Obituary: Nimrod Sejake

Black South African workers’ leader and fighter for socialism

The cwi is sad to announce the death of Nimrod Sejake, a life-long fighter against apartheid in South Africa, and a committed socialist. Nimrod died on 27 May 2004, aged 83 years.

During the 1950s, Nimrod was a black workers’ leader in South Africa under the former apartheid regime, a leading member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and of the ANC in the Soweto Township.

Forced into exile, Nimrod eventually arrived in Ireland in the 1980s. He became a supporter of the ‘Militant’, the forerunner of the Socialist Party (CWI affiliate), and joined the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC.

Nimrod was a well-known and loved figure on the left in Ireland. He regularly travelled across the country, south and north, to speak at public meetings on the struggle of the black South African working class. Nimrod also regularly attended international meetings throughout Europe. At all times, he was an inspiration, particularly to youth.

Following the removal of the apartheid regime in the 1990s, Nimrod was eventually allowed to return to South Africa. But for Nimrod the struggle was not over, once back in South Africa he continued to campaign for a socialist society.

The following is an obituary article on Nimrod that recently appeared in the ‘Irish Times’ newspaper. It indicates the stature Nimrod has in Ireland, amongst the anti-apartheid movement and the left.

Tireless activist who spent 30 years in exile

From the Irish Times, 19/06/2004

Nimrod Sejake: Nimrod Sekeramane Sejake, who has died aged 83, was a South African political refugee in Ireland during the 1980s, when he became widely known in trade union and socialist circles for his campaigning work to raise the profile of the new South African unions.

Born in August 1920 in Evaton, south of Johannesburg, to Basotho parents, he attended mission school in Evaton, worked as building site clerk, trained as a teacher, married, and settled in Jabavu, Soweto.

As the National Party came to power in 1949 and sought to impose unprecedented racial discrimination under the rubric "apartheid", Sejake joined the opposition. Noted for his ability as a union organiser, he became secretary of the non-racial, though mainly African, Iron and Steel Workers Union, affiliated to the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). His militant, uncompromising approach is recorded in Organise or Starve, the history of SACTU.

Sejake joined the African National Congress (ANC) and was active throughout the 1950s in its increasingly radical Defiance Campaign of demonstrations, strikes and burning of the hated pass books. He was active also in the Congress of the People of 1955 when the ANC proclaimed the Freedom Charter at Kliptown.

Sejake shared a cell with Nelson Mandela, when they were both arrested with 156 leaders of the ANC, SACTU and the Communist Party (SACP), accused of treason in the famous treason trial of 1956-61. The NP government sought the death penalty for treason and, as oppression intensified, limiting the possibilities for legal political work, Sejake and others left the country through the then Basutoland for training in the Soviet Union. The treason trial accused were acquitted but the die was cast and Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, was founded to begin armed struggle against the apartheid regime.

Sejake spent a period studying Marxism in the USSR. He had been influenced by a teacher in Evaton in the 1930s, Johannes Nkosi, a leading member of the Communist Party. Nkosi had been sent to the Soviet Union where he fell foul of the Stalinist teachers and died in suspicious circumstances. Like others of the ANC and similar liberation movements, Sejake found that only the "communist" states were prepared to provide arms and training, whatever criticisms they had of the system were not voiced then.

Sejake returned to Africa as political commissar in the ANC training camp in Morogoro, Tanzania. He was convinced of the central role of the organised working class in the liberation of South Africa, and insisted their priority should be to send trained activists back to organise militant trade unions to bring down the regime. Such views led to a clash with the more conservative exiled leadership which prioritised the armed struggle and appeals to the United Nations.

Sejake was removed from his post. The President, Julius Nyerere, ordered his expulsion from Tanzania, a decision probably influenced by Mr Sejake’s involvement in a Marxist circle at Dar es Salaam University which was critical of Nyerere’s "Ujaama", or African Socialism. Participants included Zanzibarian A. M. Babu, later jailed by Nyerere, and Walter Rodney, author of the influential How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and assassinated by the CIA in Guyana in the 1970s.

Exiled to Zambia, Sejake worked with the South African Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and travelled to China and Albania, seeking support for the organisation, before being deported to Egypt, where he lived in poverty while appealing for political asylum in Europe. In these difficult times, he was greatly heartened by the uprising of the South African school students in Soweto, 1976 and by the rapid growth of the independent trade unions.

In the late 1970s, Sejake was offered asylum in three European countries and chose Ireland, remembering that his sister worked for an Irish family as a domestic servant. They treated her well and he was impressed when they told her Ireland was a country oppressed by the British Empire!

Living in the Red Cross Hostel in Ballsbridge, Sejake loved Ireland and never experienced racial abuse. He attended agms of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement but was disappointed to find no recognition of the now hugely significant independent unions. He found kindred thinkers in the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party [forerunners of the Socialist Party] which had direct links, through South African exiles, with these rapidly growing unions. A "retying of the knot", he would say, after 25 years in exile.

He devoted himself energetically to solidarity work with the struggle in South Africa, speaking at meetings the length and breadth of Ireland and Britain, taking particular pleasure in engaging with young people. He made speaking tours throughout Europe, the US and Brazil, and during the 1984/85 anti-apartheid strike at Dunnes Stores, was regularly found on the picket line.

In 1989 he spoke by phone to his wife and family with whom he had not been in contact for 30 years. The ANC was legalised, Mandela walked free, and the exiles returned, although his own return was delayed for months when he refused to complete the application for indemnity. He complained, "they are asking me which crimes I wish to be indemnified for!" Eventually he returned to South Africa in November 1991.

Reunited with his family, though 71 years of age, Sejake again threw himself into the struggle and was elected secretary of the Soweto ANC Veterans League and led delegations from Evaton to Pretoria to seek compensation for land seized during the 1950s. He also re-established links with the workers in heavy industry through the Metal and Allied Workers Union.

Although he voted for the ANC in the 1994 election, he insisted that the massive vote for the party would not be enough to transform life for the poor in South Africa. He remained a committed socialist and marxist, believing that only the overthrow of capitalist economic relations would end inequality and he was involved in campaigning for the Congress of South African Trade Unions to build a mass workers party.

Nimrod Sejake: born August 8th, 1920; died May 27th, 2004.

© The Irish Times

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June 2004