The Nostalgia of "The Struggle"

by Smitha Radhakrishnan

Helping Hands Reunion (1980-2005): March 20th, 2005

"Actually, I'm saving this seat," I said to the middle-aged couple that sat down next to me. The man was unimpressed, but looked amused. "For who?" "Clive," I said. "Which Clive? Well, he'll come and take it from me, then!" The man laughed.

An apologetic former comrade approached us. "Sorry, Roy. She's not from here. You have to forgive her for not knowing who's in the national government." The usual twenty questions followed from the portly man, as his bemused wife watched. Where was I from? What was I doing there? Was I from Chatsworth? Family in Chatsworth?

From the outset, it was clear that this was not an interaction in which I could ask questions in return. I understood. I responded. He looked fascinated. He listened, but only to the parts he wanted to hear. I said I did some work looking at the South African-Indian reaction to the end of apartheid and that I had met Clive at some point during that research. He understood that I was researching the history of Chatsworth activists. I tried to explain that I was deeply interested in that history, but it was not what I was writing about it. I wasn't sure if he heard me. "Are you Brazilian?" his wife asked. I laughed. "Indian," I said, "but U.S.-born."

I confuse people here. For the people in this hall, I'm a conundrum. Chatsworth is a place people come from, not a place people go to. Why on earth would an American woman of Indian descent with absolutely no previous connection to South Africa be at this event? Here was an evening that commemorated, celebrated, and relived a powerful history of a youth group that participated in the heroism of the anti-apartheid struggle. As Derek Naidu, now the Deputy Manager for the entire city of Durban, said in a speech later in the evening, all of us were "products of Chatsworth." With very few exceptions, however, all those products left, if not to Johannesburg or elsewhere in the world, then at least to another part of Durban. So, a non-Chatsworth "product" questioning what right one of the oldest activists in attendance had to a seat just didn't fit easily into the event's concept. Even the Minister of Communications for all of South Africa had to do a double take. Ironically, I-the person who fit least into the concept of the event-was saving a seat for perhaps the only youth activist from that period who hadn't left in all these years. Clive, however, was too busy running around and organizing the impressive display of history and nostalgia to sit down to revel in the irony of the situation.

As the organizers finished setting up the community hall that evening, I had the strange sense that I was attending a middle school awards banquet back home. For one, there was the venue with its modest amenities-brick walls, the long tables lined with mismatched plastic chairs, the stage with a maroon cloth backdrop. An amateur band of teenagers did a sound check on the stage as the rented speakers crackled. Even the decor was reminiscent of the almost-forgotten era preceding digital media. Homemade posters commemorating Helping Hands events, numerous displays of Helping Hands t-shirts (all illegally screenprinted in garages at the height of apartheid), and huge collages of three-by-five photos filled up the wall space-all of this Clive's handiwork. It was, without a doubt, a legacy to be proud of.

The middle-school banquet atmosphere was hardly attenuated by the formal announcement that requested people to take smaller portions of food, since they couldn't actually handle the unexpectedly enthusiastic turnout. The program kicked off with a series of sad hip-hop dances and an even sadder display of dramatic ineptness put on by the present generation of Helping Hands members. Chairs scraped chaotically along the floor as the audience maneuvered the crowded space to get a look at the stage. As a series of long-winded speeches by important political figures gained a dull momentum, teenage voices whispered complaints about the unsatisfactory ratio of bone to meat in the mutton curry. As dinner and the speeches wore on, I watched Clive still zipping around, oblivious to his now-vacant seat. More important than mutton curry consumption was the issue at hand: the need to tactfully extract Roy, the Minister of Communications, from the podium during his heartfelt but gratuitously long speech.

But this was no suburban middle school awards night. When the speeches were done, the emcee requested the parents who supported the Helping Hands youth in the late eighties and early nineties to stand. These parents, the emcee explained, allowed secret meetings to be held in their garages and lied about their children's political activities to the apartheid police at the risk of their own lives. I looked around at those standing. Weighed down by age, some could barely stand, while others stood tall and dignified. One woman in particular stood out. Pale blue sari flowing closely around her still slim and upright figure, white hair pulled into a neat low circle behind her head. Later, during the tribute to Lenny Naidoo, the Helping Hands comrade assassinated by the apartheid government on his way home from exile, I realized that the tall, dignified woman was Lenny's mother. She said nothing, but her pride in her son's life and death was evident in her stature alone.

When the "jol" started, the music recalled an eighties after-school special, and the talent of the bodies on the floor was limited at best. There was, however, something euphoric happening. A shoulder-to-shoulder version of the party train suddenly gained a unifying quality. I was a stranger to this crowd, an acquaintance at best, but the closeness of this remarkable little world was palpable to me even in my once-removed status. I sat down next to a newfound American buddy, another stranger to the scene, during a particularly bad rendition of a Bob Marley song. "Crazy, isn't it?" I asked. "Well, I figure," he said, "how many times in life are you going to see a bunch of middle-aged Indian people dancing to Bob Marley? I'm thinking once."

As the night went on, the crowd got smaller and drunk. Former activists, most of whom have done well since the struggle ended, drove away in expensive cars or parked them a little closer to the hall. For all the nostalgia, no one forgot for a moment that this was still post-apartheid South Africa, and fancy cars like theirs, everyone knew, were likely to disappear in the tough area of Chatsworth that was home to Helping Hands. The innermost circle remained. The local organizers, present and past Helping Hand-ers, took down the memorabilia, cleared the tables, counted the glassware, and paid the band. Conversations among the clumps of inebriated comrades became increasingly unintelligible as local slang overtook Standard English, and the compulsion to find another place to eat and drink overtook the necessity to restore the community hall to its pre-reunion state. Wives threatened to leave their husbands behind if they would rather drink than anything else. Pints of beer were replaced with quarts and all the "products of Chatsworth," were back at home with the friends and family of their pasts, drawing out the nostalgia as long as possible.

Marx said that men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing, suggesting that while there's individual intent, historical processes loom larger; and still, individual actions matter the most. How closely the reunion reflected Marx's words-Here was a group of individuals who came of age during a powerful historical moment in a tiny corner of the world created by larger-than-life forces-colonialism that brought Indians to South Africa and then apartheid that isolated and insulated them. Yet unlike the majority of Chatsworth, these individuals, drawing strength from one another, chose to participate in shifting those historical patterns. And once successful, the group scattered. Some still pursue the values fostered by the struggle, while others have chosen to pursue more material ends. But at that moment, two decades later, they all participated in a shared project of social change in the truest sense.

"Hey, I'm sorry," Clive apologized as we loaded the last set of posters into his not-so-fancy car. "I invited you, but barely got to hang out." "I had a good time," I said reassuringly. But what I wanted to say was that I understood. What was invisible on stage was omnipresent at the event: Clive never cashed in on his leadership in the movement. He insisted on staying in Chatsworth even when it changed, even when his once lefty friends moved out of Chatsworth and toward the mainstream. His very identity is wrapped up in the all-too-personal political project of radical equality for which the anti-apartheid struggle stood. For everyone at the reunion, the event meant reveling in the nostalgia of unity in the most difficult of times, but, as Clive loved to say, "The struggle continues for some of us."