64. Congress addresses the Union Parliament, 1946

From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

M. D. Barmania, one of the secretaries of the South African Indian Congress, appeared before the Senate of the South African Parliament on 3 May 1946. He spoke on behalf of the Congress about the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill, then before Parliament, and explained why the Congress rejected the Bill. This document dwells on the anti-Indian agitation which prompted commissions of enquiry into Indian penetration of white areas, and brought about the Pegging Act. The first third of the address has been omitted. Source: Senate Debates, Session, Ninth Parliament (Fourth Senate), 3 May 1946, cols 1440-55.

”¦ For endeavouring to contribute towards the maintenance of Western standards of life, for investing his money in this country, for purchasing property so that he may live on a higher standard, for educating himself and his children, the cry again arose that the Indian was acquiring too much property, that he was becoming economically strong, and he must therefore be restricted and confined and isolated in defined areas.

In the case of Natal, these attempts at economic and social improvement on the one hand, together with lack of facilities and amenities for Indian housing and residence on the other, led naturally to a certain degree of expansion of Indian land-holding from Europeans in Durban and elsewhere.It was this tendency which was stigmatised under the stimulus of agitation as ‘penetration' and led to the appointment in 1940 of the first Broome Commission. After exhaustive enquiries this commission reported as follows:

We do not believe that the Indian repudiation of segregation is due to any desire on the part of Indians to live in proximity to Europeans. Apart from the authors of the few 'demonstrations of equality' and 'gestures of defiance', the vast majority of Indians would prefer, other things being equal, to live among their own people. This is a natural instinct amongst human beings, and Indians are no different in this respect from others.

After stating that the desire to invest accounts for most of the acquisitions of property without occupation, the commission said that the remainder of the acquisitions with occupation is accounted for by the following reasons amongst others:

(1)The lack of housing and civic amenities in predominantly Indian areas;

(2)The in crease in the Indian population;

(3)The improved standard of living of Indians resulting partly from the Cape Town Agreement and the consequent increased demand for dwellings separate from trading premises;

(4)The acceptance by Indians of Western standards of living partly from Cape Town Agreement, and the consequent increased demand for separate dwellings apart from the ancestral home.

However, the extent of so-called 'penetration' was not of such a character as the Government regarded justified restrictive legislation.

The general shortage of facilities in Durban, as in other cities consequent upon the war, together with the increased financial prosperity in which all sections of the community participated, resulted in a certain expansion of Indian immoveable property holdings. This was seized upon by agitators as justifying their demands for restrictive legislation. A second commission was appointed and its terms of reference specifically and intentionally restricted to the old borough of Durban only, where it was known that for the above reasons there had been a certain expansion of Indian ownership. It was the report of this commission which was seized upon to justify restrictive legislation - the 'Pegging Act' - applicable immediately to the whole of the city if Durban (not merely the old borough) and potentially applicable to all urban areas of Natal.

The history of the anti-Indian agitation in the Transvaal followed similar lines. Here, as the small Indian community was predominantly composed of traders, anti-Indian agitation took the form of demands for statutory colour bars upon the extension of Indian business activity as well as residence. As early as 1939 interim legislation was passed forbidding occupation of further business or residential premises by Indians, except under authority of a permit. This legislation was due to expire in 1941, but was extended to 1943 when, with certain modifications, it was prolonged for a further three years by the 'Pegging Act' mentioned above. This legislation was passed despite the findings in 1938 by the Murray Commission that the evidence did not disclose any increase in the number of Asiatic trading licences disproportionate to the total growth of population, and despite, further, the findings of the first Broome Commission that:

We may say at the outset that we unhesitatingly reject the view that there is among Transvaal Indians any general desire to live among Europeans. Where they have done so the inducement has been the existence in European areas of either better trading opportunities or better living conditions.

As the present Acting Prime Minister, Mr. J. H. Hofmeyr, described during the second reading debate on the Bill: ‘This legislation as it applied the Transvaal was an unjustified prolongation of an unjustified piece of discriminatory legislation.’ The Pegging Act therefore prevented further acquisition of trading and residential property by Indians in Durban, and prevented the occupation of further residential and trading property throughout the Transvaal for a period of three years. So far as the rest of Natal, other than Durban, was concerned, the Act made provision for its own application to any other city or town by proclamation. It is worth mentioning that not a single urban local authority in Natal was able to make out a case for such application.

During the second reading debate on the Pegging Bill in 1943, the Rt. Hon. the Prime Minister made the following statement:

We are bound to remember that they, the Indians, are our people, they belong here, they have no other country. We must be fair and just to them and see that in regard to landholding, housing schemes and the amenities of all, the rights which civilised people are entitled to are also afforded to them.

The Minister of the Interior was even more specific and repudiated the principle of compulsory segregation as a permanent solution. He said: ‘We must make provision not on compulsory but on voluntary lines; the solution lies in the provision of adequate housing.’ The present Acting Prime Minister, Mr. J. H. Hofmeyr, during the same debate, said:

I believe that every time facts are brushed aside and surrender is made to racial and colour prejudices, impairing the human rights of a part of our people in the interest of another part of our people, every time that happens we are sapping the moral foundation of leadership which the European people in South Africa enjoy today.

The Minister of the Interior, however, in emphasising the temporary nature of the Bill, referred to the future in the following terms: ‘The Pegging Act was a temporary measure, to give time for government inquiry and to test the good faith of the Durban City Council.'

The Act had been imposed upon the Indian community by force and they at no time ceased to voice their irreconcilable opposition to the Act and the principles upon which it was based. Various attempts in which the leaders of the Indian community participated were made to arrive at a solution by consent of the problems involved. The most important of these attempts was represented by the Pretoria Agreement, which was frustrated by General Smuts’ note to the Natal Indian Congress dated 30th November 1944, in which he said:

The Pretoria Agreement having failed in its objects, it becomes necessary to explore a settlement along other lines. The Government thinks that this can best be done at this stage the Broome Judicial Commission.... With the provision of housing for Indians and others being accelerated as much as possible and the Judicial Commission finishing its work, important practical steps will have been taken towards a solution of the problem before us.

The commission referred to was that appointed in terms of the above-quoted statement of the Minister of the Interior, during the debate on the Pegging Bill. The commission presented an interim report on the 16th March 1945, in which it concluded that it would be useless to confer upon Natal Indians a measure of communal representation which they would refuse to accept. The only practical basis for negotiation and possible agreement was, in the commission's opinion, the basis of the loaded franchise upon the common roll. Thereafter the commission also made the following definite recommendations:

(1)That the Union Government invites the Government of India to send to the Union a delegation, composed substantially of Indians, for the purpose of discussing with the Union Government, and with such representatives as the Union Government may appoint, and with such other persons as the delegation may invite, all matters affecting Indians in South Africa.

(2)That the invitation be issued by the Union Government forthwith.

(3)That, pending the acceptance of the invitation, this commission does stand adjourned.

(4)That, on the acceptance of the invitation, this commission be discharged from making any further enquiry or report and be dissolved.

This recommendation of the commission was supported by the South African Indian Congress at its conference mentioned above by it resolving as follows:

This conference authorises a deputation of Congress to interview the Prime Minister with a request not to introduce any legislation to the detriment of the Indian community, and respectfully to ask that the Union Government invite forthwith the Government of India to send to the Union a delegation, for the purpose of holding a Round Table Conference with the representatives of the Union Government in order to arrive at a solution of all matters affecting Indians in South Africa, in accordance with the only recommendation of the Natal Indian Judicial Commission to whose findings the Prime Minister attached so much importance, and moreover such a Round Table Conference would be a continuation of the Round Table Conference already held between the Union and Indian Governments.

So far from accepting this recommendation the Government has now come toward with this Bill. In terms thereof it is proposed to foist upon the Indian community a type of communal franchise implying inferior status, to which the Indian community is opposed. It is poor compensation to provide us with communal franchise after imposing upon us a legislative design which no franchise can alter. What is the good of any kind of franchise, common or communal, unless it can be used to modify existing circumstances, remedy injustices, and redress grievances? Experience of the communal franchise in Ceylon, where a royal commission has recommended its abolition, in Fiji, in East Africa, and, for that matter, in India, demonstrates its weakness and inadequacy.

It is proposed further to prevent the purchase or lease of further land by Indians except by permit or in special exempted areas. Even assuming, which we deny, that the restriction of the elementary right of land purchase and occupation by members of any race is a valid one, we contend that, viewed factually, there is no justification for the imposition on the Indian community of such restrictions.

Taking Durban as an example, statistics for 1942 disclose that the Indian population in the old borough constitutes 25,459 against Europeans 81,240, being 23.8 per cent of the population. The extent of property held by the Indians in terms of valuation in the same territory is £4,136,930 against the European holding of £36,480,418, the Indian holding being 10.2 per cent of the whole. The old borough of Durban is 8274 acres in extent; the extent of the seven areas designated by the first Broome Commission as being predominantly Indian in 1927 was stated by that commission to total 204 acres. It estimated that the extent of the new acquisitions since 1927 amounts to no more than 175 acres. It would be also interesting to record that in the last figures made available to Congress, from a total acreage of some eighteen million acres in the rural areas of Natal, the holding by Indians in 1925 wassome 89,869 acres which, in the course of the last 21 years, is estimated to have increased to, but not to have exceeded, 150,000 acres.

We have endeavoured in the analysis made to show that there is one continuous and persistent feature about this problem, on which there can be no cavil or debate. It is that from first to last it is a story of a deteriorating situation; of promises made and promises broken; of pledges given and pledges violated; and the withering away of rights and the erosion of principles. It is a case of tragic decline. Today, after having recited the background of this problem, we come to this legislation that is before you. What is proposed in this legislation is to give statutory permanence to a conflict which is not permanent.

Three or four centuries ago the Jew was oppressed not because he was a member of another race but because he was not a Christian; the Roman Catholics persecuted the Protestants and the Protestants the Roman Catholics, not because they belonged to different races, but because they belonged to different religions. But more recently the Jew has been persecuted because of his race, and the Indian today is made a scapegoat of similar racism. There is only one solution to this conflict. It is a solution not that we give, but that the world's greatest scientists give. Allow us to quote one of them:

The more closely one studies racialism in its modern guise the less it appears that the conflict is racial; it is the old problem of unequal citizenship. Whenever one group, whether industrial workers or a religious sector a racial group, is discriminated against before the law or in equal claims to life, liberty or jobs, there will always be powerful interests to capitalize this fact and to divert violence from those responsible for these conditions into channels where relatively safe to allow.

Our Congress asks for nothing more than this, that the Government implement what the Prime Minister, in a written note to the Congress, said on the 28th November 1944, that 'the Pretoria Agreement having failed in its objects it was necessary to explore a settlement along other lines.’ What were these lines? The lines of the Natal Indian Judicial Commission. The commission reported that a new start be made, that conversations and consultation take place between the Union Government and the Government of India. The proposed legislation in our view cuts across all these recommendations. The Judicial Commission's recommendation is shelved. Mr. Justice Broome, whowas listened to twice, is not being listened to a third time. Racial zoning gives place to proposals seeking not only to zone but to strangulate the community.

It has been contended that the recommendation for a round-table conference is inconsistent with Union sovereignty as the issue involved here is a domestic issue. Such was not the view taken by the Nationalist Government in 1926. Moreover, the proposed confining of Indian purchase and occupation of immoveable property to certain areas or sites amounts to an application of the principle of compulsory segregation and involves economic discrimination against Indians. Segregation and economic discrimination infringe the terms of the Cape Town Agreement. The issue can never be purely of a domestic character, which involves a breach of treaty obligations. As the present Acting Prime Minister stated in the House of Assembly during the debate on the Transvaal Land and Trading Bill in 1939:

May I say that it would be impossible for the Government, in my opinion, to go forward with the legislation, which did involve the acceptance of that principle [segregation] unless it had first terminated the Agreement with the Government of India, for which the Honourable Member of Piquetberg [Dr. Malan] was responsible.

During the course of past agitation we have time and again been assured that the only issue on which Europeans took exception to Indians was that involved in residential proximity of Indians to Europeans, yet this Bill takes away the freedom to purchase property and to engage in business of a quarter million people on the grounds of race only. In the presence of some of us Genl Smuts said that acquisition of property was not a problem. The conflict between that admission and the terms of this Bill are obvious. Economic discrimination cannot be justified from the point of view of the welfare of the community as a whole ”” European and non-European. As the Natal Post-War Works and Reconstruction Commission reported:

Your Commission believes that the population of Natal cannot be divided into economic watertight compartments based on racial lines. That is to say, if economic prosperity is to be established for the whole community, then in its views the laws of economics must be allowed free play between the different racial groups as they are between individuals of each group.

To this may be added the pregnant words of the Industrial Legislation Commission of 1935 when they said:

The greater the restrictions placed upon the free movement of Indians from the labour market to another, the greater the lack of educational facilities to enable them to qualify for skilled occupations, the greater the restrictions upon their employment, their trading rights and property-owning rights, the more serious must their competition become with those spheres which are still open to them and in which they compete with Europeans. The imposition of any further restrictions, therefore, instead of leading to a solution of the problem, would only lead to intensification of the competition in the further narrowed spheres of activities which are left open to them.

A solution of compulsory segregation which the principles of this Bill embody can only involve helotry for Asiatics and deterioration for Europeans. As the Lange Commission of 1921 reported:

We find ourselves wholly unable to support the policy of repression which was advocated by some of the witnesses. Indiscriminate segregation of Asiatics in locations and similar measures would result in eventually reducing them to helotry. Such measures, apart from their injustice and inhumanity, would degrade the Asiatic and react upon the European. There should be no compulsory segregation of Asiatics.

If these recommendations are compared with the statements expressed by Mr. H. G. Lawrence as Minister of the Interior, and the Prime Minister, General Smuts, you will find them almost identical. The theme in 1943 was that there shall be no compulsory segregation. Now by this Bill there is to be nothing less than compulsory segregation in 1946. How have these contradictory policies evolved? It is not difficult to discover the reasons. For almost half a century European vested interests in Durban engaged in a lucrative practice of selling land and property to Indians. There was plenty of land and plenty of property and to the extent that Europeans engaged in this practice, they are responsible for the present situation as much as the Indian. During that time there were few Indian dealers in land and property. There was, therefore, no point of conflict between Indians and Europeans in this particular sphere. As time went on the Indian entered the field and engaged in the practices formerly confined to Europeans, aided by the growing number of financial institutions interested in the lending of money. Once that happened a conflict of economic interests arose, which was seized upon as an excuse for racial attack upon Indians, and this has been encouraged in more recent years by racialists to such an extent, indeed, that several Natal politicians of today, who are the most virulent enemies of Indians, were a few years ago among those who engaged in this lucrative practice of selling properties and lending money to Indians. Indeed, it is just a fact that many Europeans owe their wealth to this practice. There was no conflict when all the advantage was on the side of the European; the conflict arose as soon as the Indian learned to take advantage of the established institutions already mentioned.

Out of this sort of thing racial attacks have grown and they have been fanned and exploited by those who once enjoyed the benefits conferred by the presence of hard-working thrifty Indians. Now it is easy to see that the broad European view is that so long as the Indian is a labourer and a servant he is accepted as being useful to the community, but once the Indian rises above the position of a servant he is looked upon as a menace.

The history of anti-Indian agitation follows the familiar and disastrous course of all racial conflicts. Witness how all the attacks fix upon the so-called rich Indian. Who is the rich Indian? There is no distinction between the descendant of the indentured labourer and the old-time Indian trader. Today 60 per cent of Indian trade is in the hands of the descendants of the indentured labourer, and on the sugar belt we find that he is supplying sugar to the mills in which his father worked for 10s. a month. Have you not the same thing in the European community? Is it not true that an obscure soldier or sailor can become the respected Administrator of a Province, or the High Commissioner for the Union of South Africa in the United Kingdom? Is it not true that Europeans by dint of hard work become the heads and owners of great merchant companies? As with Europeans so with Indians. But the rich Indian is now a bogey. He is made the scapegoat of conditions of European poverty and distress. That European poverty and distress is exploited and flung back in attacks upon rich Indians in South Africa even as elsewhere it is flung in the face of the rich Jew.

The fundamental issue before Parliament today can be described in a single question. Does the European dominant group really want to solve racial strife, or does it prefer to establish its own supremacy even at the cost of racial strife? So long as the European section insists upon the economic and social inferiority of the Indian community, so long will there be racial strife; so long as the European community insists that the Indian shall have no effective representation on bodies which determine the destiny of Indians, so long will there be racial strife: so long as the Indians are depressed and segregated by statutes legally imposed by the dominant group, so long will there be racial strife.

We hope that in our petition and by these oral representations we have been privileged to make before you, we have made it abundantly clear that this Bill is totally unacceptable to the Indian people. Its principle of segregation is abhorrent to us; therefore we cannot discuss its details. We totally reject it.

In conclusion we would respectfully urge upon this honourable House that what it is called upon to do is to give statutory recognition to what are private prejudices of a few Europeans with vested interests. Let not this honourable House become party to such a sordid transaction. This legislation is contrary to the spirit of the treatment that we, the nationals of this civilised country, are entitled to receive. We demand justice and nothing more. This legislation is an outrage against human justice, against the ideals of human freedom incorporated in the Atlantic Charter, and is a gross violation of the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, on which the peace, welfare and future of the entire human race depends.

This legislation which we ask you to reject, if we may be permitted to say, contains all the elements of Hitler's policy applied by a country that was Hitler's enemy, to its quarter million Indian subjects. In the name of the sacred principles of humanity and justice we earnestly request this honourable House to reject this Bill.

A Documentary History of South african Indians