CHAPTER II: Malan's Bill and the Cape Town Agreement: The Politics of Accommodation, 1924

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Malan's Bill and the Cape Town Agreement: The Politics of Accommodation, 1924 - 1927

4. The Round Table Conference

After some further negotiations related to the venue, the conference took place in Cape Town from 17 December 1926 to 12 January 1927. The Government of India was represented by The Hon. Khan Bahadur; Sir Mohammed Habibullah Sahib Bahadur, K.C.I.E., member of Viceroy's Executive Council (leader); The Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, P.C.; Phiroze C. Sethna, Kt., C.B.E., member of the Legislative Assembly, Commissioner of Labour, Madras; and G.S Bajpai (secretary). The Union Minister of Interior, Public Health and Education; The Hon. F.W. Beyers, K.C, Minister of Mines and Industries; The Hon. T. Boydell, Minister of Labour; Colonel The Hon. F.H.P. Creswell, D.S.O., Minister of Defence; and C.F. Schmidt, Secretary to the Minister of Interior (secretary).

The secret memorandum prepared by the Habibullah delegation for the Viceroy is the fullest source available on this important conference, the proceedings of which have not hitherto been closely studied. The memorandum not only reflects accurately the Agreement that emanated from the conference, but also shows the manner in which the negotiations were conducted behind the scenes.

Hertzog opened the conference, but did not participate in the discussions that followed. In his opening speech, Hertzog dwelt on the need for mutual agreement on a policy based on the reduction of the Indian population, and said that if this could be satisfactorily dealt with, his government night be prevailed upon to exclude "the more objectionable provisions of the Bills".

After the opening salvo had been fired, Habibullah and his deputy saw Hertzog, Malan and Schmidt to arrange the agenda. Following Hertzog's speech, the Indian delegation had decided that emigration should be discussed first and if that was favourably concluded, the discussions on the upliftment of the remaining Indians, (an aspect on which the Indian delegation laid great stress), would be facilitated.

An agenda was agreed upon after some obstacles had been overcome. These occurred when Malan suggested that segregation was the key to the maintenance of Western standards of life. The Habibullah delegation vehemently objected, thus compelling Malan to let segregation as an issue recede into the background. But this gain on the Indian side was offset by the exclusion, by mutual consent, of discussions on the administration of existing laws, particularly those relating to the regulation of trade licences.

The Conference proper began on the second day, with Malan elected Chairman and Bajpai and Schmidt appointedjoint secretaries. Malan spoke first on item A (1) of the agenda, which examined the existing scheme of repatriation, its defects, and how these defects could be smoothed away. He prefaced his remarks by emphasising that repatriation could only be meaningful if some two to three thousand Indians emigrated annually. For Malan, the primary defects were the dissipation of the money paid to the repatriates and their other resources in India; the economic difficulties of emigrants who found they were worse off in India; and the sentimental objections to repatriation that arose because the repatriates felt they were:

"undesirables. .. betraying the national cause.. .. and reluctant to cut themselves off from their place of birth. "

Following Malan, the other South African representatives claimed that if the repatriation scheme was a success and thereby removed the "fear of the menace'', the treatment of those Indians remaining would be substantially improved. To this end they requested the assistance of the Indian Government to bring home to the Indians in South Africa the advantages of repatriation, and also in welcoming and assisting the emigrants to settle in India .

In his reply, Habibullah said that his government was prepared to co-operate with the policy of repatriation as part of a comprehensive policy to safeguard Western standards of life, and not because it was in itself a desirable objective. He then dealt in detail with the defects under the three headings mentioned by Malan.

On the first point, Habibullah asked the South Africans to discard the practice of paying fixed sums to recruiters for every emigrant recruited, because the recruiters exaggerated the prospects of emigration to India. He also asked the South Africans to send to an official authority in India detailed information covering various aspects of the emigrants' lives, at least one month prior to the departure date. On the second point he gave an undertaking that emigrants would be given opportunities to settle in occupations for which they were well suited and protected from dissipating their resources. To make this more effective, he suggested an increase in the bonus scale, which would enable the emigrant to settle in his selected occupation. He also pointed out that although opportunities for land settlement were "strictly limited'', the emigrants could find skilled and unskilledjobs in government undertakings. On the final point, the sentimental objections, Habibullah claimed that they would disappear gradually, but this process could be speeded up by calling the scheme "Assisted Emigration", which was more accurate and did not have ''unhappy implications". On the same point he requested that the domicile of an emigrant should be taken away only after three years of continuous absence. During this period an emigrant and his family should be allowed to return on the condition that they repay the bonus and cost of passage, and pay their own way back to South Africa. He was, however, at pains to point out that his delegation was convinced that the exorbitant costs of returning to South Africa would be "ordinarily impossible for any emigrant" Habibullah also suggested the lowering of the age of majority from 21 to 16, because when a father emigrated he gave up the rights of his children who were under 21. Finally, Habibullah proposed the appointment of an Agent-General to represent the Government of India in South Africa, who could bring home to the Indians in South Africa the advantages of emigration.

These proposals were enthusiastically received by the South Africans, who were now convinced that the Indian Government wasjust as keen and determined to arrive at an effective solution starting from the premise that a reduction of the Indian population was paramount. Naturally, Malan agreed to change the name to "Assisted Emigration", to lower the majority age to 16, and to the appointment of an Agent-General. He then proposed that a sub-committee should be formed to discuss the details of and solutions to the general problems of repatriation rose by him and Habibullah.

The report of the sub-committee underlined once again the willingness of the Government of India to make the repatriation scheme more effective. At these discussions the Indian delegation pledged that its government would undertake certain concrete measures. These were to make land available in Madras, to create employment opportunities in the coal mines of Bengal, the tea estates of Assam, the coffee plantations in Madras, to give scope and openings to small traders and to provide opportunities for emigration to Ceylon.

The South Africans, delighted by these undertakings, agreed to raise the bonus paid to emigrants from ten pounds to twenty pounds for adults and fifteen pounds for children. Apart from the increased bonus suggested for children, these proposals formed part of the Agreement.

On 28 December, Malan, dealing with item A (2) of the agenda (restrictions on migration (i) external and (ii) inter-provincial), said that if Indian immigration into South Africa did not stop after 1930, people might think they were dissipating their energies on a "fruitless Sisyphus task". He also mentioned the problems relating to internal migration, acquisition of dual domicile and the incorporation of Utrecht and Vryheid into the Transvaal. However, by mutual consent the latter problems were left in abeyance, and did not therefore form part of the Agreement. But Malan's proposals on the prevention of Indian immigration were rejected by the Indian delegation, which proposed that South Africa should fall in line with paragraph 3 of Resolution XXI of the Imperial Conference of 1918. The Union Government accepted this proposal and, with some minor additions, it formed the basis of that part of the Agreement.

Following those discussions, Habibullah outlined his delegation's views, proposal and criticisms on item B of the agenda. He examined how the remaining Indians could conform to Western standards of life with special reference to sanitation and education. Three days later, on 8 January, Malan replied. This reply not only states the case of the South Africans, but also makes clear the views of the Indian delegation.

In the preface to the main speech, Malan made a statement, which the Indian delegation had hoped to extract from him. This statement formed the core and basis of the upliftment clause in the Agreement, which, if faithfully and sincerely implemented, offered the Indians in South Africa a ray of hope in their desire to expand and to advance their activities and interests. Malan said:

"In the first place, we wish to place on record our firm belief in the principle that it is the duty of every civilised Government to devise ways and means and to take all possible steps for the upliftment of every section of their permanent population to the full extent of their capacity and opportunities. We may, therefore, assume it to be common cause between us that in the provision of educational and other facilities, the Indian community permanently settled in the Union should not be allowed to lag behind other sections of the population".

On education Malan said that, although his government realised and appreciated the gravity of the situation, it could not appoint a commission of inquiry unless that commission investigated the problems relating to the non-white population as a whole. However, he undertook to advise the Natal Provincial Council to conduct such an investigation, utilising the expert assistance offered by the Indian delegation. But he claimed that Habibullah's proposals on compulsory primary education and the establishment of a Teachers Training College were premature. Indian students, he said, could go to Fort Hare or a technical college in Cape Town. To compensate for this, and to encourage wealthy Indians to invest in education, he undertook to advise the Natal Provincial Council to allow land to be held in perpetuity on behalf of the Indians for educational purposes.

The proposals concerning a provincial commission of inquiry and the availability of Fort Hare for higher education were incorporated into the Agreement as part of the upliftment clause.

Continuing the policy of giving with one hand whilst taking away with the other, Malan made the extravagant claim that no section of the population was excluded from the benefits of the Union Housing Act of 1920. He then committed his government to taking steps under the Public Health Act, No. 26 of 1920, to investigating two things. Firstly, in and around Durban, the possibilities of forcing an advisory committee of representative Indians; and secondly the "limitations of the sale of Municipal land subject to restrictive conditions". These proposals formed part of the Agreement relating to housing and sanitation. On the same subject, Malan invited the Indian delegation to encourage Indians in South Africa to accept voluntary segregation, so as to obviate the "problem" which arose from residential inter-mixing, especially near Durban. Declining the invitation, the Indian delegation claimed that, since they were not fully cognisant with local conditions, they could not make such suggestions. Realising that they were skirting the issue the Indian delegation hastened to add that there were:

"great possibilities of mutual adjustment if advisory committees which the Indian community had faith in, were recognised and systematically consulted.. .. [and] much could be prevented by stricter enforcement of building and sanitary laws. "

Thus the optimistic claim, expressed in the beginning of the memorandum, that segregation had receded into the background, should be treated with caution for Malan had not only mentioned segregation, but had also extracted from the Indian delegation a qualified approval for voluntary segregation.

Finally, Malan dealt with the restrictions imposed on Indian workers and traders. He claimed that the Industrial Conciliation Act, No. 27 of 1925 was of general application and ensured equal pay for equal work, conveniently ignoring the fact that skilled work and higher-paid occupations remained the preserve of Europeans. To balance this he said that Indian workers, if they so desired, were free to form their own trade unions. On the Mines and Works (Amendment) Act, No. 15 of 1926 (Colour-Bar Act), he was just as rigid, emphasising that the law was not an insult to ''Indian civilisation" and was not likely to be amended in the future.

The Agreement included a statement of the intention of the Union Government to adhere to the principles of Act 27 of 1925, but excluded any reference to the Colour-Bar Act.

Malan was also firm on the question relating to trade licensing laws, refusing at that stage to reconsider the possibilities of amending the existing laws. However, to soften the blow, he agreed to give due consideration at an appropriate time to the suggestions of the Indian delegation. These suggestions, which were incorporated in full in the Agreement, dealt with the way in which the discretionary powers of the local authorities could reasonably be limited.

In concluding his speech, Malan, to the great relief and delight of the Indian delegation, made the crucial announcement that he would probably withdraw his Bill. He thus ensured that the Conference ended on an amicable note.

The Bill was withdrawn, and the conference ended on 12 January 1927. In his closing remarks Malan said that a foundation for lasting friendship between the two countries had been laid, because both of them treated the "problem as a common one and were determined to be good friends".

During the Conference, SAIC representatives officially met the Habibullah delegation five times, in spite of their disappointment at their exclusion from the Conference proper. At these meetings, held over five days, they discussed the following topics: industrial legislation, immigration, education, licensing laws, land, housing and sanitation.

The Indian delegation thought the meeting served a useful purpose. The memorandum states that these meetings were held in Common Rooms inside Parliament House where the "congress representatives were able to feel that they were exercising due influence". It added that the SAIC representatives had privately assured the delegation that the most the Indians expected from the conference was that the "retreat all along the line may be checked".

In addition to these meetings, the SAIC submitted a memorandum that Rev. C.F. Andrews presented on their behalf to the Indian delegation. The statement was a lengthy document that catalogued the various disabilities suffered by the Indians, and pointed out that they were neither an economic nor a social threat to the European population. Their claims covered a wide area, ranging from the demand for the repeal of the Immigration laws, the statutory and administrative restriction on trade and residence, to the request for franchise and equal pay for equal work for court interpreters. They also declared that any solution arrived at would have to be considered by them.

On 21st February 1927, the Cape Town Agreement, which was in the form of a Joint-CommuniquÁƒÂƒ© and a summary of the conclusions reached by the conference, was made public.

The Agreement (link to Essop Pahad Cape Town Agreement RL 06Apr04.doc) is reproduced in full elsewhere and only the main points will be outlined here. The first part dealt with the scheme of "Assisted Emigration". It included the proposals to increase the bonus, allow emigrants to return within three years and the responsibility of the Indian Government to assist the emigrants on arrival in India. The second part gave effect to paragraph 3 of the Reciprocity Resolution of the imperial Conference of 1918, and the final part was the upliftment clause, whereby the Union Government promised to improve the housing, sanitation and educational conditions of the remaining Indians.

Thus both parties, each approaching the negotiations from different angles and perspectives, found agreement and common ground on an issue which in 1935 had threatened not only the existence of the Indians in South Africa, but also the stability of Imperial rule in India.

Throughout, the Conference proceedings were permeated by an atmosphere of goodwill and an appreciation of each other's difficulties, limitations and suggestions. The South Africans were obviously delighted at securing the assistance of the Government of India in their attempts to reduce the Indian population without sacrificing any of their basic white supremacist policies and principles. On the other hand, the Indian Government felt satisfied since they thought they had extracted a binding commitment from the Union Government to assist those Indians who wished to conform to Western standards of life.

I.O.R., Vol. 1256, Secret Memorandum submitted by Government of India delegation to Viceroy. Copy sent to Under-Secretary of State for India. None of the secondary sources have examined the proceedings of the Conference, which clearly shows how the Cape Town Agreement was arrived at. The author has not seen the thesis byj.E. Corbett, 'A Study of the Cape Town Agreement'', unpublished MA thesis (University of Cape Town, 1947), but it is unlikely that Corbett was able to discuss the proceedings fully since she probably did not have access to the secret documents which refer to the conference discussions. Nor has B. Pachai, "The emergence of the Question of the South African Indian as an International Issue, 1860-1961", unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of Natal, 1967), examined the proceedings.

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Last updated : 03-Apr-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011