The Triumph of the Radicals, 1939-1946

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CHAPTER IV

The Struggle for Power: The Triumph of the Radicals, 1939-1946

Like their counterparts in the Transvaal, the nationalist bloc of the NIA rejected the Brooms Commission, whilst the moderates were hesitant. The radicals organised one of the largest demonstrations held in Durban since 1913, on 12 January 1941. In the style of resisters in India, demonstrators wore khadi caps and sang Indian national songs. After the meeting, the police barricaded the streets and prevented a protest march from taking place.

Incensed and in a militant mood, the crowd refused to be intimidated and staged a sit-down. Finally the police were compelled to relent. This may seem trivial, but it is such incidents leading to conflicts with the police and authorities that help to build the political consciousness and maturity of the rank and file members of a political movement.

The nationalist bloc also acted as a watchdog on the democratic procedure of the NIA. When the officials postponed the Annual General Meeting, the radicals were quick to demand the immediate calling of such a meeting. They also criticised the "appeasement and compromise" policy of the moderates and demanded the initiation of a vigorous struggle against segregation and colour bar.

Following the electoral defeat in January 1943, Dadoo entreated the Natal radicals to rejoin the NIA, because Nana's victory would probably lead to A.I. Kajee's NIC being accepted as an affiliate of the SAIC, even though it enjoyed neither mass support, nor recognition from the Indian government. His advice was accepted; the nationalist bloc called for unity, disbanded and rejoined the NIA.

In so far as the SAIC was concerned, it was easier said than done. It had not met to elect new officials for nearly eight years and consequently, A.I. Kajee retained his position asjoint secretary. After the formation of the NIA in 1939, there arose the anomalous position where thejoint-secretaries, Kajee and S.R. Naidoo, belonged to two mutually hostile organisations. This uneasy position was emphasised at the SAIC conference held in Johannesburg in July 1943. Initially both organisations had agreed not to "impair the character" of the SAIC. But, their agreement to send to the SAIC conference fifteen delegates each broke down, because the NIC refused to submit the names of its delegation to a mass meeting for approval.

At an executive meeting on 27 June, despite the protests of S.R. Naidoo, it was decided to take a firm decision as to which organisation should represent Natal. Naidoo resigned because the "whole procedure was most irregular, unconstitutional and was a denial ofjustice".

Having disposed of Naidoo, the executive proceeded to submit its proposals to conference, which debated the issue for eight hours. Finally, by 70 votes to 4, a resolution was adopted which accepted the NIC as an affiliate of the SAIC, therebyjustifying Dadoo's suspicion.

Notwithstanding these differences, the High Commissioner, Sir Shafaat Ahmed Khan, utilised the presence of both sides during the conference to effect reconciliation. At the same time, the radicals from Natal and the Transvaal were also demanding a united body to fight the Pegging Act, which hadjust been passed. Responding to these pressures, and desirous of unity, the leader, on their return to Durban, met and signed a unity pledge on 18 July 1943.

The main points of this pledge were firstly, that the passing of the Pegging Act and the active policy of segregation pursued by the Natal authorities had put the "existence and prosperity" of the Indians in "grave danger". Secondly, it was essential to have one political organisation, as they did not differ on "fundamental policy" and the past four years had "proved the futility of the duplication of work, of representations, wasted expense, loss of time and energy". Thirdly, that the NIC (founded by Mahatma Gandhi) should be reconstituted, and, finally, that the first elected officials and committees should be equally representative of the two organisations.

The militants, including seventeen trade unions, enthusiastically accepted this move. In a special appeal, the militants called on all trade unionists to support it and to provide it with a mass base by enrolling as members.

On 29 August, the NIC was formally constituted at a mass meeting in Durban. A few of the radicals, such as George Singh, D.A. Seedat, George Ponen, M.D. Naidoo, Billy Peters and Dr. G.M. Naicker, were elected onto the committee. For the first time since 1933, there was one body representing the Indians in Natal. But the hopes of the radicals that the resuscitated NIC would organise mass campaigns and struggles against segregation, colour-bar laws and for full franchise rights, was rudely shattered by the Pretoria Agreement of April 1944. However, before this is examined it is necessary to return to the Broome Commission and to study the effects of the Pegging Act of 1943.

The first Broome Commission found that the extremist claims of the Europeans of Natal, that so-called penetration had occurred, were not substantiated.

Palmer correctly points out that the report shows "that the agitation against the Indian had been much exaggerated and afforded no grounds whatever for the alarmist statements of the extremists". But the report failed to satisfy the Europeans in Natal, who ridiculed the findings, demanded statutory restrictions and a further inquiry into the rate of penetration for the years 1940-1942. They claimed that during these years penetration had increased, and that since the commissions enquiries had ended in 1940, it had been unable to ascertain the true position.

Smuts succumbed to the pressures and appointed Justice Broome to enquire into the extent of "Indian penetration in the Durban area since September 1940". At this time, a general election was due and already by May, Smuts had decided to have a general election on 7 July 1943. He was, as Hancock said, the leader of a coalition government, and therefore responsible to all three:

"The Dominion Party and the Labour Party were both small, but each of them had vigorous roots in Natal. In the electoral pacts, which Smuts had made with them both, he thought it necessary to deal gently with their susceptibilities".

The United Party won the elections handsomely and now had an overall majority of twenty-five. Counting the allies, Smuts' party had a majority of sixty-seven. On the other hand, Malan's Nationalists emerged as the most powerful parliamentary representatives of Afrikanerdom, polling thirty-six per cent of the total votes.

Within four days, Brooms had completed his task. Not surprisingly, he found that the rate of penetration had increased, thereby giving satisfaction to the Europeans of Natal. Not so the Indians, who felt that it had failed to take account of the "equally rapid, if not greater expansion. of the Europeans" and also failed to show that Europeans' penetration of predominantly Indian areas had occurred on a large scale.

The report cleared the way for the government to introduce the Asiatic Trading and Occupation of Land (Natal and Transvaal) Bill, commonly known as the Pegging Bill, and when it became law, the Pegging Act. Reacting sharply, the radicals organised a mass meeting in Durban on 18 April, under the auspices of twenty-five Durban organisations, seventeen of which were trade unions. All the speakers vehemently condemned the Bill and the crowd of 5,000 adopted two resolutions. One "affirmed the Indians'" intense opposition to the Bill and the other called for unity in order to organise "a militant mass struggle", and for the recall of the High Commissioner of India if the Bill became law.

A mass protest meeting was also organised by the NIA on 25 April, at which S. Rustomjee tore up a copy of the Atlantic Charter, because, he claimed, Smuts flouted it with impunity.

Notwithstanding these protests, the government hurriedly pushed the legislation through the various parliamentary stages and by the first week of May, the Pegging Act had become law. It prohibited (until 1946) any Indian from purchasing properties, shares, debentures of land or companies from a European and vice versa without the consent of the Minister of the Interior, and made it illegal for an Indian to occupy a property in a European area not previously occupied by an Indian prior to March, 1943.

The Act contributed immensely to the unifying of the Indian political movements. Its effect brings out an important aspect of South African history: the impact of external events and internal interactions on the development of the goals, tactics and strategies of the non-European political movements. Furthermore, the Act tended to prove the case of the militants that the accommodationist approach was of no avail. Palmer wrote that the Indians "naturally" greeted it with storm, but she ignored what they actually said or did, and she ignored the role of the SACP.

It was at this time that the communist party took an active part in the radicalisation of the Indian political movements and in the struggle against the Pegging Act. Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Durban district of the party was an active campaigner for the unity of the Indian organisations, for a united concerted struggle and for the recall of the High Commissioner. Its branches in Natal held protest meetings and their members such as G. Ponen, Billy Peters, M.D. Naidoo and D.A. Seedat were in the forefront of the struggle.

A typical resolution passed at the various meetings organised by the party was:

"This mass meeting. .. vehemently condemns the Pegging Bill, which is calculated to segregate the Indian people into ghettoes and locations said which offers gratuitous insult to the self-respect and natural honour of the Indian community".

In defiance of the Pegging Act, P.R. Pather, a moderate and one of the main supporters of the Lawrence Committee, chose to occupy his house, which was in a European area. Twice he was sentenced to term of imprisonment or the option of a fine, which was paid by an unknown sympathiser. However, by the end of June, in view of the Pretoria Agreement, he decided to vacate his house, as a "gesture of goodwill" to the government. But, owing to the failure of the authorities to implement the Pretoria Agreement, Pather remained in his house and was in November sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

In March 1944, the government appointed yet another Commission to enquire into matters affecting the Indians in Natal and two Indians, S.R. Naidoo and A.I. Kajee were asked to serve on it. The other members were Justice Broome, W.M. Power, D.G. Shepstone, A.L. Barnes and I. A. de Gruchy.

The radicals rejected it, saying that any Indian who served on it should be branded a traitor. They felt that it flowed from the Pegging Act. On the other hand, the moderates felt that, since the commission was to enquire into the status of the Indians and the franchise question, they should not allow their case to go by default and once more claimed that in the past similar commissions had proved beneficial. Conveniently they forgot the deep divisions caused by the Colonisation Enquiry Commission and by the aftermath of the second Broome Commission.

This question was also hotly disputed at the NIC's first Provincial Conference, where the official resolutions committing the NIC to participate in the work of the commission, won by 111 votes to 60.

The first Provincial Conference of the NIC, held in Durban on 19 and 20 February 1944, was a crucial one for the radicals and was to prove to be a final parting of the ways. Even though the radicals had been in a minority on the committee, they had had a year in which to arouse mass opinion.

Conference was sharply divided on two major issues. One concerned its attitude to the third Broome Commission and the other concerned the strategy to be adopted in the fight against the Pegging Act. On the latter question, the Moderates favoured an open door policy based on negotiations. They were prepared to negotiate a deal on the question of residentialjuxtaposition, but not on the rights of Indians to own and acquire property or land for investment purposes. That this was a collective policy, worked out by the moderates to put to conference, was made clear byj.W. Godfrey in his presidential address, which preceded the discussions.

Supported by S. Rustomjee, the radicals called for an end to the compromise policies and demanded a united mass militant struggle to defeat the Pegging Act. George Singh said that the Moderates had achieved nothing over the past thirty years by their policy of talking positive action, regaining defensive and co-operating with the authorities. S Rustomjee admitted that in the past they had co-operated in vain and cited the case of Johannesburg, which he said was a "hell to live in", brought about by the acquiescence of "the Indians to the Feetham Commission" and the "acceptance of voluntary segregation".

This Issue was discussed over two days, and in the end the moderates agreed to incorporate into the official motion an amendment calling for a mass campaign to secure the repeal of the Pegging Act and the deletion of the clause, which provided for the acceptance of voluntary segregation. Analysing the conference proceedings and the heated debates, Dadoo claimed:

"Three important factors emerged from the conference .the utter contempt and lack of confidence on the part of the older leaders in the efficiency of mass united struggle; their defeatist and opportunist policy of holding what we have by giving up a right here or there; the political understanding of the rising leaders and the awakening of the masses. If progressives learn the lessons .then the first conference can become the beginning of the end of the policy of compromise".

Nevertheless, the conference was to a large extent a success for the moderates. They retained their positions, especially the crucial executive posts; and they won by a decisive majority the right to co-operate with the third Broome Commission, and, although they were compelled to delete the clause on voluntary segregation, the incoming executive was given sufficient room to manoeuvre. They fully exploited this when they negotiated the Pretoria Agreement, which had a tremendous impact on the Indian people and grave repercussions for the moderates.

On Tuesday 18 April, 1944, A.I. Kajee, P.B. Pather, S.R. Naidoo, A.B. Moosa, T.N. Bhoola, Mohamed Ebrahim and S.H. Paruk of the NIC met the Prime Minister, Senator Clarkson (Minister of Interior), Senator D.G. Shepstone, D.E. Mitchell and G. Heaten Nicholls (Administrator of Natal), at Smuts' office in Pretoria. At these discussions, the NIC delegates submitted a memorandum which was accepted in toto by the other side and which came to be known was the Pretoria Agreement.

In the agreement they distinguished between ownership and occupation, for trade, commercial and investment purposes, and ownership and occupation for residential purposes. With regard to the latter point, the moderates agreed to "meet the European attitude of mind, though unreasonable" by consenting "to a voluntary arrangement whereby machinery can be set up to control and regulate futurejuxtapositional residential occupation of Europeans and Indians". The machinery was to be a Board composed of two Europeans, two Indians, with a European chairman and which would havejurisdiction over all dwellings in Durban.

It was to be made statutory by an ordinance passed in the Natal Provincial Legislature. But the moderates ' hopes were to be dashed, for large sections of the Indian and European commission, for different reasons, reacted adversely to the Agreement. Because of the repercussions that followed, it is necessary to examine in some detail the value of the agreement and the opposition to it.

The first organisation to protest against the Agreement was the Durban district branch of the SACP. It held a protest meeting in Durban on 25 April 1944 at which several speakers condemned the Agreement as a "shameful betrayal". In addition to the holding of protest meetings, the Durban branch also circulated a petition, which in a short time attracted thousands of signatures. On the numerous meetings held outside factory gates, the Guardian reported:

"Everywhere the workers have unanimously rejected the Board and expressed their determination to fight segregation in all its aspects, voluntary or otherwise, and to struggle for the franchise".

Incensed by what they considered to be a sell-out, the radicals marshalled their forces. At a representative meeting of about thirty-five people held on 28 April, they decided to form the Anti-Segregation Council (ASC) in order to oppose the agreement; to achieve the repeal of the Pegging Act; and to obtain full franchise rights for the Indian people. Organised as a collective and viable unit, the ASC was to lead the fight against the Agreement and to dominate the Indian political arena in Natal.

At the same time, 14 members of the NIC Committee issued a statement denouncing the Agreement and called for a mass meeting to decide on the issue.

Sixty-seven delegates, representing various trade unions literary, religious and educational bodies and some branches of the NIC, attended the first conference of the ASC in May, at which speaker after speaker denounced the Agreement and the "treacherous role" played by the moderates. The conference adopted a resolution demanding unrestricted franchise and called upon all South Africans to resist segregation, and also resolved to pursue a campaign to give the ASC as "broad a base as possible"; to mobilise support for its demands and "to win over world opinion against the Pretoria Agreement and the Pegging Act".

Various trade unions, social organisations and a few branches of the NIC supported the ASC's mass campaign. Telegrams and resolutions embodying their protests were dispatched to the authorities by the following: The Laundry Cleaners and Dyers Workers Union; The Tin Workers Union; The Coffee and Chicory Workers Union; Chemical Workers Industrial Union; Workers of the Afritex Mill; Robertson's Factory; Biscuit Workers; and the Municipal Bus employees; the Belair, Tongaat and Briardene branches of the NIC; the Liberal Study Group; Springfield Indian Farmers and Tenants Association; Malvern District Indian Association; Nationalist Group of the NIC (Pietermaritzburg); Non-European Railway Passengers Welfare Association; and the Natal Indian Physical Culture and Weight-Lifting Association.

This was an impressive list of different organisations opposed to the Agreement. The strength of the opposition was demonstrated on 14 May when 10,000 crowded Red Square, Durban, at a rally organised by the communist party, and once again the Agreement was passionately rejected.

Both the ASC and the Durban district branch of the SACP articulated, in a forthright and aggressive manner, the opposition of a large segment of the Indian population. This was not only a greater challenge to the moderates than that provided by the CB and SIA, but was to prove more decisive.

Another important theme of the campaign was the scathing attack on the policies pursued by the moderates, which helped the international posture of the government, and especially its leader Smuts. Dadoo accused them of bartering away the right of the Indian people for "temporary gain in investment for an inconsiderable but wealthy class". He added that Smuts, who had previously poured "venomous scorn" on these leaders, now entertained them, because his government was criticised for the Pegging Act in India, Britain and the United States, and that, because of the Agreement, Smuts was "able to show his face with equanimity in the Councils of the Empire and United Nations".

That Smuts needed the Pretoria Agreement for international consumption, is also suggested by Hancock and Calpin, and by his own departure for London on the day following the Agreement to attend the Empire Conference.

Injustifying the Agreement, the moderates said that, if it was implemented, the Pegging Act would be repealed; and they did not hide the fact that their policy of protecting the trading and investment rights would in the main be more beneficial to the wealthier Indians. They felt that the main cause of the anti-Indian agitation rose from the Europeans' reluctance to live in close proximity with the Indians, and that in any case the Indians did not want to live amongst the Europeans, because it was natural for them to live amongst their own kind. Consequently, if this aspect could be satisfactorily dealt with, it would lead to a reduction of the demands for an all-pervading law of segregation.

If the opposition of the Indians was vehement, then that of the Europeans can only be described as venomous. For them, the Agreement came as a shock. Furthermore, the three Natal daily newspapers, the Natal Mercury, the Natal Witness and the Daily News did not help to clarify the issue. As Palmer ruefully commented, they contradicted each other and were not "in harmony" with the Agreement.

Calpin, Hancock and Palmer give detailed descriptions of the reasons why the Europeans opposed the Agreement, but here it is only necessary to make brief comments. The Europeans opposed it, because they attached as much importance to the prohibition of the rights of the Indians to acquire land and property for trading and investment purposes, as to the question of residential mixing. Moreover, following the failure of the Lawrence Committee and the response to the first Broome Commission, the Europeans were not interested in a voluntary arrangement, but wanted statutory segregation.

Despite the outcry, the necessary ordinance, which was withdrawn following objections from the NIC, was introduced. A second ordinance was then introduced that was acceptable to all the parties concerned, but not to the European public. Following the agitation, it was referred to a Select Committee, which introduced on 17 October an entirely new ordinance. The residential Property Regulation Ordinance sought to control not only occupation, but also the acquisition of property, and extended permanently the provisions of the Pegging Act to the whole of Natal. Despite the appearance of A.I. Kajee before the Bar of the House, the Provincial Council adopted the drastically amended ordinance. Commenting on the Europeans' agitation and the about-face of the Administrator and the Provincial Councillors, Hancock wrote:

"These men had not set out deliberately to stab their leader in the back; but they were unable to think coolly on an issue which had become so heavily charged with emotion".

This is a mild criticism of the Europeans of Natal, who have not been noted for viewing the Indian question in a dispassionate manner. But, hisjudgment of the Indian reaction was much less generous: "Inevitably, the Indians of Natal in their turn surrendered to the spirit of the herd".

By November, the Provincial Council had passed three ordinances - The Residential Property Regulation Ordinance, No. 20/1944, the Natal Housing Board Ordinance No. 23/1944 and the Provincial and Local Authorities Expropriation Ordinance No. 26/1944. Deeply disturbed, an NIC deputation saw Smuts, Clarkson and Mitchell (Administrator designate of Natal) in Pretoria on 28 November. In a memorandum they outlined their objection to the Ordinances, and appealed to Smuts to salvage the Agreement. They objected to the first one because it departed radically from the Agreement and introduced "matters extraneous and repressive", and to the other two because of their connections with the former "as apparently integral features of a larger plan of segregation".

Smuts, however, was not forthcoming and after meeting the NIC deputation declared that the Pretoria Agreement was "stone dead". Furthermore, he only refused assent to Ordinance No. 20/1944 as it was redundant as long as the Pegging Act was in force. Thus felling in one swoop the hopes and aspiration of the moderates to negotiate a solution based on co-operation and voluntary segregation.

In analysing the Agreement, Hancock attributed it to the ideas and diligent conduct of A.I. Kajee. This is incorrect, since it was not so much the brain­child of one individual, but as has been shown, a collective strategy, worked out and executed by the moderates.

He added:

"Nothing so fortifying of Indian self-respect had happened in South Africa since Gandhi's departure... Kajee and their other leaders had shown imagination, moderation and tactical skill. They had made a large concession, but without surrendering a principle. .. they had redefined Indian politics in Natal as the art of the possible and had put them on the path of ameliorative evolution".

That the moderates had shown "... tactical skill" in piloting the Agreement cannot be denied. But it is highly debatable whether it was "so fortifying of Indian self-respect". Surely the ASC, which voiced the opinion and attitudes of a large section of the Indians in Natal and the radicals in the Transvaal would vehemently disagree with that assessment. Also, his claim that the moderates had not "surrendered a principle", is inaccurate, since the Agreement would have made the voluntary implementation of residential segregation legally binding. To that extent, it was substantially different from the earlier assurance given by Kajee in 1936 and the NIA in 1939. Lastly, his view that they had "redefined Indian politics" is erroneous. It was nothing new, but represented the culminating point of the strategy followed by the moderate leadership since 1924.

What the Agreement did herald, was the decline in the fortunes of the moderates and the increasing strength of the radicals. Deserted by Smuts, whom they had so loyally supported over the war issue, they were on their way out. The radicals were to pursue their mass militant campaigns both against the authorities and the moderate leadership of the NIC.

In July 1943, the moderates, supported by the radicals, decided to resuscitate the original NIC which was founded by Mahatma Gandhi ( see below Essop Pahad Chapter4 RL 02Apr04.doc, section 5 convulsions in Natal) in order to distinguish it from A.I. Kajee's NIC, which Kajee operated after the formation of the NIA in 1939 (see above Essop Pahad Chapter4 RL 02Apr04.doc, section 3, formation of the NIA ).

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Last updated : 04-Apr-2011

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