It was 9.30am on a bright spring day in Durban’s bustling CBD. Six men entered a lift in a multistorey building in Smith (now Anton Lembede) Street.
They were heading to the British Consulate offices on the 7th floor where officials greeted them cordially and asked them their business.
They were visibly taken aback when their visitors introduced themselves as leaders of the mass anti-apartheid movement, the United Democratic Front – Archie Gumede, national president of the UDF, the organisation’s treasurer Mewa Ramgobin, Natal Indian Congress president George Sewpersadh, NIC vice-president MJ Naidoo, trade union stalwart and NIC leader Billy Nair and anti-apartheid lawyer and activist Paul David.
The six announced they were there to seek the “protection” of the British government to escape arbitrary detention by the apartheid authorities.
They had earlier been detained after leading a national campaign for a boycott of the discredited Tricameral parliamentary system.
Although they managed to win release through the Supreme Court, the security police continued to seek their arrest, forcing them to take refuge in the British consulate.
The British were in a quandary – they couldn’t possibly expel the six into the arms of a regime known to use any weapon in its arsenal to halt the spread of popular resistance to its rule.
Nor did they really want to give the six sanctuary in the consulate.
So what they decided was to make living conditions as uncomfortable as possible during the three long months the six political leaders were holed up there.
Thursday, September14, marked the 34th anniversary of this historic diplomatic stand-off in 1984 which helped focus worldwide attention on apartheid’s wicked security laws.
David, a semi-retired lawyer in KwaDukuza and the only surviving member of the Consulate Six, told the Sunday Tribune conditions in the consulate were harsh and unfriendly.
The six were confined to a single private office (7mx7m). They had a chemical toilet inside which they sealed off with movable shelves. They slept on the carpeted floor and used their shoes as pillows.
There was no bathroom in the consulate so they learnt to bath in a wash basin using a face towel.
“Some of our guards were downright rude and even threatened to throw us out of the building. Others were a little more subtle in their efforts.
“One of these guards played the oboe until the early hours of the morning, hoping this would deprive us of sleep.”
After three weeks, three of the UDF leaders left the consulate and were immediately arrested.
The others remained for almost 90 days.
The apartheid government did try to institute charges against the UDF leaders but later abandoned this attempt at prosecution.
David has no regrets about their occupation of the consulate.
“For one, it emphasised the moral high ground which the liberation movement occupied.”
He says it also forced the hand of the apartheid government to abandon prosecution which, he says, “had no substance, merit or justification whatsoever”.