Sathyandranath Ragunanan ‘Mac’ Maharaj began his political mission as a student in Durban in 1953 when he participated in various anti-apartheid activities. In 1964 he was arrested, charged and convicted for sabotage in the so called “little Rivonia Trial”. During this trial, Mac was exposed to repeated bouts of torture but he had developed a remarkable capacity to absorb physical pain and remain psychologically intact. Maharj was released in 1976 and smuggled out of prison the manuscripts of Mandela’s biography, A Long Walk to Freedom. This was a risk Mac took willingly, with the knowledge that if he was caught, he would return to prison. Working together with a team, he transcribed the 500 hand-written pages to just sixty foolscap miniaturised encoded pages.
Life in exile
Flouting the five-year banning order prohibiting him from leaving home at night, Maharaj left South Africa for Lusaka in 1977 where he linked up the African National Congress in exile. In 1985 Mac was elected to the NEC of the ANC, the party’s highest entity, and served in it until the year 2000. He was also secretary of the internal political and reconstruction department; and a member of the ANC revolutionary council which was a sub-structure of the ANC’s NEC.
Maharaj was the overall commander of Operation Vula, a secret domestic programme of the ANC during the final years of apartheid in South Africa. It involved, amongst other things, setting up a communication system allowing underground ANC members in South Africa to stay in touch with leadership including Mandela who was in Victor Verster prison at the time, negotiating his release.
Mac, a father of two, put the struggle first and became a full-time activist in the movement from early 1961. His wife, Zarina, brought up their two children virtually as a single parent who was a working mother as well as being involved in the struggle.
Post-Apartheid South Africa
While serving as Minister of Transport, ‘Infrastructure Finance’, a leading international infrastructure journal, chose him as one of the eight most innovative ministers, working on infrastructure projects in developing countries. Mac holds a BA degree from the University of Natal (1956) and a Bachelor of Admin degree earned from UNISA while he was in prison.
He is a former presidential spokesperson and played a key role in the negotiation process to South Africa’s first democratic elections, and was joint secretary in 1994 of the Transitional Executive Council. In all that Mac has done he never yielded to a sense of victimhood. Despite all he was exposed to, it did not stop him from making choices that enabled him to lead an exemplary life.
On the 7th April 2015 Mac Maharaj announced his official retirement, but his legacy lives on in the countless stories, books and articles published about this great man and his service to his country. One such publication is the small, but by no means inconsequential, booklet that was handed out at a recent exhibition on the life and times of Moses Mabhida. Entitled Leadership Lessons Forged in Prison, the short 30-page booklet talks about Maharaj’s time on Robben Island, and the valuable lessons he took away with him. Always learning, and forever positive, Mac Maharaja is truly one of our country’s greatest heroes.