20 July 2024

By Imraan Buccus

This February marks 20 years since the passing of  political activist and bibliophile Abdul Khalek Mohamed (AKM) Docrat. To paraphrase the titles of his comrade Phyllis Naidoo’s books, his footprints are forever etched in Grey Street, Durban.

It was in that Casbah area that Docrat spent most of his life agitating against the colonial and apartheid regimes.

A lifelong communist, his body was caged and constrained. Docrat spent 28 years under restriction orders effectively house arrest from the 1960s until 1990. His mind, however, was as free as the birds that swooped in on his crowded Casbah flat. It was never crowded with people though. First on account of his restriction orders. And second, on account of the fact that it was packed to the rafters with books and papers.

Docrat eked out a living buying and selling books. That was barely a living for he sold little and read a great deal. Few can claim to be as well read as he was. He devoured everything in sight. From newspapers to poetry to the classics of revolutionary literature. His Lenin caricature fitted him to the hilt. Goatee beard, beret and a book or newspaper under the arm.

In his latter years, a walking stick helped him get around. In the few hours that his restriction orders let him out of his flat, he would animatedly trot around picking up newspapers and books. The newspaper vendors were part of his tight network of informers and couriers.

Messages were transmitted back and forth from comrades in the banned South African Communist Party and ANC as well as the Natal Indian Congress and United Democratic Front. Most of his closest comrades were under similar restrictions.

Phyllis Naidoo used to tell how she would pull up in a parallel queue to Docrat at the police station. Regular reporting was part of their banning orders. They could also not communicate with each other on account of the restrictions.

Pretending to be hard of hearing she would holler at the top of her voice to the policeman or someone else in the queue. On one occasion she hollered about Govan Mbeki’s legs being swollen on Robben Island and him needing medication.

With Docrat picking up the message, it got transmitted through the network. Such messages made their way through to organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross who could raise questions with the apartheid authorities and get permission for medical attention for political prisoners.

Docrat was a great documentalist and archivist. He was meticulous about clipping notices about arrests and banning orders from the newspapers. Those literally ran into thousands upon thousands.

With the ANC and SACP banned, very few resources existed to collate such information and tally up the numbers in apartheid prisons or under banning orders.

As a tribute to Docrat, Phyllis Naidoo copied the bulk of these clip- pings and placed them in a folio that was presented to the Gandhi Luthuli Documentation Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

That archive has formidable holdings of the liberation history of South Africa.

Another of Docrat’s traits was that he would slip tickets and invitation cards into his books and forget about them. He kept everything from the entrance stub to a soccer match to an invitation to an event with Indira Nehru, daughter of then Indian prime minister and later the prime minister herself.

Before and after his death Docrat’s book collection was broken up, passed around or sold off to people who had an appreciation for the historic and intellectual value of his holdings. It would have been wonderful if it had been kept together as a resource for the nation to look back on an important period in our history.

There is no monument or plaque to remind us of Doctor’s time in the Casbah. He perhaps would not have wanted it any other way. His spirit remains alive in Red Square, now the Nicol Square parkade at the intersection of Dr AB Xuma (Com- mercial), Yusuf Dadoo (Grey) and Monty Naicker (Pine) streets named after his ANC, SACP and NIC con- temporaries and comrades.

Red Square was a hive of political activity, especially for the Indian community in the years before the banning of the ANC. Weekend meetings were addressed by leaders standing on a makeshift stage fashioned out of the flatbed of a truck.

An elated Nelson Mandela taken there covertly by his university friend IC Meer observed a meeting from the shadows. Mandela remarked on the amazing ability of his Indian comrades to mass mobilise people into activism.

Docrat was among those detained in the wake of the state of emergency after the Sharpeville Massacre.

He was also among the organisers of the March 1961, All-in African Conference held in Pietermaritzburg and attended by 1 400 delegates representing 145 religious, cultural, peasant, intellectual and political bodies.

That conference called for a national convention of elected representatives. It also elected Nelson Mandela as secretary of the National Action Council. It was the last public meeting addressed by Mandela before his arrest on August 5, 1962 in Howick.

Docrat distinguished himself as an uncompromising non-racialist and a revolutionary. He belongs in the annals of South African freedom as one who fought for our democracy.  The old man is no doubt beaming from his library in the sky.

Dr Buccus is editor of Al-Qalam.

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