OBITUARY | Dr Ram Saloojee was far ahead of his time
Dr Rashid Ahmed Mahmood Saloojee was 'a phenomenon'
In recent years, I have been musing a great deal about the phenomenon that the late Dr Rashid Ahmed Mahmood (Ram) Saloojee was. Yes, he was a phenomenon.
Most revolutionaries and political activists of the 1970s and 80s belonged to some or other ideology, tradition or pedigree. They came from the Congress tradition, belonged to the Black Consciousness movement, adhered to one or other Marxist variety, or were called upon by liberation theology.
Among these were people who professed superior knowledge of struggle history or those who could recite passages from revolutionary scriptures, or those who could give you chapter and verse of the Russian Revolution, or those who saw themselves as part of the international working class movement.
There were those who understood the “line” better than anyone else, those who were recipients of “instructions” from the ANC, and, those who had been “recruited”.
There were those who were “undisciplined”, those who were “reckless”, those who were “individualists”, those who were “divisive” and those who were “ambitious” ... the offences were many.
Ram, remarkably, did not fall into any of these categories. In his early years of activism, he was not part of any group think. He didn’t claim struggle credentials, or links to the ANC or a superior knowledge and understanding of revolutionary writings.
He was just morally outraged by injustice and wanted to actively fight it. He wanted to awaken and mobilise the community he lived in.
Straightforward, plain and simple.
He didn’t need theories to inform him what wrongs were being committed by the apartheid oppressor. He didn’t need anybody’s permission or instruction to speak out and fight the system.
He did not expend energy on waging war on any of the “isms”.
Unlike some, he did not see ideological debates within the broad left as a central feature of his activism. Nor did his dislike of dogma turn him into a purer than pure armchair critic. He was ever-so-ready to launch into action and lead from the front.
Right from the early 70s, Ram Saloojee’s activism was characterised by:
- making apartheid unworkable;
- mobilising the masses – the so called “mass approach”;
- identifying with the bread-and-butter needs of communities;
- not waiting for an instruction from above to do the right thing; and
- being action-orientated.
Ram did not pepper his language with quotes from Lenin or Fanon. He didn’t make regular reference to Gandhi or Dadoo. He appeared not to lazily fall back on the Freedom Charter to answer every and any question. It did not bother him that he could not boast that he attended the Congress of the People or that he participated in the Defiance Campaign.
He represented the spirit that made possible the mass uprising of the 1980s – an uprising whose scale, resilience and sophistication stands out as unique in revolutionary history.
I do remember him saying that he didn’t believe in any “isms”. To young left-wing activists fired by revolutionary zeal, this statement did not make a particularly positive impression.
He did not justify his actions merely on the basis that it was based on tradition – as in “Congress Tradition”.
He showed open intolerance for backward cultural and religious traditions.
Actually, Ram Saloojee was way ahead of his time. He was a free-thinking activist at a time of quite moribund ideological dogmatism. Why do I say this?
As one who worked with him intimately in the 80s, I know a few things about the man.
He was the real Lenz pioneer of what we later called the “mass approach”. He understood the need for mass mobilisation as the only means of making progress. He was of the view that mass action and mass organisation was far more effective than conspiracy. He did not elevate the worship of ideas above working among the masses.
He did what he thought was right and said what he himself thought was right. He did not believe in an idea simply because it came from some or other great man. He did not have the insecurity to test whether what he did and thought was in conformity to the teachings of some or other political scripture.
Comrade Ram Saloojee epitomised the activist of the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement. He represented the spirit that made possible the mass uprising of the 1980s – an uprising whose scale, resilience and sophistication stands out as unique in revolutionary history.
Dr Saloojee passed away peacefully on December 2. Hamba Kahle Qhawe lamaQhawe!
Valli Moosa was minister of constitutional development in president Nelson Mandela’s cabinet. This obituary is from a talk delivered at Saloojee’s memorial.