Often we have a choice as to whether we will ‘rise from the ashes’ or stay downtrodden. Our perception and attitude are determinants of our current and future states and whether the obstacles holding us back can be overcome.
It is exciting to hear stories of people turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
Shan Pillay’s achievements are an excellent example of this. I was delighted when Shan, a South African friend of fifty-years standing, sent me the copy of a letter showing that a doctorate was being conferred on him by The International Tamil University, USA. This letter indicates that he will hold a D Litt, USA and be acknowledged for his contribution to humanity at the graduation ceremony in India in December 2017.
Shan had very humble beginnings. His family lived in a complex known as ‘The Barracks’ in an area designated for the Indian Community in my home city, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. There every family had an apartment so small that some members slept in the kitchen. For thirteen families there was one communal ablution area.
At age 15 years, Shan started his first job in a shoe factory. In order to give him clothes to wear to work, his mother took a pair of his brother’s old shorts and sewed a patch on the back. At the factory, he became known as ‘The Boy in Shorts’.
My husband and I have been friends of Shan’s for more than 50 years. My father-in-law opened his shoe factory on my husband’s 21st birthday. Being a family business, that is where my husband worked at the time. Shan was the factory manager of Jaguar Shoes which also had small beginnings in an old bakery and later rose to being quoted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Over the years Shan’s family grew and on his son, Nellan’s 21st birthday, Nellan started work for my husband and me in our group of retail clothing stores. There he rose to the position of manager and worked for us for 10 years. He left in order to start his own shoe factory. Of course, as this was an area in which Shan excelled, I’m sure he was an integral part of Nellan’s success.
In addition to being dynamically involved and receiving international recognition in the South African shoe manufacturing industry, Shan was actively involved in ‘the struggle’ for democracy in South Africa. He has wonderful stories to tell and a fascinating network of relationships. These include top political and other leaders in the country.
At one stage during the apartheid era, the Police suspected Shan of being involved in the bombing of the Supreme Court, Pietermaritzburg where the first activists were charged with Treason. He was surrounded by the special branch in Edendale, held for questioning and later released. Shan publicly acknowledges that it was his boss, my brother-in-law Roy Eckstein, who provided an alibi. Roy gave evidence that at that time, Shan was transporting factory workers back to Edendale, an African rural area which was later incorporated into our City.
Shan is the only Indian alive today who attended the historic conference where the world icon and statesman, Nelson Mandela made his demands for nothing less than a one-man-one-vote for a democratic South Africa. In 1999 when Mandela was accorded the Freedom of the City of Pietermaritzburg, Shan was invited to share his experience of that historic conference with the President himself.
Another area in which Shan has excelled is in his free-lance work as a photo-journalist. Over the years he has, as an insider, captured many historic moments in our country’s history. He continues to capture pivotal moments in the life of our country and in his friend’s lives, too. We have been privileged to have Shan photograph and journal many of the celebratory moments in our personal lives.
Shan values his friendships. Last year I felt honoured when I was invited to present one of the speeches at his 80th birthday party. It was a privilege to celebrate with a man who is held in high regard by leaders in society, business and family. We were engulfed by the tangible warmth and love shown by those present particularly by family. As patriarch he plays an ongoing vital role in the lives of three generations. This sprightly octogenarian gave an erudite, appreciative address worthy of his new academic status.
Shan has overcome many obstacles. Isn’t it interesting how he has ‘risen from the ashes’? His lack of formal education combined with his coming from an impoverished background could have been stumbling blocks. But they have not held him back. He is now being afforded the highest University academic honour through his contribution to humanity. And his ‘way of being’ enriches those with whom he interacts. This is a credit to his and his family’s achievements.
You can see that he leads a life following his passion. This includes his love of humanity, particularly his family, South Africa and India. Well done, Shan! We commend you and your wonderful family.
Questions for readers:
- How might your beginnings be holding you back?
- What are you doing to overcome those perceived stumbling blocks?
- How are you acknowledging the contribution of others?
- Where have you ‘risen from the ashes’ either physically or emotionally?
- What part has attitude played?
- What legacy are you going to leave – for your family or your country?