Shanthie Naidoo was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She played an important role in the struggle against apartheid, being active in the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress and later the Federation of South African Women and the African National Congress (ANC). In 1969 she was arrested along with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other ANC members; she was interrogated and tortured for information on ANC activity and detained for 371 days. Naidoo spent 19 years in exile.
Shanthie Naidoo was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
What matters is that I no longer have to look over my shoulder – that I’m not being watched wherever I go. I value that freedom. Living up to my mother’s principles and what she fought for also matters to me. My mother was imprisoned in 1952 during the Defiance Campaign, and our house was always a political home. When friends came to play at our house, we played ‘meetings.’ My little brother used to stand on a bench and say, ‘The white people brought us to this country to work in the sugar plantation, now they won’t let us taste it.’ My parents were so proud; whenever somebody came, they would plant my brother on the table to give his little speech.
Q. What brings you happiness?
Coming back from exile was actually quite something. In total I spent a year and one week in prison and was released in 1970. Later, I was given permission to leave South Africa; I didn’t come home until 1991. My mother had three of her five children go into exile, and when I came back it was the first time in twenty-eight years that she had had all her children together. It was the most joyous moment of my life and continues to give me a lot of happiness.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
My time in prison was my lowest depth of misery. I was taken for interrogation; they made me stand the whole time. It was always two officers firing questions at me. They wanted to know everything about you, every bit of your life history. I found out later that it went on for five days, but at the time I had lost touch with reality. I remember feeling like I was floating.
Q. What would you change if you could?
Inequality. There are also many improvements that need to be made in South Africa: we need to eradicate poverty and unemployment.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Freedom, of course!