Phyllis Naidoo: Activist who fought to end apartheid

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The Independent Online

I first met Phyllis Naidoo backstage in Zimbabwe 25 years ago, when she was the ANC's representative at an Amnesty International concert in Harare. Sting was preparing to take the stage but she grabbed him, hugged him, and said: "Sting! Give it to Botha [the apartheid president]"

Sting feigned alarm, saying. "I'm not sure I want to give anything to Botha." She punched him lightly on the arm, wagged her finger and sent him on his way, before whispering to me, "You see, you got to push them a bit."

Naidoo made it her business to push people – friends as well as enemies. She was once asked by an academic interviewer whether she was regarded as a "difficult" woman. "Scandalous!" she replied, laughing.

The apartheid government certainly regarded her that way but so did many of her comrades, friends and family, who saw her as rather too wayward because she had little respect for conservative conventions about how women should behave – and was renowned for being straightforward with her opinions, even with the rich and powerful.

Her grandparents had both been indentured Indian labourers, but by the time she was born, the first of 10 children, her father, Simon David, had risen to become a teacher, and later became a school principal. He was a politically liberal, socially austere Methodist, so he encouraged her to debate and question, but banned her from parties.

After matriculating in 1945 Phyllis went to work for the Friends of the Sick Association, and trained as a TB nurse. She also became involved with the Trotskyist Non-European Unity Movement, and, aged 20, got married as a "way out of my very conservative home". She soon realised this was a mistake, divorced and abandoned religion – and she began to break societal conventions by wearing trousers all the time, smoking and behaving in a way that caused a seven-year rift with her father. She earned her keep by working as a teacher, and at the same time completed a degree at the University of Natal.

In the mid-1950s she threw herself into activism, initially by raising funds for treason trialists – the 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, who were tried for treason between 1956 and 1961 – and helping people banished to remote areas. She joined the ANC-aligned Natal Indian Congress and, later, the South African Communist Party and married one of the young party leaders, MD Naidoo, whose family objected because she was divorcee from a Christian background.

Initially, her work focused on the underground, helping "comrades'" escape the country, a role that became even more vital after the ANC was banned in 1960. She was "banned" and put under house arrest in 1966, while her husband was severely tortured and then jailed on Robben Island.

Phyllis was warned by underground leaders to flee the country, but she took her chances and remained at home, while continuing to assist others to leave. During the 10 years of her banning order her home was raided 14 times by the security police.

Unable to work, she studied law and when her banning order was finally lifted in 1976 she set up her own practice, using it to defend several ANC members, while employing several ex-prisoners, including future president Jacob Zuma. When MD was released from prison in 1972, she admitted to him that she'd had an affair, prompting a bitter divorce battle. She lost custody of her two sons, Sadhan and Sha, who, soon after, joined their father in exile in London, but she retained custody of her daughter, Sukthie.

Because of her underground work, Naidoo was forced to flee into exile in Lesotho in 1977. Two years later she was severely injured by a parcel bomb sent by the apartheid security police. Her body was badly scarred and her hearing was affected.

Warned that she was about to be assassinated in 1983, "Aunt Phil", as she was known by then, moved to Zimbabwe, where she wrote speeches for ANC leaders, did political work for the ANC's military wing and lectured in law at the University of Zimbabwe.

In 1989 she learned that her eldest son, Sadhan, had been murdered by an apartheid agent on a farm in Tanzania. She returned to South Africa when the ANC was unbanned in 1990, but soon after, her second son, Sha, died after a long illness.

Grief-stricken, she turned down the offer to become an ANC MP, and instead worked with political and criminal prisoners on death row, while campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty (it was finally abolished in 1995). This became the subject of Waiting to Die in Pretoria, the first of seven books, published over the next 20 years.

Following heart surgery she was placed on a ventilator for several weeks, but slipped into a coma and died of heart failure.

Phyllis David, political activist, lawyer and academic: born Estcourt, Natal, South Africa 5 January 1928; married firstly Willie Joseph (one son deceased); secondly Mooroogiah (MD) Naidoo (divorced 1977; two sons deceased, and one daughter), died Durban, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa 13 February 2013.