Amina Desai (Posthumous)
The Order of Luthuli in
Profile of Amina Desai
Amina Desai, born in 1919, did not let racist or patriarchal laws limit her pursuit of freedom.
While she was in Grade Four, Desai was forced to leave school to look after her younger siblings. However she was determined to empower herself with knowledge and managed to complete her Junior Certificate through correspondence courses. Despite her father’s disapproval, she persisted with her education and was eventually allowed to study at Harvard College in Johannesburg. Desai was the only non-white student and attained qualifications in typing, commerce and shorthand.
Amina and her sister Halima began publishing articles about feminism under pseudonyms in the Indian Views magazine. In May 1943, she married Suleiman Desai, who was a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, and through whom she met Indian struggle activists including Yusuf Dadoo and Ismail Cachalia. When her husband died of a heart attack in 1969, Desai took charge of her husband’s business, at the time a daring undertaking for a single woman.
In 1972, she was arrested for furthering the aims of the then-illegal ANC and South African Communist party.
Her tenant Ahmed Timol with whom she was arrested, was notoriously tortured and killed in detention. Desai was sentenced to five years in prison, which she served in Barberton and Kroonstad prisons alongside ANC stalwart Dorothy Nyembe and for a short while Winnie Madikizela-Mandela whose defiance and courage she greatly admired. Released in 1978, she was South Africa’s longest serving Indian woman political prisoner at the time, and placed under a further five years’ house arrest until 1983.
While submitting evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, Desai reflected on the values that she remained committed to throughout her life, commenting, “The most important thing, I think, is to teach people, to make people aware of humanity, and that we are here not merely for ourselves, but to try and make the world a better place.”
Amina Desai left South Africa in 2004 due to failing health to join her family in the UK and Ireland. She passed away peacefully in Dublin in 2009, having attended the Freedom Day celebrations hosted by the South African Ambassador to Ireland Priscilla Jana.