Struggle Days

Those whose partners had to be away from home to carry South Africa’s struggle for freedom forward were in a struggle of their own: to keep family and home intact by keeping hope alive in the face of uncertainty about the safety of their loved ones on the front lines, and by trying to uplift the morale and courage of their children.

This struggle, referred to by Professor Fatima Meer, women's leader, sociologist and author - in her review of Zarina's memoir - as ‘the 'parallel struggle' of the family waged by the women and the children’ remains largely invisible, even though President Mandela has forthrightly acknowledged it.

He says: ‘ We are also indebted to Mac's wife, Zarina, and their children - and to the families of all comrades - for the contribution they made. Were it not for their selfless support when husbands and fathers were away, often in very uncertain circumstances, for their bearing with the uncertainty, for absorbing the pain of loss and the loneliness of separation, our struggle would never have stayed the course. In our absence they became our surrogates, and the contribution they made to the struggle for freedom is no less than ours.' (p.19 of President Mandela's foreword to ’ Shades of Difference - Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa by Professor of History, Padraig O’Malley, Penguin, 2007).

‘Dancing to a Different Rhythm’ is Zarina's own story about this parallel, invisible struggle, both before South Africa won its freedom from apartheid in 1994, and in the ongoing struggle post-apartheid to attain the democracy envisioned by President Mandela and the co-leaders of his time, giants whose dream of a better country for all its people is yet to be realised.


‘Operation Vula's most spectacular achievement - the creation of the communications system that linked Vula in South Africa with Lusaka via London in real time - was a team effort with the bulk of the credit due to Tim Jenkin and his partnership with Ronnie Press, both in London, and the technical expertise of Zarina Maharaj in Lusaka. That three-way collaboration produced a system of communications that eluded the best of the state’s tracking devices‘ writes historian and political biographer Professor Padraig O’Malley of the University of Massachusetts (Boston)‘

In his foreword to O'Malley's biography, President Mandela says of this system, which pre-dated email by a year:

‘It reached into my quarters at Victor Verster Prison, ensuring that my communications with Lusaka were directed through a more secure and quicker channel … [it] extended the boundaries of the struggle., and in doing that transformed the nature of the struggle itself. For the first time ever the ANC was able to connect the various tentacles of the struggle...The communications system…allowed for direct communication between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the ANC underground structures, and between the underground and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), creating a synergy among them, allowing each to re-inforce the other in a dynamic context…. ’.

A lone parent of troubled children (''s not when, but if, we'll ever see Dad alive again' Zarina's young son Milou often agonised), she found operating this communications system from Lusaka - and training underground cadres in it use - fraught, especially done as it was under the noses of prominent international organisations in the very homes they had assigned to her as their employee with diplomatic status, first, in Technical Co-operation on behalf of the UK government's Overseas Development Agency (ODA) working with the Zambian Government, and then on behalf of the United Nations Centre for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), both positions rewarded with all the perks of diplomatic status.

Such benefits included internationally competitive salaries in UK sterling and US dollars which she on some occasions had to draw on to bridge funding for the underground Vula project inside South Africa.


As sole breadwinner and sole parent of the family she was lucky to have such well-paid jobs with international organisations, but struggled very hard to juggle them with her family responsibilities and her clandestine work with Vula.

Small wonder she fell asleep at the steering wheel on her way home from her full-time job one night while Mac was working underground in South Africa. She woke up two days later in hospital, with 19 bone fractures! And many life fractures to follow…..


Before taking up her teaching post at Mozambique’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane she'd lived and worked in London, where she first met the ANC-in-exile., and became involved in some of its activities, including singing with Mayibuye, the ANC’s London-based cultural unit. Through song and poetry Mayibuye took the message of the South African struggle to the British people. The unit was later invited to Europe, where they became a hit, and were often asked to return to perform. They even cut a disc!

Her stint with Mayibuye ended when she headed southwards for newly-independent Mozambique, a much-needed personally liberating experience really welcome after London’s stifling, claustrophobic, 'holier-than-thou' exile politics, dominated as it was by the Stalinists in the movement.

An attempt she made to debate with one of these leading Stalinists regarding Marxist theory has been etched in her mind. She'd asked him, Ronnie Kasrils, to explain why he saw the Marxist theory of history and society as the undisputed 'winning horse' in the race of social theories. His intolerant rebuke shocked her because it simply closed off any debate about the validity of other paradigms for understanding society and the world. 'It is the only horse in the race!' he scolded (see p.78 'Dancing to a Different Rhythm' of Zarina's book for more on this).

Then how could the 'only horse in the race' have ended up losing the race? One wonders if, or how, Kasrils continues to justify this paradigm of world history and society as the only lens through which to understand society.


Performing with Mayibuye in Stockholm, Sweden


Protesting apartheid murders in London in the 1970’s


With friends in London. Dulcie September (left) later assassinated In Paris by apartheid agents


With colleagues and friends in Mozambique


With Mac at the Indian Ocean, Zarina's 'backyard' in Maputo.