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

A convention was held in Johannesburg on 28-30 December 1928, at which the South African Federation was launched. The federation challenged Congress's leadership: the 1927 settlement was one of the issues over which it disagreed. Part of the presidential speech of Abdul Karim is reproduced below. Source: Indian Views, 13 January 1928.

Gentlemen, thank you for the honour you have done by asking me to preside over the unique gathering of delegates from all parts of South Africa for the purpose of deliberating on matters of vital importance to the well-being of the Indian community. I confess this is an hour that will fall to the lot of few; because the questions that this convention is going to discuss are of such a delicate and important nature that I do not know whether I will be able to able to carry out the heavy responsibility in a manner befitting the occasion. However, I hope with the guidance of Providence, and hearty co-operation and goodwill of the convention, we shall be able to give public expression to the opinion of our community in respect of the Cape Town Settlement, about the fact and implications of which this convention is now called to discuss.


I need hardly say, and the European people and press of this country have admitted, that our community has been labouring under serious disabilities for a considerable length of time. Even before the absorption of the four self-governing Colonies in the Union of South Africa, our representations in respect of the burdensome grievances attracted the attention of the authorities both in South Africa and England, and eventually we were assured that with the inauguration of the Union, a happy era was waiting for us. After the Union, our representations engaged the serious attention of the Parliament, and as a result of the acceptance of the policy of restricted Asiatic immigration, it was understood that the lot of the South African Indians would be steadily improved until we [could] look forward to the day when we [might] expect full civic rights.

Such has been the prospect held out to us at the time when India and the South African Indians were persuaded to accept the 'Closed Door Policy’. What has been the result? A couple of years after this pronouncement and after a protracted struggle, it was stated that by the Gandhi-Smuts Settlement, the potential rights of the Indians to live and progress in this country were protected. But no sooner was the ink on that document dry than another agitation was set on foot under the pretext of that settlement to deprive the Indian community of further rights.


When we calmly survey the situation it will be seen that the history of the Indian question in this country is nothing but a series of promises and pledges. Therefore, it should not be surprising for the public to learn that the Indians are thoroughly dissatisfied with the Cape Town Agreement, and especially having cogent reasons on the present occasion, I address this solemn appeal to the European citizens and the press to give a patient hearing to our side of the case.


Gentlemen, at the time when the Paddision deputation visited this country, although we placed at their disposal a statement of our disabilities and grievances, we had no lot or part in the conclusions arrived at by that deputation. Subsequently when the Round Table Conference met at Cape Town, the Indian community was unaware of the nature of the settlement arrived at between the Indian and the Union Governments. Thus, it could be seen that the community has been in the dark during and after the settlement episode. Soon after the publication of the settlement and when the community became aware to their amazement that the South African Indian Congress had ratified the settlement without the knowledge of the leaders and the rank and file of the Indian community in South Africa, some representative leaders of public opinion in this country addressed ... [a] manifesto to the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. [See Document 57]

... Gentlemen, it would be evident that the settlement effected at Cape Town between the representatives of the Union and India has not commanded the unreserved approbation of the bulk of the Indian population and the responsible leaders of the community since its inception, and therefore it would be manifest that the movement is not a spurious one, but a spontaneous and continuous expression of popular Indian opinion in a matter that seriously affects not only their well-being but also that of their children.

Although it was announced officially that the Indian situation has been rendered easier, thus capable of solution, in reality in the opinion of the preponderant majority of Indians, the community find themselves in a worse position. The chief feature of the Gentlemen's Agreement is the reduction of the Indian population to a 'manageable compass' and the acceptance of the Western-standard formula by the Indians. In return for this the Indians are to be educated and uplifted when the European public opinion changes for the better. In the opinion of the community, there is very little advantage to be gained by this settlement for the Indians, because the Indians have not only lost the most valuable and cherished ideals of their civilisation and racial characteristics and traditions, but also they rightly believe that under this settlement they stand a dubious chance for progressive development and they have to run greater risk of their race degeneracy, perhaps in the direction of a lower stratum of society.


However, as a result of this settlement, in order to bring about a reduction of the Indian population, section 5 of the amended Immigration Law vests extra-ordinary powers in Immigration Appeal Boards for cancelling registration and domicile certificates and other documents obtained in whatsoever manner, thus seriously endangering existing rights. The present law is obviously intended to supersede a judgement of the Supreme Court which afforded protection to existing rights. Even holders of registration certificates entitled to return at any time are now restricted to return within three years under penalty of losing their domicile. It has been contended that the condition that children should be accompanied by their mother is a wholesome condition intend for enabling Indians to lead a happy family life in this country. But in present state of negation of all rights to the Indian, especially in the Transvaal where the Indian cannot even own a piece of land to establish his home, how is it possible for the Indians to be accompanied by their family in order to establish their homes?

Therefore, it is obvious that the present amended Immigration Law is intended to eliminate the Indian population. Regarding the acceptance of the White-standard formula, it will prove a practical proposition, provided Indians have equal opportunity and unrestricted earning power so as to enable them to fit themselves to the White-standard level. When dealing with the equal pay for equal work principle the Asiatic Commission placed on record their considered opinion thus:


To fix a minimum wage with European standard of living only in view is in effect to exclude from employment other classes with lower state of efficient and earning capacity. Minimum wage scales to be just to all classes and to give effect to their primary object should therefore be adjusted with due regard to the economic requirements of such of these classes and to their earning capacity. These considerations run counter to the ideas underlying the proposal put by the European traders and sufficiently explain why we refrain from making any recommendations.

The Asiatic Commission, with the instinct of sound statesmanship and provision unparalleled in the history of parliamentary commissions, recorded their considered opinion on the disastrous consequences from fixation of minimum wages to Non-European workers. What is the result now? Under the operation of the Industrial Conciliation Act and Wages Act, Indians find it impossible to get work on account of race and colour complications involved in the economic issue. Therefore, so long as White labour policy is the dominating factor in the governance of South Africa, the application of the principle of 'equal pay for equal work' means the use of an ingenious instrument for the repatriation and for the squeezing out of the majority of Indians from South Africa.

In regard to the question of sanitation a good deal has been said against the Indians. All students of economics know that sanitary conditions of the community are indissolubly bound up with their economic condition. If their earning power was low, it necessarily follows that their sanitary conditions could not be expected to reach the required standard. True to its theory, we find the present living conditions of the people not in conformity with the requirements of people with a higher earning power.


However, the Government, especially Natal provincial government, cannotdivest themselves of their responsibility for the present undesirable sanitary conditions of the Indians in Natal. The Public Health Ordinance was passed ostensibly for improving the sanitary conditions of the people living in the suburbs of Durban. Although rates in some cases excessively have been levied, and collected with usurious rates of interest from defaulting ratepayers, who are mostly poorer class of Indians, they have practically derived no benefit at all. Yet the Indians are accused of unsanitary habits, while the Provincial Administration is doing very little to render the areas inhabited by Indians in conformity with modem requirements. I venture to think that if the Provincial Administration fail in their duty to the Indian ratepayers, who are voteless and helpless, then the duty devolves on the Minister of Health to look into the matter and see justice is done to Indians. As things are at present, the harsh administration of the Public Health Ordinance in Natal resulting in the issue of writ execution upon the properties of poor people, has rendered poor people homeless, thus driving them to become the so-called voluntary repatriates.

Respecting the provision made for higher education at the Fort Hare College, the Indian community would prefer separate educational institutions, the reason being that it has been the established policy both in Natal and the Transvaal [to] provide separate institutions for education, and we see no reason why that traditional policy change now, having regard to the fact that the past system has worked well to the satisfaction of both Government and the Indian community.


From a brief survey of the settlement and its effect on the Indian community, it would be obvious that the Indian community have gained nothing and in actuality have lost very valuable rights and opportunity for steady progress in this country. In this opinion, which is held by the great majority of Indians, and which has given profound ill-feeling, we are supported by the expressed opinion of so great a personality as Mr. Gandhi who said that the compromise is acceptable in spite of its dangers, not so much for what has [been] achieved but for the almost sudden transformation of the atmosphere in South Africa from one of remorseless hostility to that of toleration, and from complete social ostracism to an admission of Indians to social functions.


Mr. Gandhi gave his expression to the foregoing views on the 21st Feb. last. Although admitting that the settlement was bristling with danger, [he believed] that there has been a change of heart on the part of the Union Government and European citizens of this country, but if he had had any reasonable grounds to suspect that within a few weeks after the signing of the settlement, a Liquor Bill would be introduced, a Pedlars and Hawkers Ordinance would be gazetted and a Segregation Ordinance on trams would have been promulgated, Mr. Gandhi would have been the first person to give expression to his views in a more restricted, perhaps in quite a different language. Therefore, gentlemen, in view of the reasons set forth, we, as representatives of the Indian community in this convention assembled, have justifiable grounds for rejecting the Cape Town Settlement as a document of very little practical value for the amelioration of our conditions of life in this country. I appeal for further consideration at the hands of the European citizens of the unfortunate lot of our people and trust that this appeal will find a ready response from all fair-minded and noble-hearted European men and women of this country.