Fine minds forced to render service abroad

Saturday, 28 October 1995

My mother has a copper covered elephant statuette with a broken trunk. It's the only souvenir of my trip into Zimbabwe of January 1984, when I shared petrol costs with a friend to drive up from Johannesburg.

I was 22 years old, drinking in the wonders of a country that looked so much like my home, but where the police and the defence force were not my enemies, and the populace walked the streets without the look of the hunted.

And serving to reinforce the home-away-from-home feeling, I found three generations of South Africans — I laughingly referred to them as "the new colonials" — who had set up home in Zimbabwe.

Govan Reddy was of the younger generation. He was 39 years old at the time, a former Durban academic, historian, and journalist who had left South Africa in March 1981 shortly before his banning order was due to expire. He skipped the country by illegally crossing the border into Swaziland. Shortly thereafter, he became the first South African political refugee to be registered with the United Nations in Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, Reddy rose to prominence as a radio and television journalist with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, handling current affairs on the mainly educational Radio Four while doubling as an interviewer on Sunday's prime time The Nation.

Dr Kesavaloo Goonam was of the older generation. She wrote herself into South Africa's history books by becoming this country's first resident woman doctor in 1936, and was one of Durban's best known gynaecologists and obstetricians. On a trip to London, she handed in her passport for renewal at the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square and found it confiscated.

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Finding herself forced to start anew in her 70s, she became head of the geriatric ward at the Harare general hospital.

And of the middle generation, there was Manival Moodley. A former schoolteacher at Sastri College in Durban, he left the country after obtaining a BA in law as a part time student at the University of Natal. In 1957, he was admitted to the Inner Temple in London where he became a barrister after completing his articles. In September 1966, he took up an appointment as a resident magistrate in Lusaka, Zambia.

When he left that country in 1983, he had become a judge in the Zambian High Court.

He was 58 years old when I joined his family for dinner at their Harare home. He had written himself into Zimbabwe's history books by being named as the country's first ombudsman.

The government of Norway had pioneered the concept of the ombudsman whose purpose was to investigate the actions of any government ministry or department where it is alleged a person suffered injustice.

In Zimbabwe, the ombudsman had wide-ranging powers to order the production of documents and to compel government officials to supply information.

Perhaps it was his friendship with Prime Minister Robert Mugabe that had persuaded him to accept the post. He met Mugabe in Ghana in 1959 when he joined Adisadel College on the Cape Coast as a teacher. Mugabe was also teaching there at the time.

"When you are employed by the government to investigate the affairs of the government and ensure in effect that it doesn't step out of line, you are treading a fine path," he had said wryly.

Govan Reddy is today head of SABC Radio, realising the dream he had spoken of 12 years ago in Harare when he told me: "I believe it won't be long before freedom comes to South Africa, and when it does, I may return ..."

The evergreen Dr Goonam is back in Durban, retired from medical practice, but continuing to be as outspoken and inspirational as always.

Mr Justice Manival Moodley died this week at age 70. I had met him since his return, but was not able to have a conversation with him. He was too racked by the pain of the cancer that finally claimed his life.

His death marks the end of an era for me. The Zimbabwe of 12 years ago is now a distant dream, with the Mugabe I once admired for having the guts to appoint an ombudsman reduced to incoherent ramblings about homosexuals and Islamic fundamentalism.

But there's also a sharp reminder that some of our finest minds dedicated their lives in service to other countries because our own would not have them.