A social justice activist always serving others

July 1st, 2024

By Roshnie Moonsammy

Executive Director of the Law Society of South Africa, Tony Pillay.

Tony Pillay was the youngest son of Doreen Pillay Moonsammy and the late Peter Moonsammy. Tony’s father, Peter, was forced by circumstances to leave school to support his mother, his brothers and sisters and extended family, and so at the age of 14, he began serving as a bellboy at a hotel. He was soon engulfed in the political life of the time, selling the New Age – and various reincarnations of the newspaper until it was finally banned – going to meetings of Congress, and assisting quietly in the background. Tony’s mum was a working-class woman, who worked as a seamstress for many years. In later years, people got to know of her entrepreneurial skills as the Tupperware Lady, Ms D or Aunty Doreen.

Tony’s roots were working class and firmly anchored in the anti-apartheid struggle spearheaded by the Congress movement. His two uncles, 94-year-old Paul Joseph and 91-year-old Dasoo Iyer and their respective wives and families were exiled because of their involvement in the struggle. Paul Josephone of the few surviving members of the 1956 Treason Trial. Both of Tony’s uncles now reside in the United Kingdom.

Tony was born in 1959 in Charles Lane, Fordsburg, in an old mine barrack his mum rented from her boss for her family and extended family. Charles Lane was a racially mixed working-class neighbourhood, not far from where the Oriental Plaza is today. It was off the map at the time, and thus a perfect hiding place for political activists to talk politics, plan and/or hide. Late African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Walter Sisulu, Moulvi Cachalia, Winnie Mandela, Bob Hepple, and numerous others were frequent visitors at this home.

Across the road from Charles Lane, there was housing for white miners, whom we as children never saw or interacted with, except when it came to stealing fruit, which was just hanging on the trees to be taken.

The story has it that the older siblings and cousins would fight to carry Tony, because he was just so beautiful. Women in the neighbourhoods and in the city would stop our mum in the streets to comment on how handsome he was (guess we can say the same back then and now).

Tony attended Junior Primary School in Vrededorp from Grade 1 to Grade 3. It was a racially mixed school for poor and working-class children. At that time, the educational system was organised under the platoon system where two sets of pupils and teachers use the same school for half a day each.

As the neighbourhood children, we all went to Sunday School from preschool into early years of high school with Mr John from the Baptist Church in Mondeor, where Tony’s inevitably won all the prizes because of his good memory of Bible stories. Tony’s brightness from an early age could also be a detriment to others. When he was a little boy, under the age of eight, members of the apartheid government’s Special Branch showed up at the residence at Charles Lane asking where our father was and where his workplace was, nobody responded. However, Tony, being the bright spark beyond his years jumped up and gave them a complimentary box of matches, which showed my father’s workplace address.

Tony was always in trouble from those terrible teachers who knew nothing but the stick. He had a lot of hidings at school, probably trying to help a kid or two, or just by being mischievous. After one severe beating, our father moved us from the school to what was then called Bree Street Indian Primary School.

Following the Group Areas Act, the family was forcibly removed from Charles Lane to Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. It indeed was like moving into a red dust veld, some 45 kms from the city centre. It was a step up from the barracks, in that as a family we had our own bathrooms and running water, though it was still on the outskirts of nowhere. Tony would spend many days helping his sister Kalie plant vegetables and fruit trees, trying to transform the red dust yard into a garden. Tony loved our new home, which soon made history and memories of its own. It boasted a rose garden, as well as fruit trees, running water, electricity, and beautiful bathrooms (more than one).

Our dad, a much loved and dedicated waiter, was a comrade for many and, in particular, a working-class hero. In his humble activism, he met the nephew of Mahatma Gandhi’s good friend Hermann Kallenbach. This young Kallenbach was also an architect who eventually ended up designing our home, which was very English in design. This was a gift as part of his friendship with my dad, which we saw as a most treasured gift. The home is still in the family.

In Lenasia, Tony attended Alpha Primary School and later Nirvana Indian High School. At school, he hardly studied but passed brilliantly. He excelled in languages and sciences, a perfectly balanced scholar, without any effort. He was the gifted child among us all. During exams, he would help all his friends with maths, science, and accounting right through the night. His love for football and hanging out in the park and Church Stores across our home in Sparrow Avenue, Extension 1 Lenasia, did not get in the way of Tony completing high school.

His sporting teachers were his friends and they were like equals, even though he was the student. They depended on him to assist them in this or that – whatever was needed! He had the most diverse and eclectic mix of friends and was always being called outside. He would then disappear into nowhere. Tony helped anybody and everybody. Despite his teasing mannerisms, he always fixed things for his friends and family. Tony was everyone’s confidant. Nothing was taboo and he made fun of everyone and everything. Tony was known to be a risk taker and also accident prone.

Despite the lowly paid jobs that our parents Peter and Doreen held, they still managed to support their children with a tertiary education through their incomes, supplemented by scholarships the children earned. During the apartheid era, such scholarships were rare beyond those for young people who wanted to be teachers and social workers.

Executive Director of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), Tony Pillay at the LSSA’s Youth Day event on 30 June 2023 in Pretoria.

During the late 80s, Tony embarked on his BCom studies at the University of Durban-Westville. There too, he learnt, had fun, and his circle of friendship grew even larger. He was always the charming brother, cousin, and friend. Despite a busy personal and work life, it was not unusual for Tony to visit his granny, aunts and cousins on a regular basis. He was well loved in the family.

His love for sports took him to Bluebells United, ‘The People’s Team’, which played in the South African Soccer Federation. The Federation was part of the South African Council on Sport, the militant anti-apartheid sports movement. Tony dedicated his time to renewing The People’s Team by strengthening their management capacity and as former player and chairperson of the Bluebells United Legacy Project, Alan Moonsammy observed in his message to the family, ‘[Tony] was instrumental in ensuring that the club continued to play under the non-racial sporting banner.’

Tony’s commitment to justice saw him engage in the anti-tricameral campaigns lodged by the United Democratic Front and their affiliates in Lenasia. This is how we know Tony, as a brother and a son: Constantly involved with peoples’ organisations from a very early age. His involvement was way beyond what one would expect of someone his age.

His employment life was varied but always around management and finance. He easily straddled the most strategic dimensions of his job, including fixing technical problems. Early in his career, he worked in one of the Anglo-American companies, but we all know him for his work in the social justice, non-governmental sphere. His first job in this area of work was with the Lawyers for Human Rights and, coincidentally, he was still the chairperson of their board at the time of his passing. The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) is where he dedicated two and half decades of his life, and the LSSA organised a special commemoration to him for his loyal service to the organisation. He was their Executive Director.

There are many projects that Tony was interested in, but time ran out. One of them was to make the law fraternity more inclusive for practitioners with various disadvantages, including those impacted by physical and learning difficulties. Hopefully these projects are not lost and may define a new chapter in the work that awaits the LSSA.

After an accident in 1993 that left him disabled, his dad (who loved dancing particularly with his wife) swore never to dance again. This oath was reversed when on a solidarity visit to Cuba he found his dance shoes once again. We can say that being in a wheelchair did not stop but boosted Tony’s activism. Armed with a laptop, a phone, a bag of snacks, and an unforgettable smile, being of service to people both organisationally and in the workplace was where his heart was.

Tony was always generous with his time and resources, supportive and helpful, from a very young age, and this continued to be the way he was, right until the time of his passing. He loved his family dearly and worked non-stop. He had a very special bond with his favourite and youngest sibling Subhatri, and his beloved mum. He would call his mum daily and visit her in Durban whenever he could.

Tony is the son and the brother whom we all loved dearly and are honoured to have shared a beautiful life with. You are the person you are because of the community and those you befriended and loved from birth until the time of your passing.

Tony is survived by his wife Tarsicia, his four children Hannah, Joshua, Simeon and Adrienne, his 97-year-old mum Doreen Pillay Moonsammy, his four sisters Rookie Naidoo, Kalie Naidoo, Roshnie Moonsammy, Subhatri Moonsammy, and his brother Monty Naidoo. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

Hamba Kahle Tony!

Executive Director of the Law Society of South Africa, Tony Pillay’s family after the memorial service. Tony is survived by his wife Tarsicia (middle) and his four children, from left: Adrienne, Simeon, Hannah, and Joshua.

Roshnie Moonsammy is Tony’s sister. Ms Moonsammy compiled the article on behalf of her siblings.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2024 (July) DR 6.

De Rebus