Swaminathan Karuppa Gounden - a symbol of sacrifice for the democratic freedoms post-apartheid
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By Kiru Naidoo and Selvan Naidoo
Opinion: “Hello Comrade Swami, how are you? “
“All good, Comrade. It’s just my knees that trouble me.”
In the latter stages of his life, Swaminathan Karuppa Gounden, a recipient of the Order of Luthuli in Silver, often expressed that the only part of his 93-year-old anatomy that troubled him was his knees.
His failing knees that bore untold pain and trauma is a symbol of sacrifice for the democratic freedoms we enjoy in post-apartheid South Africa. Gounden suffered years of abuse at the hands of security police – beating him with the notorious police baton during his years of incarceration and torture at the height of apartheid repression.
Gounden was among the last of the generation responsible for drafting the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955.
He was born in the municipal 'workers' compound at Magazine Barracks in Durban on December 16, 1927, the son of an Indian indentured worker. His birthday has several significant historical parallels that coincide with his courageous political choices in an unrelenting life in the struggle for South African freedom.
Gounden joined the Communist Party of South Africa in 1944 and later the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). He was among the group of radical activists led by Dr Monty Naicker, MD Naidoo and Dr K Goonum to unseat the conservative leadership of the NIC.
He was an organiser in the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946, where he worked with, among others, JB Marks and Yusuf Dadoo. The subsequent Three Doctors Pact of 1947 signed by the presidents of the ANC, NIC and TIC was the first formal agreement committing to non-racial organisation and mobilisation.
Gounden was active in the trade unions as a shoe factory worker. His unionist contemporaries included Curnick Ndlovu, Billy Nair, Poomoney Moodley, George and Vera Ponen and Kay Moonsamy. He was a volunteer in the 1952 Defiance Campaign.
In the run up to the Kliptown Conference, Gounden was deployed to the industrial areas of Jacobs and Clairwood to collect the peoples' demands. He recalls fondly the political tutelage received from Inkosi Albert Luthuli at the Congress offices in Durban. He was among three delegates elected by workers – one Indian and two African – to represent them at Kliptown. By taking side roads in a car driven by his brother-in-law, they avoided police roadblocks and made it to the conference. On his return, he was immediately fired from the R.Faulks shoe factory in Durban.
He was then taken on by the NPO Durban Child Welfare movement in which he served until his retirement. Gounden was recruited into the underground of the SACP and the ANC. In 1964, he was detained in solitary confinement under the notorious 90-day laws. The case collapsed when the witness was clandestinely taken out of the country.
He was thus, spared likely sentencing to Robben Island, a fate that befell his closest comrades. The physical effects of the torture meted by his Nazi-trained interrogator remained with him throughout his life. On his release, he was banned and listed as a communist. He defied those restrictions and continued his underground work in spite of constant security police harassment.
In 1971, he was among those responsible for the revival of the NIC. He organised in civic structures in his local community and remained the longest-serving paid-up member in his local association. Gounden was active throughout the repression of the 1970s and 1980s and was among those to publicly receive Archie Gumede, Billy Nair and Paul David when they left the occupation of the British Consulate in Durban in 1984.
He was also selected as a delegate to the launch of the United Democratic Front in Cape Town. Always prizing his self-proclaimed role as a "backroom boy", he was content to work without a title in the branch structures of his political and civic organisations after the unbanning of organisations in 1990.
Gounden remained an activist throughout his life, embracing new projects like the South Africa in the Making Exhibition, Magazine Barracks Remembrance Association, Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre at UKZN and the Durban Book Fair in his later eighties and early nineties. He actively promoted the Afro-Indian Peace Garden at his old primary school, Depot Road Memorial, as a practical means of social cohesion.
Gounden was an exemplar of a South African patriot, model citizen, activist and non-racialist throughout his life. He was dedicated, totally committed, humble and selfless in pursuit of a better life for all South Africans. He passed on in the early hours of November 30, a fortnight short of his 94th birthday.
He would have frowned at being called a giant, but he was certainly one of the sturdiest and tallest trees among the forest of struggle stalwarts.
The patriot is at peace. Brave into battle. Uncompromising in purpose and principle. An activist to his last breath. His work is done. Ours has only just begun.
Hamba Kahle Comrade. Go well, and farewell, dear friend.
Kiru Naidoo serves of the advisory board of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre and Selvan Naidoo is Director of the 1860 Heritage Centre.