Avishkar Govender
Avishkar Govender

An interview with my grandfather

Soobrie Pillay, the 90-year-old stalwart of the Congress Movement, who through his humble position as the head barman of the West End Hotel, on the corner of Dr Yusuf Dadoo (Grey) Street and Dr Monty Naicker Road (Pine Street), selflessly provided, over 60 between 1933 and 1995, protection and aid to generations of political activists and trade unionists. They were drawn to the area by the publications from Lakhani Chambers and meetings at Curries Fountain and in the Red Square; bordering Dr AB Xuma Street has once again endorsed the African National Congress for the local government elections in 2011.

Pillay — who is also a hero of the non-racial football movement in South Africa — having, together with his brother, been heavily involved in the nationwide success of Aces United Football Club from the 1940s, has endorsed the ANC in what many pundits have called an interesting yet early endorsement.

Pillay, whose comrades and fellows include many of the people whose names demarcate the streets of Durban, has in the past been sharply critical of the slow pace of service delivery, the endemic corruption and the extremely factional nature of ANC politics. He has said that, “we didn’t make the sacrifices we made and prioritise the community development we did, for the state of the opportunity for education to be as marginal as it is now. We need better education, and I hope that the ANC that we all fought for, in our own way, and through its various congresses; will be able to realise that dream”.

Pillay, who has literally in his lifetime been the head barman to the revolution, and has no doubt heard many a confidential story from many an enthusiastic customer, recalls having dispatched orders to Lakhani chambers in the middle and late 1940s when the congresses and the three doctors were focusing their combined efforts to oppose apartheid. It was, after all, these movements of multi-congress unity that led from the 1940s to the Congress of the People in 1955 and the Freedom Charter against the background of a white South Africa that moved from racist to genocidal in 1948.

Pillay recalls that the 1950s and 1960s were no less turbulent times, but that the method of operation for all of the activists had already been determined, and that the formations of activists and their operations echoed the sentiments of those late night discussions at the West End in the 1940s. By and large, the congress network had begun to become interwoven across race, religion and cultural barriers, as the revolution moved between the Dadoo-Naicker Streets Corner and the racialised and dormitory suburbs scattered across Durban railing against the entrenchment of economic racism.

Soobrie, as his regulars called him, became legendary throughout Durban as the highest paid barman in Durban. From the age of 35 — in 1956 at the West End Hotel — he earned more from his arduous eighteen-hour shifts than most white barmen and bar managers at other premium white hotels. He was known to be the champion of the underdog and the little guy, in times of need Soobrie was always willing to lend a hand to help those in need. The political activists who were among those whom Soobrie protected were just some of them. From the market to the West End, many a trader called upon Soobrie with need of assistance and protection from gangsters and thugs looking to give them a hard time.

Unfortunately for these thugs, Soobrie had spent his youth in wrestling and boxing, and was not afraid to take anyone on in the name of defending what was right and protecting the innocent. And many a gangster and thug hit the pavement after stepping out of line at Soobrie’s Corner. So legendary was the supremacy of Soobrie as one of the Dons of Grey Street, that he had the white security police constantly visiting the West End in the 1970s and the 1980s, looking for the activists that Soobrie was rumoured to have been protecting.

Soobrie Pillay — having stood his ground and held the frontline of his family’s dining room and bar at the West End Hotel from the early 1930s as a 12-year old — soon had these white policemen under complete control, diverting their attention where needed, giving them some brandy when they asked, and in general ensuring that the activists they were looking for were able to get on with their work and evade arrest.

So when Soobrie Pillay, who has literally observed first-hand every step of the process of liberation from the legacy of the formation of the Congress Movements to the cooperation of the Congresses and the Unions to the armed struggle against genocidal apartheid to the unbanning of the ANC and the transition to democracy, says that he is voting ANC and that he would not vote for any other party, we have to take this very seriously.

After all, it is no secret that Soobrie was also very close friends with a number of his fellow Indian and Tamil community leaders, who for their own reasons had decided to participate in the South African Indian Council and later the House of Delegates, and while Soobrie did not support these politics, he supported the courage of the community in stepping forward to build their own clinics, schools, temples and community centres. So when he says that he won’t be voting for the DA or Minority Front; when Soobrie says that the Congress of the People is a “con job”; when Soobrie says that the other parties don’t have proper policies and solutions, and that their leaders, like Patricia de Lille, should join the ANC, we have to take that very seriously.

Pillay commented that the IFP and the ANC were to his knowledge one party, and that the IFP had been started as an internal wing of the ANC, much as the Liberals had sought to be — within the constraints of the apartheid system — and that he was sure that one day soon the IFP and the ANC would reunite, citing the leadership of Prince Buthelezi as having saved South Africa from civil war many a time.

Pillay — an enthusiastic football supporter — is looking forward to a brilliant Soccer World Cup and said that the Fifa 2010 was a victory in itself for the new South Africa and marked a turning point in the progress of non-racial football. Pillay remarked: “When Aces came to me, they had nothing, no uniforms, no boots, no coach, no training, nothing. I invested my own money to buy what was needed and used my own influence to organise a regimen and recruit talented players, getting them jobs where possible and making the team work.”

He continued: “The success of Aces speaks for itself, but these days, football is all about the money, in our days the players played football as a form of athletic expression, it was a way of protesting against a regime that told us we weren’t good enough to be equal citizens.” Soobrie remembers the days of the Sam China and the Mainstay Cups, the thrill of Curries Fountain match days, the West End being packed to the rafters with post match celebrations, or sorrow drownings and the constant football vibe that permeated everything.

“We need education,” declares the retired hotelier, “we need education”. “Give the people education and then they won’t need to work 18 hours a day in dangerous conditions and they will be able to live their lives and be the things that they want to be”. He returned to the matter of the ANC, and said, “this fellow Zuma, he has some good ideas, but he needs help, he needs support, service delivery needs to be improved”.

“But only the ANC, has the vision,” he continues, “we have seen what the others can do and we see what the DA is doing in Cape Town, yes, well it’s fine, it’s one thing to run the ship efficiently, but what about the poor people, the bergies and street people are suffering in Cape Town, too many homeless people”. And Soobrie should know all about the need for this sort of compassion, having donated to and founded a number of community, educational and religious organisations over the years like Fosa, Arutpah Kazhagam, Tamil Federation, Divine Life Society, Boys Town, NTVS and numerous temples.

“Together we can do more, that’s why we have all, and there is a legion of us senior community leaders, who have been involved with advancing our culture and our religion over the years, taken the position over the years that we must give and contribute and invest in our communities for the betterment of the people.” Over the years Soobrie has received numerous awards and tokens of gratitude from various organisations and movements in Durban and most recently he was recognised in 2007 for his sterling lifelong contribution to the Tamil community by the NTVS Trust.

“Over the last six years, I have been involved with a community based education project being run at the Hindu Tamil Institute Building, which is owned by the NTVS Trust, the Thiru Valluvar Centre I think it’s called; we have taken a position that says we don’t want corruption, that we see corruption as the reason for poor service delivery, and we have set an example to the whole of Durban … we are not going to tolerate corruption, no matter where it is, because we have found a better way, a way to operate constituency operations without donations, it’s called WNPCs or something like that, I forget. But that is the way forward for South Africa.”

When asked about his current activities, Pillay replied that he had retired in 1995, when he and his fellow directors sold the West End Hotel, and that he suffered the tragic loss of his son Rajen Pillay, who had followed in Soobrie’s footsteps and had entered the hospitality industry and become football mad, soon thereafter, and that he had from then to now, been involved with his community work as a trustee of a number of community organisations and temples and that he had in the main been watching a lot of very good football, and taking the time to watch his large family grow with the opportunities for education that he had not had, having started work at the age of twelve, when his father had died.

Billy Nair, the late Billy Nair, who had been a customer of mine for many years, came to see me in 1990, he said Soobrie we need help, the ANC needs an office in Durban. I sent him to see my son, Rajen, at the Mermaid at Teacher’s Centre and he helped Billy to set up an office with the help of the Teachers’ Society who owned that building. After that all the activists moved from Fried Fish and Curry & Rice at the West End to the a la carte menu at the Mermaid,” Soobrie says with a chuckle, “By 1995, there was no feasibility in the West End’s hotel and bar trade, so we sold it and by 1994 we had set up the Mermaid as the premier catering business in Durban, at the Durban Station, it’s just a shame my son threw his life away.”

Pillay said that he made the choice to leave the liquor industry, to focus on the food business in 1999, when he discussed new directions for his hospitality business with a few of his grandchildren. From those discussions came what is today known as Durban Bunny Chow, a job creation which has been designed to help young people particularly of young people of colour to enter the hospitality industry with little or no money or training, and in the process take Durban’s humble bunny chow to global standards.

“Community activism is a calling, a dedication to faith and a belief in your own potential. Nothing in life comes easy or free, grasp opportunities with both hands and make the most of your education, we need young people who have what it takes to stand up and be counted among the world’s best, we South Africans are a winning nation, and we can be all that we aspire to be, but we need to put aside our troubles and our strife, to focus on developing our capacities and improving our service delivery,” said Soobrie meditatively before standing to leave, “Now if you will excuse me I have some matters which need my attention”, he said before adding, “just make sure you give the youth the message, LEARN !!! That’s the only way to make this country great, that’s why I’m still voting ANC, in 2011, because together we have done a great deal and together we can do much more”.