Mahatma And Africa: Diaiogue of Ideas

Ahmed Kathrada
South African Politician and Veteran Anti-apartheid Activist

The history of our people’s struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa would be incomplete without taking into account Mahatma Gandhi’s innovative and significant contribution. Gandhi arrived in Durban in May 1993 as a young lawyer, who had been briefed in a civil case instituted by a South African Indian businessman. Furthest from his mind was any idea of a lengthy stay or involvement in politics. However, within a matter of days or weeks he was hit by a bolt from the blue — the harsh reality and humiliation of racial discrimination.

He was ordered by a white magistrate to remove his turban in court.
On his journey to Pretoria by train on a first class ticket, he was physically thrown off the train because a white passenger objected to traveling alongside an Indian.
After landing in Johannesburg he was refused accommodation in a hotel. Gandhi refused to suffer in silence the humiliation and indignity. The cumulative effect of his experiences led him to form the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. (Interestingly, this was 18 years before the African National Congress was formed in 1912.)

First Passive Resistance

Between 1906 and 1910, Gandhiji helped the Indian community in the Transvaal Province to resist the anti-Indian “Black Act”, which required all Indians to register and give fingerprints for identification and acquire what came to be known as “passes”. The failure to get these passes constituted a criminal offence.

The first Gandhian form of non-violent passive resistance took place on July 12, 1908, when Gandhi, in the presence of some 3,000 protesters, set alight his own pass. Hundreds of enthusiastic followers joined in burning theirs. In the aftermath of the pass-burning, about 2,000 passive resisters, including Gandhi, broke one or the other of the provisions of the “Black Act” and suffered imprisonment.

Second Passive Resistance

But the regime not only ignored the feelings of the affected people; it went ahead with even more drastic and oppressive anti-Indian legislation. In 1913, it introduced the Immigrants’ Regulation Bill, which ignored all previous undertakings and abrogated numerous rights earlier enjoyed by the Indian community.

The Chairman of the Transvaal British 

Indian Association, A.M. Cachalia, in a letter to the Government, pointed out the iniquities in the Bill and made clear the intentions of the Indian community to again embark on a passive resistance campaign.

Before the commencement of the campaign, Gandhi also informed the Government of the Indian community’s firm resolve to resort to passive resistance. This was a bold and significant advance. Led by Gandhi, the Transvaal British Indian Association mobilised thousands of volunteers to defy the law by illegally marching across the border from Natal into the Transvaal.

Coinciding with this protest was a strike by nearly 4,000 Indian coal miners in Newcastle, which was joined, in solidarity, by many others — from municipal and domestic workers to those working in factories and on sugar plantations, bringing the total number of strikers to 25,000. In Durban, the police shot and killed six strikers and wounded many. These events brought together the common grievances of the workers and the incipient Indian middle-class. Gandhi’s marchers were joined by thousands of strikers, many of whom were arrested and jailed. A significant feature of these protests was the active participation of women.

Gandhi Departs from South Africa

In 1914, Gandhi left South Africa to return to India. Not long thereafter, Indian politics in South Africa experienced a lull. The leadership of the newly-formed South African Indian Congress (which was made up of the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal British Indian Association) consisted mainly of businessmen, who were primarily interested in protecting and promoting their own interests. Defiance and passive resistance made way for the politics of resolutions, petitions and delegations to the Government.

Gandhiji’s legacy was all but forgotten.

Revival of Gandhian Spirit Towards the late1930s, the political scene began to change once again. People such as Dr. G.M. Naicker, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Dr. K. Goonam returned home after completing their medical studies in Scotland. Having settled down in their practices, they  began to turn their attention to politics. In this, they were soon to be joined by the stalwart lieutenants of Gandhi’s earlier campaigns.

In 1938, Dr. Dadoo was among the leaders instrumental in forming the Non-European United Front, which advocated the unity of all oppressed people.

In 1939, led by Dr. Dadoo, this Front, along with one faction of the Transvaal Indian Congress, set out to organise a passive resistance movement against a law which aimed at “keeping the Indians in their place”. The initiative was enthusiastically received, especially by the youth, who volunteered in large numbers. Messages of support were received from Gandhiji and the All India Congress Committee.

A mass meeting held on June 4, 1939, to chalk out the future course of action was violently disrupted by gangsters allegedly employed by another faction of the Transvaal Indian Congress. Nine persons — all supporters of passive resistance — were severely injured; one of them, Dayabhai Govindjee, died later.

While preparations for the launch of passive resistance were going on, Gandhiji learnt of the behind-the-scenes efforts of the British and Indian Governments to bring about a favourable settlement. He advised the Passive Resistance Committee to postpone
the launch.

In response, Dr. Dadoo issued a statement: “Mahatma Gandhi has been our guide and mentor in all that the Passive Resistance Council has been doing...we shall whole-heartedly await his advice.”

A New Leadership 

In 1945 and 1946, elections in two provinces resulted in the victories of Dr. Dadoo and his supporters. The legacy of Gandhiji was once again enthusiastically revived. In 1946, under its new leadership, the South African Indian Congress passed resolutions,
i) to launch a passive resistance campaign against the Ghetto Act. ii) to call upon the Indian Government to impose economic, diplomatic and other sanctions against South Africa, and further to raise the issue of the treatment of Indians at the United Nations.  The Government of India agreed to take necessary action on all the above requests.

In keeping with its resolution, the South African Indian Congress launched a passive resistance campaign against the Ghetto Act on June 13, 1946. A plot of land in Durban that had been declared “For Whites Only”, was identified as the venue for the act of defiance.

Over the next few months, nearly 2,000 volunteers occupied the plot of land and were imprisoned. While most received a one-month sentence, leaders like Dr. Naicker, Dr. Dadoo, Dr. Goonam and others were given longer terms. From the first day, many women volunteers took an active part in the protest and landed up in jail.

The Government of India complied with the resolution of the South African Indian Congress in its entirety.

In 1947, Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker visited India at Gandhi’s invitation. The same year, the African National Congress and the Indian Congress signed a Pact of Unity. Called “The Doctors Pact”, it was signed by Dr. A.B. Xuma, President of the African National Congress; Dr. G.M. Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress; and Dr. Y.M. Dadoo, President of the Transvaal Indian Congress. In 1952, the African National Congress and the South Africa Indian Congress jointly launched the ‘Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws’. The campaign was opened by four prominent Congress leaders when they defied restrictions that had been imposed on them by the security police. They were arrested.

Thereafter, on June 26, the first batch of about 50 volunteers defied an apartheid law and were jailed. The joint leaders of the batch were Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of the African National Congress, and Nana Sita, President of the Transvaal Indian Congress.

Besides these campaigns, there were numerous strikes, demonstrations and boycotts. While Gandhi’s name may not have been overtly invoked during all these protests, the campaigners followed in his footsteps by adhering to his ideals of non-violence, peaceful resistance, and civil disobedience.

On April 27, 1994, after over 350 years of racial oppression, the people of South Africa — black and white — celebrated the rise of Nelson Mandela as the first President of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa. While the event made immediate global headlines for its significance as the most peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in the modern era, it was, in a slightly different historical perspective, just another victory for the enduring strength and appeal of the Mahatma’s legacy.

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