanding of the seduction of power.
Nonracialism was an ethos, not a trendy political phrase, and she transcended ethnicity, race, age and gender in her understanding of community and friendship.
A celebrated beauty, witty, and unable to tolerate fools no matter how menacing or politically important, Cachalia will be missed by all who knew her.
She is survived by her children Ghaleb and Coco, and her grandchildren Chiara, Louisa, Tariq and Yusuf. – Shireen Hassim
Cachalia’s biography out soon.
What promises to be an absorbing read about the life and times of Amina Cachalia through her own eyes is scheduled for publication at the end of this month.
When Hope and History Rhyme is a memoir that will take readers on a journey beginning with Cachalia’s childhood growing up in Johannesburg during the dark years of apartheid.
The autobiography published by Pan Macmillan details Cachalia’s path towards political conscience and her long-lasting friendships with numerous activists who would go on to become leaders in a democratic South Africa,including former president Nelson Mandela.
She also writes revealingly about her marriage to Yusuf Cachalia.
Family life was central to Cachalia’s happiness and the memoir includes musings on her close bond with her children Ghaleb and Coco as well as their families.
The publishers say that Cachalia’s guiding principle in life – an unwavering commitment to a better society for all – permeates every page of her autobiography. – Percy Mabandu
» Hassim is a professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand