By Reneva Fourie (launched at Trade Route Mall on 11 September 2021)
‘The Political Backbencher’ is an aptly titled autobiography of the quiet and reserved, but important influencer, Ismail Vadi.
Vadi’s narrative begins with his family background. In addition to giving one a sense of his birth town, Kliptown, before the Group Areas Act; this background information dispels the myth of general “Indian” opulence. Before moving to Lenasia, his current hometown now of over fifty years, Vadi lived in a zinc home that had no electricity and used the bucket system. He was raised to be humble, to care for others, and to share what he has. Accordingly, he states, “… If there is an expression that captures who we are, it is ‘service to humanity’”.
The book meanders through his life as a student, teacher, lecturer and his various platforms of activism. With absolutely no sense of entitlement, Vadi describes the nobility and pride that infused the experience of serving as a Member of Parliament for the African National Congress in the first democratic Parliament, and the subsequent terms, stating, “I sat there transfixed. Hope, joy and trepidation were mixed within me. I was overjoyed at being elected as a Member of Parliament representing the ANC”.
As a testimony to the inclusive nature of the first democratic government, Vadi attended his swearing-in ceremony wearing traditional Islamic garb. Accordingly he states,: “If this was to be a true democracy that recognises racial, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, I should be free to dress as I deemed fit”. His dress code is indicative of his spirituality. Vadi succinctly establishes the link between Sufism and politics in the words: “Islam was an integrated religion that encapsulated the socio-economic, political, cultural, environmental, cosmic and ethical questions of life… Participation in the struggle for freedom and democracy was an act of faith itself.”
In addition to containing lessons in history and religion, the book expounds on governance. Vadi uses his experiences to explain South Africa’s pre-1994 negotiations process; and to detail the workings of Parliament. He also provides profound background to challenges experienced in key sectors such as education and communications, with a promise to share his experience as Gauteng MEC of Transport later. Vadi’s analyses display an astute understanding of the domestic and international socio-politico environment. His views presented on Parliament as an instrument of peace are well worth considering.
Despite the richness of its content, The Political Backbencher is filled with scintillating titbits, providing insight into the personal aspects of the political, thereby giving a human touch to history. Gender-balanced acknowledgements are given to those who had influenced him over the years, whether it be well known persons like Kathrada or the lesser known taxi driver, Rashaad. Some of the tales shared reflect the naughtiness of politicians; and evokes surprise that it had not been censored. Vadi might be a conservative dresser, but there is nothing conservative about his sense of humour!
The Political Backbencher is a delightful and easy read. It is a lightly told narrative, with many endearing anecdotes; yet it is pregnant with many powerful messages and lessons. In the midst of distortions of history and disappointing developments in our country, the Political Backbencher is a feel-good book.
History is depicted simply and accurately; free of jargon and agendas. Vadi does not shy away from the truth. The weaknesses in the ANC and in government are frankly raised. But in line with his former profession as an educator, he locates the weaknesses within good practices of the past, thereby presenting examples of how such challenges can be overcome. What a beautiful autobiography by Dr Ismail Vadi.
Click on this link to watch the video of the launch:
Reneva Fourie is a member of the SACP Central Committee