About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Indian community in SA

The history of the Indian community in South Africa begins in Natal in 1860. The demand for labor for Natal's sugarcane fields' had dramatically increased the indigenous African population -- Zulus shunned the work. Agricultural work was women's work; they could not identify with a wage market, and were not amenable to contract employment. They were pastoralists and showed little interest in becoming wage earners. The solution to the labor shortage was arranged between the British Government and the Government of India. The Colony was permitted to import indentured labor, a practice that dated to the early 1800s in other parts of Africa.

The system of indenture was created mainly in response to the labour crisis experienced in sugar-producing areas after the abolition of slavery. The subcontinent of India was part of the British Empire, and the British government actively intervened to control labour markets. England was largely responsible for ruining India's domestic self-sufficiency by turning its agriculture into 'London's bread-basket' and thereby making indentured contracts in far-flung colonies a necessary alternative to starvation.

Labour became a commodity, one more raw material exported from India. The migration of indentured labourers was closely linked to the flow of capital. If capital "needed" labor, labor was brought to capital, if the local supply of labour was either insufficient to work the capital or unwilling to do so. Thus, the migration to Natal must be understood in the context of the thousands of other labourers who went to Mauritius, New Guinea, the West Indies, East Africa and Fiji. By the time the export of indentured migrants was ended in 1917, about 1.3 million Indians had emigrated, or perhaps "exported" is a more fitting word, to other parts of the world. The number to the West Indies totaled 534,000, to Mauritius, 350,000 between 1842 and 1870 and a further 80,000 onwards and to Natal another 152,000 between 1860 and 1911. Of that number 23% returned to India.

Laborers were recruited from densely populated labour catchments. In the Madras Presidency, the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking regions that were closest to the Port of Madras supplied over 50% of the recruits. In the UP, nearly 70% of the migrants came from the more densely populated eastern districts, which had smaller land holdings and a larger reservoir of lower-caste and lower-class distribution than western districts. In Bihar, the supplying districts faced greater socioeconomic pressures as a result of density and poverty. Under these conditions, recruitment was easy, often on the basis of false promises, and often in the manner of gang-pressing recruitment by other means.

Indentured labour was not free labour; and the workers who, either voluntarily or involuntarily went to distant places had no right to a negotiated wage or to the choice of employer and the category of work. The structures created by the Government of India in collaboration with the legislatures of the labour-receiving colonies imposed severe restrictions. The colonial legislatures were either unwilling or unable to prevent abuses. Emigrants were often deceived about many things, but they did not have the right to terminate their contracts. The most numerous classes were the landless peasants, agricultural workers, and village service labourers the sections of the population most severely affected by the upheavals in nineteenth-century India. Indentured labor was, therefore, labor "removed" from the Indian sub continent to meet labor contingencies in other parts of the Empire. It was for many who became indentured, a refurbished, upgraded form of slavery.

The first group of indentured Indians arrived in Durban in November 1860. The white population of Natal at the time was under 7,000. From the onset there were differences of opinion between those who wanted a long-term policy of immigration of permanent settlers and those who were in urgent need of relatively unskilled but dependable labour. The question would resurface in the years to come. The main provisions of the initial contracts included free transport from India, an agreement to work for ten shillings a month for five years, free food, accommodation, and medical attention.

Over two-thirds of the Indians came from southern India; the rest came from northern India. The emigrants were, for the most part, from rural areas, were mainly low-caste Hindus from Madras and about one third were women.

Many came as families, but most came as single young men who hoped to return to their villages after their indentures. They came with the barest of knowledge about Natal. In India, the village panchayat, or some such similar institution, regulated almost every detail of their lives. The caste system was all-pervasive. There is little record of how indentured labor reacted to the new conditions and environment it faced -- adaptation to strangers, without reference to caste distinctions, different living situations, new living arrangements, a labor contract system that was alien to them. But in time attitudes became more attuned to the new environment and old habits gave way to new ones. The feeling of togetherness, -- bhaiy-acharaya (brotherhood) and caste consciousness weakened because the village structures were not there to reinforce them. But the world from which they came was "recreated" in many ways in terms of culture, religion and language, the building bricks of their new identity in South Africa. India was the "mother" country, and the Government of India played the role of overseer, raising the question of the treatment of the Indian community in South Africa, even into the 1950s on an annual basis at the United Nations.

For newly arrived Indians, adjustment to the harsh environment of the cane fields was difficult. Feelings of alienation, helplessness, depression, inability to cope, loneliness and hopelessness were rife. Suicide rates were uncommonly high. In the literature relating to apartheid, much is often made of the fact that the Indian community, by virtue of special privileges were better off than their African counterparts. However, if you look at the Indian's experience of indentured labor and the African's pastoral existence all prior to the onslaught of the industrial revolution, it is hard not to conclude that Indentured Indians were subjected to a cruel and unforgiving life, a life of ineffable more hardship than the African. Protections written into the law were simply ignored by plantation owners who ordered the lives of Indians according to his personal whims and greed for profit without having to worry that the authorities would restrict him.

In theory every aspect of the indentured workers' material life was dictated by the terms of their contracts which conformed to Government of India regulations. These stipulated that the working week should consist of six 9-hour days. The basic wage for men over 17 - which did not change during the entire period under review - was 10 shillings a month during the first year of indenture, with annual increments of one shilling a month in each subsequent month. Women and minors were paid half these amounts. Food rations were also covered by the contract. Migrants over the age of twelve were entitled to two pounds of dhal, one pound of salt, two pounds of salt fish and one pound of ghee or oil monthly, and daily, either one and a half pounds of rice, or two pounds of maize meal on three days of the week, and rice for the remainder. Migrants under twelve were entitled to three quarters of an adult ration. Employers were also expected to provide free medical attention in case of sickness, and accommodation in good repair. In addition Natal employers issued a set of clothing to each migrant at the point of embarkation. The harsh reality of the indentured workers' life often bore slight semblance to the terms of their contracts.

Not all the indentured laborers returned to India when their contracts expired. Given the choice between re-indenture, a free passage home to India, or freedom and a small plot of land, they usually chose the last named. The promise of land was, of course, more honored in the breach.

In the 1870s a new class of immigrants arrived. These were passenger Indians Indians who had paid their own way, were mostly from Gujerati, were traders, and mostly Muslim. They began to set up businesses in Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and to compete with white shopkeepers who felt threatened by the competition. In Natal the number of Indians had surpassed the number of whites by the 1890s and the dangers posed by the Indian vote became a rallying point for whites.

Moreover, the steady influx of Indians into South Africa and their increasing propensity to take up residence at the end of their contracts was also viewed with apprehension by whites in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal in particular. To stem what was in fact no more than a dribble, both Boer states passed laws forbidding any Indian settlement inside their borders and any movement across borders without a pass. These laws remained in force until the mid 1980s.

The question that had surfaced when indentured labor first came under consideration by the Natal authorities between the proponents of a policy of a long-term immigration of permanent settlers and those who wanted nothing more than a steady flow of relatively unskilled but dependable labour became the predominant issue for whites. This time, however, those who were in favor of the latter option had their way.

In 1891, the Immigration Act banned land grants to all former indentured laborers. Three years later Indians lost their parliamentary franchise, and the following year the government imposed a tax of # 3 on indentured and ex-indentured laborers and their families. The laws were specifically aimed at discouraging at the end of their contracts. The Government of India responded both to reports of the increasingly harsh conditions indentured Indians had to live and work under and the maltreatment of free Indians by outlawing indentured labor, thus stemming the flow of Indian emigrants to South Africa and seriously disrupting the sugar cane industry who now, whether they liked it or not, had to use local African labor.

In 1914 the South African government started offering free passage home to Indians who were willing to return to India and later added payments as an extra incentive for repatriation. The objective was clear: to encourage Indians en masse to return to India. In short, Indians were not welcome in South Africa.

But the sugar-fields found it difficult to retain workers who were attracted by higher wages to transfer to coal-mining, the railroads, and finally to industrial employment. Some immigrated to the Transvaal. Continued immigration was therefore the only means of maintaining an adequate supply of indentured Indian labour. Meanwhile, the number and the proportion of Natal-born Indians' were adding to a growing supply of free labor and in 1904 they numbered 19,000 and constituted 22 per cent of the total Indian population in Natal.

But there were many who saw the Indians not only as labourers but as potential competitors in the economic field, especially as Indian traders and there were also coming to the country. Attempts were made to induce the Colonial Office in London to restrict the immigration of "free" Indians.

By the end of the nineteenth century, only 33% of the entire Indian work- force was under second or subsequent terms of indenture. Those who renewed their indenture contracts did so because they chose reindenture from a variety of options. In 1905, however, at the start of the post-war depression, the rate of reindenture began the rapid climb which culminated in 66% of the workforce under second or subsequent contracts in 1913. Reindenture had become necessary to survive. Men and women were forced back under contract through lack of alternative means to satisfy their subsistence requirements during a period when these had increased dramatically, while incomes or the possibility of finding employment had decreased dramatically.

Indians became a permanent underclass. Thousands of exindentured Indians in Natal were profoundly affected by the double burden of a depressed economy, and the annual £3 tax to which those who had entered indenture after 1895 were subjected. By 1907 wages for free men had dropped to twenty shillings a month. As the rate of reindenture increased, so did the percentage of workers signing up for agriculture. Exercising what little choice they had, most people opted to avoid the coalfields as they had during their first contract. Reindenture during this period would appear to represent a means of survival rather than a deliberate choice of high wages.

Conditions for the indentured workforce into which new - and not so new - recruits were plunged varied not only from employer to employer but more importantly, from one category of contract work to another.

In agriculture, and particularly on the labour-intensive sugar plantations, savage cost-cutting was used in an attempt to compensate for a 'long term decline in soil productivity and prices. As a result, workers were reduced to a subcontract existence by labor coercive techniques. Plantation laborers were overworked -- as much as a seventeen or eighteen-hour day during the overlapping crushing and planting seasons -- malnourished, and very poorly housed - usually in barracks arranged in rows of back-to-back rooms without window or chimney. This resulted in abnormally high disease and death rates which, an official medical service notwithstanding, remained fairly constant.

In addition, the Natal indentured labour system offered little room for even such basic human comforts as family life. Women - particularly family women - were so reluctant to emigrate that Natal, like other recruiting colonies, had difficulty in fulfilling the modest demands of Government of India legislation which held that four females should be exported for every ten males. There was thus a serious imbalance in the ratio of men to women, and the possibility of establishing or maintaining a family unit was made even more remote by the widespread refusal of employers to ration or to pay any non-working Indian. Overwork, malnourishment, and squalid, degrading living conditions formed the pattern of daily life throughout much of agriculture.

Indentured laborers were subjected to the control of the sirdar, or gang boss. Wherever possible, sirdars were appointed on the basis of some difference between themselves and those in their work gang, whether ethnicity, caste, or the fact that the sirdar was a free man. These pre-existing social distances reduced the possibility of sirdars identifying with workers, and also made their special position more readily apparent to newcomers.

The sirdars' most visible badge of distinction, however, was the right to bear a sjambok, or some similar means of violence. Routinely, sirdars, overseers, and even employers engaged in illegal floggings, the threat of force was always present, the nature and extent of that threat was clearly understood by every worker, and this understanding was a key element in the maintenance of submissiveness.

The other major level of control in agriculture was the wide- spread use of task work: receipt of the full monthly wage was made dependent on the daily completion of a rigorous task. The effectiveness of this system was reinforced by the other factors that eroded the workers' slender income: reduction of wages for days lost through sickness or from 'unlawful' absence from work; the illegal failure of many employers to ration dependents, and loss of wages through gambling, pools, and dependence on alcohol, drugs, and the high-priced easy credit which was necessary in order to fulfill these needs.

The material conditions of indentured workers were better in industry than in agriculture. Pay for Natal Government Railways (NGR) workers started as high as twenty shillings a month, depending on previous experience. The rice ration was 33% higher than on the plantations. By the late 1890s brick barracks were being built, even at up-country stations. Mine wages started at twelve shillings a month for surface work, and fifteen shillings underground.

During the period of rapid expansion in the mining industry between 1898 and 1908, the proportion of Indian labour on the mines averaged 38 per cent. Most, but not all, of these were indentured workers. By the turn of the century, at the latest, it was accepted that no indentured Indian should be signed up for the coalfields unless he clearly understood that he was contracting for mine labour. When the first large batch of Indians was requisitioned in 1901 to support a rapid expansion of the industry, the requisition stated that workers should not be engaged unless they had given prior consent to mine work. Faced with a shortfall of cheap Indian labour, mine owners were turned to Africans.

However, industrial indentured workers did not enjoy like equitable conditions. They were very badly paid - indentured miners, for instance, earned about a quarter of the wage paid to free labour. Mining was still a high risk occupation -- conditions in industry were bad, but conditions in agriculture were even worse.

In 1900, the main avenues of employment for indentured labour continued to be the sugar-estates, coal-mines, and the railways. The free Indian immigrant group of traders clung to their business, some became landowners, and some of the sons of traders took up financial and professional occupations, including the legal profession. But in both coal mining and the railroads, cheaper African labor displaced Indian labor, and thus the shift to industry and the service sector of the economy. Indian industrial employment doubled between 1915 and 1937, while the total population increased only by 50 per cent.

Rapid industrialization encouraged a rapid growth in trade-unions and of Indian involvement with trade unions. According to the SAIRR report "The growing organization of Indian workers no doubt owes much to an active communist element amongst the workers and to the Left-wing sections of Indian political bodies." Indian workers wanted simple justice: "Equal pay for equal work." But discrimination in almost every facet of work-life and the unwillingness of white unions to back Indian demands mitigated their effectiveness.

At the time of Mac's birth Hindus accounted for 81 per cent of the 183,341 Indians in Natal, Muslims for 14 per cent, and Christians 4 per cent. The Hindus were almost entirely the descendants of the indentured immigrants, except for the Gujerati section who are traders. But the trading clement was largely Muslim.

Both religious groups had strong family cohesion and traditions, possibly greater among the Hindu. Unlike the Muslim, the Hindu still clung to remnants of the old caste system with its link of family unity. On the other hand, an economic class distinction has arisen amongst the Muslims on the basis of wealth.

The family system was strengthened by the fact that the young members on marrying remain under one or other of the family roofs. Usually it is the son who stays, being joined by the daughter-in-law. Yet with time this custom began to wane. Improved economic conditions led sons to set up independent households.

In 1940, there was one joint family to every six single households Durban Indian area. In other parts of Natal, however, the joint family was slower to decline. Even single households tended to be fairly large. The tradition of early marriage was still of influence and although the normal marriage age was rising, it was still much below that of Whites. Among 400 family units surveyed in 1940 every woman over 25 years and every male over 30 years was married.

In 1893 the number of Indians in Natal slightly outnumbered the number of Whites, much to White consternation. The Natal Government reacted with alacrity. First, it disfranchised Indians. Second, in 1896, the further immigration of "free" Indians was restricted, the subsidy of £10,000 towards the cost of bringing indentured workers was withdrawn, and an annual tax of £3 was imposed on all indentured workers who entered the country after 1895 and who did not return to India at the end of their contract. This tax also fell on the wives and children of such Indians. Third, in 1908, the Natal Government proposed to withdraw trading licences from Asiatics; only the intervention of the British government prevented the measure from becoming law.

Fourth, three years after the Union of South Africa was formed, the South African Government introduced the Immigrants Regulation Act. Asiatics, i.e. Indians, with the exception of the wives and children already resident in South Africa, were prohibited from entering the country and the movement of Asiatics to the Transvaal, Orange Free State, and the Cape provinces was restricted in most cases prohibited.

Fifth, the franchise Indians still could express in municipal elections in natal was taken away.

Sixth, in 1925, the Class Areas Bill and the Areas Reservation Bill were tabled in parliament. Both were intended to reduce the number of the Indians, who were, at this point, regarded as an alien element in South Africa. Those who remained were to trade or own property in certain areas only. The attempt to give Parliament the power to enforce a type of segregation was dropped owing to the dissolution of the House in May 1924, but two years later, the Areas Reservation and Immigration and Registration (Further Provision) Bill was tabled.

Following the visit of a delegation from India which gave evidence before a select committee, further consideration of the bill was postponed. This was followed by a visit to India of a parliamentary deputation from the South African Government and a conference in Cape Town to explore ways and means of solving the Indian question. In early in 1927 certain recommendations were agreed to, which were afterwards approved by both Governments.

The main points of this "Cape Town Agreement" were as follows: "Both Governments reaffirmed their recognition of the right of the Union to use all just and legitimate means to maintain Western standards of life. The Union Government recognized that Indians who are prepared to conform to Western standards of life should do so, and undertook to organize a scheme of voluntary emigration to India or other countries."

South Africa also agreed to withdraw the Areas Reservation and the Immigration and Registration Bill and invited the Government of India to appoint an agent to facilitate continuous and effective co-operation between the two Governments.

For a time Indian fears were allayed, but the underlying belief that they were not wanted remained as strong as ever.

Mahatma Gandhi had come to the Transvaal in 1893 to handle a case against the merchant firm Dada Abdullah & Company pending in Pretoria in the Transvaal. The story of how he was thrown off the train from Durban to Pretoria when a white passenger asked him to leave his first class compartment because he was coloured and he refused has been so often retold that it is has now achieved mythical proportions. The racism Gandhi faced in his travels in the Transvaal would transform his life. For the next two decades he was the undisputed leader of the Indian community in South Africa, although he represented, for the most part, the elite Indian merchant class, mostly Muslims, passenger Indians who had paid their own way to South Africa, and "free" Indians. It took Gandhi two decades before he embraced the cause of Indentured Indians.

Gandhi was on his way back to India in 1894 when Natal's first independent Parliament introduced a Franchise amendment Bill that would effectively disenfranchise the Indian community. He stayed on, formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) to protect the political rights "free" Indians believed they enjoyed as subjects of the British crown. The NIC was modeled on the Indian National Congress (INC) founded a decade earlier in Bombay. The Indian tradition of involvement in political activism in South Africa had begun. When the Natal Parliament tried to impose a #25 tax on every ex-indentured Indian who chose, at the end of his five year contract, to remain in South Africa, he launched a campaign across three continents that compelled it to reduce the tax to #3.

During the Anglo Boer war, Gandhi formed an ambulance corps of Indians, many of whom were indentured laborers. The Indian Ambulance Corps worked with the European Ambulance Corps under the direction of the British. Although most Indians identified more with the Afrikaners, seeing their struggle as one parallel to their own, the British being the oppressors of both, Gandhi was convinced that alignment with the British would help the Indian cause and be an assertion of their loyalty as British subjects and proof, if proof were needed, of the intrinsic veracity of their claim to British rights. Indians acquitted themselves so well that forty, including Gandhi won medals. Yet, Gandhi could admit that "justice is on the side of the Boers."1 Like the Zulus in the nineteenth century, Gandhi choose his allies on the basis of interest who could best advance the Indian cause.

In 1903 he founded the Transvaal British Indian Association. When the Transvaal Legislative Council passed the Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance of 1906, a law that required all Indians to register and to carry passes, Gandhi embarked on his own particular form of defiance. At a large meeting on 31 July 1906, the Indian community in the province took a solemn pledge to defy the law. Satyagraha was born. It was a new technique for redressing wrongs through inviting, rather than inflicting, suffering, and of fighting your adversary without the use of violence. It promulgated passive resistance as the means to achieve political ends.

Gandhi had found his true vocation in life.

For over a decade he had prepared numerous petitions and memoranda, led deputations to the authorities, gone to India and Britain, harangued their publics, all to promote public understanding and support in South Africa, India and Britain for Indians in South Africa. The INC embraced the cause of Indians in South Africa and made continuous representations on their behalf to the Government of India.

But even as he prepared to confront the Transvaal authorities and his failure to have the British government intervene in Natal and restore the franchise to Indians, when the Zulus revolted in 1906, Gandhi proposed another Indian Ambulance Corps to the NIC; the proposal was sent to the colonial secretary and accepted. "We are in Natal," he opined, "by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends on it. It is therefore our duty to render whatever help we can."2 (The Colonial authorities imposed a Poll Tax on the Zulu people inhabiting an area in the Midlands. This was the final straw for Chief Bambatha of the Zondi clan. He rebelled, and his act of defiance attracted the support of other local leaders. When a column of police was sent to the district to rescue fearful white families, it was ambushed and the police were killed. Retribution was swift. In short measure the British army killed Bambatha and all his followers. King Dinizulu was subsequently charged, found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment for 'inciting and harboring rebels'.3

Gandhi had no interest in the plight of Africans. Indeed, he would argue, quoting the works of respected scholars of the time, that there were ancient Indo-European bonds between the Aryan Verdic Indians and Caucasian tribes.4 Siding with the British against Africans, who had fewer rights than Indians and were the objects of racial discrimination illustrated his obsession with strategic alliances. Africans were in no position to address the grievances of Indians. The thought that he should form an alliance between Africans and Indian to address the grievances of both never seems to have crossed his mind. But it never crossed the minds of the leaders of the African community either.

The first Satyagraha, or campaign of non-violent defiance, began in July 1907 when the law came into affect. About 150 people courted imprisonment by defying the Act and picketing registration offices. This initial campaign ended in January 1908 when an agreement was reached between Gandhi and General Smuts that Indians would voluntarily register and the Government would repeal the law. On another issue pertaining to finger printing, agreement had already been reached Indians would not be finger printed by Africans.5 The Satyagraha was resumed in July 1908 when the Government had failed to repeal the Act. Between 1908 and 1911 over two thousand Indians from both the Transvaal and Natal, went to prison in order to defy the Registration Act as well as the immigration law which restricted inter-provincial movement by Indians.

By mid-1913 Gandhi had broadened the aims of his Passive Resistance to include working-class grievances, and those of the indentured labourers. He now threatened the South African Government with peaceful revolt on an ever-widening scale, accusing it of planning to 'wipe out the resident Indian population by making its life in South Africa as intolerable as possible'. This claim was made on the basis of the crippling three-Pound penalty tax for remaining after indenture and Government's refusal to validate non- Christian Indian marriages.

Even with these warnings, the government and the white minority were taken by surprise in November 1913 when, under Gandhi's direction, indentured Indian labourers went on strike - initially in the coal mining area of Newcastle in northern Natal and then in Durban and adjacent coastal belts. These were the first-ever strikes in the country's history and employers were caught off guard as some 2000 workers downed tools.

Gandhi led phase one of the 'Great March' that same day, heading a group of some 200 strikers out of Newcastle with the intention of crossing into the Transvaal for a confrontation with the government. Within three days the number had swelled to about four thousand.

Knowing that insufficient prison space existed for all the marchers, authorities targeted their leaders and Gandhi was arrested on 5 November, charged with 'aiding and abetting illegal entry into the Transvaal'. He was granted bail but re-arrested two days later and once again released on bail. It is thought that the Government hoped to sap the movement's energy by depleting Gandhi's financial resources. This failed and Gandhi was again arrested on 9 November, on this occasion sentenced to a total of 12 months imprisonment. While Gandhi was incarcerated, thousand became involved in the 'Coastal Strike', Indians in all spheres of employment walking off site and taking to the streets and by-ways. Police shot five strikers at the Mount Edgecombe plantation on Durban's northern outskirts for brandishing home-made weapons.

Indians throughout South Africa reacted in sympathy, shutting down their businesses, forcing the closure of produce markets, halting output from mines, sugar mills and factories, and seriously affecting shops, the catering industry and even domestic household routines. Thousands languished in jail as a result, and the overcrowded conditions led to hunger strikes and related unrest that further tarnished South Africa's reputation abroad as these incidents made headlines world-wide. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Indians were on strike and the government was flummoxed.

As 1913 drew to a close, the Government had no alternative but to launch a Commission of Enquiry into the strikes. Gandhi was released from prison as a means to cool tempers, and early the following year a Bill was passed whereby the infamous three- Pound 'penalty tax' was abolished and some important concessions made with regard to non-Christian Indian marriages.

Matters were by no means resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but Gandhi believed he had achieved whatever he could under the circumstances. He was at the time growing increasingly concerned about the situation in India, and had dreams of influencing the outcome of calls for independence there.

On 18 July 1914, Gandhi set sail from Durban for the last time, destined to become leader of the massed millions in India's struggle for independence. He departed South Africa with a feeling of that his business was unfinished, that plight of Indians in South Africa remained an open question.6

Gandhi's imprint on the South African Indian community would last for decades and his name and memory were revered. He had exploited Satyagraha as a political weapon to its fullest potential. Indian immigrants, heretofore divided on lines of language, culture, tradition and religion, found a basis for Indian unity through Gandhi's teachings and participation in his passive resistance campaigns in 1906 and again in 1913. But the precept of Satyagraha was not employed again until the 1946 Passive Resistance Movement, which became one of the turning points in the resistance to white domination and disenfranchisement.

He had exploited Satyagraha as a political weapon to its fullest potential. Indian immigrants, heretofore divided on lines of language, culture, tradition and religion, found a basis for Indian unity through Gandhi's teachings and participation in his passive resistance campaigns in 1906 and again in 1913. He had exploited Satyagraha as a political weapon to its fullest potential. Indian immigrants, heretofore divided on lines of language, culture, tradition and religion, found a basis for Indian unity through Gandhi's teachings and participation in his passive resistance campaigns in 1906 and again in 1913.

When Gandhi left South Africa in 1914 months before WW1 broke out; the leadership of the Indian community fell to "moderates" who believed that Indian interests were best served by making compromises with the white Government. The Indian Congress was reduced to representing the voice of the small Indian merchant class7. But in 1939 a new radical leadership emerged with the conviction that the Indian community could only be defended by struggle and sacrifice and in 1946 the 'radicals,' having seen that the government's idea of a negotiated compromise was to strip Indians of the remaining rights they still had, took over both congresses and once again invoked Gandhi's philosophy of political struggle to redress Indian grievances. In India, Gandhi's Satyagraha was the pivotal force behind India's unstoppable drive for independence.

When the Asiatic Land Tenure Act, which compulsorily and forcibly pegged down the position of the Indian, and the Indian Representation Act (the Ghetto Act) came into force in 1946, a nation-wide passive resistance movement was launched under the leadership of Dr G.M. Naicker in Natal and Dr Y.M. Dadoo in the Transvaal.

The Passive Resistance Movement of 1946 brought together in a united struggle all sections of the Indian community, the working people who made up 80% of the population, the professional class and the traders. There was no discussion at the time of non-violence, because the question of an armed struggle by a small, unarmed and vulnerable community was unthinkable.

The campaign was carried out on very similar lines to the campaigns that Gandhi himself participated in. It was a conducted by the Joint Passive Resistance Council of both the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congresses. It involved the defying of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act and the Indian Representation Act by having Indians willfully court imprisonment by crossing the provincial borders without the required permits. Nearly 2,000 men and women were voluntarily imprisoned for non-cooperation.

Although the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign was considered a failure on the basis that the demands of the Indian population were not met, it led to the NIC making common cause with the ANC. In 1947 Naicker (NIC), Dadoo (TIC) and Xuma (ANC) grew up a tripartite agreement - -the Naicker/Xuma/ Dadoo Pact that mandated the Indian and African organizations to work together for the enfranchisement of all, the removal of land restrictions, freedom of movement, the abolition of passes for Africans and inter-provincial travel for Indians, and an end to discriminatory legislation. This pact laid the groundwork for the 1952 Defiance Campaign.

The Defiance Campaign was conceived towards the end of the 1951 parliament session -- 75 new pieces of apartheid legislature had been placed on the statute book. These laws affected all disadvantaged groups. Prior to 1950 Indians, Coloureds and Africans had been fighting their battles in different colonies, against different laws and on the basis of different cultural foundations. Statutory apartheid changed that. The Land Act and the Group Area's Act, which were passed in 1950, provided a common ground for united opposition to the government. The Defiance Campaign welded together the masses of the African, Coloured and Indian people into one united force.

In 1952 the joint campaign was launched. There were planned acts of defiance of unjust laws by volunteers in all major cities in South Africa. Small towns and rural areas joined in later as the Campaign gained momentum. Thousands of volunteers refused to obey segregationist rules at bus stops, train stations and post offices in a generally orderly and peaceful manner. Between June and November 1952 over 8,000 people were voluntarily arrested.

Although the movement was partly based on Gandhi's principle of Satyagraha, there were fundamental differences in what Gandhi participated in and the 1952 Campaign.

Unlike Gandhi's movements this campaign, although it was mostly non-violent, was deliberately not called a passive resistance movement in order to avoid creating an impression of passivity. This Defiance Campaign expressed much more of a militant outlook -- the use of violence had become a normal instrument of government policy; therefore, it was not unsurprising that there were the murmurs among elements of the alliance that violence might have to be considered if government persisted to ignore all forms of peaceful protest; indeed, answered peaceful protest with even more Draconian security laws. But the murmurs were confined mostly to elements within the SACP, always more radical in their approach to oppression than their African compatriots. According to Dr. Dadoo, the principle of Satyagraha had never been accepted as a creed by the Indian people after Gandhi had left. Although Dr. Naicker and Nana Sita did promote it as the only option, it did not generate enthusiasm among the masses.8 Armed resistance was seen as a possible alternative only if it had the backing of the African and Coloured populations. As the Campaign gained momentum riots broke out in Port Elizabeth, East London, Kimberley and Denver hardly the hallmarks of passive resistance as espoused by Gandhi.

The Defiance Campaign was the first major tactical step towards politicizing the masses, a perquisite for building the national liberation movements into mass organisations of the people. In terms of this yardstick, the campaign was a resounding success. But in terms of the having an impact on the implementation of apartheid, the policy of racial segregation enacted by the National Party (NP) following its assumption of power in the 1948 national elections, the Defiance campaign was a failure. There were however, other results: the formation of the Congress of Democrats, a small but active group of white democrats, the Coloured Peoples Congress and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and ANC membership soared -- from 7,000 to over 100,000.

The government responded with unrestrained wrath: in November 1952 the Minister of Justice banned all meetings of more than 10 Africans; the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed, the law allowed judges to sentence resisters on the spot to floggings as well as 3 year jail terms; the Public Safety Act was passed, which provided for the suspension of laws and instituted emergency regulations whenever the Cabinet decreed a state of emergency); and the Government redefined resistance to racial segregation as "communism," then charged leaders of the SACP with treason, driving the party underground.

This is the world Sathyandranath 'Mac' Ragunanan Maharaj was born into on 22 April 1935 a world of concurrencies within South Africa and of far-reaching change without.

Newcastle was still a relatively small town, but the suburb Mac grew up in -- Lennixton was as far from the city center as Newcastle was from Durban, Durban from Johannesburg, Johannesburg from London. In a country increasingly hermetically sealed in, he was hermetically sealed into the Indian Diaspora in Lennoxton with its remembered traditions and rituals to which he was supposed to subscribe submissively and unquestioningly. Grinding poverty provided little leeway for escape, other than through education. But the level to which one could aspire to in education was something you did not control. Ambition was rooted in small things getting a job at the petrol station, or better still becoming a distance truck driver. Marriage came early and children were immediately expected. They were, after all, provision for the future an investment against whatever the future might bring.

Outside South Africa, the world was in a state of uncertainty. The world depression that followed the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929 still lingered with little sign that its impact would easily be overcome.

Yet, the year was marked by events that would have a long lasting effect on the course of world events for decades to come and shape modern society. Politically, the legacy of the First World War lingered with the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. In 1935, a plebiscite was held in the Saar region according to the terms of the Versailles Treaty to determine whether the people of this region wished to join France or Germany. The vote was 90% in favor of unification with Germany and, on March 1, the German Reich expanded for the first time. Adolph Hitler, the German Chancellor, announced in March that he was abrogating those portions of the Versailles Treaty that limited the size and weapons of the German armed forces. No one protested and in bone bold stroke Hitler had effectively emasculated the Versailles Treaty, set the course for the rearmament of Germany, paving the way for German expansionism and the World War that would follow.

In Britain, Winston Churchill railed against German rearmament, but few listened. Thirty years earlier when he was colonial under secretary of state, Churchill in a meeting with Gandhi had justified the disenfranchisement of Indians in Natal on the grounds that "all non- European Natives were colored people' and hence unsuited for representative government.9

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.