Book on teenage South African Gandhian martyr launched

Updated: Mar 15, 2012, 15:05 PM IST

A new book on the life of a young Tamil girl who marched alongside Mahatma Gandhi in his Passive Resistance movement in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century has been launched here.

Valiamma Munusamy was just 16 when she died and has been proclaimed a martyr for the cause after refusing to leave the dark, dank prison where she and scores of others were being detained.

Gandhi had negotiated with General Jan Smuts for her release on humanitarian grounds due to her serious illness, but Smuts would only release Munusamy if she apologised for opposing his government, which she refused to do.

In his book, celebrated South African author Aziz Hassim used a narrative style after extensive research to bring Munusamy`s story to life.

The Tamil Federation of South Africa spent several years with support from the Indian High Commission here at the dawn of democracy in 1994 to find Munusamy`s unmarked grave in a local cemetery. In the process, they also discovered the nearby grave of Swami Nagappen, a male youth who had also died while marching with Gandhi.

"More significantly, the search process also located the grave of Enoch Sontonga, the composer of Nkosi Sikilele Afrika, the basis for the national anthems of several African countries and now also of South Africa," said Yana Pillay, who was part of the determined team that set out on the mission against great odds.

All three graves are now important heritage sites where the Federation lays special wreaths each year on 16 June, celebrated in South Africa as a public holiday called Youth day.

Passive resistance in South Africa has been closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy. As early as 1906, he led the Indian community in South Africa in acts of passive resistance. In later years there were further passive resistance campaigns by the Indian community.

Hassim called for a bust of Valiamma to be installed at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which is being erected as a centre to record the history of non racialism in South Africa.

"South Africa has no such commemoration of the young heroine`s sacrifice, even though there is in Chennai in India and in Malaysia," Hassim said.

Executive Secretary of the Foundation Shan Balton confirmed that this would be arranged, perhaps with support from the Indian government.