The period from 1979 to 1996 witnessed profound global political change. This transformation in world politics was characterised by the breakdown of socialist states in Eastern Europe and the concomitant cessation of the Cold War; the re-emergence of ethnicity as a defining feature in politics, accompanied by a de-emphasising of class as a social determinant; the ascendancy of the electronic media as a powerful force shaping political attitudes in most countries; and the partial political settlements of various long-standing stalemates in different parts of the world. All of this impacted significantly on both the internal politics of individual nation-states and on international relations. One remarkable transition is that of South Africa. South Africa has been credited, in part, for developing a model for the resolution of political impasses in various global conflicts. Ironically, by the beginning of the 1990s, South Africa exhibited some exceptions from emergent international trends: for example, there were few voices explicitly espousing racism, and while the Soviet Communist Party was banned, the South African Communist Party was legalised and contributed significantly to the negotiations for a new post-apartheid order.
If these current world trends continue, the primacy of ethnicity, race and nationalism may dominate both the political and intellectual discourses of the coming century. Yet the re-emergence of class in political praxis as well as in intellectual life should not be discounted. In the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s some academics in South Africa, began the long overdue examination of the location of ethnicity in resistance, and in political life more generally.1 The anti-apartheid movements reluctantly began to engage with questions of ethnicity as it became clear that certain constituencies might reject them at the polls. This dissertation argues that the significance of ethnicity must be affirmed in intellectual and political life because, even though it has long been ignored, it remains an on-going feature of socio-political reality. However, it would be inappropriate, particularly for progressive scholars long associated with supporting the emancipatory project against apartheid and economic exploitation in South Africa, to shift from a “class,” mantra to one of “ethnicity”. The continuing relevance of class, in more subtle and differentiated formations, and as a critical component of consciousness formation and organisational development, calls for equally subtle and analytical modes of examination.2
In predicting how the political elite will try to influence the political consciousness of target constituencies in the twenty-first century, we can look at attempts by the previous anti-apartheid resistance movements and the apartheid state to win acceptance for their agendas. Earlier attempts to disaggregate the resistance movements have tended to be either highly generalised overviews or specific to a single township or sub-region, often examining African resistance, which dominated the anti-apartheid struggles. This thesis, in contrast, seeks to understand the relationship and articulation of race, class, ethnicity and gender amongst South Africans of Indian descent. In particular, it looks at how these different variables contributed to, or hampered, the development of political consciousness and organisation.
The point of departure is the fact that four and a half decades of apartheid social engineering succeeded in consolidating the social, cultural and political separation of South Africans. The state, sometimes in collusion with capital, tried to ensure that the goals of inter- and intra-community solidarity, for the purpose of resistance, would be frustrated.3 To a large extent, this history delineated the limits and possibilities of inter-racial class solidarity and made it difficult to develop a uniform national opposition to apartheid which would have encompassed all the disenfranchised groups. Various impediments and constraints were experienced by the liberation movements in securing the support and participation of the majority of Indian South Africans in the political struggle. However, several political ambiguities were also evident. The apartheid planners were themselves engaged in a dual strategy of reform and repression. Thus, attempts were made to gain the co-operation of marginalised but minority groups by incorporating them in the apartheid system, while simultaneously excluding the African majority even further.
The entry of KwaZulu-Natal into the urban and industrial age was dominated by the growth of Durban, where the majority of Indians lived. From the outset, Durban was linked to the industrial development of the Witwatersrand as it had the nearest harbour, which grew to be the biggest port in Africa. By 1980 a third of the population of the province was living in greater Durban. The proportion of Natal whites in Durban rose from 55% in 1951 to 57% in 1980, and that of Coloureds from 54% to 61%. During the same period the proportion of Natal Indians in the area increased from 55% to 73% following a minor wave of urbanisation - especially from the North Coast to Durban - which peaked during the 1950s. Most dramatic was the increase in the number of Africans in and around the city. Between 1951 and 1980 the African population increased from 8% to approximately 20% of the KwaZulu-Natal total, mainly during the latter half of the period.4 This growth rate continued into the 1980s and 1990s, and Durban earned itself the distinction of being one of the fastest growing cities in the world as a result of this massive African migration from the impoverished rural areas and small towns of the province.
The Coloured, Indian and White people of Natal are more than 90% urbanised. Their contributions to the growth of Durban’s population can only come from natural increase, which for whites was 1.7%, for Coloureds 2.2%, and for Indians 2.4% in 1980. The national Indian population, today numbering almost one million, is youthful and reflects a rapidly declining population growth rate from an annual average of 3.2% in the 1950s to an average of 2.2% in the 1970s. This suggests a stabilisation and a decline in family size as economic conditions improved and the middle-class expanded.5 Durban now boasts the largest Indian population outside India, and more than two-thirds of Indian South Africans are resident in the city.
By the 1970s the Durban Metropolitan Region encapsulated different local governments within Natal, stretching into the Kwazulu homeland. The apartheid legacy ensures that even today Durban straddles the developed and developing world both administratively, and in the range of problems it faces. The city and its White suburbs are part of the rich first world, KwaZulu and the other Black areas are part of the impoverished third world. The region suffers from typical problems facing industrial cities of the rich countries (pollution, traffic congestion, urban sprawl) as well as those facing third world cities (high population growth rates among the lower-income groups, mushrooming informal settlements, and a lagging supply of physical services). Demographic, historical, economic and political factors combine to distinguish Durban from other urban centers in the country. Its population, by the 1980s, exceeded two million, with Africans constituting 52%, Indians 25%, whites 18% and Coloureds 3%.6
Purpose, aims and objectives
The most important political project of the 1980s for the ANC-led resistance movements was to build a non-racial united front against the apartheid state. Hence, any study of a single segment of the society, particularly if it was a racial or ethnic segment, was seen as playing into the hands of the apartheid ideologues.7 A 1980s study of the social and cultural location of Indians noted:
Many respected members of the Indian community view a work on just this one social segment inappropriate, as it may only highlight the separateness of the community which thereby could be used perversely to justify the dark ideological underpinnings of apartheid.8
This dilemma confronted me in selecting a single racial segment for analysis, particularly since I originated from this segment. However, Marks’and Trapido’s 1987 study examining the articulation of race, class and nationalism in twentieth-century South Africa opened up a new space for studies such as this, and served as a source of encouragement in embarking on the present project.9 Of specific import to this thesis were these words:
Moreover, the salience of ‘national’ and ‘racial’ identity for South African state policies and its deliberate manipulation of group differences to prevent interracial class solidarity have shaped the ethnic consciousness of minority groups such as Coloureds and Indians. These groups have in turn constructed their own sense of community, in part by way of response.11
This dissertation seeks to understand the extent to which state policies succeeded, and more particularly how the liberation movement attempted to counteract these policies in prosecuting its resistance strategies. More recent justification for this study comes from Freund, when he reasons that Indians “have a perspective on South African society that is different from that of either whites or Africans”.12 Studies that try to analyse the cultural, social, economic and political life of this component of South African society should lead us to a better understanding of Indians. Moreover, such a perspective “illuminates our knowledge of the whole” of the society.13
The purpose of this study is to provide a clear picture of Indian resistance, but not to describe and document the totality of Indian politics in Durban. In using the concept of resistance, I have limited myself to looking at forms of action which fall outside the legally sanctioned outlets of political expression for Indian South Africans. I have not looked in detail at those who chose to “work within the system”, and there are few references to the activities of local government politicians or the inner workings of the tricameral parliament. These activities are considered only when they can be seen as relevant to Indian involvement in the liberation struggle. I have concentrated on resistance which directly confronted local, provincial and national authorities and employers around both economic and political demands. Chronologically, the analysis covers the period from 1979 to the local government elections of June 1996. For the bulk of this period the apartheid state attempted to co-opt Indians as part of a larger strategy of reform and control. Despite these processes being inconclusive, the state succeeded in fostering political indifference resulting in limited resistance. However, many Indians possessed a basic anti-apartheid consciousness and a range of progressive Indian organisations emerged or re-emerged during this period, as in the case of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). The NIC, an ally of the African National Congress (ANC), will constitute a central focus of this study.
One of the specific aims is to analyse the efforts of the anti-establishment forces to draw an alliance between Indians and the larger anti-apartheid movement. Both the ANC-led opposition and the state were very creative in the 1980s. Resistance strategies took some cognisance of the fact that Indians occupied a materially privileged position among the three oppressed groups in South Africa. While sections of the resistance movement attached importance to organising Indian opposition, movements such as the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) believed that Indians should not be regarded as Indians at all, but simply as blacks. Thereby differentiated oppression was simply negated as a factor. The state, on the other hand, recognised that material differentiation could lead to political diversity and thus wanted to use this to its advantage.
This analysis is located within a more comprehensive explanatory framework of class formation, consciousness change and organisational dynamics. It sets itself several distinct objectives: first, to explore the extent to which the political realities of Indians were shaped by structural factors; secondly, to examine the impact of the mass media in constructing political realities and influencing consciousness among Indians in the 1980s; thirdly, to analyse the strategies of the principal resistance organisations, and to compare these with the strategies of the state and of Indian collaborators with apartheid; fourthly, to examine how the heterogeneity of Indians in terms of class (and its articulation with questions of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, residential location and age), shaped the construction of political identities; and finally, the study traces the continuities and discontinuities in the historical development of political organisation and consciousness, looking in particular at the presence of Gandhi and India in the political discourses of Indian South Africans.
It must also be stressed that this study does not specifically seek to analyse the location of a minority in politics, although it is certainly relevant that Indians are a minority. Nor does the study attempt to develop a detailed analysis of the South African state. The emerging studies of the Indian Diaspora are also excluded. However, in undertaking this study I have given due attention to collaborationist Indian politics, questions of the place and role of ethnic minorities in political life, the nature of the apartheid state, and the political location of Indians within the Diaspora.14 I have concluded that while these intellectual explorations have enriched my understanding of the subject, they do not directly assist the aims and objectives outlined above.
My research has been motivated by an overriding concern with the question of Indian identity and political consciousness, and with how this has been shaped by resistance politics and apartheid social engineering. The value of localised studies has been highlighted by authors like Solomos and Back, who argue that:
Whether we look at contemporary Europe, the United States or South Africa the role of racism in shaping political life is the subject of research and increasingly volatile public political debate. Yet it is also clear that if we are to understand fully how the construction of racialised politics has come about we need more detailed accounts of the processes that have led to the growing politicisation of debates about race in specific socio-political contexts.15
Clearly, there is a need for several in-depth studies focusing on specific variables such as race, religion, class, gender and regional breakdowns if the contemporary history of South Africa is to be properly understood, and if social scientists, particularly political scientists, are to be able to predict the future political and developmental challenges facing the country.
As mentioned above, South African encouragement for this approach was also forthcoming when this project commenced formally in 1987. Marks and Trapido argued that the turbulence being experienced in South African society at that time made “a study of its racially divided social order and its national and ethnic heterogeneity an urgent intellectual and political task”.16 They sought to address the issues of ethnic boundary-making and the construction of nationalist ideologies and political consciousness against South Africa’s changing political economy and class composition since the era of the mineral discoveries in the late nineteenth century.17
This intellectual undertaking countered the prevailing tendency amongst some social scientists at that time who, in their desire to support the broad thrust of the liberation movements, stressed commonalties, cohesion and unity.18 Depicting the resistance forces to the apartheid state as homogeneous was flawed both politically and intellectually. This tendency nonetheless had substantial currency within the major elements of the liberation movement, particularly the ANC. While supportive of emancipatory endeavours, the Marks and Trapido study sought not to negate
the unity that had been attained by the oppressed, but critically to examine the disunities and fragmentation that existed along racial and ethnic lines in order to understand more clearly the complex social and political processes which were developing. State segregationist policies, which pre-dated apartheid, were predicated on a divide-and-rule approach, and such a study was extremely important in order to understand how non-racialism or anti-racism would thrive in the last days of the resistance to apartheid and in a democratic South Africa. However, the work of Marks and Trapido had its limitations, and the authors acknowledged these:
Given the complexity of political consciousness and community construction in twentieth-century South Africa, it would be impossible for this [study] to provide anything like comprehensive coverage. Nor is it easy to discuss developments in the economy and the state which affected all groups and at the same time to trace their separate trajectories.19
This dissertation attempts to build on the work initiated by Marks and Trapido and subsequently continued by Maria Van Diepen and others.20
Significant bodies of opinion either presented the apartheid state as an immutable and invincible entity or exaggerated the strength and power of the resistance movements. While exceptional resistance initiatives were waged, the 1980s were also characterised by visible accommodationist and collaborative tendencies within sections of the oppressed majority. The levels of popular support enjoyed by these collaborators varied across racial, class, ethnic and rural-urban divides. But certainly, collaboration resulted in trickle down patronage which could buy compliance and, if necessary, support. During the 1980s relatively few studies attempted to disaggregate the complexity of what may be called the broad resistance to the apartheid power structure, with the notable exception of investigations into dimensions of ideological cleavage.21
Stages of the study
Different phases of my political involvement and intellectual development have informed this study and reflect the stages of the study itself. I was born and grew up in Chatsworth, Durban, where, like other black South Africans, I attended single race primary and secondary schools which were poorly resourced. A small community of Islamic descendants of Zanzibari slaves lived in Chatsworth,22 and I had the rare privilege of attending school with non-Indians who bore an African appearance and culture, although they constituted a minority stream within the national demographic structure.
The second phase, which I describe as the phase of political awakening, ran from 1979 to 1987. After serving as a leader of students boycotting classes in the 1980s, I became involved in two civic organisations, the NIC and the UDF. From 1983 onwards, my activism extended beyond Chatsworth and I worked in the Natal Youth Forum, the Amateur Athletics Association of Natal, and the University of Durban-Westville Student Representative Council. As convenor of the Community Services Unit at UDW, I could link student activism, community-based activism and support for the trade union movement. I also joined the ANC underground movement in 1985. I occupied leadership positions in Chatsworth, at the University of Durban-Westville, in the Youth Forum and in the anti-apartheid sports movement. I worked as a rank-and-file activist of the UDF and NIC, and did not hold any official positions until I fled from South Africa after persistent state harassment relating to both my legal and illegal activities in March 1987.
During the third phase (1987-1990) I registered formally as a doctoral student at Oxford and undertook theoretical work, newspaper research and the study of secondary source materials. I also spent time as a visiting scholar at Yale University, using their South Africa library collections. I was unable to return home at this time. I undertook a few clandestine tasks for the ANC while in the UK. While abroad, I received a steady stream of correspondence from activists in Durban which helped me to keep abreast of political developments.
During the fourth phase (1990-1994) I returned home to undertake field research. Due to a combination of personal reasons and my election as convenor of the first legal ANC branch in Chatsworth, I suspended my studies.23 I resumed my youth and civic work, and two local secondary schools (one of which had expelled me for political activism in 1981) elected me as chair of the Parent-Teacher-Student Associations. In 1992 I relocated to Johannesburg to take up an appointment as the Director for Educational Outreach at the SACHED Trust, but I remained an observer of, and regular visitor to Durban. During the elections I served as the Director of Training of Electoral Staff at the Independent Electoral Commission. In the final phase (1995-1996) I was a visiting researcher at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick where I engaged in full-time research and the writing up of this study.
Had this study been completed earlier, as originally intended, it might have contributed to the debates and processes around the role of Indians in the transitional process. However, I hope that the benefit of hindsight and the opportunity to conduct important interviews and further research have enabled me to posit key arguments with greater clarity. Furthermore, the intention is to formulate fresh observations and analyses which would have been difficult to achieve as an exiled student. As I am researching a social process in which I was an active participant, discussion is needed to ascertain what methodological issues and problems arise in the dual role of activist and social scientist. This problem of “insiderism” is not new, but it should not be dismissed without sensitive consideration.24
The activist as social scientist
By the early 1960s, a restiveness had emerged amongst scholars regarding research inquiry. There was a sense of inadequacy in the nature and directions of social science practice. A feeling emerged “that despite the growth in technical excellence, scientific study was not coming to grips with the social world.”25 It was in this context that some sociologists explored participant observation as an important feature of social science research. The concept explains why the “human observer of human beings cannot escape” having to participate at some level in the experience and action of those the researcher observes.26 Feminist scholarship also raised the issue of the social value of research and contributed a refined understanding of the role of reflexivity in academic endeavour. Reflexivity, Fonow and Cook point out, is the tendency of feminists to reflect upon, examine critically, and explore analytically the nature of the research process.27 By the 1980s some activists in South Africa had attempted to extend their political involvement and engage in research and analysis, often drawing on their first-hand experience. This phenomenon was linked to an international trend of broadening access to higher education, a trend that incorporated some black activists and, as happened in earlier times, progressives from middle-class backgrounds. South Africa also experienced an increase in the number of black activists at universities, where some were moving away from the traditional trajectories of medicine, law and teaching, and turning to the social sciences.
Several methodological dilemmas confront a study such as this: access to information, writing as an insider, the issue of distance (time and physical), and the question of how personal experience articulates with the imperatives of academic objectivity. Sociologist and feminist Maria Mies, who has combined activism with academia, acknowledges that mere description of the mostly individual experiences does not yield a scientific treatment of a problem. It might be true that activists can get “mired in the describing of experiences.”28 However, those that use this approach are not simply intellectually lazy. The reason for this may lie in a “superficial, individualistic, and deterministic concept of experiences”, a temptation that I have tried to avoid in this study.29 Experience enables us to take real life as the starting point, its subjective concreteness together with its societal entanglements.30 The challenge of dealing with this category of experience, or the subjective factor, can enhance intellectual interventions. Mies, however, goes further and maintains that the intention and method of research should be consistent with the political goals of the relevant movement. Moreover, that research should be fully integrated into social and political action for the emancipation of particular constituencies:
Participation in a common struggle may reduce distance between the researcher and the researched, opening up the possibility that “knowledge-from-below” can influence the research process. Such activities force the individual to notice what was previously taken for granted. Methodologically, this implies a search for research techniques which take account of and record everyday processes, and which reduce the isolation between research participants.31
Mies’s claims about the reduction of distance and the recording of everyday processes is relevant to this study, the thrust of which is to locate Indian resistance in a wider framework of opposition to apartheid. 32 However, this work cannot claim to be fully integrated into the political project of organising resistance amongst Indians. It is hoped, however, that my intimate knowledge of the struggles amongst mainly working-class people in Chatsworth will enrich the investigation and analysis. On the other hand being aware of the potential limitations will, I hope, compensate for familiarity. It is worth remembering the Indian proverb which says that the “eye of the stranger is bigger”.33
There are several examples of successful combinations of activism and academia. Louise Simmons, an urban studies specialist and a former Hartford City Council person, saw new challenges in the arenas of labour and neighbourhood organising, electoral work and coalition building in the 1980s. Her doctoral thesis that led toOrganising in Hard Times: Labour and Neighbourhoods in Hartford, was a contribution to the disciplines of urban studies, labour studies and social work.34 This work also provides a deeper personal reflection on her activism and offers an approach which other activists may find helpful. She claims that her personal activism has enhanced her scholarly contributions:
I was fortunate to be a part of many activities and to have access to many key actors and organisations. There are few studies that examine critical economic and social phenomena from the perspective of grassroots organising and internal functioning of unions. These stories need to be told bothto more deeply understand social change and to allow the organisers and organisations room to analyse their successes and failures.35
I agree with Simmons that active participation in organisations and processes is potentially positive and often leads to easier access to participants. Simmons’ work offers a relevant comparison since she and I shared a common participation in community-based activism that deals with the issues of race, ethnicity and class in the political mobilisation of the poor.
Given my involvement in the student movement in the 1980s, it is helpful to reflect on the example of an American student activist who later became an academic: Todd Gitlin, now Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, focused his doctorate on the student organisation in which he had served as a leader. The thesis was published asThe Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.36 With Gitlin, I maintain that my first-hand experience “has been first my ally, then my adversary, and finally, I trust, my plain source, impetus, and correction.”37 I also share with him the following observation:
My own memories served as an indispensable source, then, stretched and tempered by such documentary records as exist. [During] my research I studied, assessed, and at times quoted from personal correspondence from that period.
I have also cross-checked and interrogated all my sources, aware of the risks involved in relying on retrospective accounts.38 Furthermore, I have had to challenge any tendency on my part to be selective when recalling past and present occurrences. This is a problem that confronts both activist and non-activist scholars alike, as social science is not a neutral enterprise. Unlike Gitlin, at the time of writing I continue to share an affinity with, and commitment to, the project in which I was involved, albeit from a greater distance than in the 1980s. However, the temptation to try to provide solutions was laid to rest in the nascent stages of this study. I am mainly concerned with looking back at, trying to make sense of, and seeing possible new directions for, the range of political activities that have been central to my life. But this is not simply a personal enterprise, since I hope that this scholarship will provide a deeper understanding than has hitherto been available of a complex political mobilisation project during a dynamic and fluid period in South Africa’s contemporary history. Furthermore, I hope that the ‘subjects’ of this dissertation will be able to engage, criticise and perhaps endorse some of its findings.
A South African example of an activist-scholar is Devan Pillay, the Director of the Social Policy Programme at UDW, who completed his doctoral thesis entitledTrade Unions and Alliance Politics in Cape Town, 1979-85, at the University of Essex in 1990. The thesis explored the relationship between trade unions and community organisations in terms of its discourses and its practices. It drew extensively on his personal involvement in the UDF as an activist from 1983 to 1985. He found that in the political context of the 1980s his “supervisor and the external examiners saw this as a highly positive thing, and never questioned it”.39
The ongoing debate regarding the role of intellectuals in the political struggle is worth noting. Craig Charney has observed that many intellectual projects analysing social change have resulted in “more collections whose authors are mainly white South African or British men. Most are connected to South Africa’s white English-medium universities, or to Oxford or London, and reflect the traditional intellectual dependency of South African social science”.40 He suggests that the way authors were chosen for such collections brings to mind Claude Rains’ order in the final scene ofCasablanca: “Round up the usual suspects!”.41 Moreover, as Ivan Evans has argued:
the subordinate and uninfluential role of black intellectuals...[and the fact] that whites dominate the academic process should be regarded not merely as an effect but also as one of the objective mechanisms which sustain racial domination.42
Given the scarcity and underdevelopment of human resources among the Black population, the few emerging Black academics came under pressure to deploy their skills to “help the struggle”. While academic enterprise was considered a luxury to be enjoyed by only a tiny Black elite, the relative invisibility of the limited number of Black scholars and other “intellectual activists” was also lamented.
In the course of the debate, Harold Wolpe observed that even if one accepts the value of the contributions of journalists and other commentators, surely it is obligatory, in the interests of “objectivity”, and political balance, that informed analysis from the point of view of the principal organisations should be included in collections aimed at increasing our comprehension of the present situation and of the possibilities of its transformation.43
Wolpe refuted the notion that only objective outsiders can add value to the project of deepening our understanding of social change and political developments:
It is plausible to suggest that the explanation [for the absence of “intellectual activists” in many social science commentaries on South Africa in the 1980s] lies in some conception of the privileged position of “expert” commentators...[T]he underlying assumption seems to be that the further removed academic writers are from involvement in South African politics, the better equipped they are to analyse the contemporary situation and to consider how it should develop.45
The exclusion of ‘intellectual activists’ might have been the case in certain instances. Yet this debate is a complex one since many would themselves have prioritised activism directly linked with the liberation movement over academic interventions. Conversely, by the 1980s, even conservative scholars would have welcomed any Black presence since this could have enhanced the legitimacy of their work. This concern for an appropriate space for “intellectual activists,” while stronger in the 1980s, has now given way to a greater concern that Black intellectuals should take their place in the academic community. For example, Mahmood Mamdani, in exploring the broader complexities of research in a period of transition, has noted the strong hegemony of white researchers on both sides of the political divide (pro- and anti-apartheid).46 The concerns of Wolpe and Evans regarding the “reproduction of racial domination in intellectual production” raise issues that are important but not necessarily central to our discussion. What is significant, though, is the space these and other authors sought to secure for activists who, irrespective of race, wished to pursue intellectual work.
Bill Freund, in his study of the Indian working-class in Durban, acknowledges that he needed encouragement to see “that the project was worthwhile and that my outsider’s perspective contained advantages”.47 I believe that Freund’s awareness of his location vis-à-vis his subject matter, and his willingness to acknowledge that, enhanced his intellectual intervention. He observes that “Indians were inclined not to see their history in South Africa as very important or interesting compared to that of whites or Africans”.48 The only exceptions to this were studies that looked at Indian political history, particularly during the Gandhian period in South Africa. Part of the hesitation to examine Indian politics during much of the 1980s related to the political context of that decade as outlined above.
Timing can be an important ingredient in political science. In South Africa, attempts to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the resistance movement were seen as a potential threat to the movement since a repressive government could draw on these academic insights. The advantage of completing this project now is that there are no serious concerns around ‘security issues’. There is also greater space to engage in a critical discourse about the efforts of the liberation movement and the political debate has broadened to allow for discussions around previous ‘no-go areas’ like ethnicity. Another concern was the problem of access, as dealt with by Raymond Lee. He shows that gaining access in sensitive situations is a difficult enterprise that requires a range of strategies. He establishes the centrality of trust between the researcher and those who are the subject of research.49 Being an insider enabled me to gain fairly easy access to activists even during the repressive 1980s, but even as an insider, there was a discernible difference in the quality of interviews conducted after the legalisation of political organisations and the ushering in of a period of liberalisation by the South African state.
I have also had to deal with the issue of distance at two levels of analysis: first, in writing about a period that could be considered as too contemporary; and secondly, in writing about processes in which to some extent I actively participated. However, distance is a double-edged sword. Being too close as an insider or being too distant as an outsider can both afflict intellectual work negatively if the social location of the analyst is not recognised and dealt with honestly and rigorously. I have been mindful of this ever since this study began. My role as activist meant that I was unable to return home to conduct research because of harassment from the security police. However, the distance from the turmoil of South African resistance politics did afford me the space to engage with this study.
The transition from activist to social scientist is a difficult one, but it is not necessarily an irreversible act. Cornel West has noticed that “the choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality”, and one which ensures a peripheral status in, and to, the black community.50 This is a risk that I took quite knowingly. The nature of the political process is such that selective criticism usually marginalises some factions. A thorough and rigorous critique of a political process which does not commit itself to any political agenda will usually offend across the political spectrum. I expect this work will be no exception since, with feminist Barbara Smith, I aim “for good intellectual conscience over expeditious achievement of political goals”.51
The question of subjectivity versus objectivity still requires some attention. Social science cannot ignore the author’s subjective dispositions, and scholars must therefore construct standards of objectivity which recognise at the outset that all social analysis commences with the curiosity of a particular individual and takes shape under the guidance of her/his personal and cultural attributes.52 As Appleby, Hunt and Jacob argue inTelling the Truth about History:
Since all knowledge originates inside human minds and is conveyed through representations of reality, all knowledge is subject-centred and artificial, the very qualities brought into disrespect by an earlier exaltation of that which was objective and natural. Our version of objectivity concedes the impossibility of any research being neutral (that goes for scientists as well) and accepts the fact that knowledge-seeking involves a lively, contentious struggle among diverse groups of truth-seekers. Neither admission undermines the viability of stable bodies of knowledge that can be communicated, built upon, and subjected to testing. These admissions do require a new understanding of objectivity.
I accept this understanding of objectivity and have tried to be as self-critical as possible.53 It is also the case that insiderism can lead to an excessively critical analysis. The pressure to be objective might lead one to examine weaknesses in processes of which one has been part, and in so doing may not give adequate weight to the strengths. As Mary Hawkesworth has noted, “the point is not to demonstrate the impossibility of objectivity, but rather to illuminate the complexity of attaining it”.54
By the late 1960s, the myth of a value-free social science was largely discredited.55 New thinking emerged which asserted that it was impossible for a social scientist to do research uncontaminated by personal and political allegiances. Furthermore, some argued that no matter what perspective a social scientist adopts, the intervention must be couched either from the standpoint of subordinates or superiors.56 We should also note an allied debate, which we will not enter, around what has been termed the “indigenisation of the social sciences” among third world scholars.57 This has become known as a process through which a body of cultural and national-specific knowledge can be developed in a particular country. However, the discussion is seldom empirical nor comparative.58 It is in this context that we must recognise that South African social science has developed a distinct vocabulary and tools of analysis coupled with a gargantuan collection of acronyms.
Appleby et al. argue that they “have been sensitive to the ways in which claims to objectivity have been used to exclude us from full participation in the nation’s public life, a fate shared by others of our sex, working-class people, and minorities”. They also question “science’s claims for disinterested truth and impartial objectivity”, and observe that “there is a new breed of philosopher who thinks that everything is relative to where you happen to be standing...your patch of social space”.59 This study is also more interested in writing “true history than in preserving the truth of science”.60
If social science can ensure that social enquiry presents a picture of social reality in which the agents or subjects can recognise themselves and their actions, even if they do not entirely agree with the representation, then this does not undermine intellectual quality. It means that social science should endeavour to employ some of the same types of concepts and explanatory patterns that are utilised in any common-sense understanding of society. It does not have to adopt the same particular interpretations and explanations that ‘subjects’ themselves embrace. However, the “social construction of social reality” can only be enhanced if social fact is a product of the agents’ conceptions and ‘meanings’.61 Hence, as explained above, I will later use a model of consciousness change drawing on local knowledge and paradigms.
What, then, of the practical research challenges that face academic insiderism? By the 1980s some sociologists began ‘coming home’ to do research, and it became necessary to explore ways in which the task of a ‘native social scientist’ differed from researchers working outside their own culture.60 Drawing extensively on the work of ethnographers John Stephenson, Sue Greer and William Turner, we can generate the following very practical concerns which go beyond general anxieties about objectivity.62 Do native social scientists, directly involved in the lives of the subjects being studied, have any special advantages not enjoyed by outsiders in conducting social science research? Conversely, are there disadvantages for native, politically engaged, social scientists that are less likely to be encountered by researchers working in cultures other than their own and not having any link and involvement with their subjects?63
Four distinct, but related, groups of questions arise when researching as an insider, particularly in terms of the task of translating observations into data and data into coherent, meaningful analysis. First, is there a special difficulty for social scientists working in their own cultures in recognising patterns into which they are thoroughly acculturated? Are there problems in selecting what to report among all that is observed? Are native social scientists less likely to give full coverage when much of what they see is already known to them? Or is the native social scientist actually more able to attach cultural meaning to events? Secondly, is the experience of the native social scientist different with respect to identifying, and relating to, informants? Are they more or less likely to seek out as informants those who are most similar or familiar to them? Is the activist social scientist more or less likely to cover the full range of potential sources of information? Thirdly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of knowing the culture and community in advance for establishing entry and rapport? What problems and advantages arise as a consequence of occupying familiar roles in the community? Fourthly, what are the potentials for role conflicts and value conflicts for an investigator studying a familiar community? Is sensitivity to ethical issues in the relationship between investigator and community heightened where the culture is known? A related question is whether in such a situation the social scientist is more likely to feel pressed into a participant role. Finally, are there special problems in relating to the community after the research is completed, when the investigator anticipates a continuing relationship and involvement either as a social scientist, friend or neighbour?
I do not intend to provide an answer to each of these methodological challenges. Suffice to say, I have given attention to all of them in the conduct of this study, and in any event it would be unhelpful to attempt to postulate rigid laws. Instead, I endorse the following broad conclusions advanced by Stephenson and Greer. Firstly, a distinction must be made betweenmembership in or knowledge of acultural systemandmembership in a concrete functioningsocial system. The problems faced by the researcher studying a familiar context are intensified when one enters the system from a pre-existing position in relation to specific persons, organisations and other social structures. Secondly, these ‘potential problems’ only become problems if there is a failure to exercise vigilance and caution. These ‘problems’, if acknowledged and dealt with creatively, can be harnessed to considerable advantage. This has obviously been my intention in this study. The third observation is that many of the difficulties underlining these issues and problems, as well as their advantages, also afflict non-activist scholars. The problems are different not in kind but perhaps more in terms of intensity. Both groups of scholars share the dangers of prior judgement, political bias, oversimplification and the “human inability to separate observation from feeling”.64 I take the risk of contextual familiarity with due caution in the hope that the appropriate analysis can be made and useful insights can be gained.
Finally, of course, I do not seek to suggest that intellectual work by non-activist scholars is of an inferior quality. Nor do I wish to imply that there are no difficulties and challenges in analysing social change as an insider. However, this study has attempted to maintain a high level of methodological rigour, and seeks to apply the conventions of good social science.
This study is not part of the change process in South Africa. It merely seeks to understand that process. If, in the course of interrogation and analysis, useful insights emerge for political praxis for the future then that will be an unintended, albeit desirable, outcome. No study of this kind could possibly provide solutions to the myriad of challenges that confront the project of building a non-racial and democratic culture in South Africa. Solutions will emerge not from academic research alone, but from the actual political processes at work in the society. However, I do hope that this work will contribute to a deeper understanding and a clearer reflection of the past and the present, and will help to open a small window on the future.
Note on sources
The primary sources were interviews, newspapers, contemporary documents and trial records. Interviews fall into three broad categories: the interviews of other researchers; open-ended interviews conducted by the writer; and informal interviews and discussions conducted through the various stages of study. The informal interviews, which I have indicated by the term “discussion” in footnote referencing, were of great value since informants were more relaxed and anecdotal, and willing to be more critical in their perceptions. However, even in the open-ended interviews subjects displayed a mainly self-critical disposition. I have provided a description of each interviewee in the bibliography and therefore have not included biographical details in the footnotes. As a researcher, I was regarded primarily as a member of the NIC, UDF and ANC, and I knew some of my interviewees well and had worked with, or under them, during various campaigns. They trusted me and respected my involvement and commitment to these organisations. For a minority of activists there was a dismissive attitude towards such an academic enterprise, which was conceived to be irrelevant, elitist and self-serving. However, where interviews did occur, the quality of the exchanges was good. The political character of my research and its racial concerns (because I was looking specifically at Indian resistance) were a problem for some interviewees. I had informed everyone that my intention was to write a critical study of ANC-aligned interventions amongst Indians in Durban, and they seemed to respond positively to this approach. This was partly because of a growing realisation that the Congress forces were failing to effectively mobilise Indian resistance. Some of my interviewees felt that I had enough knowledge to be able to rectify any inaccuracies, rationalisations or their self-justifications. With all interviewees I stressed the need to avoid transposing their current consciousness on the historical moments being discussed. There was limited difficulty amongst interviewees in understanding this and most were able to conduct themselves in a reasonably balanced manner.
Most of the interviews were conducted during two periods of considerable transformation within the NIC and the ANC. The first of these was between 1987 and 1990, a time of intense self-criticism in both organisations. In this period interviews were held outside South Africa. The second period followed the legalisation of the ANC and covered the years 1990 to 1996. It must also be stressed that I gave considerable thought to whom I should formally interview. I consciously chose not to interview all the leaders of the NIC or collaborationist leaders whose views were easily traced because of the intensive media coverage they received. I was concerned that the thesis should not be slanted too much in favour of the consciousness of the political elite but should attempt to measure the consciousness of Indians more generally. However, I had informal discussions with several leaders, and on these occasions I shared my views, canvassed their opinions and checked data. I have not recorded this information formally in footnote referencing. My interviewees included NIC executive members, ANC parliamentarians, youth, women, civic and sports activists operating mainly at grassroots level either in leadership roles or as rank-and-file members. I also undertook some informal unstructured interviews with a large number of non-activists.
Notably, little attention has been paid to the political opinions of the bulk of working-class and middle-class Indians.65 Therefore I was keen in my interviewing not to focus only on leaders. The voices of the working-class, in particular, have not been reflected forcefully enough in attempts to analyse the political realities of Indians. There has been an over reliance on the views of political leaders and the contents of official documents. Therefore, in researching various newspapers I concentrated on letters to the editors and articles about cultural, religious and sporting affairs which reflect more clearly the political perceptions of ordinary Indians. It is true that there are more middle-class correspondents to most newspapers, but since Indians enjoyed the highest level of literacy by the early 1990s, a significant presence of working-class writers could also be found. Newspapers, particularly those that were read by Indians, were given close attention.
In earlier work I examined youth resistance in a comparative perspective, showing how different structural realities confronted by the disenfranchised groups hindered the goal of building non-racial unity.66 Youth resistance, which was fairly vibrant in most of Durban’s townships and suburbs, offered a good case-study of the difficulties encountered by the resistance movements in building grassroots solidarity and non-racial unity. In this study, while maintaining a comparative eye, I do not investigate in great detail how Indian resistance compared with African and Coloured resistance.
The examination of the continuation of historical themes, processes and approaches within the current political context being studied here led me to spend considerable time looking at some of the most important historical sources. For example, they included the 1956-1961 treason trial since many questions of consciousness, organisation, class and alliance politics formed the subject of that trial.67 Given the contemporary nature of this study, however, I have rarely drawn directly on these sources. The presentation of the analysis adopts a micro-periodisation approach based on resistance trends. I was aware that it is much easier to develop periodisation when a longer time-span and national political trends are being examined. Nevertheless, I opted for the present approach, rather than dealing with broad themes or sectors of resistance (such as youth or women), since I wanted to show how Indian periodisation differed from periods of African resistance. The chapter breakdown therefore reflects this approach.
Given the emphasis placed on tracing the continuities and discontinuities with the past, the study commences with a historical overview examining class, consciousness, and organisation in the political development of Indian South Africans. Against this background, chapter two uses the following periodisation: the early years (1860-1914), the accommodationist years (1915-1944), the defiance years (1945-1960), the post-Sharpeville period (1961-1972) and finally, the dominance of the Black Consciousness (BC) years (1973-1979).
The banning of BC-aligned organisations in 1977, coupled with deteriorating living conditions for the working-class, marked a turning point in the resistance to apartheid. Political activists adopted a strategy that placed greater emphasis on organising around “bread and butter” issues and striving for greater grassroots participation. In chapter three, which covers the period 1979-1981, we see how Durban played a pioneering role in this respect and how some of the strongest civic organisations that emerged in this period were located in Indian areas. The 1980 education boycotts, arguably the most extensive popular mobilisation of Indians ever, are also examined. The chapter also focuses on the housing struggles of that period, the 1981 Indian Council elections and the anti-republic day festival campaign.
The period from 1981 to 1984 saw the revival of non-racial alliance politics, facilitated by the formation of two national coalitions: the multi-class, non-racial United Democratic Front (UDF) in August 1983 and a blacks-only National Forum a month earlier. Chapter four examines the role of Indian organisations in the formation of the UDF. It also examines the performance of the UDF in the various campaigns, including the million signature campaign (MSC) which took place in the first half of 1984. In the 1980s the MSC was the first nationally coordinated effort designed to engage grassroots activists in a common campaign. The strengths and weaknesses of the UDF in Durban and the specific role Indian organisations played in the city are also analysed. This is an important question since there were accusations that Indian activists dominated the Natal region of the UDF.
Chapters five and six take an in-depth look at the most significant political campaign to be waged amongst Indians during this period, namely that of the tricameral elections. Chapter five examines the campaign for participation in the tricameral parliament and deals with collaborationist politics. It also attempts to analyse the class base of participationists, their organisational strategy, their ideological orientation, and the extent of their success in influencing public opinion. Chapter six scrutinises the campaign for non-participation and analyses the political discourses and the organisational strategies of the non-participationists. There is a critical assessment of the successes and failures of the campaign to discourage Indians from cooperating with the new constitutional order. It is argued that despite the euphoria that followed the low percentage poll in the 1984 election, progressive activists failed to win overall acceptance for their political agenda.
In chapter seven we examine the period from 1985 to 1990, when Indian resistance politics steadily declined. Three major developments are considered: the 1985 ‘racial’ conflict in Inanda, the impact of the state of emergency, and the fragmentation of the NIC as a result of internal conflicts and disagreements with some of their allies in the UDF. The tenuous Indo-African solidarity is explored, and this illustrates more generally the difficulties experienced in promoting joint, united political action across the racial divide. When examining the De Klerk era, attention is paid to the 1988 defiance campaigns, the 1989 tricameral elections, and the events leading to the legalisation of the ANC and other political organisations. There is also an assessment of the shifts in political space and of how resistance organisations adapted to these changes.
The legalisation of the ANC and other political organisations in February 1990 opened up a new era of politics in South Africa. The NIC was faced with the reality that its own privileged legality was now no longer unique. Legalisation challenged the existing practices,modus operandi and the existing political culture of not only the Indian left but of all political players. The uncertainty surrounding the transitional process meant that organisations such as the NIC and the emergent legal ANC would have to evolve more flexible strategies to cope with the political demands that lay ahead. In examining these developments, chapter eight places emphasis on the electoral outcome in both the national elections in April 1994 and the local government elections in June 1996, and provides an overview of the critical years of political change and transition from 1990 to 1996.
In undertaking this study we need a conceptual overview to assist us to analyse how ethnicity, class, race and gender interrelate during the different phases of the period under review. In addition to a general conceptual overview, chapter one provides some definitions and further guidelines that inform this study. It is to this task that we now turn.
See for example R.K.Thiara, Migration, Organisation and Inter-Ethnic Relations: Indian South Africans, 1860 -1990, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 1993; M.Szeftel, “Ethnicity and Democratisation in South Africa”,African Review of African Political Economy, No.60, 1994, pp. 185-199; G.Mare,Ethnicity and Politics in South Africa, (London, Zed Press, 1993).
Writer’s notes, London Socialist Historians Group Conference,The Continuing Relevance of Class (University of London, 25/5/1996).
Community refers to “racial and residential communities”. As elsewhere in this study, I have reservations usingcommunities in this way. The term should not be taken to suggest high levels of unity and cohesion.
R.A.Pistorius, “Urbanisation in Natal: Present and Future - whites, Indians, Coloureds and blacks”,presented toConference on Pertinent Issues of Local Government and Administration in Natal (University of Durban-Westville, November 1983).
M.Smout, “A Policy for Urban Development in Natal”,presented to Conference onPertinent Issues of Local Government and Administration in Natal, University of Durban Westville, November 1983.
G.Maasdorp, “Informal Housing and Informal Employment: Case Studies in the Durban Metropolitan Region”, in D.Smith,Living Under Apartheid (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1982), p.144.
K.Magyar et al.,The Indian South Africans (Pinetown, Owen Burgess, 1989), p.x.
S.Marks and S.Trapido,The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa (London, Longman, 1987).
B.Freund,Insiders and Outsiders: The Indian Working-Class of Durban, 1910-1990 (Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1995), p.xi.
The writer presented “Political Status of South Africans of Indian Descent” at theFirst Global Convention of People of Indian Origin Overseas, New York, 28/8/1989 and “Indian Political Resistance in South Africa: A Comparative Perspective”, to theConference on the Indian Diaspora, University of West Indies, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, 17/8/1995.
J.Solomos and L.Back,Race, Politics and Social Change (London, Routledge, 1995), p.1.
Marks and Trapido, op.cit., p.1.
See for example, J.Frederikse,The Unbreakable Thread (Johannesburg, Ravan, 1990).
Marks and Trapido, op.cit., p.1.
M.V.Diepen,The National Question in South Africa (London, Zed, 1989).
See for example, A.Marx,Lessons of Struggle: South African Internal Opposition, 1960-1990, (Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1992).
Z.Seedat,The Zanzibaris in Durban (MA dissertation, University of Natal, 1973).
Sunday Times Herald, 28/3/1990.
W.Turner, “The Black Ethnographer “At Home” in Harlan: A Commentary and Research Response to Stephenson and Greer”,Human Organisation, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall 1986, p.123.
S.T.Bruyn,The Human Perspective in Sociology: The Methodology of Participant Observation (New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1966), p.vii.
M.M.Fonow and J.A.Cook,Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship as Lived Research (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991), p.2.
M.Mies, “Women’s Research or Feminist Research? The Debate Surrounding Feminist Science and Methodology”, in Fonow and Cook, op.cit., p.66.
H.Bhola,Globalisation and Adult Education, presentation to the Policy Forum of the National Literacy Co-operation, 7/9/1996.
L.B.Simmons,Organising in Hard Times: Labour and Neighbourhoods in Hartford (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994).
T.Gitlin,The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley, University of California, 1980).
Correspondence with Devan Pillay, 13/11/1995.
C.Charney, “From Resistance to Reconstruction: Towards a New Research Agenda on South African Politics”Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 16, No.4, December 1990, pp. 768-9.
I.Evans, “Intellectual Production and the Production of Intellectuals in the South African Racial Order”, presented to the RESA Conference onEconomic Change, Social Conflict and Education in Apartheid South Africa, 28/3/1989, England.
H.Wolpe, “Oppressive Stalemate”,Southern African Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 1, Issue 11, p.10.
M.Mamdani, “Research and Transformation: Reflections on a Visit to South Africa”Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XXVII, Nos. 20-21, 16-23 May 1992, pp.1055-1062
Freund, op. cit., p.xi.
R.Lee,Doing Research on Sensitive Topics (London, Sage Publications, 1993).
Bell Hooks and Cornel West,Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, (South End Press, Boston, 1991), p.132.
Cited in P.Forman, “Truth and Objectivity, Part 1: Irony”,Science, Vol.269, 28/7/1995, p.566.
J.Appleby, L.Hunt and M.Jacob,Telling the Truth about History (New York, Norton, 1994), p.254.
See also R Newell,Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), M.Deuthscher,Subjecting and Objecting: An Essay in Objectivity (London, Basil Blackwell, 1983).
Cited in Forman, op.cit., p.566.
A.Gouldner, “The Sociologist as Partisan: Sociology and the Welfare State”,The American Sociologist, May 1968, p.103.
M.Sun,Indigenization of Social Science Methodology in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies, 1995), p.1.
F.Collin,Theory and Understanding: A Critique of Interpretative Social Science (London, Basil Blackwell, 1985), p.148.
J.Stephenson and L.S.Greer, “Ethnographers in Their Own Cultures: Two Appalachian Cases”,Human Organisation, Vol. 40, No 2, Summer 1981, p.123.
Turner, op.cit., p.123
Stephenson and Greer, op.cit., p.123.
V.Padayachee, S.Vawda, and P.Tichman,Indian Workers and Trade Unions in Durban: 1930-1950, Report No.20 (Durban, University of Durban-Westville, Institute for Social and Economic Research, 1985). This study paid attention to the oral histories of ordinary people.
K.Naidoo, “The Politics of Youth Resistance in the 1980s: Dilemmas of differentiated Durban”,Journal of Southern African Studies, 18 (1), March 1992, pp.143-165.
K.Naidoo and D.Pillay, “On Trial for Treason: The Freedom Charter on Trial in the 1956-1961 Treason Trial”, in N.Steytler (editor) (Cape Town, Wyvern, 1992).