When Shameen Thakur Rajbansi, the widow of former Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi, turned 50 there was no pomp or celebration. Instead she spent the day alone praying and reflecting on her life. Candice Soobramoney caught up with her at her Chatsworth home.
“Mr Rajbansi always said that when I turned 50 we would have a party but I chose not to. Instead I spent the day in prayer and after reflecting on life, realised how grateful I was for what I had,” said Thakur-Rajbansi, who will turn 51 on November 17.
“Many people say life begins at 40 but I think it begins at 50. At 40 you still have a lot of responsibilities and your children are still young, but at 50 you get relieved of those responsibilities, your career changes, you get a new set of challenges and you must re-invent yourself.”
She continued: “In my 40s I was highly ambitious. I wanted to achieve quickly before turning 50. I had so much to juggle. I began studying towards my MBA and through sacrifice I attained it in 2010.
“In the same year I sold my pharmacy in Phoenix after 20 years. My son Pradhil (from her first marriage) was matriculating and I had to be there to give him direction and a career path, and at the same time I had to worry about my husband’s health.
“After Mr Rajbansi’s death I had to face challenges as a woman in a leadership battle for the MF. During that time my health suffered, but I am now perfectly fit and healthy.”
She said studying kept her going. Thakur-Rajbansi has attained a postgraduate diploma in Management: Public Administration at the University of Witwatersrand and will graduate on July 2. She is now pursing another master’s degree.
“Studying enriches my work as a politician and occupies my mind. I am hungry for knowledge and this has kept me at the top of my game,” said Thakur-Rajbansi.
“I’ve always juggled a lot and have been a busy body. As a little girl, I was talkative, outspoken and a high achiever.”
She won numerous accolades in school for political speeches and led debating teams while at St Oswald’s High School in Newcastle, where she was the head girl.
Speaking about growing up in the town, she said: “My father, Devjeith Thakur, was a maths, science and Latin teacher and my mother, Betty, was a housewife. I was the eldest of six daughters and dad always referred to us as his sons. While growing up he instilled in us that the greatest weapon for a woman was to educate herself and be independent.”
Despite her wanting to become a lawyer, her dad advised against it.
“He said I was too politically conscious and I would get into trouble. He wanted me to be a doctor and had me register to study the ‘big four’ – mathematics, physics, botany and zoology.”
But her dad died while she was in matric and she thought twice about studying medicine.
“My friends were changing courses… I wanted to do the same but remembered what he said about being too politicised and endangering other lives. So I studied the ‘big four’.”
After a year, a conversation with her mother changed the course of her life: “She said that when I was little, there was only one pharmacy in the town, which she would take me to, and I told her I wanted to be like the man in the white coat.”
That is how Thakur-Rajbansi went on to become a pharmacist.
After her internship at Ladysmith Hospital during apartheid, which she described as the worst year of her life, she relocated and opened a practice in Eastbury, Phoenix, in Durban.
“After dispensing medication, I delivered medicine to people in the area. Many of them were poor and opened up to me about their social and economic hardships.”
Thakur-Rajbansi was eager to enter politics, and started doing a survey.
“I asked my patients which party would I have to join for them to vote for me, and they said the MF.
“They said the leader, Mr Rajbansi, was based in Chatsworth and cared for the people there. But if I joined, they would support me.”
Her search to find Rajbansi commenced.
“Unbeknown to me, his daughter, Vimlesh, was my financial advisor. I often told her about entering politics but she never mentioned who her dad was.
“A day before heading on a six-week trip to the US with my son and sister, as I was contemplating emigrating, my lawyer mentioned that Vimlesh was Rajbansi’s daughter.”
That evening Rajbansi called.
“I explained that I was leaving and he promised to call when I returned. Six weeks later, after my trip to the US, I informed him I was going for Malaysia on business. He said if I continued globe-trotting, I would never make it in politics.”
On her return from Malaysia, Rajbansi called yet again.
“He said I should go to the Vedic Hall in Carlisle Street as he would be debating. I arrived late and did not hear him speak. I still did not know what he looked like until someone pointed him out.”
Over coffee, she underwent an impromptu interview and joined the MF in 1998.
They married in 2001.
After Rajbansi’s death in 2011, Thakur-Rajbansi “… had to stand my ground against detractors. Many had misled me with their intentions”.
She recalled the advice Rajbansi gave her.
“He said that in the first 30 days I would know who my friends were, and that to survive in politics I must trust people until they let me down. I shouldn’t let anyone down. That’s how I’ve survived.”
Asked if she missed Rajabansi, she said: “I know he is with me in spirit.”
Questioned about the legal battles with his family, she said: “When I look back and at what happened after his death… (the decisions I made were) conscious decisions based on truth… based on what was factual at that point in time. I was not at any time swayed into making decisions that were emotional. That is what held me in good stead.”
On the future of the MF, Thakur-Rajbansi said:
“We have always had a solid voter base. But what is important is how councillors carry themselves to maintain Mr Rajbansi’s legacy. Voters want stability. I am training youth to enter politics. I want people who are passionate about others. Becoming a politician is a calling.”