From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

The South African Indian Congress had several reservations about the 1927 Cape Town. However, it was prepared 'to meet this friendly and tolerant spirit' of the Government. In the following document, S.A.I.C. deputy-president J. W. Godfrey provides a good background to the Round Table Conference, from which the Agreement was to emerge. The agreement created the office of the Agent in South Africa, and provided for among other things an assisted emigration scheme for those Indians who wished to be voluntarily repatriated to India. Source: Indian Opinion, 18 March 1927.

It is my proud privilege and pleasure to extend to you a most hearty and warm welcome to take part in the deliberation of our sixth annual conference. I am indeed glad to see so many of my colleagues here this evening. Their presence is an assurance of their co-operation and assistance in preserving the high tone of excellence we claim to have achieved in our previous conferences.

I desire to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for having elected me as your deputy president. The tremendous volume of work which was occasioned by the many repressive Bills which were published is very staggering. Our secretary Mr. A. I. Kajee proved equal to the task. He called a large number of executive meetings and the minutes disclose that many resolutions of the most definite and important nature were passed. To Mr. Kajee and all the members of the executive of the South African Indian Congress I tender my very sincere appreciation of their co-operation and counsel. Without their loyal support and grateful submission to my many decisions I could never have accomplished anything at all”¦. You will value how important our work has become if I say to you that Mr. A. I. Kajee has written over 7,000 letters during his fourteen-months' term of office. The incoming secretary is likely to have more than this even to do. I recommend to you to resolve something definite upon this point during this conference.

Little did I a year ago anticipate that during the time I would be deputy president the most important changes in the history of the community here would have taken place.

At the last conference held in Cape Town we were struggling in the throes of the now famous Areas Reservation and Immigration and Registration (Further Provision) Bill. That Bill bade fair to sound our death-knell and it was only to be expected of us to put up a most strenuous fight against its becoming law. We used the most careful but at the same time most emphatic language in expressing our feelings against this Bill. We in open conference rejected the Bill in totoand as you know we favoured the idea of a round-table conference to go into the whole of the Indian question and to suggest some satisfactory solutions.

In accordance with our Congress resolution a deputation waited on Dr. Malan, the Minister of the Interior, on the 16th November 1925 but he could not then see the utility of a round-table conference and declined our overtures. The position as we realised it then was very acute and the deputation from this Congress to India became imperative. This deputation rendered a report of its labours to the emergency conference and being a member of the deputation, I am naturally reluctant to say more than this, that it achieved the object it went out for and received the thanks of the community. It is my duty here to briefly refer to the magnificent work of our president Mrs. Sarojini Naidu. From the initial stages she took matters of our deputation in hand and in consultation with Mahatmaji she advised and guided your deputation's movements. She saw to it that we met all responsible men, association societies and other bodies which could be of service to us. She procured the fullest support of every daily newspaper. In the light of future events her action was full of forethought and displayed an intimate knowledge of man and matters. Without this guidance and knowledge your deputation would have undoubtedly only been able to make a feeble and frenzied effort to gain the ear of the public in India. Much more could I say of her but I think I must rest content by recording our most grateful thanks for all she has done. I wish shehad been here today to guide us in our discussions.

This deputation, by its work in India, greatly emphasised the real need and benefits which a round-table conference would procure for us. Our view was taken up by the Indian Government and by means of diplomatic cables a select committee was appointed as a first step towards ascertaining the actualposition of things here. An opportunity was given for the Indian Government to lead evidence before this committee and we know how well the Paddison deputation did its work. We rendered most valuable assistance to this deputation by submitting lengthy statements replete with minute and copious information on all points. This assistance was undoubtedly the means by which the Paddison deputation absolutely shattered the case for the hateful Asiatic Bill. The anti-Asiatics had clearly been shown that their cry of 'Asiatic menace’ was an 'obsession' and had no foundation in fact. The case for a round-table conference had been abundantly proved and after the necessary communications the Indian and Union Governments agreed to hold a round-table conference but only as between themselves. It was considered best to keep the British representation out of it. You will recollect that we looked upon this decision with great suspicion, so much so that we called an emergency conference of this Congress in Durban on 7th December 1926 to consider the question. After mature deliberation it was decided that our best interest in the direction of our placing before this Round Table Conference all information we could and render all assistance possible to make it a success, but at the same time reserving the right to freely discuss and disagree if necessary with the conclusions they may arrive at. We had to adopt this attitude because we did not know what this Round Table Conference was going to discuss [;] whether their discussions were to be restricted to one or two points or whether they intended to cover the whole range of our grievances. We decided however to place before the Round Table Conference a statement of our case with brief suggestions for a solution on all points, together with the necessary data supporting our recommendations. I am glad to say that this statement elicited the unanimous and unqualified approval of those who read it.

India had sent out to this country some of her most eminent men, with age and ripened by experience; their known diplomacy and wisdom were sure guarantees of their rendering a good account of their stewardship in discussing our problems. The best of our executive, Messrs. A. I. Kajee, V. S. C. Pather, S. R. Naidoo, D. M. Nursoo and A. Ismail, were at Cape Town rendering all possible assistance, and here I feel it is my duty to record our grateful thanks to these gentlemen for the unparalleled and magnificent work they so willingly and unselfishly did for us and at such great personal sacrifice. Their work will ever remain in the annals of our history. Here also I think you will agree with me that it is our bounden duty to say that we cannot find sufficiently weighty words in which to express our admiration and gratitude for the strenuous work done by Rev. C. F. Andrews. Very few of us are aware that he actually wrote six volumes of 200 pages each on different branches of the Indian question and supplied it to the Round Table Conference. This is an achievement we can never hope to outstrip and he has placed us under a lifelong obligation.

The Agreement arrived at was published on 21st February 1927 and we have had the advantage of having carefully studied it. We have also had the opinions of some of our leaders in India. Some of them have expressed themselves with certain reservations and quite properly await an expression of opinion from us as being the persons immediately affected by the Agreement.

I trust you will permit me on your behalf to say that generally speaking we approve of the Agreement so far as it goes. There are conclusions in it which we cannot agree to, as for instance, 'The limitation of sales of municipal land to restrictive conditions'. We appreciate the Union Government's belief in the uplifting of every section of their permanent population, but there is no definite assurance given as to what it is intended should be done. The Union Government is only prepared to advise the provincial governments to appoint a commission of enquiry in regard to matters of education, but at the same time says that it is difficult to take action in advance of public opinion. We know from bitter experience that the public opinion which has hitherto been able to get the ear of the Government will not fail to stir up agitation and advance specious arguments against our obtaining education facilities along with and on the same lines as the others. True, we shall have the assistance of our educational expert from the government enquiry, but we feel whilst an agreement was being arrived at, matters of this nature ought to have been put beyond the decision of a commission of enquiry. We would have considered far more satisfactory if more definite decisions had been arrived at on the question of education.

On the question of licences too, I feel that the Agreement should have stated a definite time within which the revision of these laws should have taken place. The uncertainty of the time for revision does not inspire that confidence in the Agreement that we expected. The past and prevailing trade jealousies are too deep-rooted for there to be ready or early willingness to bring about the intended revision.

There are also a great many points which appear to us not to have been decided at all and which are matters of grave and vital interest to us. There are very many vague and misty sentences. They need some clear explanation to indicate the full intention of the Agreement. It is possible that the Agent General's powers may be wide enough to enable him to grant or obtain relief or redress for many of our grievances, which though not specified may be brought under one or other of the points of the Agreement.

We are not at present so much concerned with the actual wording of the Bill as we are with the intention of the Agreement. Having for years been accustomed to unjust and repressive legislation we tender thanks to the Almighty that He has heard the cry of us, the downtrodden, and has changed the hearts of our legislators so that they are now prepared to give us fair play and simple justice. This Agreement is an earnest of their changed feelings. We welcome it. We shall go out to meet this friendly and tolerant spirit of the Government and will do what lies in our power to preserve and further promote the new spirit, which came into existence. This is a great gain to us. Those who apparently were against us have now declared themselves our friends. The accomplishment of this alone by the Round Table Conference is a worthy achievement. We accept the Agreement in the spirit in which it is made and offered. It has been conceived in an atmosphere of mutual respect and goodwill. It is as Dr. Malan has said 'an agreement more in the nature of an honourable and friendly understanding than of a rigid and binding treaty'. The element of honour predominates and we believe that between respectable governments the obligation to respect an 'honourable understanding' is even greater than the obligation to respect an ordinary 'binding treaty’ ”” the latter may be broken and is capable of being remedied, but if the 'honourable understanding' be departed from, then the delinquent is not a gentleman but an outcaste and the position cannot be remedied.

I fully anticipate that you will very earnestly and soberly discuss every phrase of this Agreement so that we may be able to draw clear and definite resolutions which may be submitted to the Indian and Union Governments for their consideration.

We believe that this Agreement is an indication of the desire to do right by us and I am certain that if our resolutions are of practical utility, they will receive proper consideration. The Union Government has pledged itself to uplift our community if we can show them our willingness to conform to European standards of civilisation in exactly the same way as the European section. We have never asked nor do we ask for any special favour. We ask only for equal treatment; that is, we must be burdened as like the others and we must be privileged as like the others. This idea is pithily contained in the phrase 'No taxation without representation.’ In this Agreement no provision is made as regards restoration of our municipal franchise, no indication is made of our ever getting the parliamentary franchise even in the remote dim future. This to my mind is an omission which should be pointed out. We have interests in this Union which, if trade relations develop with India, may become larger and it is only fair to us that we should be given such a measure of representation as will show unequivocally that the Union Government is prepared to genuinely cultivate the friendship of India and recognise in her a dominion worthy of herself.

There is much in the Agreement which commends itself to us and reflects the patience and courage of the representatives of both Governments and earnest thought they have given to our problems.

We however wish to exercise the fact that on our part we are able to give the assurances as we have always done that we shall be sober in our demands, just in our aspirations and persistent in our efforts to repudiate all legislation which is insidious to our honour and which seeks to place us on a lower plane. We are determined to plod on till we secure what is right, just and fair. The justice of our cause will ever be a sufficient reason to force our legislators to give us their attention. Though we are Indians by birth we are for all practical purposes South Africans. We are prepared to shoulder its citizenship burdens and we claim its privileges. We want definite political status and we look to the Government to give us that uplift which will no longer bar us from exercising this right.

In considering the terms of this Agreement, I believe you will be apt to make little of the numerous grievances we from year to year pass resolutions on, as it is very possible that when the Agent General is appointed he may deal with most of these matters. I suggest that one resolution be passed relative to a number of these grievances en bloc.This will save a great deal of time and fruitless discussion.

Gentlemen, it is not my intention to take up much of your time. I have dealt only with the subject of the Round Table Conference Agreement as that is the one great matter upon which we have assembled to discuss. I beg and pray of you to bring to bear upon these conference deliberations the best there is in you for I wish you to remember that the success of this Agreement lies with us. We are bound to give it a trial. Let us not do it half-heartedly. Great is the work ahead of us. It has not yet begun. It will mean really hard solid work and skill to operate this Agreement, so as to get the maximum of good results. We claim to represent the Indian community of the Union. The community today looks to us for a lead [and] will in the near future look to us for practical results out of this Agreement.

To the president and those who will be elected as the executive of this Congress for the ensuing year, I wish to say that it is fervently hoped they will not be found wanting in real earnestness and diligence in carrying out their onerous duties. I believe that they will have a very anxious time for the Agent General may rely very much upon them for information, guidance and assistance to enable him to obtain a complete fulfilment of the Agreement. The work is heavy, hard and delicate. Our best brains will have to be in requisition. We shall need to put all ideas of self-aggrandisement in the background. We shall need to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of public opinion and accept its criticism or approval. We must be prepared to do our best; none of us can do more than that. We must resolve to acquit ourselves well in this test and relying as we do on God's gracious mercy and help, we say quite boldly: 'If God be with us who can be against us.'