Mac Maharaj, the least sung hero of South Africa

Vivek Shukla | Jul 18, 2013

As the world is celebrates the birthday of ailing anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela today, it is time to talk about the life and times of Sathyandranath Ragunanan ‘Mac’ Maharaj. Mac has been a close comrade of Mandela since the height of anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and among the most respected leaders of Indian origin there.

It goes without saying that Mac Maharaj is perhaps the least-sung of South Africa’s modern heroes. His life is saga of struggle and sacrifice. Some even say that if he were a black, he would have became the president of South Africa. He towers over the likes of Makebi and Zuma.

Mandela, who is seriously indisposed since last many months, is a matter of grave concern for the entire world and it is Mac who updates the latest regarding the condition of his friend,leader and somebody with whom he spent many years together in dingy jail. Mac’s importance can be gauged from the fact that he is the current official spokesperson of the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

In pictures: Anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela turns 95

Mac, 78, is the fourth of the eight children of  NR Maharaj of Newcastle, Natal. He matriculated at St Oswald’s School and enrolled for a BA degree at the University of Natal, Durban, as a part time student.

Since his college days,Mac was at the forefront of the aperthied struggle. He campaigned against the segregation of students and supported the boycott of the separate graduation ceremonies held at the time. In addition he edited the students newspaper, Student Call, from 1955-1956.

Following the arrests of ANC leaders for the 1956 treason trial, Maharaj was asked to take over the New Age newspaper. He decided to leave for the United Kingdom in August 1957, as was unable to obtain a permit to study law in the Cape or Transvaal. In 1959, he became a part-time student at the London School of Economics where he began his LLB again. In 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre, the Congress movement asked him to return to South Africa and devote himself more fully to political work. He returned in 1962 with his first wife, Ompragash.

Maharaj worked for a firm of attorneys in Johannesburg whilst spending a great deal of his time on political matters. In July 1964, he was arrested in Johannesburg, charged and convicted with four others on charges of sabotage in what became known as the Little Rivonia trial. Maharaj was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, which he served on Robben Island. While in prison, he completed a B Admin, an MBA and the second year of a BSc degree before his release on December 8, 1976.

From 1987 to 1990, Maharaj worked underground within South Africa as part of Operation Vula. Following the unbanning of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, he had to leave the country and re-enter legally under an indemnity from prosecution, agreed upon between the ANC and the Government. On his return, he assisted in the organisation and restructuring of the SACP.

At the ANC’s national congress held in Durban during July 1991, Maharaj became a member of the secretariat of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), which brought together most South African political organisations to negotiate a new Constitution dispensation.

After the 1994 elections Maharaj was appointed to the Cabinet where he served as Minister of Transport until the 1999 elections. He was the first ever Indian-origin Minister in South Africa. Maharaj resigned from active politics in 1999 and is now active in the business world.

His biography, Shades of Difference authored by O’Malley is  gripping and revealing. Mac Maharaj became a legend for, among other things, the excruciating torture he survived. He was in prison for twelve years on Robben Island in what became the ‘university’ of Nelson Mandela. It was there that Maharaj miniaturised on foolscap the manuscript of Mandela’s autobiography, which he smuggled into print on his release from prison. A joke became of this when, upon Maharaj’s became a Cabinet Minister in South Africa’s first free Government in 1994, that Mandela had been thinking: “He transported my autobiography out of Robben Island, so I’ll make him Minister of Transport.”

In a foreword to Shades of Difference, Nelson Mandela writes:

“Mac’s life illustrates that he never succumbed to a sense of victimhood. Yes, he was born into an oppressive system and was at the receiving end of that system. But that did not stop him from making choices that enabled him to lead a life of dignity. He never flinched from the consequences of the actions he took. The level of risk never deterred him… That sums up the personality of Mac Maharaj. You can not ask for more.”

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Vivek Shukla

लंबे समय से अखबार नवीसी करते हुए और घाट-घाट का पानी पीने के बाद देश-दुनिया के ताजा सूरते -हाल पर बार-बार हर रोज कलम चलाने की चाहत। करीब तीन दशकों से पत्रकारिता । हिन्दुस्तान टाइम्स,पाकिस्तान आर्ब्जवर से दैनिक भास्कर का सफर करने के बाद अब आनलाइन पत्रिका में हाथ आजमाने की ख्वाहिश।