Living on

The Indian activist ES Reddy led the fight against South African apartheid at the UN. More importantly, his life reflected the best of left internationalism.

Image credit Yutaka Nagata for UN Photo.

For over four decades, ES Reddy led international opposition to apartheid, then turned to chronicling, interpreting, and keeping alive its internationalist connections, even as his health waned. He died November 1 at age 96. Reddy was also known for helping out students of South Africa’s anti-apartheid history. In that work, he reminded researchers and revolutionaries alike that socio-political change works best when we cooperate. “I feel satisfaction when I can help researchers,” he wrote in an early exchange to me. Maybe it was his own dissertation, left unfinished when he transitioned to full-time advocacy. Or the opportunity to, once again, connect a global cadre of like-minded people. Perhaps it satisfied restlessness in his busy nonagenarian mind.

His death marks another in a line of passings in 2020 of activists tied to South Africa’s struggle for human dignity. George Bizos, Andrew Mlangeni, and Dennis Goldberg took with them a proximity to the iconic Rivonia Trial. On the other side of the Atlantic, US citizens mourned civil rights icon John Lewis and lawyer-activist-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These deaths represented not just those individuals, but the collective remembrance of struggles such as that against the global color line that we told ourselves had been won against all odds. So, too, does that of ES.

Enuga Sreenivasulu (“ES from now on,” he sternly told researchers) was born in India and grew up watching his father’s arrests for protesting British occupation. Ramachandra Guha has written of the young man’s own youthful agitations. Reddy became interested in anti-apartheid work during the 1940s, then earned a Master’s degree at New York University. In the midst of his PhD in Political Science at Columbia, he joined the United Nations, eventually serving as secretary and then chair of its Special Committee Against Apartheid. He managed the organization’s efforts to pressure South Africa’s apartheid state into dissolution. Beyond that, he ran the UN Trust Fund for South Africa, a respectable-looking organization that veritably laundered money into the country’s internal struggle. Its contributors included states like the US and UK, whose governments often sympathized with the National Party, and its beneficiaries included South Africa’s national leaders, particularly when they faced trial or persecution.

“Over the years I took some personal risks,” he told journalist Dennis Herbstein. “I could have been fired if all I was doing was known.” Amid these, it was easy to become discouraged, disillusioned even, as was often true in the face of apartheid’s domestic and international brutality. Commitment to international solidarity and the memory of his family’s own early struggles kept Reddy working. “Even if there was a victory—e.g. a court judgment—the government would pass a law undoing it,” he added. “People were being jailed and banned. Many people were displaced. That was frustrating. In India, too, there was a long struggle for freedom. That kept me going. That was true of hundreds of thousands of activists.”

Much ink has been spilled on the contributing factors to apartheid’s demise: internal resistance, political isolation, economic boycotts, the collapse of the Cold War. Through all of those ran the current of the Special Committee. It hosted Namibians and South Africans petitioning the UN, connecting them with donor and support networks. It coordinated a global response to racist policies that South Africa argued were purely domestic. In moments of jail and banning, exile and assassination, it provided camaraderie.

By the time ES retired, apartheid had become an international cause cèlebrè. The connections he built coalesced into a movement that captivated politicians, celebrities, and hundreds of thousands of activists—from students to veterans of civil rights movements. His work undone, he turned to board memberships and research. According to Ismail Vadi, who was an activist in the South African United Democratic Front, ES’s manuscripts numbered more than 50 at the time of his death, including a remembrance of Oliver Tambo. More than that, he became an information trove in dozens of studies on South Africa’s liberation movement. As a 22-year-old Master’s student, I found his suggestion of a writing topic so fascinating that it followed from thesis to dissertation and, finally, a book that I was so glad he read during his final months. As a veritable research assistant, he made interview contacts, rustled up personal papers and hidden documents, and read drafts for dozens of young researchers. It was a work he seemed to relish, not because it involved naval gazing at the good times, but because it gave him an opportunity to once again connect people and mentor young folks interested in studying and implementing the types of socio-political change about which he was so passionate.

The internationalism of which he was part, that which fought against one of the world’s most notorious examples of systemic racism amid Cold War exacerbations, seems almost quaint. From my vantage point in a US that came so close during the week of Reddy’s death to re-electing an openly xenophobic man to whom Haiti, El Salvador, and all of Africa itself are “shitholes,” a US that has left international cooperative efforts such as the World Health Organization or the Paris Climate Agreement, this brand of global cooperation indeed looks quaint and distant. To ES, however, that was never the case. It was hard fought, hard built, hard won. The forum he constructed allowed voices from the global South to be elevated against those from the global North in whose financial capital he operated. It facilitated opportunities for some of those northern actors to circumvent their own governments in crafting more humane foreign policy. It internalized the lessons of struggle and non-violence from his birthplace, combined with an admiration for the bravery of South Africans, and built a worldwide movement that rendered the seemingly impossible ending of apartheid into “The Miracle.”

The loss of ES and his comrades is not complete. They live in the systems they changed, in the scholarship they facilitated for the purpose of remembering these very lessons. In our own heady times, these are lessons we would do well to internalize, too.

Further Reading