Long Live Cde Jerry Coovadia, A Leader in speaking truth to power
Jerry Coovadia, for me, truly lived the belief that there is only one race, the human race, and that we must fight all injus;ces, such as inequality, poverty, arrogance and the like.
I first encountered him at the Medical School of UKZN in the early 1980s, where he was one of very few black academics. Our Planning programme at the then University of Natal was the only one in South Africa admiNng black Masters students. From then onwards he, Pravin Gordhan, Diliza Mji, Yunus Mahomed, Jabu Sithole and so many other ac;vists brought us into the struggles, in all sectors, to create a nonracial, nonsexist, united and democra;c country. It was also about working with trades union cdes like Boysie Dlamini, Alec Erwin in MAWU, Jay Naidoo, Cyril Ramaphosa in CUSA, and so on, that in the mid-1980s COSATU was born.
Hundreds of forma;ons like NAMDA, JORAC, DHAC, CHESS, BESG, etc fought, not just out of a need for struggle, but out of a need to develop where the apartheid regime and capitalism had underdeveloped our people. And opera;ng like a true doctor, Jerry Coovadia helped keep the centre of that movement together.
Then, soon a\er the launch of the UDF some 40 years ago we decided to get the Joint Academic Staff Associa;on of the University of Natal to affiliate to the UDF. Strenuous opposi;on from the white academics ensued, but in a mee;ng addressed by Cde Jerry we won the vote and affiliated, becoming the only academic staff associa;on at any University to affiliate to the UDF.
In 1984 we then fought against the Tricameral elec;ons such as for the Indian House of Delegates. I remember being in our UDF/NIC control room on my Apple 64kb computer documen;ng results as they came in from ac;vists, being surrounded by giants like Jerry, Pravin, Farouk and others. The work of all of the ac;vists going door to door, engaging our people, led to a complete rejec;on of the Tricameral system with voter turnout levels of less than 20%.
And this mass mobiliza;on was only part of the struggle against the apartheid state, with a need also to support the armed struggle, build the underground and engage the ultra le\ and the right-wing to support interna;onal campaigns such as the academic boycod.
In all of this, Cde Jerry taught us to juggle the many balls which confronted us. He could switch in minutes from discussing poli;cal strategy to helping a student with a research problem to encouraging those in his orbit in his decent, honourable way. He assisted and led cdes at the Medical School and other ins;tu;ons in their academic, research and outreach work. This work was amazing, from health clinics to matric learning sessions to developing the Progressive Primary Health Care network across the province.
And all of this was done in an environment of having to deal with conserva;ve white academics, security forces and others every single day of his life.
Ironically, whilst by day these white conserva;ves taught black medical students, by night we would meet in those same offices ploNng strategies against apartheid. Cde Archie Gumede would catch a taxi there and when I would drive him home to Clermont I would o\en think of how terrible the apartheid social, economic and spa;al reality was, that the likes of Cdes Archie and Jerry had no personal ambi;ons except to fight against racism, sexism, poverty and the like. And that spa;al apartheid reality remains as a blight on our development as a society.
In all of this the apartheid regime did their level best to threaten, if not to kill, Cde Jerry and his family. Whilst abroad in 1989, the evil apartheid cowards bombed his house whilst Zubie and his children were inside. Thankfully no-one was killed but this was one of the many cowardly lengths to which the brutal apartheid regime would go before the nego;a;ons process began a\er 1990.
Our heart goes out to Jerry’s amazing wife Zubie, his family and the countless people lucky enough to have been touched by him.
Cde Jerry Coovadia’s work cannot be simply described or documented. He also cannot be compartmentalized – he excelled in everything he did, but he always had ;me for finding out about people and things he did not know about. And that for me was his best quality, whoever reached out to him was changed by him.
He stood up for what was right and just and as he lives on in us. Let us take up his spear to speak truth to power wherever there may be injus;ce.