December 11, 1998

Spirits of apartheid foes live on

South Africa's past not easily forgotten

by Lucianna Ciccocioppo
Folio Staff

Indira Haripersad

For Indira Haripersad, listening to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu speak was like listening to her father all over again. "My father was a quiet, unassuming man, gentle and shy. But he was very passionate about what he did and what needed to be done in South Africa."

Haripersad's parents, George and Vera Ponnen, battled South Africa's apartheid system all their lives. As members of the Communist party and African National Congress (ANC), and as pillars of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, the Ponnens were the first man and woman to be banned in their province, Natal, now known as KwaZulu Natal. It created a ridiculous situation, says Haripersad. "Banned people were not allowed to speak to each other." They had to check in with police every day and could only travel within a certain perimeter.

Nevertheless, the Ponnen household in Durban, was a hub of anti-apartheid and trade union activity from 1940 to1966, an accessible site because they lived in an "undeclared area" where all races could meet. It was a necessity for the Ponnens: George was a South African of East Indian descent; Vera was a British Jew. She was classified as East Indian by the government after her marriage. Many thought she was shopping with her maid's children when out with her own in the streets of Durban.

While Haripersad and her sister cooked and cleaned for the many guests that walked through their home, the Ponnens conducted meeting after meeting for ANC members, Communists, Marxists and Leninists, trade unionists and anyone else fighting for change.

"We grew up surrounded by this," says Haripersad, a staff development and training officer for U of A libraries, an experience that she says influences her role helping people to better themselves. But despite every corner filled will atheists, "We had a huge Christmas tree at the house, with ornaments and lots of presents," she says with a laugh. In a county filled with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, theirs was a community "church" of freedom-fighters, not worshippers.

It was a fight that saw her father jailed in solitary confinement and tortured for 113 days in 1964. He escaped and fled the country a year later using the "underground railroad" to get to Botswana and join the ANC in exile there. She remembers her father hugging his granddaughter and saying goodbye to everyone, although she didn't understand why at the time. "It's a picture that stays in my mind forever," says Haripersad. Vera Ponnen joined her husband shortly after.

The governmental eyes soon turned towards Haripersad and her sister.

A school teacher at the time, Haripersad says she was constantly harassed by police, looking for information about her parents and their whereabouts. The disruptions at her school became too much. "We left for vacation to Zambia in 1968 and never returned." Three years later, she, her husband and two children landed in Toronto, then Edmonton in 1976. The Ponnens were also in Canada at this time. George continued his fight against injustices in South Africa, a fight he began when he was 10, travelling to East Germany and Holland to drum up support for ANC members in Tanzania.

Haripersad admits she never thought she'd see the day things would change in South Africa but remembers being "totally elated" when the apartheid system fell apart. "I just couldn't believe it. I was grateful at least one parent was alive to see it." Despite her father's ill health, George Ponnen returned to South Africa to cast his ballot and then attend the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, by personal invitation. It was South Africa he chose for his final resting ground, this time returning in victory.

The desire to go back to South Africa to help those caught in the aftermath of the apartheid system has been tempting, says Haripersad. "There are millions of people without education, without marketable skills.and it manifests itself in violence. People want a better life." She's been offered training and development opportunities with the ANC and with the military. "But I sat down and looked at everything I have here (two children and grandchildren). Spiritually and intellectually, I'm part of South Africa. Emotionally, Canada is my home."

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