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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'Dancing to a Different Rhythm'

Zarina Maharaj

An interview with Zarina Maharaj by Zara Majidpour

There is an alternative inside history that comes not from historians but from men and women whose lives have been totally dedicated, at great personal risk, to political struggle. The testament of Zarina Maharaj and Mac Maharaj, given eloquently by her in this memoir is brave, and will be controversial. 1

Zarina Maharaj is the award-winning author of a memoir ‘Dancing to a Different Rhythm’, which is a woman’s perspective of what life was like in the ANC–in –exile, and in the years following South Africa’s new political dispensation.2

Zarina is a writer, film maker and freedom activist during of Apartheid regime in South Africa. She has a M.Sc in Mathematics from UK.

Her husband Mac Maharaj, a major figure in the South African freedom struggle worked closely with Nelson Mandela. In Mandela’s presidency he was Minster of Transport between 1994 -1999. He spend 12 years on Robben Island with him.

I interviewed Zarina Maharaj recently and I ask these questions:

Questions: You had been active in fighting Apartheid even before you met your husband. What led you become freedom activist?

Zarina Maharaj: My mother had a strong sense of social justice and from a very young age I absorbed her values. And when I was a young school girl I witnessed a lot of violence against black people - even very young whites were not afraid to attack older black people. This outraged me.

Q: How was your life with Mac Maharaj, who was deeply involved in the liberation movement especially Umkhonto We Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC), and a senior ANC member during the Apartheid regime?
Zarina: Life as the wife of a high-profile activist was very difficult indeed. First, political activists hardly had any time to be with their families so I was effectively a single parent. Second, the threat to his life was something that was always there, so we had to learn to overcome that kind of fear. Third, his high-profile activism made others see me not as a person in my own right but as nothing more than 'Mac's wife'. So that was quite a lot to deal with.
Q: You were involved in “operation Vula”. What was it all about and what was your role?

Zarina: 'Operation Vula' was meant to create a system which would allow leaders of the ANC living in exile to be infiltrated back into South Africa without the knowledge of the enemy so that the ANC could begin to lead from inside the country. The late President Oliver Tambo was the overall commander of this operation. He chose Mac as the internal commander to enter South Africa and to start the process of setting up the infiltration machinery.
. .
The Vula communications system which I helped devise and operate was a system that allowed cadres of the movement to communicate secretly with each other - using telephone lines - to send encrypted messages to each other. This was pre-email, but the messages could be sent and received almost in real time too.
Q: You made a film called film “Flat 13”. What made you interested in doing a film on the struggle against apartheid?

Zarina: The fact is that the new generation in South Africa knows little about the history of our struggle, so I wanted to find a way to tell a story about that struggle that would appeal to young people. Something that they wouldn't find boring. "Flat 13' is about an apartment where young people used to hang out, dance, party have fun and discuss politics and the idea of a free South Africa. It has been called the place where "the first seeds of non racialism were sown, and a wider concept of the nation came into being."
Q: Sixteen years after South Africa's democratic transformation, what do you think of the future of South Africa as a freedom activist?
Zarina: The Chinese say that when a bamboo has been trampled on for generations then it will take time for it to stand straight again. So I think there is a great chance that the future that we fought for will become a reality, but not overnight. It will be a process. But if you consider how long it's taken established Western democracies to become established, then even if it takes a generation to realize the democracy we fought for, that is not unusual.


This interview was translated into Persian (Farsi) and published in
Shahrzadnews website