Phyllis Naidoo was born in Estcourt, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) on the 5th of January 1928. She was the daughter of Simon David, a teacher and principal. His occupation prevented him from being politically active but he was a ‘Methodist agnostic.’ As a result there were many interesting debates in the house and Phyllis developed a questioning attitude. From her early years her experiences did not allow her to simply take things for granted. When she was ten years old, her father took her to an Institute of Race Relations Conference in Pietermaritzburg at which she was to serve tea. At the meeting someone asked her to go and call the boy. She went outside and when she asked for the boy a very dignified, traditional Zulu woman confronted her. “The boy you want is my husband.” The woman’s regal presence made Phyllis realise that she had given tremendous offence and she was mortified. She was so upset that she sobbed hysterically for a long while afterwards. This incident awakened her, more than any event or speech at the meeting, to the evils of racism.
In 1944, when she was in Standard Nine (Grade Eleven) at Woodlands High School in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, Mr H.W. Stead a teacher at the school, called Tsetse Fly by the pupils because he was always falling asleep, was actually the person who helped develop in Phyllis a strong sense of community service. He got the students interested in the Friends of the Sick Association (FOSA) that had established a care centre and home for TB patients. Mr Stead asked the students to make clothes for the children of these sick people. During that time Phyllis working with a Women’s Association was also involved in making her contribution to the war effort – knitting socks for soldiers. After she matriculated from High School in 1945, the family moved to Tongaat. Phyllis astounded her family when she went to work at FOSA. She was sent to King George V Hospital to train as a TB nurse aid. At FOSA, she spent her days observing the following routine – prayer, scrubbing and cleaning. She was inspired in her work by Rev. Paul Sykes and his wife, Nel Sykes, who lived and worked at FOSA in Newlands. One day a patient named Govindasamy whose leaking TB gland had dried up, was discharged. Within two weeks he was back again and died. Surrounded constantly by such suffering, Phyllis desperately wanted to do something more to counteract the evil of TB. This is when Rev Sykes made her aware of conditions in South Africa that gave rise to this disease. 1946 was also the time of Passive Resistance in Durban and Phyllis saw people like Pat Poovalingam, Nadas and Athie Pillay who had committed themselves to change going to prison. Nadas and Athie had just married and had given up any thought of a honeymoon. Phyllis was filled with admiration for the passive resisters. She realised then that she had a choice to make, a choice between prayer and politics. She had seen the effectiveness of prayer at FOSA and now chose politics. She became involved with the NEUM (Non-European Unity Movement) and in the debates and study groups where people like Abdool Karim Essack, Zulie Christopher and Enver Hassim, discussed and debated issues, she learned ‘the mechanics of politics.’