CHAPTER III: The Aftermath of the Cape Town Agreement: The Politics of Dissension, 1927

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The Aftermath of the Cape Town Agreement: The Politics of Dissension, 1927 - 1936

3. Pressures and Responses in the Transvaal, 1930-1936

Indian traders in the Transvaal continued to face difficulties in obtaining licences to pursue their business interests. This was further complicated by the refusal, in 1929, of the Johannesburg Municipality to issue new licences. In addition, recent judicial judgments had given the Indian traders more security of tenure. To resolve this complication, Malan appointed a Select Committee on 3 February, 1930, to investigate the question of trading rights and the ownership of property and land in the Transvaal. On May 13, the report of the Select Committee was published and immediately the first reading of the T.A.L.T. (Amendment) Bill was taken.

Effectively, the Bill contained three main provisions concerning (a) the ownership of fixed property by Asiatics throughout the Transvaal, (b) occupation of stands in prohibited areas and their residence thereon, and (c) the method of granting trading licences to Asiatics. It sought to close every loophole in the existing law and regulations, which enabled those Indians who could afford it to acquire a controlling interest over fixed property. Furthermore, no protection was afforded to those who were occupying stands illegally on proclaimed land.

The Agent's secretary estimated that some 70 per cent of the traders in Johannesburg, including a few of the biggest merchants, would be affected. These traders were given five years, starting from 1 April, 1930, within which to move, for the purposes of trade, or residence, or both to "an exempted" area as defined by the Municipalities with the consent of the Minister.

The Bill caused great uneasiness and consternation amongst the Indians in the Transvaal, who were mainly traders. Suddenly, rich merchants such asj.I. Gardi, who had kept aloof from Congress activities, not onlyjoined the TIC but also accepted official positions on the Executive. This delighted the new Agent, Sir Kurma Reddi (link to Essop Pahad Bio Venkata RL 06Apr04.doc), who said:

"A common danger has brought them together and made them sink their private difference in a public cause. Hereafter, there will be no two parties.... but only ones, which with a united voice can place their grievances before the Government of this country and India. "

In view of this newest threat, and the fear that in future these provisions could be extended to Natal, the SAIC called an Emergency Conference for the 5-6 October 1930. The Conference proceedings were sprinkled with tough speeches, mingled with apprehensions about the effects of the Bill. Cassim Adam, a rich merchant from Pretoria and a new recruit, said on behalf of the TIC that the Bill attacked the Indians' "hard earned wealth", enterprise and labour as a race "mercilessly, ruthlessly, unjustly" for the purpose of "annihilating" them.

Albert Christopher delivered an equally vehement presidential address. He attacked the policy of segregation, which he pointed out would reduce the Indians to "menial servants" and to "conditions of helotry", and consequently the Indians might as well be dead. Introducing a grim note, he warned the conference that they might be forced once more to consider passive resistance in order to maintain their self-respect and right to live as human beings.

After a lengthy discussion, the conference passed a resolution which categorically rejected the Bill as it violated the letter and spirit of the Cape Town Agreement; imposed trade, occupational and residential disabilities whilst depriving the Indians in the Transvaal of their vested rights; and finally because it aimed at segregation and the "ultimate ruin" of the Indians in the Transvaal. The resolution also called upon the Indian Government to press for a second Round Table Conference if the Union Government refused to withdraw the Bill. If this failed, the Indian Government was asked to terminate diplomatic relations and to withdraw its Agency as a protest against the Bill.

This issue also dominated the Tenth Annual Conference of the SAIC, held In Cape Town from 29 December 1929 to 1 January 1930. Once again a tough line was adopted and the resolutions of the Emergency Conference were re-affirmed. Furthermore, Conference appointed a "Standing Committee" which had to conduct the negotiations with the two governments.

The committee had six meetings with the Agent in which they outlined their tactical approach, which was to obtain a second Round Table Conference and a postponement of the Bill. The Agent concurred and readily undertook to submit these views to his Government. Andrews made similar points to Malan whom he interviewed on 19 and 20 January 1931. Similar tactics were pursued by the Agent and the Indian Government. Malan relented and agreed to postpone the second reading of the Bill. He announced this on 6 May 1931 and added that the conference would probably take place in December 1931.

An additional factor, explaining Malan's willingness to postpone the Bill, was that the Parliamentary session was already overloaded by the economic measures that the government had had to take to deal with the situation resulting from the world-wide economic depression.

As a result of the diversification process initiated by the Pact Government of 1924, the manufacturing sector saw a significant growth between 1925-1929, when employment of workers (all races) increased by 32 per cent. This upward trend was temporarily disturbed for the period 1930-33 by the Great Depression, which precipitated the so-called "civilised labour" policy, thus effectively ensuring that the non-white workers bore the main burden.

In September 1931 the United Kingdom, followed by many other countries, abandoned the gold standard. But South Africa did not follow suit and for:

"sixteen months endured the hardships inflicted by falling prices and competition from countries whose currencies had been devalued, until at the end of 1932, the Government was forced by public opinion to resign, and a coalition government came into power."

Devaluation, followed by the gold mining boom, enabled the manufacturing sector to make rapid strides during the years 1933-39. During this period the value of gross and net output doubled and the total labour force increased by 77 per cent. Non-white employment increased from 76 thousand to 143 thousand, an increase of 88 per cent. But, as Houghton pointed out, although the non-white people benefited from the expansion of the economy:

"their case differed from that of the whites in that expansion was not sufficient to overcome poverty. Indeed, South Africa had been so concerned with the poor white that it was only in the thirties that the poverty of other groups received national attention".

The TIC had in a short period superseded the TBIA, mainly because it attracted the support of the petit-bourgeoisie and to a limited extent the support of the small working class. But it, too, remained an organisation devoid of a mass base and mass participation at all levels. It was content to mouth its opposition, and to function as a pressure group dependant on the favours of the Agent and the two Governments.

Prior to the postponement of the Bill, the speeches and resolutions of Congress indicated that a militant attitude was prevalent and could conceivably be translated into political action, but before it was put to the test the Bill was postponed. Nevertheless,judging from the leaders' previous and subsequent actions, it is likely that this was no more than rhetoric, designed to express their strong disapproval and apprehensions. Once again they pinned their hopes on a negotiated settlement arrived at by the two governments. But this time they were to be disappointed. The Union Government, furious at the halted response to the repatriation scheme, was in no mood to compromise.

The second Round Table Conference took place in Cape Town from 12 January to 4 February, 1922. Representing the Government of India was Fazil I-Hussain (leader), Geoffry Corbett, V.S.S. Sastri, Sarojini Naidu, Darcy Lindsay, G.S. Bajpai and the Agent, K.V. Reddy. The South African delegation comprised Malan (leader), Patrick Duncan, Pirow Jansen and Heaton Nicholls.

It was only the diplomatic skill of the Indian delegation, and the SAIC decision to support a Colonisation Scheme for Indians from South Africa and India that saved the second conference from breaking up. Following the second Round Table Conference, events in Natal and the Transvaal were to assume different forms. In Natal, the Colonisation issue was to dominate the political arena, whilst in the Transvaal the reactions of, and opposition to, the various laws affecting the Indians and the attitude to the Feetham Commission was to be a major factor.

The Congress leaders throughout South Africa, and especially in the Transvaal, were bitterly disappointed by the results of the conference and characterised it as a dismal failure. Sorabjee Rustomjee said that if the T.A.L.T. Act 1932 was an indication of the "spirit of cordiality and good will" which pervaded the conference, then it wag no less than a "death warrant". He added that he would not support the continuance of good relations between the two governments at the "expense of our people".

By June 1932 the Act had become law, and ascent was given to the Transvaal License Control Ordinance. The Act was basically similar to the original Bill of 1930 and it also set up the Feetham Commission, which had:

"to enquire into the occupation by coloured persons [mainly directed at Indians] of proclaimed land in the Transvaal insofar as such occupation is affected by the provisions of....Act No. 35 of 1932".

The Commission also had to compile a Register to show who was in legal and who was in illegal occupation, and, in the case of illegal occupation, to make proposals as to how the Ministers concerned could withdraw land through the operation of the Gold law provisions which prohibited "residence upon or occupation of any land by a Coloured person".

Indians in the Transvaal were greatly agitated and perturbed by both the Act and the Licence Control Ordinance. After repeated postponements of a mass meeting, apparently because of an uncertainty on the part of the leaders as to what action should be taken, a mass meeting organised by the TIC was held on 14 August 1932. The meeting unanimously adopted the following resolution:

"(1) That people be advised individually and collectively to abstain from filling in forms... or to do, or take part in any matter or thing which might mean their conforming to the requirements of the said Act. [Because]

(A) The aforesaid Act virtually means segregation... as a race or class, and,

(B) It violates the letter and spirit of the Cape Town Agreement.

(2) That a committee be appointed to initiate such resistance to the Act as may be found necessary for the purpose of entering effective resistance thereto.

(4) It has come to the notice of congress that in order to protect their interests some persons have already filled in forms through fear. This does not mean that they accept the... Act. Therefore, this meeting resolves that those who have filled in forms have done so under protest... and

(5) Solemnly records its protest against terms of licence control ordinance of 1932 as being a distinct violation of the Cape Town Agreement... and as constituting a most serious menace to non-European traders in that it confers upon Municipal Licensing Committee. autocratic and absolute powers."

This resolution was later endorsed by the SAIC conference, which met in Johannesburg on 27 to 28 August 1932. The conference called upon all its affiliated bodies to support the cause of the Indians in the Transvaal. At the conference, speaker after speaker condemned the Act and declared that no self-respecting community could tolerate the present state of affairs and that the only course open to them was to resist the law to the utmost.

Sorabjee Rustomjee gave full reign to his opposition when he passionately declared:

"If I know my peoplearight, I say with all emphasis at my command that we shall not yield to this unjust law.... I fully realise that the struggle which we are about to commence will be a bitter one, but I am conscious of the fact in this great struggle, our people will prove their mettle".

To emphasise their opposition and to solicit external support, the SAIC sent a telegram to the Imperial Citizenship Association in Bombay:

"SAIC... decided unanimously resist passively... Act. TIC enrolling volunteers, urge you to inform Pandit Malviya, Sastri and other leaders and press. Financial assistance necessary when struggle actually starts".

Thus, when the new Agent, Kunwar MaharajSingh, arrived in South Africa on 3 August 1932, he found the Indians greatly perturbed and apparently determined to resist militantly the latest encroachment on their rights.

Having decided to resist the Act, the SAIC and the TIC began to dither. In the Transvaal large numbers of traders were filling in the forms, and there was an uncertainty as to what action to take. Certain members of the TIC, such as Pragji Desai felt that the TIC had to act immediately, but the SAIC executive felt that the campaign should not be initiated until they had a clearer picture of the attitude that the Feetham Commission was likely to adopt. Hiding behind thisjustification, the TIC did not set a date on which the campaign was to begin. Moreover, later in September, in the absence of Pragji Desai, who left Johannesburg for Natal to be temporary editor of the Indian Opinion, there was no leader of repute to push the TIC executive to abide by its decisions. In addition, Sastri strengthened the hand of the moderates when he rebuked the SAIC (by telegram) for taking precipitate action and asked them to call off the intended campaign.

Eventually, the TIC leaders adopted the stand taken by the SAIC and decided that no militant campaign would be initiated until the Commission's report had been published. However, neither the TIC, nor the SAIC retreated all along the line. Both organisations took refuge in deciding not to co-operate with the Commission's work.

Once again Congress leaders had backed down from their original positions. The Congress leaders were not prepared to participate in, or initiate, actions which entailed a great deal of self-sacrifice and absence from business, and also they lacked the high degree of discipline which would have been essential for the success of a militant campaign. Rhetoric, however aggressive, was not enough, and the failure of the leaders to give a clear lead led to large numbers of Indians filling in the forms. Admittedly the Congress had no support from organisations in India or certain influential personalities such as Sastri. Nevertheless, they did decide not to co-operate with the Feetham Commission.

This decision led the Agent, Kunwar MaharajSingh, to encourage the formation of a new organisation for the express purpose of giving evidence to and co-operating with the commission.

It is important to examine the formation of the TICA and some of its activities, for it challenged the ability of the TIC to implement successfully its boycott policy, and it was also a move to the right. In assessing the development of the Indian political movements, it is necessary to bear in blind that at that time the moderates were under pressure from the right. There was then no radical faction within the TIC to oppose vehemently the more moderate elements and ensure that the leaders pursued their own stated policies. After the emergence of the radicals, the moderates leading the TIC consistently opposed any militant action (see below Chapter IV ).

The emergence of the TICA also shows that when the vital interest of the richer merchants was affected, this group was quite prepared to "play ball" with the authorities in order to salvage as much as they could. They realised if the Feetham Commission recommendations led to a greater degree of security of tenure in the ownership and occupation of property and land they would benefit greatly. For it was the richer merchants who owned the most valuable properties and land in some parts of Johannesburg and in the rest of the Transvaal .

The Feetham Commission was appointed on 4 October and in the same week the Transvaal Indian Commercial Association (TICA) was formed. Following this above, the Agent asked the TIC to clarify its attitude to the Commission. After considerable discussion the TIC executive failed to come to a decision, but agreed to consult the SAIC executive. On 6 November, the SAIC executive met and resolved to stand by the resolution passed at its annual conference in August 1932, which committed the SAIC to a policy of non-co-operation with the Commission.

Thus the weakening TIC was shored up by the SAIC and a complete capitulation of an apparently determined stand was prevented. The TIC was content to make sporadic criticisms of the TICA without attempting to organise an effective campaign to implement their policy or to reduce the efficacy of the TICA.

The TICA in Johannesburg consisted of seventy-three members, twenty of whom served on the executive. They were all leading merchants and the property and businesses owned by the members of the Association were worth approximately £2, 000, 000. Later, similar Associations were formed in Krugersdorp, Roodepoort and Springs.

On 8 February 1933, the TICA submitted their mildly worded memorandum. Mindful of the Congress criticisms, the TICA were at pains to point out that they appreciated the motives of Congress in boycotting the commission, and sympathised with the Congress dislike of the T.A.L.T. Act. They also pointed out that, by giving evidence, they did not relinquish the right of the Indian community to protest against any legislation "and to press for and endeavour to obtain every right to which an Indian, as a British subject is entitled". But they maintained that the aims and ideals of the Indian people would be best served by co-operating with the Commission. After a brief rÁƒÂƒ©sumÁƒÂƒ© of the history of Indian settlement In the Transvaal, the memorandum claimed that the restrictions contained in the various laws were not intend to operate to the detriment of the Indians. They said that the Government had not implemented them fully, and thus encouraged occupation or residence that was only technically speaking illegal.

In submitting general proposals relating to the areas that the commission had to recommend for exemption, the Association asked the commission to take account of the natural expansion of the Indian population. At the same time, the commission was told that the TICA found the policy of segregation repugnant because:

".. it must be obvious that if our community is isolated and confined whether in locations or elsewhere without sufficient scope being afforded, it cannot be expected that Ebrahim will trade with Moosa and Moosa with Ebrahim and thus enable both to make a living. We cannot live by taking each other's washing."

In addition to the memorandum, the TICA also submitted detailed notes and specific proposals regarding each locality recommended for exemption.

Generally speaking the memorandum was mainly concerned with protecting existing vested interests and in requesting suitable opportunities for the expansion of businesses and for investment. It was an attempt to represent the fears and views of the richer merchants living and trading in Johannesburg. It seems, therefore, that their criticism of previous legislation and the policy of segregation show that, in the conditions pertaining in South Africa, even the most conservative and reactionary elements wished to be seen not to be bootlicking, or too moderate.

Meanwhile, the TIC was content to pour scorn on the TICA without doing anything to make the boycott a success. Moreover, some of its members felt that the TICA had been eclipsed by the TICA; this view was forcibly expressed by S.B. Medh, a leading member of the TIC in a letter to Sastri:

"At present Transvaal Indian Congress is a dead body. It is not functioning. Everything is done through Commercial Association. With the assistance of Agent-General, some are trying to kill Congress, which was established at your advice".

However, the TIC did eventually organise a special conference on 24 and 25 May 1933, to attack the TICA. The conference attended by about 100 delegates, passed the following resolutions:

"(a) That this Conference strongly protests and condemn the evidence tendered by the TICA... as detrimentally affecting the rights and privileges of the Indians in the province by asking for segregation through exempted areas, and for the restrictions of trading licences and privileges.

(b) That this Conference desires to emphasise that the TICA representing as it does only a handful of merchants... cannot claim to represent the Indian community."

Despite this smug and harsh criticism of the TICA, the TIC had, up to the time of the publication of the Feetham Commission reports, remained largely inactive.

Parts I, II and IV of the Feetham Commission reports were published in July 1935. Following the publication of these reports the TIC and TICA were finding common ground. This delighted the Agent who endeavoured to get the TICA now to work through the aegis of the TIC. To ascertain the views of the TIC and TICA leaders, he consulted some of the "leading Indians" in the Transvaal. He found them unanimous and vehement on the question of proprietary rights and warned that if the Union Government failed to act on this question, the "less moderate leaders may seize the opportunity for starting an agitation".

The SAIC executive met on 2 November 1934 and decided to convene an emergency conference to discuss the attitude to be adopted to the reports. But the SAIC dithered, and cancelled the scheduled meeting. Apparently this was because, at the last conference, a resolution had been passed, which had modified their previous stand. The resolution read:

"On the question of the Transvaal Land Tenure Act this conference... resolves that further consideration be postponed until the publication of the Feetham Commission report. And hereby authorises the Executive... to examine the report and. take such action as it may deem necessary".

They also procrastinated over the Agent's suggestion that his Secretary, Williams, should draft the representations on the reports on behalf of the SAIC. This dilly-dallying arose because the leaders were "sensitive" and felt that making representations to the Minister of Interior would be in conflict with their earlier position. More significantly, they were "particularly nervous of the possibility of charges of inconsistency and sacrifice of principles from the Colonial Born and Settlers Indian Association and the Indian Opinion ". Under pressure from the CB and SIA, the leaders of the SAIC, especially those who came from Natal, were frightened of taking a course of action that would cast them in an unfavourable light. Despite this fear, the SAIC, with encouragement from the Agent, decided that since the reports and consequent government action were a fait accompli:

"they must as practical men, deal with the facts of the situation and, in the interest of the Indian community, endeavour to secure such advances on the Commission's recommendations as may be possible".

By taking this action the SAIC leadership further demonstrated its weakness and inability to pursue a more combative policy. This weakness was to be demonstrated over and over again during the next few years.

On 28 May, 1936 Hofmeyer withdrew the Transvaal Asiatic Land Tenure (Amendment) Bill, which he had introduced on 30 January. In its place he submitted a new Bill as amended by a parliamentary Select Committee. This was rushed through Parliament, and by 16 June the T.A.L.T. (Amendment) Act of 1936 was on the Statute Book. The granting of proprietary rights was the most important point conceded by the Select Committee. But in the Act this concession was limited by the proviso that the Minister of Interior had to obtain the sanction of both Houses of Parliament before any area could be exempted, wherein Indians would enjoy proprietary rights. This was known as the Feetham resolution.

The TIC and SAIC leaders set great store on the Feetham resolution. For, if passed, it offered the Indians (especially the richer elements) greater security of tenure and investment opportunities. In some cases it would even legalise ownership of land and property that had previously been considered technically speaking illegal.

But from 1936 to 1941 the Union Government prevaricated on this issue, because they claimed that the situation and atmosphere was not conducive to concessions being made. It was only as late as April 1941 when the radicals in the Transvaal, were in the ascendant, and the Government was embroiled in the war issue, that the Feetham resolution finally became statutory.

The towns in which some areas were exempted from the provisions of the Gold law were Johannesburg, Klerksdorp and Roodepoort. Parliament also agreed to allow Asiatics to own land and property in the Malay location of Johannesburg and the Nigel Bazaar.

In assessing the pressures and responses in the Transvaal 1932-36, it is clear that the success of the Indian delegation in averting a rupture of relations at the second Round Table Conference did not improve the prospects of the Indians in the Transvaal. For the Union Government was determined to pursue at all coats its restrictive and discriminatory policies. In the face of this threat the Indian organisations were content to express their belligerent rhetoric. Moreover, even their limited protest of boycotting the Feetham Commission was too much for the Agent, who encouraged the formation of the TICA. The wealthier merchants were more interested in pressing and extending their own interests. They felt that these would be better served if they broke away from their old friends. There was, however, a distinct difference between the two, in that the TICA believed that their commercial interests were best served by making proposals, which included the principal areas in which their commercial undertakings were situated. After the publication of the reports, it was mainly through the efforts of the Agent, Kunwar MaharajSingh that some of the TICA leaders finally agreed to work through the TIC and SAIC. This made it unnecessary to continue with the TICA.

On the other hand, the TIC failed to match their rhetoric with appropriate political action. It was not sufficient to express verbal opposition to the legislation and to the TICA. If the TIC was serious in implementing its declared intentions, it had to undertake alternative forms of activity. Furthermore, the leaders failed to transform the TIC into a mass organisation, which was essential for the initiation, development and sustainment of mass resistance campaigns. There was a tiny minority that held radical views but it was too weak and disorganised to pressurise the leaders to implement Congress resolutions. It was during the years 1939 to 1945 that the radicals came to the fore as an organised group. This aspect is dealt with in chapter IV.

Another factor, which explains why the Congress did not proceed with passive resistance, was the cool and sometimes harsh reception given to it in India. Sastri especially was critical of this decision. When S.B. Medh tried to solicit support in India for the contemplated resistance campaigns he failed, since most of the people he had contacted felt that the Congress was not capable of sustaining such a struggle, and advised him to take a more conciliatory attitude. Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi was at that time pre-occupied with the struggles in India and on a fast, and could not be contacted. Nor is it likely that he would have advised the TIC to pursue a passive resistance campaign. For later, in 1939 (see p.157), he advised the radicals to postpone their intended passive resistance campaign.

The SAIC leadership showed similar weaknesses. After the second conference, one of its affiliates, the NIC, was under considerable pressure from the CB and SIA. Thus its ability to exercise and give a national leadership was limited. Fundamentally, the SAIC was content to remain an organisation of officials, dependent on the goodwill and support of the Government of India, and its representative.

This section on the pressures and responses in the Transvaal, 1930-1936, is important because it demonstrates how the moderate leadership of the TIC and the SAIC reacted to the various laws that vitally affected their interests. It was this rejection of other methods of struggle that contributed tremendously to the emergence and rapid growth of the radical faction in the Transvaal. Moreover, the seemingly unending spate of discriminatory legislation convinced a large proportion of the Indian community living in the Transvaal of the failure of the accommodationist policy to improve their welfare and condition. These points are elaborated in chapter IV .

Moreover, developments in Natal during the period under review were to have grave repercussions for the NIC and the SAIC.

N.A.I., 1931, January, Nos. 13-17, Transvaal Asiatic Tenure (Amendment) Bill, Demi-official letter from Agent.... 19 September 1930. After the secession of the TBIA from the SAIC, Sastri, having failed to reach an agreement with Camay (the leading official in the TBIA) encouraged the formation of the TIC. After Sastri had addressed a public meeting on this issue on 12 September 1927, Dawood Patel, chairman of the TBIA, and other committee members undertook to rescind the secessionist resolution. But Camay and M. P. Patel,joint secretaries, refused to call a mass meeting to decide on the issue. Faced with this intransigence a majority of the former members of the TBIA held a meeting on 15 December 1927. At this meeting a new organisation, the Transvaal Indian Congress was formed. Consequently, at the eighth session of the SAIC on 2-5 February 1928, the secessionist resolution of the TBIA was accepted and the TIC application for affiliation was adopted. From then onwards the TIC emerged as the leading political organisation of the Indians in the Transvaal.

< 2. The Cape Town Agreement in Practice | 4. Pressures and Responses in Natal, 1932- 1936 >

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Last updated : 04-Apr-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Apr-2011