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

In his address as acting president of the Natal Indian Congress M. J. Naidoo called for a national convention of all leaders, while rejecting the South African Indian Council as a useless body, and affirming the support of the Natal Indian Congress for direct presentation in Parliament. The address was delivered in Durban on 20 September 1974 at a N.I.C. conference. Source: Copy supplied by Mr. M. J. Naidoo.

Although it is with some considerable pride and joy that I open this year's conference of the Natal Indian Congress, I cannot escape the feeling of intense humility that comes over me with the realisation that, but for the unhappy state of affairs existing in South Africa today, I would be listening to this address from the auditorium. The unhappy state of affairs I refer to be the banning of our president, Mr. G. Sewpershad and the banning before that of our president-elect, Mr. M. Ramgobin. These bannings have not only removed from the political scene some of the present leaders of the community but also with telling effect silenced many of our revered leaders in the last 10 to 15 years. With the result that we in the present Congress may be forgiven if, with understandable trepidation for the South African scene and a deep-rooted respect for our leaders, we constantly demand their release from bondage. So many of our leaders have been imprisoned on Robben Island, banned, or forced into exile, and so many more are added with intermittent regularity to this list of silenced opposition, that the vacuum created by their absence becomes increasingly more difficult to fill. But let me say immediately that despite the wholesale banning or imprisonment of our leaders, Congress will live on, the struggle for freedom will continue and new leaders will be born who will be ready and willing to take the place of those forcibly removed from the scene.

To say this and leave the subject of banning and the imprisonment of our leaders is not enough. For Congress the demand for the release of our leaders must be an every-day cry. It must include the demand for the repeal of all the laws which enable the Government to imprison and silence political leaders; it must include the demand for the repeal of all repressive and oppressive laws that disgrace our statute-book; it must include a demand for all like-minded persons, including those who form part of the white superstructure, to throw in their lot in order to bring about that change which is now becoming daily more urgent.

The hour has come, in my view, when reasonable men must sit together at a round-table conference and accept the reality of the changing times; when they must plead together with one voice the justice of the black man's cause; when they must bring to bear on the power houses of South African politics, and the glibly satisfied white electorate, the irreconcilable choices now facing South Africa - peaceful change or bloody revolution. For those who have the foresight to see the inevitable future, I need say only this: take the risk of ostracism and even of losing your position, and speak out now in the name of justice and humanity. Let not there be a repeat of Judgment at Nurembergin South Africa, and let us not have a repeat of the plaintive cry on some future date: 'I did not know it would come tothat.’ It did not avail at Nuremberg and it will certainly not avail in South Africa.

Our demands are simple and elementary - the right to share in government and the right to share in the fruits of our labour. Is this the oversimplification or the understatement of the year? It is for me no more and no less than a simple truth spelt out simply. We know that these truths often get mutilated and sometimes even disappear in the maze of South African political and legal clap-trap. I am however far from persuaded that there are not sufficient men of perception, courage and goodwill to give expression to these truths while there is yet time to stem the relentless advance of the juggernaut of violence.

Never in the entire annals of our history has there ever been a single example of the tide being turned by the sort of men of goodwill I envisage. But then again there never was made the sort of concerted and genuine effort I have in mind. What is needed, and needed urgently, is a convention of the sort called for by Mr. Sonny Leon, leader of the Coloured Labour Party, as a precursor to a wider national convention. This national convention, in order to be given any hope of succeeding in its mission, must include all leaders of all people in South Africa, and in this I include our leaders in Robben Island as well as those who are banned and in exile.

Unless the national convention were to succeed beyond our wildest dreams and obtain for us those rights that we demand ”” and this I am afraid I am not optimistic enough to anticipate – I feel it is imperative that our absent leaders should participate in the deliberations of the national convention. It would mean the participation of the full black voice together with the full white voice, and whatever comes out of such a convention will, I believe, have the stamp of consensus. By this I do not postulate the theory that there are presently not enough leaders capable of representing black aspirations. When I refer to the participation of our absent leaders, I wish only to emphasise the intrinsic worth of the unanimous black voice.

With the process of fragmentation of our country and with the polarisation of the races foisted upon us by the Government in the name of apartheid, separate development, parallel development, multi-nationalism or what you will, it is essential that a start be made with due haste so that everyone can have a place in the sun. If need be, as a first step, an immediate convention of black leaders must be called. The time is not only ripe for it, but we are fast approaching the hour when it may be too late.
It is not without some surprise that we note Mr. Joosub, the Government-appointed chairman of the Government-appointed South African Indian Council, recently expressing a point of view not often or easily heard from such members. Is it the 'still small voice' that accidentally escaped or is it that the pressures that now bears upon us from both within and without is taking their toll of conservatism? Whichever way one looks at it, it can only mean that the status quo cannot be perpetuated if more and more voices are harnessed to the star of freedom.

It is noteworthy that in recent times we have had the voice of the church added to the growing list of protests against the apartheid structure in South Africa. Although he is not the first and is certainly not alone in his protests, I wish to commend Archbishop Hurley to all churchmen. Religion and politics can never be separated from each other by some sort of iron curtain, certainly not when the poverty and degradation of the vast majority of the people cries out aloud. Can it be seriously suggested that the function of religion is to tend only the spiritual needs of man and not his bodily needs? In my view crusade by the churches against the state of affairs in South Africa is long overdue.
It is also interesting to note, according to press reports, that the former Judge President of the Cape, the Honourable Justice Beyers, had this to say recently: ‘”¦ if all the people who live in this country are not allowed, to build it up, we haven't got a snowball's hope in hell.’ It is well worth pondering over these words, even if, as suggested by someone, it is another example of the 'still small voice' that unwittingly escaped. It is my view if disaster is to be averted in South Africa all democratic voices must be heard and heard now. Whatever reticence one may have, whatever justification in separate notions of individuals and institutions, this is hardly the period to remain silent and watch with regret the total annihilation of the very fabric of South African society. We can only hope that the note of urgency in this call will soon penetrate the law societies, medical councils, chambers of commerce, teachers' societies, trade unions, sports associations, churches and all other groups and individuals, and shake them out of their lethargy. The Government must be made to bend and bend quickly. There is precious little time for vacillation.

I cannot in this address avoid some reference to our long-suffering students. It is significant that much of the sympathy for our students comes from white students, particularly NUSAS, who are perhaps most aware of the deprivation and shortcomings of our students. The shabby treatment of our students, particularly those at the University of Durban-Westville, needs no commentary here. What are worth mentioning however are the level of their political appreciation and the extent of their unity. It is my view that no amount of regimentation and expulsion will bring our students to their knees. It will be wrong for the Government to misjudge their compliance or submission as agreement or acceptance of the system. This is a period in our history when students, and student awareness is reaching unprecedented heights. With or without student councils, with limited avenues for debate and exchange of ideas, with very circumscribed areas of contact with other students, and with limited opportunities for diversification of views, the students have already shown that they are a force to be reckoned with.
If the Government is ill-advised on the situation or misjudges the mood of students, it will do so at its peril. When the resident population is removed in the course of time, the saving of Grey Street for Indian business will be seen more than a collosal fraud perpetrated on the Indian. For who would travel the long distances from the Indian areas simply to patronise the small shops of the Grey Street complex, when there are bazaars and supermarkets in West and Smith Streets for those who care to leave their local stores and can afford to travel? Already, I know, the small businessman and the tenant shopkeeper are feeling the crunch, both from loss of custom and the unscrupulous landlord. When tomorrow comes and the residents have been herded out of the area, the Grey Street complex will have to be a gift to the white man without his asking for it.

The failure of the South African Indian Council to save the Indian markets despite its promises is another example of the uselessness of the South African Indian Council, as an effective mouthpiece. The farmer and the stallholder rely on the population and the heavy traffic of people to eke out his living. The markets are centrally situated and have been the centre of gravity for all the suburban areas over these many years. Will they ever be the same if they are removed to Chatsworth? Will it be economically worthwhile for the small farmer in the far north or south of Durban to travel the long distances in the hope of making a small profit? I think not. I believe it will be the death-knell of the small farmer and the markets. If progress demands the removal of the markets from their present sites, I have yet to hear why they cannot be transferred to that area of central Durban bounded by Alice Street, Cross Street, Lorne Street and Centenary Road, presently occupied by the Corporation as a bus shed. Surely it cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered unreasonable to suggest that the buses find a resting-place in the suburbs or the periphery of Durban?
The failures of the South African Indian Council are not due to its personnel alone. It was created a powerless body and was not intended to achieve anything more than placate a small section of the Indian people and hoodwink some into believing that it was a step taken in the right direction. It had other side-effects too, such as dividing the people into those who looked to the South African Indian Council with some hope and those who rejected it. The technique of divide and rule is well known to and is certainly well used by the Nationalist Government. This technique is the mainspring of the Government's stock-in-trade to keep the black people divided and in servitude and poverty.
In an attempt to give colour to the South African Indian Council and to bolster its damaged bona fides the Government has decided to allow half the members of the new South African Indian Council to be 'elected'. Before confusion reigns supreme, let me explain what 'elections' really mean. These 15 members to be 'elected' will have to be nominated and voted into office by an electoral college consisting of members of the local affairs committees and town boards. The total number of persons so entitled to nominate and vote has not yet been made public but I believe the number is about 100 in Natal. This fortunate group of 100 will nominate and vote for the 10 Natal members of the South African Indian Council. Not you, not me, not the 600 000 Indians in Natal, but just the 100 members only will be entitled to vote and will constitute the electoral college in Natal. The 15 they elect together with the 15 nominated by the Government will speak for the whole Indian population as their representatives in an 'elected' S.A.I.C. There is in my view no need to elaborate on these 'elections', save to quote a newspaper editorial which referred to it as a successful Pretoria farce ”” as 'one which would be screamingly funny if it were not so tragically serious'.
What, in conclusion, is the Natal Indian Congress's attitude towards these elections? Well-meaning friends of the N.I.C. have in private and in public called upon us to participate in these elections and use the protected platform provided by the South African Indian Council to make our demands for democratic rights. Very simply our reply is that we cannot nominate or vote, and therefore we are effectively excluded from participation in these elections. But the Congress executive has, however, already taken a decision that when there are true elections with popular participation, when you and I and the 600 000 in Natal can nominate and vote, then Congress will participate. This executive decision will be put to conference where a final decision will be made. This decision does not mean that Congress now accepts the South African Indian Council, or that the South African Indian Council is for us in an acceptable stage in the evolution of political rights for the Indian people. Far be it from Congress to make such a complete somersault from its declared attitude towards direct representation in Parliament.

Briefly, the motivation behind the decision is this: Congress leaders have been banned in large numbers without reason and we believe without justification. The only 'crimes' committed are that the banned members demanded the rights that are due to the people and they spoke their minds freely.

But far more outspoken voices have been heard from members of other statutory bodies. None of them, as far as I am aware, has been banned because of the protection that attaches to the parliamentary privilege afforded to these statutory bodies. Congress needs to and will have to use the South African Indian Council as a protected platform to make its demands for full democratic rights. It needs the platform to reach the people on the one hand, and to make the Government hear its demands on the other hand. If it were not for the protected platform, the S.A.I.C. will have nothing to offer us. Congress policy hasnot and is not changed.
The only change is in the method of reaching its goal and the acceleration of the change that now appears inevitable.

In conclusion I wish to say that the pace of events in South Africa and the recent events outside have materially contributed to the optimistic view which I now hold that not just the next generation, but we ourselves of the present generation, can look forward soon to a place in the South African sun.