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Phiroshaw Camay Library opens

- Wits University

The new facility boasts a collection of 8 000 books from Camay, an activist, unionist and champion of democracy who was once denied access to a library.

Phiroshaw Camay Library

Wits University added a new library to its suite on 27 February 2024 with the opening of the Phiroshaw Camay Library at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS), located at the Parktown Management Campus. This rich resource for students, researchers and civil society has been bequeathed to the Centre by his life partner Anne Gordon.

Camay, who passed in October 2016 aged 69, was a lifelong activist and humanitarian who made immense contribution to the development of democracy in South Africa through his leadership pre-and-post democracy. This includes serving as the Director of the IEC National Operations Centre for the first democratic elections, General Secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa and later the merged body National Council of Trade Unions, water authorities and as Chairman of the Board of the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre (detailed profile below).

Described as a principled, humble intellectual giant by speakers, Camay started his career as a teacher before becoming a librarian in 1966 for the Johannesburg City Council, where he eventually coordinated 17 libraries in African, Coloured and Indian townships. Ironically, when he registered to study for a Diploma in Public Management in 1976 at the then Graduate School of Business Administration (Wits), Camay had to apply to the Dean for special permission to use Wits libraries due to the segregation laws of the time.

Speaking at the opening, Gordon teased that this new library can be seen as poetic justice adding that Camay would be happy that his book collection will be used in the furtherance of democracy, equality, development and sustainability in South Africa and elsewhere.

Guest speaker, South African editor and journalist Ferial Haffajee shared how she, as a young, labour journalist benefited from his patience and piercing questions that nurtured rigorous debate and tolerance for alternative views. “What a gift to a young person and an example of how to consider mentoring and sharing knowledge.”

She hailed his generation for raising many of the ideas of how to mediate the destructive inequality of the country and the world including the minimum wage, political unionism, social solidarity amongst others.

Speaking on behalf of the University, Professor -Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, whose portfolio includes Wits libraries said it is an honour to receive this precious donation through the generosity of his partner.

“Phiroshaw was a lover of books, libraries and a champion of the role that reading, and education more broadly play must play in the development of South Africa. It is thus fitting that the collection be housed at Wits University and that the SCIS is the guardian of the collection as the wide-ranging subject matter of the books relate directly to the Centre’s research agenda.”

Professor Imraan Valodia, Director of the SCIS and Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, praised Camay as an unsung hero that history has not sufficiently acknowledge his contribution to a peaceful democracy.

The personal library of Phiroshaw Camay has been donated to Wits University

About Camay

Phiroshaw Camay was a lifelong activist and humanitarian. He started his career in 1966 as a librarian for the Johannesburg City Council where he coordinated 17 libraries in African, Coloured, and Indian townships for ten years. In 1980, he was elected General Secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA). When in 1986, CUSA merged with the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (AZACTU) to form the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), he was again elected General Secretary. He worked tirelessly and at great sacrifice to build the Black trade union movement as a key stakeholder in the anti-apartheid struggle and in the fight for the rights of Black workers. He resigned from NACTU in 1989 on principle, when some of his federation affiliates failed to endorse the negotiated unity proposal with COSATU, aimed at creating a single Black union federation.

Phiroshaw continued his fight for equality and democracy through his work with the National Peace Committees, the Independent Electoral Commission, and as Director of the Cooperative for Research and Education (CORE) which he founded in 1990 and led until his passing in 2016. CORE was a non-profit that focused on building a strong civil society in post-apartheid South Africa.

He was regarded by many as the father of and protector of South African civil society, having played a key role in SANGOCO, the NGO network. He served for five years as Chairperson of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Civil Society

He served as a member of the Rand Water Board and became a non-executive chairman where he was instrumental in establishing rural water boards and was Chairman of the SA Association of Water Utilities.  

He served the people of South Africa in many other ways throughout his career as an activist and proponent of an equitable, democratic, and transformed South Africa.