Important figure in the history of Satyagraha (passive resistance) in South Africa, member of the Executive of the Transvaal British Indian Association, led some 300 resisters across the Transvaal border in defiance of discriminatory laws against India
Govindasamy Krishnasamy Thambi Naidoo*was born of indentured stock in 1875 in Mauritius. His family, originally from Mattur, state of Madras, in Tamil Nadu,India, had settled in Mauritius. His father was a prosperous fertiliser and cartage contractor in Mauritius. Thambi Naidoo was his youngest son. He had no formal education but spoke and wrote English very well. He also spoke Tamil, Telegu, Hindustani, Creole (which he had learned in Mauritius as a child) and Zulu.
He came to South Africa with his sister and brother and started a business when he was 14 years old, in Kimberley, Cape Colony (now Northern Cape). He moved to Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) when gold diggings began in the Transvaal in 1886. He started hawking fresh produce and gradually expanded his business into that of a produce merchant and wholesaler. He also became cartage contractor.
His public life began soon after his arrival in Johannesburg when Law 3 of 1885, which restricted Indians to segregated locations, was put into operation.
According to E S Reddy's, (Director of the United Nations Centre against Apartheid and author) quotes from an interview with Thambi Naidoo’s daughter Thailema:
There was a smallpox epidemic in the Indian location and the Indian traders, not only from the location but those living in Market Street where there was no smallpox, were excluded from the Newtown Market and their livelihood was threatened, while European traders from Market Street were allowed free access. Father was active among the organisers of a protest against this discrimination and when they threatened a protest march in Johannesburg the restrictions were removed from all except residents of the actual quarantine area. He also played a leading part in the formation amongst traders and other workers of the Tamil Benefit Society which looked after its members’ interests.
He led a deputation to the Johannesburg Municipal Council when he was only 19. Naidoo was also in a deputation to see President Kruger of the South African Republic and present a petition concerning the Law of 1885.
Naidoo collaborated with Mohandas (Mahatma) Karamchand Gandhi, when the latter settled in Johannesburg, in resisting anti-Indian measures. He became a member of the Executive Committee of the Transvaal British Indian Association in 1907, of which Gandhi was secretary.
In September 1906, Transvaal Indians held a large mass meeting in Johannesburg in protest against the Asiatic Ordinance. The meeting decided to refuse registration under the Ordinance (which later became the Asiatic Act) and to go to jail if necessary. Thambi Naidoo seconded the resolution and explained it, in the vernacular, to the Tamil-speaking people in the audience.
When the Satyagraha Campaign, passive resistance against discriminatory laws passed against Indians, began in earnest in July 1907 with the picketing of registration offices, Thambi Naidoo was the chief picket in Johannesburg. He was arrested and served 14 days in prison. On 28 December that year, he was charged with Gandhi for refusing to register and ordered to leave the Transvaal within 14 days. On 10 January 1908, he was sentenced with Gandhi for disobeying the order. He did the cooking for fellow prisoners in the Johannesburg prison.
Gandhi hailed Thambi Naidoo as one of the most important figures in the history of the Satyagraha Campaign in South Africa. In 1912, he was appointed the Chairperson of the Tamil Benefit Society from whose membership the most dedicated passive resisters were drawn. He was also involved in raising funds from the Tamil community for the Satyagraha Campaign, aimed at opposing the pass laws for Indians, which were introduced in the Transvaal in 1907. Naidoo was among the first campaigners to be arrested and in 1908, he was imprisoned with Gandhi. He, Gandhi and the Chinese leader Leuing Quinn signed an agreement that led to the amendment of the Asiatic Act (Act No. 20 of 1907). The essence of the compromise was a plan for voluntary registration.
At the end of January, an agreement was reached between Gandhi and General Smuts, Minister of the Interior, and the prisoners were released. It provided for voluntary registration rather than compulsory registration. Gandhi understood that the Government would repeal the Asiatic Act when Indians and Chinese (who were subject to the same discriminatory laws) registered voluntarily.
In terms of the Act, all Indians above the age of eight years had to apply for a certificate of registration. If they neglected to do so, they would forfeit their right to stay in the Transvaal and could face fines, imprisonment or deportation. Such certificates were to be produced on demand.
Almost all Indians registered voluntarily, but Smuts denied that he had promised to repeal the Act and negotiations between Gandhi and Smuts to find a solution failed. The Indian community then held a mass meeting at which the registration certificates were thrown into a large cauldron and burnt.
Thambi Naidoo repeatedly defied the law and went to prison. While the campaign continued, Naidoo served ten terms of imprisonment which ranged in length from a few weeks to six months. During one of these terms, his wife, Veerammal,suffered a miscarriage and Gandhi publicly put the blame for this on J.C. Smuts, then the Minister of Interior.
The Indian Opinion, a newspaper started by Gandhi, reported on 8 August 1908:
When Mr. Thambi Naidoo went to the Fort last week, he left Mrs. Naidoo in a condition wherein she anticipated almost immediate motherhood. On Sunday afternoon she gave birth to a son – still-born. The child was buried at the Braamfontein Cemetery on Monday afternoon. Mr. Polak attended the ceremony on behalf of the British Indian Association. Mr. Naidoo himself knows nothing of the unhappy event.
He has an incomparable spirit. What need is there to write in praise of him? This struggle has produced few satyagrahis who can be his equals. Mr. Naidoo is one of the most determined and persevering of passive resisters. Whether in or out of the gaol, he gives himself no rest. His one aim is to live so as to deserve the high title of passive resister as the term is understood among the strugglers in the Transvaal. Another person who can match Mr. Naidoo in self-sacrifice is unlikely to be found even in India.
Fifteen years later, Gandhi described Thambi Naidoo in Satyagraha in South Africa as "lion-like" and wrote of him:
He was an ordinary trader. He had practically received no scholastic education whatever. But a wide experience had been his schoolmaster. He spoke and wrote English very well, although his grammar was not perhaps free from faults. In the same way he has acquired a knowledge of Tamil. He understood and spoke Hindustani fairly well and he had some knowledge of Telugu too, though he did not know the alphabets of these languages... He had a very keen intelligence and could grasp new subjects very quickly. His ever-ready wit was astonishing. He had never seen India. Yet his love for the homeland knew no bounds. Patriotism ran through his very veins. His firmness was pictured on his face. He was very strongly built and he possessed tireless energy. He shone equally whether he had to take the chair at meetings and lead them or whether he had to do porter`s work. He would not be ashamed of carrying a load on the public roads... Night and day were the same to him when he set to work. And none was more ready than he to sacrifice his all for the sake of the community... the name of Thambi Naidoo must ever remain as one of the front rank in the history of Satyagraha in South Africa.
The spirit of Thambi Naidoo and the Tamils can be seen in the letter he sent on 4 October 1909 to Gandhi, then in a deputation to London. Passive resistance was at an ebb at the time, as most of the merchants were afraid to defy the law for fear of confiscation of their property. He wrote:
I beg to inform you that all Tamil prisoners discharged from the prison during your absence are ready to go to goal again & again until the Government will grant us our request. I was in Pretoria on the 22nd and 23rd of last month in order to receive the Tamil prisoners who was discharged on those dates and I did receive them with a bleeding heart. I could not recognise more than about 15 men out of the 60 prisoners who were released. The reason for this was that they were so thin and weak some of them nothing but skin & bone but in spite of this suffering that they have to undergo they were all prepared to go back to goal today”¦ the reason for the prisoners to get weak & thin is the insufficiency of food and of the absence of ghee.
Thambi Naidoo became a pauper as he was constantly going to prison. When Gandhi established Tolstoy Farm, in Johannesburg, to house former prisoners and families of prisoners who were in need, Thambi Naidoo settled there with his family.
Satyagraha in the Transvaal was suspended in 1911 after a provisional agreement between Gandhi and General Smuts, but the government did not implement the agreement. Meanwhile, the Cape Supreme Court declared marriages performed according to religions which allow polygamy – such as Hinduism, Islam and Zoroastrianism - invalidated in South Africa. That judgment had serious repercussions as most Indian women became legally no more than concubines and their children became illegitimate. The government ignored appeals for legislation to remedy the situation. Gandhi decided, after consultation with his associates, to invite women to join the Satyagraha.
At the same time, the three pound tax which was levied on workers in Natal who had completed indenture, and their wives and children, was causing so much suffering that action had to be taken to secure its abolition. It was decided to persuade Indian workers to go on strike until the tax was abolished.
Members of the Thambi Naidoo family, including his wife, Veerammal and mother-in-law, Mrs. N. Pillay (Parenithama), were among the seventeen Transvaal women who volunteered to go to Natal, to explain the three-pound tax to the workers and persuade them to strike.
On 13 October 1913, at a public meeting in Newcastle, Naidoo, representing Gandhi, successfully mobilized the Indians living there to start the Satyagraha Campaign.Thambi Naidoo led the women and went from mine to mine to persuade the coal miners to suspend work. After the women were arrested and sentenced to three months in prison with hard labour, he continued organising the strike of workers in plantations, railways, municipalities and other locations. He marched throughout Natal and addressed huge meetings without any rest and often without food.
He addressed a mass meeting of four or five thousand people in Pietermaritzburg in November and it adopted a resolution calling for a general strike the next day. Workers in sanitary, hospital, electricity departments were, however, requested to remain at their posts.
Towards the close of the meeting, Thambi Naidoo was informed that a police officer had arrived with a warrant for his arrest issued in Durban, and he informed the audience. Indian Opinion reported:
He exhorted his hearers to have no fear, as he was not afraid to go to gaol for the cause. A sensation was created by the announcement, and Mr. Naidoo proceeded to warn the crowd not to initiate any acts of violence, but to remain passive resisters and obey the commands of law and order. Let them, he said, suffer for the cause, but on no account resort to acts of aggression or violations of the law.
He was later released in Durban and continued with his work.
Natal saw the biggest general strike in its history while Gandhi was in prison. The strike, and the fearlessness of the workers despite brutality by the employers and the army, helped persuade the government to release Gandhi from prison, negotiate with him and sign an agreement acceding to the main demands of the Satyagraha.
Together with others, he then began mobilizing the miners in the coalmines surrounding Newcastle and more than 2 000 came out on strike. He subsequently led some 300 resisters across the Transvaal border. This famous strike and march not only represented the finale of Gandhi's passive resistance, but played a crucial role in the making of the modern South African working class.
The march resulted in a general strike in Natal. Naidoo brought out the Pieter-maritzburg strikers on 22 November 1913. Naidoo was one of the most active settlers at Tolstoy Farm where he helped with construction work and took charge of sanitation and marketing.
Naidoo had an indomitable spirit. When at the height of the passive resistance struggle, prior to the strikes, there was a lack of volunteers, he personally took on the responsibility for recruitment. At one stage, he is said to have chided Gandhi for not pursuing the passive resistance struggle more vigorously. Thambi Naidoo spent fourteen terms in prison during the Satyagraha. Seventeen members of his family were reported to have been in prison at one time.
He was physically strong and possessed boundless energy. He worked equally hard chairing meetings and doing manual work. Nobody was more ready than he to make sacrifices for the Indian community in the Transvaal. However his uneven temper and the fact that he was easily irritated made him less suitable for a leadership position.
After Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, Thambi Naidoo continued to lead the Indian community while struggling to make a living. Soon after the end of the Satyagraha, he joined the successful appeal to the courts against segregation in tramways and fought for the removal of the colour bar in the municipal market. As there were renewed attempts after the First World War to harass Indians, he was active in mobilising the people to protest.
He was elected President of Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) in 1932, and denounced the Transvaal Asiatic Land Tenure Act and the Licences (Control) Ordinance, which added to the further oppression of Indians. He persuaded the TIC to decide in principle on passive resistance, and offered himself and his family to go to jail for the cause.
He condemned the decision of the leaders of the South African Indian Congress to join the Colonisation Enquiry Committee, set up by the regime to find ways to induce Indians to emigrate to distant lands like Borneo. From his sick bed in August 1933, and against doctor’s advice, he went to a Conference called by the South African Indian Congress and fought to the end.
Naidoo's wife, also a person of exceptional courage, was one of the 11 women who crossed into Natal to incite the rail-way workers and miners to strike. She was arrested for vagrancy at Newcastle on 21 October 1913 and sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour.
He passed away on 31 October 1933, after long illness, and his ashes were buried in the Indian Cemetery in Brixton, on 1 November. Indian Opinion reported on his funeral on 17 November:
Great crowds turned out for the funeral of the late Mr. C.K.T. Naidoo, at his residence in 176 President Street. The streets were thronged with people and cars that special policemen were on duty controlling the traffic. The procession was nearly two miles long. It was an awe inspiring sight and a fitting tribute to a great patriot and hero”¦
There were 80 cars in the procession besides the horse vehicle. The funeral procession went through President Street right into the heart of the town. Hundreds lined the street.
As the cortage arrived at Vrededorp the whole of 17th Street from Delarey Street was crowded. Many signs were evident of the great appreciation that men and women had for the man who was determined to lay down his life for the honour of the Indian community in South Africa”¦
The coffin was laid in the beautiful courtyard of the crematorium. Mr. M. Nursoo acted as chairman for the great meeting. Speeches were made and the first to speak was Mr. H. Kallenbach, who spoke very feelingly – for does he not know the sterling qualities of Thambi Naidoo. He said that we have to lay to rest a brave and courageous man and above all a man of peace. He was overcome and he stopped. Mr. J. D. Rheinalt Jones also spoke and said that he had great veneration and admiration for Mr. Naidoo who was vice-chairman of the Indo-European Council, one who truly interpreted the great Indian Nation
A memorial meeting was held that night at the Patidar Hall.
Indian Opinionwrote in an obituary on 3 November 1933:
With a sturdy physique and brawny arms, he fathered many a weakling and made life in gaol easier for him. Thambi Naidoo was always there to finish his own task as well as to help those who lagged behind to finish theirs. During his leisure time he would be reading religious books or singing hymns and keeping gay those who had a tendency of being morose having never suffered gaol life. It was indeed a sorry time for those inside prison when Thambi Naidoo was released. But he was never out long. He required no rest. One heard of Thambi Naidoo’s release and within a day or two news flashed once again that he was arrested. This is the life that Thambi Naidoo led from the beginning to the very end of the great struggle in 1914. During the intervals he was the chairman of the Tamil Benefit Society which did a great deal of organising among its own people. During the great strike in 1913 as a protest against the £ 3 tax on Indian labourers, the late Thambi Naidoo played a heroic part. He led the women from Johannesburg and marched from place to place throughout Natal organising strikes without any rest whether by day or by night and often without food. As he was determined so was he fearless.
In a letter to Manilal Gandhi and his wife Sushila on 24 February 1934, Gandhi asked that they “take whatever steps may be necessary to perpetuate Thambi’s memory.” Apparently nothing was done and Sonja Schlesin wrote to him in 1945 about perpetuating his memory. Gandhi wrote to her on 13 May 1945:
Anything can be named after him here (in India). It will mean nothing. Something worthy should be done there. You must shape things there. Thambi must have many admirers besides you and me
He enquired about Thambi Naidoo’s wife and children and asked if she could send him a photo of the family with Thambi in it.
Anything can be named after him here (in India). It will mean nothing. Something worthy should be done there. You must shape things there. Thambi must have many admirers besides you and me.
* Thambi Naidoo was always referred to in the Indian Opinion as C.K. Thambi Naidoo. However, an obituary in the Rand Daily Mail (1 November 1933) gave the full name (Govindasamy Krishnasamy Thambi Naidoo ) which, the author, Mr ES Reddy believes, is the correct name.
• Durban 1996; - Maureen Swan, Gandhi, the South African experience.
• Johannesburg, 1995; M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa.
• Ahmedabad, India, 1928; - A souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement in South Africa -1906 -1914, Indian Opinion Gold Number 1914.E.S. Reddy. (2012). From an email to SAHO, from Mr E.S. Reddy, dated 30 June 2012.