DATE: 13.11.1996 NAME: MRS A DESAI




DR RANDERA: We then go to Bethalsdal and in the last two cases we are coming back to Mothlakeng, people from Mothlakeng and Randfontein, although the last cases relate to a bombing that took place in Johannesburg. The parents of the person who died live in Randfontein. So that is the programme for the day.

I just want to make a few announcements. The boxes for interpretation, the languages that we are covering again today; on one it is Afrikaans; two is English; three is Zulu or Xhosa; and four Twswana or Sotho.

I just want to say that please, when you leave the hall, whether it is at tea break or lunch time, can you please leave these boxes behind. Yesterday we lost two. You can't use these outside the service that we are providing here. So if people mistakenly took those boxes away yesterday, can they please return it to my colleague in the corner on that side.

Thank you very much. I just want to introduce my panel. On my right-hand side we have Ms Joyce Seroke, who is a member of the Human Rights Violations Committee and based here in Johannesburg. On the left-hand side Mr Wynand Malan, who is the deputy chair of the Human Rights Violation Committee and also based at the Johannesburg office. My name is Dr Fazel Randera, I am also a member of the Human



Rights Violations Committee. I would please like to call Mrs Amina Desai who is our first witness.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, good morning.

MRS A DESAI: Good morning.

CHAIRPERSON: Welcome. I know you are feeling anxious this morning. Are you sure you don't want to have a friend sitting next to you.

MRS A DESAI: No, I am all right, thank you.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, I am going to be assisting you as you tell your story today, but before I do that I am going to ask my colleague, Ms Joyce Seroke just to take the oath, if you will just stand for that, ma'am.

MS SEROKE: Good morning, Mrs Desai.

AMINA DESAI; (Duly sworn, states).

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, you live in Roodepoort, is that right?

MRS A DESAI: Yes, I live in Roodepoort, I have been living there almost 50 years.

CHAIRPERSON: And you are 67 years old?

MRS A DESAI: No, I am 76.

CHAIRPERSON: Sorry, my arithmetic is slipping. My apologies. Mrs Desai, we are going as far as the incident you have come to talk about. We are going back to 1971, 1972 and 1978. It concerns your arrest, torture and both the mental and physical stress you underwent at the time. I would like you just in your own words and in your own time to take us back, and tell us what actually happened.

MRS A DESAI: Do you want me to start now?


MRS A DESAI: On the morning, I think it was on the 22nd or the 23rd of October 1971, I was awakened at about three



o'clock in the morning, by somebody knocking at the door. Since I live alone I didn't want to open the door. But I looked through the window and I saw some white men outside, about five of them. One of them showed through the window his identity card. He said he was a police officer. He wanted to speak to me. I then opened my door and he came in and asked me about my car; did I own a car like this, that and the other. I said yes and he said where is your car now? I said well, one of my relatives, young relatives took it because he was, he asked, he wanted to go out that evening, so he must have it.

Then they proceeded to tell me that I am not, I am a bit vague about how it went on, but I know they searched the house, up to about eight o'clock. At eight o'clock they told me that look here, you'd better - well, I - you'd better get dressed and you must take something with you, because we are going to take you to John Vorster Square now. Well, I went along with them. I wasn't particularly worried because I felt that as far as I knew I had done nothing wrong. Somebody had borrowed my car and possibly he may have been involved in an accident or whatever it was. I didn't know what actually happened.

Once I came to John Vorster they started questioning me; was I a member of the Communists, was I a member of the Communist Party, and of course I told them no, I have no connection with any political party, and I am certainly not a Communist and I don't know anything about what you are asking me about. Of course, and then they told me but we are detaining you all the same.

So they took me to the cells and from that time they kept on asking me to come back to the John Vorster Square



upstairs on the 10th floor, I think it was. They had teams of interrogators. Of course there no rest in-between. They kept that up because as one team went off the other team arrived. Perhaps they would allow you perhaps an hour or two to go back to the cell, and then the new team would be there and they would start interrogating me. This went on for, I would say for about four days.

Sometime, I think it was on the Tuesday, because you lose sense of time because they don't give you a chance to sleep, they keep on coming back for you, after an hour or two. They may allow you to go and have something to eat in the cell and then they come and fetch you again. After - on the Tuesday afternoon at about three o'clock I was standing there with my - you of course have to stand. They don't allow you to sit.

I heard a terrible commotion. I heard furniture, whatever it was, being pushed around. I heard people scampering around and I heard screams. I think it was the day, the most terrible moment of my life, because at that particular instant, I felt as if my heart was actually jumping out of my chest. I don't think I had ever in my life had an experience, fear and terror like that. I didn't of course know what was happening, because we were in an enclosed office. But I could hear these sounds. Shortly after that I saw some other officers coming in there. They of course never introduced themselves as being so-and-so. They just used to speak to you and tell you to stand, you stand while we ask you questions.

But that particular afternoon at about four o'clock I think, I should think it was about an hour after all this commotion there in the offices, I was taken down. They have KRUGERSDORP HEARING TRC/GAUTENG


a subterranean tunnel through which they take you from John Vorster itself to the cells. I was left there for literally for months. The wardress, they had a very elderly white wardress who would come in and bring me my food and perhaps once a day - because I insisted on it, that they take me down to the shower. I would shower and I would come back to my cell.

I was completely alone in the cell, of course, but it had a bed and it had a couple of blankets on it. That's where I was kept until about March, when they told me that they have to take a statement from me; was I prepared to make a statement. I said yes, of course I am prepared to make a statement. In the meantime I was once - I think once a week a magistrate or somebody, I don't know whether he really was a magistrate, but it was a white man who came along - I think it was the man who was then the head of John Vorster. I think his name was Brig Greyling or something like that. I am not quite sure what his name was. Anyway, they would come and they would right to the cell door and ask me have you got any complaints. So of course what I knew that it wasn't for me to complain. Until of course I said no, and left it to that.

I had been a great reader so I knew what detention was like, what imprisonment was like for political prisoners for people of whom they kept there, because I had read everything that had happened overseas in Europe. So I thought well, my conscience is clear. There is nothing that they can have against me, they will keep me here, it doesn't really matter, because the only thing I was afraid of was perhaps that because of my imprisonment my children might feel that they should - they were all overseas. I was



afraid, that was the only thing that worried me, was the fear that my children would feel they should come back to South Africa, and I was afraid for them. But I was not afraid for myself. I was - and although I was bothered because I was there - it is a terrible thing to be isolated complete from everybody. But I felt my conscience was clear. I hadn't done anything wrong. I know there were so many things that I felt very badly about. I had never even as much as written a letter to a newspaper to complain. Although in the days when I was still a teenager I had expressed my opinions in the newspapers. In those days we an Indian Views, and under a pseudonym my sister and I used to write letters to the Indian newspapers. Even some papers overseas in Indian. I had never otherwise published anything or written anything or been to a public meeting or even a demonstration.

I looked after my business. I looked after my family. I didn't feel that - I felt there were more competent people to express what I felt. I was very much aware of what was going on around us. But that didn't mean to say that I should stand on a public platform and express those opinions.

So when I was indicted and had to go to court, I couldn't believe what was happening to me. When I finally, or when they imprisoned me, for the first couple of months I thought I was living in a nightmare. I could not believe that this was reality. Because I just couldn't believe it, it couldn't happen to somebody like me.

One fine day when I was taken to Barberton and I met two political prisoners, a Ms Van der Heyden, who had been in jail for 10 years and Ms Niambe, who was back there for



the second time, then only did I think that I became aware of the fact that I cannot live in a fantasy world. This was the way to go mad. When you start questioning reality, then life becomes insupportable.

Of course, seeing how patient they were, how courageous these women were under these conditions that we were living in, because we had cells in which there were no beds. We only had two blankets that were given to us and a rush mat to sleep on. I had never lived a life like that, never. I had never had bread without butter. I couldn't believe that this was happening to me.

Well, as I said, when I heard these women speak, although I think Ms Niambe was a bit frigthened of me, because she felt that I may have been put there to observe her. I think she was practically paranoid about informers. But then I told myself that am I less woman than these women? No, I must taste every day as it comes and live for that day.

That is how I survived and I look after my business, I look after my children and I have become accustomed to living a very isolated life. I read, but now unfortunately my sight is failing and the one great pleasure of my life, reading, I can't do much of it any more.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, is there anything else you wish to add?

MRS A DESAI: I would say that - that I think they were so horrible and so cruel and the interrogators, because they just - but on the whole, I must say, when I hear of what has been done to - what was done and what is still being done to other women, then I think they treated me on the whole, very well. Even my interrogators, they kept me there for 52



hours, on and off, I mean with slight interruptions, on the whole, but I got accustomed. I had a very sick husband for a very long time. I looked after him. I got accustomed to going without sleep for many hours. So the fact, the only thing was that in the Pretoria prison, the Central Prison where they took me first, I had never believed that the floor could heave with insects, and that was what I found in my cell.

CHAIRPERSON: Can you tell us how many years you were in prison for?

MRS A DESAI: Pardon?

CHAIRPERSON: How long were you in prison for?

MRS A DESAI: I can't hear?

CHAIRPERSON: How long were you in prison?

MRS A DESAI: Was I in ...?

CHAIRPERSON: In prison. How long were you in prison?

MRS A DESAI: I was in prison for five years. I didn't have a day off.

CHAIRPERSON: After your release, I understand you were placed under a banning order.

MRS A DESAI: Yes, I was under house arrest for five years and that period was very hard for me because my people really couldn't understand, most of them couldn't understand that I was under house arrest and that I was not aloof from them, but that I was forced to be aloof from them. I couldn't even have my brother to come and see me. I had to get special permission to come to hospital. But you live with it and you survive.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, I want to go back a little in time. In your statement you tell us that your husband was a founder member of the Transvaal Indian Congress.




CHAIRPERSON: You shared his views but your leanings were strongly towards passive resistance.

MRS A DESAI: Yes, we were - I was, have been a pacifist all my life. I have also of course been very - in the old days we used to call it feminism. I believed in that, absolutely.

CHAIRPERSON: Earlier on you expressed your shock at being charged - well, first of all even being arrested at the time of Amemol's arrest and Essop's arrest and I think it was Mr Essack and Endreson Moodley who you were charged with. One of the things you were charged with was under the Communist Act.


CHAIRPERSON: And you were accused of being a Communist.


CHAIRPERSON: Can you tell us something about that?

MRS A DESAI: Well, I think during the time that they were interrogating me, they asked me why I had sent my son to a military college. I told them that because he had been in trouble here with the police and he had actually been locked up for a weekend because as a child he had sprayed something on the school walls at the time when they wanted to close down our school. They had picked him up and taken him - and we had then sent our son to Lawrence College in Raipindi, which had been originally a college where the English officers sent their children. This was the college that accepted him. But for - because he was only a Std 9 pupil when he left for India. After that of course, he found his way to Sweden and studied there. But now they wanted to know why did I sent him. So I told them it was just



incidental that they happened to have some training, it was just part of the syllabus and the curriculum of the old - the school where the officers used to send their children, the British officers sent their children. It was part of the curriculum of the school.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, at the time of Mr Timor's arrest and Mr Essop's arrest of course, the police found - what is referred to as Communist literature in the car, in the boot of the car and that was your car, of course. I also understand books were found in your house. Now were you aware of these things happening in your house?

MRS A DESAI: Well, I had so many books and I was very busy with my work, and Timor used to come there because he used to take - do certain work for me and had to take away my orders and go post it, because I am an agent, a manufacturer's agent. I myself didn't drive and I used to give him the car and tell him go and post my orders. Of course, when he had schoolwork to do, because he used to sit, because I was alone in the house. He used to sit there and do his schoolwork, and he was also studying. So he used to sit at my house because it was quiet, because he stayed, lived quite near there, but his parents had a very small flat, so there were children there and other people there and I don't think he really had any chance to sit and study there. He used to sit and study in my house. He had some books there, but of course he used to leave his briefcase there and his books there and I never bothered to go through his cases and his books.

CHAIRPERSON: When did you find out that he had actually died?

MRS A DESAI: I only found out that he had died the day that KRUGERSDORP HEARING TRC/GAUTENG


I was brought to court. My lawyer told me when I told - I told the lawyer you know, they have got me a - pinned me down on this and they kept me there all these months, but Timor I am sure can explain it all away. So he told me but don't you know that Timor is dead.

CHAIRPERSON: So in all that time ...

MRS A DESAI: All that time I never knew, because they had two very elderly wardresses, not the normal wardresses of whom they possibly have for the other prisoners, who used to come and bring my food and take me for the shower. I never had - nobody ever spoke to me about anything. I never knew about it.

CHAIRPERSON: Now in the trial that took place, a list of names was put forward, it was found in Mr Timor's possession again. I understand your name was also part of that list. Were you aware that you were ...

MRS A DESAI: I think I was confused with another A Desai. I am quite certain that on that list there must have been - because I know he had a young cousin who was also - her name was Aysha, and I know that she may - I don't know whether she did, but I know she was in a typing school. Whether she may have - because I know that I never typed anything for him on my typewriter, that I know for a fact. My typewriter was there on the desk. He had access to my house, because he often had my car and when I used to go away sometimes, if I had to go to a conference or somewhere, because I am an agent, I had to go sometimes to these business conferences, then I would leave him ... (Change-over to "B" side".

CHAIRPERSON: ... Mr Brown as the security police were involved in your interrogation, is that right?




CHAIRPERSON: Then again, you mention that at the time of your arrest you were living by yourself. Your husband had passed away.


CHAIRPERSON: And all your children - you have three children, is that right?

MRS A DESAI: I had four children but they were all overseas then.

CHAIRPERSON: Okay. Mrs Desai, I just have one last question. You mentioned that at the time of your release and your banning order, that the community looked upon you and may have thought that you were aloof. How, in that period that we are talking about, from the time of your arrest and subsequent history, what was the support that you gained from your community?

MRS A DESAI: Well, I think the community was terrified. I think they were just terrified. They felt that they did not want to be involved. The only people who really stood by me all the time was my brothers, my sisters and who helped me financially, because I was not a member of the Congress. I had never been a party member or anything like that. My brother got the lawyers for me while I was still in detention. So of course financially we had to see that the lawyers were paid. I didn't get any help from the community, not one cent from any one of them. I think they were really very much afraid.

CHAIRPERSON: I have two more questions, sorry. My one is related again, to what you said in your statement, about you expressed some very interesting views on reparation. Sorry, in terms of some form of compensation, you talked about symbols and expensive symbols and I think you said it would



be better if the money was put into schools and other things. Do you want to tell us something about that?

MRS A DESAI: Yes, well, when I saw that, I find that people, that they were going to make Robben Island a sort of showpiece, a museum, and I thought all those people who had put our people at Robben Island, they should be put there. They should be left to stay there. That's one thing. I felt that whatever money we could garner should be used for education, should be used to help the people who need it. I don't feel that we need expensive statues and that kind of thing. Money should be used, whatever money we have should be used for the benefit of those people who never had anything, who never had any privileges.

CHAIRPERSON: The last question, Mrs Desai. We thank you for coming here today. Can I ask you what your expectations, what were your expectations from coming here today.

MRS A DESAI: To be honest, I have never cared for publicity of any kind. I felt that if I can come - at first I was very reluctant. But afterwards I thought over it and I thought I must come and tell people what the ordinary woman, the ordinary middle-class woman, who lived for her family, and who was perhaps aware of the terrible things that were happening in the world, but felt that they really could not contribute excepting in their own small way, perhaps with their own children. That was the contribution you make to society. You try and foster in your children a care for humanity. That is all that you can do as a human being, that you should care about what happens to people.

CHAIRPERSON: Thank you, Mrs Desai, I have no further questions. Perhaps my colleagues may have some questions. Ms Seroke?



MS SEROKE: Mrs Desai, you have already given your views about what you would recommend in terms of reparation. I would like to know that after your harrowing in prison, during your detention, living in solitary confinement under unhygienic conditions in the cells, and later being subjected to house arrest, what would you recommend to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in terms of a new culture of human rights, particularly with, you know, regarding the way security police were dealing with people, what would you recommend to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding this new culture of human rights that would lead to reconciliation in our country.

MRS A DESAI: Well, I think there are so many people, younger people, people who are not obsessed by memories, bitter memories, who can plan things, who should plan things for our people here. I think the extravagance that we see, sometimes that we read about, that we should simplify things. People should realise that - and the functions should not be so costly. We should really live as simple a type of life and try and - the important thing is really to educate our children. The most important thing here, I think is to teach people, to make people aware of humanity as such and that we are here, not merely for ourselves, but to try and make the world a better place. Of course, I eschew all violence. I don't think that by hitting somebody over the head you can do anything much to them, but I believe that people can speak to one another. I think that is what we should teach our children too. But the most important thing of all is that we should educate the young.

MS SEROKE: Thank you very much, Mrs Desai.

CHAIRPERSON: Mrs Desai, thank you very much for coming here KRUGERSDORP HEARING TRC/GAUTENG



today. Like you said, you had to think deeply before you came. What we found remarkable in the eight months that we have been having public hearings, is the many people in our country who have come forward, from all sides, who have lost something either in terms of a person, a loved one or lost time, like yourself, that period that - I don't think you could have ever imagined that that would have happened to you. You have said that so eloquently yourself. But what is remarkable is that how little bitterness people hold within themselves, and you, to me, are testimony to that as well. I thank you very much for coming and we wish you well in the future. Thank you very much.

MRS A DESAI: Thank you.