THE SEVA SAMAJ AND THE PRETORIA HINDU ORGANISATION (PHO)
The Soweto uprising of 1976: South Africa is in turmoil and on the brink of a revolution. Sanctions and Apartheid are biting deep into the fabric of the country. The economy is in a nosedive, and in Pretoria, as in most parts of the country, the effects are severe. There is a tremendous upsurge in unemployment. And, unemployment, as we know, is the father of some of the greatest forms of human degradation a community can experience.
Laudium was no different. Among the poorer sections of our community poverty was rampant. There was widespread hunger and drug abuse. People were being thrown into the streets because they were unable to pay their rentals and the city council was cutting off lights and water services. Worse still, there was a serious downturn in the appreciation of spiritual values. Unemployed people were losing their sense of self-respect and self worth. In this climate, the poor and weak are at their most vulnerable. And in Laudium, these happen to be the people of the Hindu faith. Religious merchants of various faiths were having a field day amongst the Hindu poor, promising them all kinds of worldly goods in exchange for changing their faith. Demoralized Hindus were unable to resist and fell prey to these unscrupulous propagators who were busy exploiting the desperation of the poor. These peddlers of religion were giving charity but with the clear intention of getting Hindus to forsake their faith and become religious prostitutes. Our community was in distress.
It was in these dark days of the late 70’s that a group of dedicated community workers, foremost among them being Dr. Pankajbhai Joshi, Baboobhai Sita (Bons), Baboo Mooloo and Sathia Pillay decided that the various Hindu linguistic groups needed to pool their resources to address the grave problems our people were facing. Thus in 1980, a historic meeting comprising of officials of the Shree Pretoria Hindu Seva Samaj, the Pretoria Tamil League, the Sanathan Vedh Dharam Sabha and the Laudium Tamil Association took place. At this meeting it was resolved that a united, umbrella Hindu organisation be formed that would co-ordinate the programmes that were needed to address the challenges the Hindu community was facing. A task team was formed and at its first meeting, Sathia Pillay was elected as the first President of the Pretoria Hindu Organisation. During his term, emphasis was placed in creating a sense of unity; a sense of oneness, of being Hindus, and of entrenching a spirit that would span our linguistic divides. At the same time, a progressive constitution was drafted, which ensured that the Hindu community identified itself with and supported the cause of the poor majority.
Under the helm of Jivanbhai Kalyan, who was the PHO’s second president from 1982-1983, the Seva Samaj embarked on a fund-raising drive for this new organisation. The principal fund-raisers were Ramanbhai Rama Goolab, Chunilalbhai Chhagan and Naginbhai Bhana (all trustees of the Samaj), and within the space of a few months they managed to collect R170 000. The PHO rapidly went into action and within months were able to provide a soup kitchen for the hungry, institute a voucher system for the provision of food hampers and assist indigent families with payment of rentals, their lights and water accounts. On the religious side, the first PHO Diwali concert was hosted in 1981 and Diwali Hampers were distributed to the needy of all races and creeds.
In 1984, Rameshbhai Chhagan, the present chairperson of the PHO and current secretary of the Seva Samaj, took over the helm of the PHO. Under his Guidance, the PHO continued to flourish and were responsible for many new initiatives, foremost amongst these must be the decision to form the Pretoria Hindu School in 1996, the first Hindu school in South Africa and in introducing the Annual Shivratri Yagna that commenced in 1996.
Under the banner of the Samaj and the PHO, Rameshbhai represented the community in 1995, as a City Councillor in the first nonracial Pretoria City Council. He served as secretary of the Pretoria Chapter of the Conference on Religion & Peace, the body that wrote the religious charter for the new South African Constitution. With unbanning of the ANC, Rameshbhai was part of the group that established the Laudium Branch and served as its vice-chairman until 1998.
The Samaj, together with its partners, can certainly claim to have played, and continue to play, a significant role in this first and longest-lasting Hindu organisation in South Africa that represents all our linguistic groups. The Samaj has helped to carry our people though our country’s darkest days and have made a significant impact, not only in bridging our sectional divides, but in helping restore our sense of dignity and self-worth as proud Hindus of Pretoria.
Hari Om Tat Sat
(This article was written by Rameshbhai in his personal capacity)