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Book explores role of Indian youth in anti-apartheid struggle

South African activist Ismail Vadi's new book is about the Lenasia Youth League and the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s

Ismail Vadi's ‘Young Lions of Lenz’. Courtesy the author's Twitter handle
Ismail Vadi's ‘Young Lions of Lenz’. Courtesy the author's Twitter handle

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A new book by veteran South African historian and political activist Ismail Vadi documents the role of Indian youth in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, largely through the activism of students in the sprawling suburb of Lenasia, south of Johannesburg.

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The book, titled Young Lions of Lenz, marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Lenasia Youth League (LYL).

It uses a style of both archival research and first-person accounts from many of the youth of that era, some of whom now occupy leading positions in the democratic government, business, academia and the professional sector.

Lenasia was created in the 1950s to forcibly resettle thousands of Indian families who had lived in various suburbs of Johannesburg for decades since their forebears first arrived from India from the 1860s inwards.

Indian-origin author Vadi, who was also a part of the youth movement at the time, served in the South African Parliament and as transport minister in the Gauteng Provincial government before his retirement.

Among the LYL leaders still serving in public office are Kuben Naidoo, Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank; Sharmaine Balton, Judge of the High Court; Neeshan Balton, Executive Director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation; Prof Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University: and Ismail Momoniat, Acting Director-General of the National Treasury.

“To the credit of the founders of the League, they stressed the importance of academic development of its members even as they engaged actively in the national liberation struggle in South Africa. In this, they demonstrably rejected the misguided slogan ‘Liberation before Education’, Vadi said.

“The youth were the torchbearers of the liberation struggle in the 1980s and the book celebrates the contributions of a new generation in the freedom struggle,” he said.

Vadi was commenting on the fact that the generation before this one had all been detained or imprisoned under the draconian apartheid-era security laws of the white minority government.

“It’s important to record the local history of a community’s struggle against apartheid,” Vadi shared as he explained how 4,000 students from the four high schools in Lenasia at the time staged protests en masse against the discriminatory education practices that were inferior to those in white schools.

The action led to the formation of LYL, which in turn inspired youth from all communities across the country to rise up against apartheid.

“It had a relatively small membership compared to other youth formations of the time such as the Soweto Youth Congress (SOYCO), but its political influence was felt directly for over a decade in the community and more broadly in South Africa.

Although the LYL was disbanded in 1991 when it was replaced by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in Lenasia, members used that experience to participate in building a post-apartheid South Africa.

In his foreword, Mandla Nkomfe, who was a member of the Soweto Youth Congress in the huge Black township neighbouring Lenasia, and currently Deputy Chairperson of the Board of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, lauded the role of the LYL members.

“The thread that goes through this account is of young activists who were so moved by the injustices and oppression that visited their communities and their fellow countrymen and women that they made a lifelong commitment to socio-political transformation in South Africa.

“These campaigns helped to build a national movement against apartheid and later the creation of a united, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa,” Nkomfe said. 

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