This chapter comes from the book Class, Consciousness and Organisation: Indian Political Resistance in Durban, South Africa, 1979-1996 by Kumi Naidoo
The first elections to the Indian House of Delegates (HoD) in the racially segregated tricameral parliament took place on 28 August 1984. The United Nations Security Council dismissed the elections as “null and void”. The ANC president, Oliver Tambo, claimed that by supporting the new dispensation Indians would “be selling [their] birthright for a mess of pottage”. The crucial feature of the elections, however, was not that of policy differences between the participating parties, but rather the opposing strategies of boycott or participation. Success was assessed not by which party triumphed, but by how many Indians voted.
As Ebrahim Patel explained:
The higher the level of participation in the elections, the more the ruling order is able to claim support for its new deal. A successful and large-scale boycott of the elections reduces that ability and discredits its claim of popular legitimacy.
Gerald Pillay echoed this view, arguing that the absence of a referendum for Indians ensured that the constitution was a fait accompli, since the Indian voter was offered only the option “to take it or leave it”. Consequently, the elections were in effect “a debate on the acceptance or rejection of the new constitution and not, as was intended, a communal selection process of the best candidates the community could offer”.
This chapter focuses on the activities of those Indians who supported the government’s constitutional restructuring programme. It attempts to define who the participationists were and what policies and organisational strategies they employed, and assesses the impact of their activities on consciousness and organisation amongst Indians.
Delimitation commissions, referendum debates, the million signature campaign (MSC) and a general upsurge in political activity at national level characterised the months preceding the elections. While there was significant interest in the elections, there were many who distrusted the intentions of the government. The economic crisis that gripped South Africa weakened the government’s credibility. Increased sales tax, rising food costs, housing shortages and growing unemployment created significant material dissatisfaction among the lower middle-class and working-class Indians. For example, in 1984 some 20,000 Durban families were registered on housing waiting lists. Eighty per cent of those applying for houses earned less than R250 a month, but houses were sold to the highest bidders. The total amount allocated by the state for housing had decreased by R57,680,200 in 1983. Consequently, many working-class Indians had spent several years on the City Council’s housing waiting lists, and housing was certainly the most important concern amongst the working-class during this period. Unemployment was equally an index of the crisis. One survey found that apartheid practices (28.8%), the economic situation (26.5%) and housing (11.6%) were considered the most pressing problems. Between 1975 and 1981 the number of jobs for Indians in non-agricultural sectors had declined by 43,891 and 23,926 jobs were lost in the trade and accommodation services sector alone. Moreover, between June 1982 and June 1983, recession bit deeper into the manufacturing industry, which employed almost 40% of working Indians, and 563 Indian workers were retrenched. Subsequently, there was a discernible rise in Indian worker militancy: the average number of workers on strike per year grew from 180 between 1975 and 1980 to almost 2,000 in 1981 and 1,170 in 1982.
The majority of Indians displayed indifference and neutrality towards the macro-political restructuring that was being implemented. As noted in chapter two, it was only in the late 1960s that Indians were accepted as second class citizens. Prior to that, while sharing with all blacks the anxieties of urbanisation, forced removals and other vagaries of apartheid policy, Indians also lived with the constant threat that they could be repatriated. Preceding the formal application of apartheid in 1948, Indians in Durban had to contend with the “wilful ambiguity of the English in Natal”. It was therefore expected that many of the elderly who had lived through the socio-political upheavals of the past might view the new constitution as a progressive step.
Class distinction was an important political determinant. Working-class Indians were deeply concerned about their security, but there was also a stronger level of participation and desire to understand the complexities of the political process by large numbers of working-class people than has been suggested by Pillay and others. The argument that the “hothouse of political opinion” was the rapidly growing middle-class, however, does hold true in terms of leadership of the political organisations. By 1984 the Indian middle-class extended substantially beyond the trader component and encapsulated a growing sector of university-trained professionals. It was this class of persons who were in the forefront of debates on the appropriate approach towards the constitution and the elections. Indian academics, in the main, remained politically aloof.
Available political data provided an inadequate guide to how the elections might proceed. Local elections and elections for the government-created South African Indian Council (SAIC) in November 1981 had seen a rejection of participatory politics. A survey conducted by the state-sponsored Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in September 1983 found that a substantial majority of Indians favoured participation, but that many were anxious about the exclusion of Africans. These findings were disputed by the NIC and others “as the surveys were conducted at a time when the complex proposals and their implications were not fully understood by the respondents”. A March 1984 HSRC national survey of 1,406 Indians found that 48.3% were satisfied with the course of events in South Africa and 45.8% believed that the general political situation had improved in recent years. Almost 45% of Indian respondents believed that their own attitude towards whites had changed positively.
Almost 50% felt that the Prime Minister had fared relatively well or excellently during 1983 and expressed support for him as South Africa’s political leader. Botha received more support (41.5%) than all the other candidates combined. When asked to restrict their choice to an Indian leader, Rajbansi received the strongest support (14.4%) followed by J.N.Reddy (11.3%), Pat Poovalingum (3.3%), George Sewpersadh (3.1%) and B. Dookie (3.0%), while 9.5% of the respondents chose various other Indian leaders (the highest level of support being 1.1%). Almost 24% were uncertain or did not know, while 19.1% claimed that there was no Indian person whom they could name as leader. 10.7% did not answer the question and 2.5% indicated that no Indian was acceptable as leader. The survey also found that Indians considered poverty and unemployment (31.7%), the government’s race policy (19.6%) and “Black nationalism of the Black Power type” (18.0%) as the three greatest threats. 30% of the respondents felt that Africans should not participate in the same government with whites, Coloureds and Indians, 56% were opposed to this view, while 13.5% were either uncertain or did not know. On the question of the new constitution, 16.7% accepted it completely, 40.4% accepted it partly, 14.8% rejected it completely, and 28% were undecided. The HSRC concluded that 57% of the Indian respondents accepted the new constitution at least in part, and that 30% felt that there was growing support for it. With regard to group name preference, almost two-thirds indicated that they preferred to be known as South Africans and only 19% considered themselves Indian.
These findings were dismissed by the Indian left as government propaganda. While there was probably some manipulation of the data accompanied by problems with interviewing in the first instance, these findings were probably closer to reality than was originally thought. For example, the survey indicated that there was little evidence of any large-scale support for a particular political party/group: 7.3% supported the SAIC, 4.3% the UDF, 3.9% the NIC, 3.2% Solidarity, 1.9% the National Peoples Party, while 3.5% supported other Indian parties including the TIC, 14.2% the NP, 5.7% the PFP, 0.6% the ANC, 0.7% the CP, and 0.6% the NRP. 34.9%, 11.6% and 7.5% of the respondents respectively indicated that they did not support any party, were uncertain, or did not answer the question.
A poll by The Star newspaper in 1981 found that 50% of Indians were undecided and 24% would vote for the anti-participationist NIC if they could vote for a democratic parliament. Another commentator suggested that the vast majority fell between the right-wing SAIC and the left-wing NIC, and that there are “perhaps half-a-million or more people - whose views on the constitution are not known”. Understandably, the specificity of the “first election to parliament” for Indians, with its concomitant dangers, suggested extreme uncertainty.
Bhadra Ranchod, a government supporter, noted that the tricameral proposals predictably had not received “the blessing of radicals” like the NIC, as “nothing short of one man, one vote (irrespective of race or sex) in a unitary state would satisfy them.” He noted that opinion polls had indicated that this group was a minority, but acknowledged that:
The majority [of Indians]...displayed little enthusiasm for the plan. What worries moderates is that the Group Areas Act and race classification...form the cornerstones of the new dispensation. A positive response could...be interpreted as...support for racial discrimination.
Such observations imbued the NIC with political optimism in its capacity as the major anti-election protagonist and it was confident that the majority of Indians would shun participation. Participationists, however, displayed an equal confidence that a majority would vote.
The proposed Indian chamber was to contain 45 seats, with 5 being nominated by the victorious political parties. (See Table 5.1) Chapter three showed how the SAIC election in 1981 encouraged the growth of only a few parties. Party politics had been relatively unfamiliar to conservative Indians since the take-over of the NIC in the 1940s by a radical leadership who rejected political accommodation with the government. Lawrence Schlemmer noted that the “parties had not yet colonised political territory”. During the run-up to the tricameral elections, a rash of parties emerged, and a flood of candidates switched parties to secure nomination as election candidates. The parties were small in size and influence, displayed few concrete policy differences, were sometimes only regionally based, and some appeared to be little more than a ‘one-man show’. (See Table 5.2)
Karl Magyar remained unconvinced of the higher quality of candidates put up by the various parties (a reference to an improvement from the SAIC candidates in terms of educational qualifications, public standing, public service, and general political acumen). He commented that: “After six months of elite recruitment by Indian parties the dearth of articulate spokesmen for a wide spectrum of ideological positions has become evident”.
Few candidates believed that participation, as a political strategy, was the most constructive path for Indians. Candidates’ manifestos, their statements to newspapers and their activities in religious, cultural, sporting and other organisations all demonstrated ambivalence. This was verified in discussions with candidates and their campaigners. In some 2,000 houses I visited (advocating non-participation) during the period under review, Indians across class, socio-linguistic and religious lines repeatedly stated that candidates were intent upon “feathering their own nests”. Yunus Carrim concurred with this view: A desire to serve the community is by no means a strong motivation for most of those taking part in the HoD. Many...suddenly surfaced on the eve of the August 1984 election. They were not known to have served the many welfare and voluntary organisations in the community. So the suspicion deepened that they were in the system to serve their own interests.
Carrim conceded, however, that:
There were those...who believed they could use the HoD to meet the community’s needs...draw in Africans, and create a single non-racial parliament. Many of the candidates had some claim to community service or group leadership. Some had held office in religious, sporting and welfare organisations while others had been associated with conservative civic organisations that supported participation in Local Affairs Committees (LACs). However, all appeared to have an accommodationist approach in their dealings with the white power structure. Many had previously worked within government departments and had associations with the discredited SAIC and LACs. Five parties contested the 1984 HoD election: the two main ones being Solidarity and the National People’s Party (NPP) (See Table 5.3). Of the five, only the tiny National Federal Party (NFP) had fought an election before. All these parties actively sought to recruit uncommitted social luminaries ascribing high eligibility to academics, professionals, “businessmen”, representatives of various religious denominations and those of previously excluded socio-linguistic groups.
“National People’s Party or National Party’s People?”
The NPP was formed by Amichand Rajbansi, chair of the previously nominated SAIC, after the SAIC election in November 1981, when he drew together a number of independents and two members of the National Federal Party. Thereafter the NPP controlled the SAIC, thus having access to a range of state resources and privileges. Several critics suggested that this take-over had enabled the NPP to immerse itself in the politics of patronage. There were allegations that the party was serving the interests of the National Party government rather than those of the Indian constituency to which it claimed allegiance. Several defectors from the NPP suggested that Rajbansi’s authoritarianism made the party unattractive and prevented it from becoming truly democratic with grassroots participation. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Irregularities in the House of Delegates (the James Commission) vindicated these claims, describing Rajbansi as an “exorbitantly ambitious man” and further recommended that he should not be allowed to hold public office.
Both the NPP and the SAIC lacked credibility amongst Indians across the class divide and criticism of the SAIC’s take-over and handling of education and social welfare was simmering. In particular, the SAIC had severely antagonised many in 1983 when it assumed control of Indian education from the central government. The middle-class teaching fraternity strongly attacked this development. The Indian teachers’ union, the Teachers Association of South Africa (TASA), had instituted a petition campaign against Rajbansi’s “interference” in Indian education. In addition, the SAIC’s ambiguous pronouncements about the possibility of a referendum to test Indian opinion on the constitution did little for the image of the NPP. As the majority party in the SAIC, the NPP was viewed by its critics as the prime collaborator with the government. Faced with the depth and intensity of public opposition, however, it refused to endorse the proposals and publicly commit itself to participation. The head of the ANC research department in London, Frene Ginwala, noted that:
Initially, [the NPP] suggested that participation should be conditional on the removal of discriminatory legislation and restrictions on the free movement of Indians within South Africa. Throughout 1983, it failed to make an unequivocal commitment. The Pretoria regime, aware of Indian sentiments, back-tracked on the initial suggestion that following the white referendum, Coloureds and Indians would be allowed a similar opportunity to express their views.
After much stalling, the NPP made an unconvincing and unsuccessful call in favour of a referendum for Indians. This move further served to alienate moderate sections of the middle-class. During 1984, the NPP maintained that while they did not support the constitution, they could exploit the inherent structural weaknesses and impact on government policy and thinking. Rajbansi claimed that he wanted to see which State President “who wants to win international support, [will] overrule 157 MPs. He may do it once or twice, but not ten times in a row.” At his party’s few election rallies, Rajbansi also attempted to reassure audiences that the HoD would oppose all discriminatory legislation. However, he admitted that the all-white House of Assembly could “regularly outvote us, and deadlocked issues, matters and bills that we reject can be adjudicated by the President’s Council where we will be outnumbered.” He suggested that the majority party in the HoD should “not regard itself as the governing party but as the opposition...the whole House of Delegates must be the opposition”.
Despite these constitutional defects, the NPP justified its continued participation by pointing to the failure of protest or boycott politics, insisting that with “prevailing conditions militating against such tactics, we are duty bound to utilise as many of the legal platforms or rostrums as possible”. Rajbansi vigorously rejected the accusation that he was “selling out” by supporting Botha’s plans. He argued that “it is better to fight through the ballot than through the bullet”. Dismissing the NIC and its supporters as “slogan chanters”, he argued that “the proof of the pudding was in the eating”, and that the new constitution must be tried out. This metaphor was contested at NIC rallies. One NIC supporter stated that “if you saw the pudding being baked, as people were able to see the new constitution developing, then it is unnecessary to insist upon trying it if you know the ingredients are going to cause constipation”. The exchanges intensified as the elections approached. In the last week Rajbansi called on the NIC to urge their supporters to spoil their ballot papers rather than boycott the elections. The NIC dismissed his call as absurd, claiming that it would have involved weeks of explanation and canvassing. It is unlikely that the NIC would have seriously considered this suggestion even if it had been made earlier. One survey did show that if the NIC participated it was likely to emerge as the majority party, but with less than a fifth of the votes. Had its candidates stood on the basis that if elected they would not take up their seats, the NIC vote would have doubled, but a larger percentage would still have abstained. These opinions might have been different if the NIC had reversed its stance and campaigned differently.
Anthony Lemon suggests that despite its shortcomings, the NPP entered the election campaign with the highest level of grassroots organisation, claiming that some NPP members had fought previous elections and thus probably had better organisation on the ground (though not necessarily more support) than did Solidarity or other new and virtually unknown parties. However, it was patronage politics which gave Rajbansi and other NPP candidates the edge over other participationist parties. Candidates across the party spectrum promised people houses, business licenses and other favours in return for their support. Canvassers were also promised jobs in the expanded bureaucracy to be created soon after the elections. Some canvassers claimed that the NIC could offer them nothing while the NPP and Solidarity could offer them jobs or “at least access to jobs”. These assertions were later validated by the James Commission’s findings. Consequently people who supported the elections were more likely to do so as a result of identifying with a particular candidate rather than with any discernible political ideology.
The NIC drew thousands of people to “Stop Rajbansi Now” meetings in 1983. The angry participation of people, including NIC supporters, ensured that Rajbansi would not attend. While the NIC urged Rajbansi to “face the people”, their meetings were conducted in a manner which made him afraid to do so. The meetings drew attention to corruption in the SAIC and to their unpopular involvement in education and social welfare. It was against this background that the NPP’s main rival, Solidarity, entered the political arena.
Formed in February 1984, the Solidarity Party attracted a sprinkling of intellectuals and community figures with greater credibility than NPP members. Ginwala observed:
Not entirely coincidentally, whilst the [South African Indian] Council members were hesitating and expressing...a notional concern for the views of the community, a new party was launched rejecting the need for a referendum and...committed to fighting the elections and joining the House of Delegates...its founders claimed they would offer ‘clean government’ in contrast to the shenanigans of the old Councillors. Solidarity members included several previous participants in government-created structures. While many regarded this as proof of collaboration, some within the middle-classes viewed it as leadership with experience. Solidarity leader Dr. J.N. Reddy, a successful businessman, was chair of the SAIC until Rajbansi manoeuvred him from power. The national chair of Solidarity, Pat Poovalingum, a lawyer, publicly expressed his pride in the white soldiers who were fighting Namibians, claiming them as “my boys”. He earlier accepted nomination to the President’s Council on the basis that he believed Africans would be included, and resigned when they were not, but still advocated participation in the constitutional process that formalised the exclusion of Africans. Solidarity also enlisted the campaign assistance of experienced political strategist, Rowley Arenstein, former Communist Party member and adviser to Inkatha.
Solidarity’s launch excited some interest and support, primarily from the small Indian bourgeoisie and from individuals who were part of the upper and lower strata of the middle-class. The Solidarity Party was overwhelmingly middle-class in composition, and its programme reflected a preoccupation with the virtues of capitalism. It appeared to have powerful financial backing, resulting in accusations that it was being funded and aided by the state. Solidarity denied this claiming that the campaign was funded solely by personal contributions. Its wealth was evident in the lavish nature of some of its propaganda, the quality of which was superior to and more expensive than that of the NPP. Solidarity’s message had appeal among both the bourgeoisie and sections of the working-class. The party promised “prosperity and more jobs”; “a better education”; “improved social welfare services”; and “houses at reasonable prices”. Solidarity's Eight Point Programme declared its total opposition to apartheid, to conscription of Indian youth, and to political interference in the administration of professional matters such as education and social welfare, as well as support for economic growth through foreign investment, the removal of “all racial constraints in the free enterprise system”, improvement of the quality of life for all, and a clean and honest administration.
The anti-conscription stance was significant given that Pik Botha, a senior cabinet minister, had earlier confirmed that “if this constitution is accepted, the same provisions with regard to military service will apply to Coloureds and Indians as it does to whites.” The NIC had already prioritised this as a key issue that would turn Indians away from the constitution, declaring that the elections would bring “fake votes” but “real bullets”. NIC fieldworkers assessed that the full page anti-conscription adverts taken in the major Sunday newspapers on 12 August 1983 had a powerful effect. The NIC asked Indians “will you baton charge, teargas and sjambok our people?” and “Will you point guns against fellow Indians, Coloureds and Africans, when we struggle against inferior education, high rents, removals, low wages, pass laws, security laws, etc.?” The NIC consistently pointed out that the “Reddys, Rajbansis and Hendrickses are saying that they will stop conscription until there’s total participation by all,” but in reality “Indians and Coloureds will be powerless to stop invasions into sovereign neighbouring states” and “will be powerless to stop compulsory border duty for our youth.” Rajbansi accused the NIC of misleading Indians by suggesting that they would be conscripted if they supported the elections. He maintained that conscription would be supported only after equality was extended to all people. The NIC, observing that both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, had said that with votes comes border duty, retorted that the NPP leader was “either politically dishonest or incredibly naive”. However, some candidates from both major parties supported conscription because, amongst other reasons, it would enhance the prospects of jobs for Indians in the armed services.
Like the NPP, Solidarity was committed to working within the new constitution, but it claimed that this would not prevent it from putting forward demands for more fundamental democratic change. It further professed that the constitution was a move towards dialogue and reconciliation, arguing that the proposals reflected an increasing awareness within South Africa of the need to share power and divide responsibilities more broadly. Once the process of change had been initiated, they predicted it would be irreversible. At the same time, like the NPP, Solidarity stressed the inadequacy of the new constitution which, according to the party secretary, Mahmoud Rajab, was “structured on a racial and unequal basis and because it makes no provision for black representation”. Instead, Solidarity advocated the alternative of “a single standard of decency, in the preservation and protection of dignity and human rights,” and committed itself to working for the fundamental freedoms of all individuals. Solidarity, aware of the NIC’s relatively popular support amongst Indians, attempted to maintain a close proximity to NIC philosophy, pointing out that “the political cultures in the Indian community differ more in their strategies of opposition to white racial domination than in their main political ideals”. According to Solidarity, this is what distinguishes “critical participation with rejection [from] active boycott.” Solidarity was competing to attract the same groups and individuals who supported the NIC, while the NPP placed emphasis on consolidating their support among the patronage clients of its various candidates and establishing new patronage relationships. Nonetheless, in formulating its discourse, each party took as its point of reference the anti-constitution campaign in general and the NIC in particular.
Like the NPP, Solidarity made hyperbolic comparisons and unrealistic claims about what could be achieved under the new constitution. Rajab summarised the party’s arguments as follows:
Acceptance of office under the new constitution does not imply the abandonment of our basic aim, which is the attainment of a fully democratic South Africa, but with safeguards for minorities. Second, participation will lead to the development of a strong organisation of the Indian people...by using the real powers given to it under “own affairs”, Solidarity will...bring real benefits to its people in the spheres of education, housing, social welfare, culture and local government. Solidarity will oppose all reactionary legislation and will use the chamber as a platform for an integrated, democratic South Africa. Solidarity claimed that the boycott strategy had achieved little or no structural change in the lives of Indians. “White power”, it argued, “is well organised and determined; and civil disobedience and boycott have no prospects of success.”
Solidarity, like the NPP, deliberately misled their electorate by suggesting that the constitution contained significant loopholes which could be exploited. In contrast, NIC spokesperson Dr. Farouk Meer later noted that the HoD “has inherent structural limitations. It is a constitutional trap…and even if there were forty-five Einsteins participating in it, they will not be able to overcome these limitations”. Solidarity denied that its involvement in parliamentary politics was an endorsement of Indians sharing responsibility with whites and Coloureds for the oppression of Africans. The party chair gave the example of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), arguing that although it had been in parliament for many years, it had always opposed laws affecting Africans. Participation was characterised as the pursuit of peaceful change, and boycott was condemned as “intransigence which will not hasten peace, rather it will hasten violence”. This gave ammunition to the state in its repressive assaults against the UDF and the NIC, and was particularly significant since Durban became the frequent target of ANC bomb attacks in 1984.
Unlike the NPP, Solidarity attempted to take seriously the need for internal party democracy. It portrayed Rajbansi as a villain and dictator and Reddy as a respected and dignified leader. NIC activists dismissed Reddy’s attempt to distance himself from Rajbansi’s politics:
Rajbansi and Reddy are the fruits of the same tree of collaboration. The only difference is that Rajbansi is in the advanced stages of rotting, while Reddy is steadily decomposing. It’s only a matter of time before he reaches the same stage of corruption.
Nonetheless, many people believed that Solidarity was likely to perform better because it could claim a higher calibre of candidates. Despite the similarities in political programmes and propaganda, Solidarity believed that it could challenge the NIC as the major political force amongst Indians, a belief based on the fact that the NIC’s presumed support was untested, hardly visible and not organised in formal party structures. Furthermore, while Solidarity could anticipate a positive media profile, the NIC could expect the opposite, particularly from the state-controlled electronic media. The state propaganda news-sheet, Phoenix, targeted at Indians and distributed freely to Durban homes, dedicated various issues in 1984 to not only supporting participation but lambasting the NIC as communist puppets who could not even follow the lead of President Machel in opting for negotiations and thereby signing the Nkomati Accord.
Solidarity leaders dismissed the anti-election boycott as a “futile dream of grandeur”. They also attacked NIC/UDF support for economic sanctions, arguing that such actions “would hit Indians and other black workers harder through increased unemployment”. Solidarity attempted to make unemployment a major campaign issue. As Reddy remarked: “With increasing computerisation the good days when white-collar jobs for Indians were abundant were fast disappearing”. He stressed that unless Indian leaders accepted the challenge facing them and found ways of creating jobs the situation would become desperate. Rejecting sanctions, as advocated by the NIC and its allies, Solidarity believed that foreign investors “should enter into partnerships with Indian, Coloured and black businessmen”.
The government favoured Solidarity, allowed them more television time, and followed their counsel in not holding referendums for Indians and Coloureds. It was evident that the government felt that Solidarity had a better chance of projecting a credible image and thus undermining NIC’s political ascendancy. At an NPP meeting, an undercover special branch agent, condemned the detention of UDF leaders and criticised the NPP for collaborating with the government. This was simply a ploy by a new agent to gain acceptance among the resistance organisations. However, it seems unlikely that the state strategists would have condoned a similar intervention had it been a Solidarity meeting. The government was intent on working with Solidarity and its leader Reddy, who was already serving the Prime Minister as an economic advisor, and thus gently undermining Rajbansi and aggressively tarnishing the NIC. Pillay lamented that it was unfortunate that the “propaganda machinery of the government” failed to hear the opposition of the non-participationists. They simply dismissed them as “radicals”, “destabilisers of the country”, “underminers of law and order” and “supporters of violence”.
The Independents held few meetings and were an almost invisible sector of participants in the election process. Of the 167 candidates nominated for the HoD, 76 were Independents and thus became a potentially important element in the campaign. Because a substantial number of the votes cast were those of relatives, friends and “clients” of candidates, rather than grassroots supporters, the larger number of candidates meant an incrementally higher percentage poll. Observations at various polling booths by NIC activists suggested that at least 50% of the votes cast fell in this “family and friends” category. Many of the Independents were formerly members of the SAIC, and while their policies were not noticeably different from those of Rajbansi, they preferred to distance themselves from him since his corrupt business and political dealings had proved to be an embarrassment. For example, his monopoly over the granting of butcher shop licenses was ridiculed in cartoons, slogans and songs.
Some candidates chose to stand as Independents only after failing to be nominated by the registered parties. Others were wholly new to politics, and of these many did little or no campaigning. Predictably, 39 candidates lost their nomination deposits in the elections, causing the state to earn R15 600 in forfeited fees. One Independent, A.H. Seedat, made electoral history in South Africa by polling only one vote. Election opponents later cited these facts as evidence that the election had degenerated into a farce: “Independents were never consistent, never Independent”. The Independents were primarily middle-class, but included a sprinkling of lower middle-class, retired and unemployed people. With few exceptions, their campaigns were unsophisticated and did not promote any long-term political views or initiate any constituency organisation. They lacked a vision of how to influence people’s consciousness; their organisational strategy centred around family and personal contacts. In most cases, lack of campaign resources severely hampered their attempts to recruit support.
Nine Indian members of the predominantly Coloured Labour Party stood as Independents, but only one came from Durban. This annoyed the government since it contravened the Prohibition of Political Interference Act, which banned racially mixed political parties. Apart from these nine exceptions, there was little interaction between the Coloured and Indian participationists. The failure of Coloured and Indian Independents and parties to have any serious joint strategy meetings reflected badly on the participationists. It was a confirmation of isolationist ethnic politics in practice and did not augur well for smooth alliances in the new tricameral parliament.
Overall strategy of the participationists
Conservative Indians began preparation for a possible election before the white referendum of 2 November 1983. Nevertheless, their electoral inexperience and lack of popular support ensured that their campaigning would be arduous. In a Pietermaritzburg survey on Indian attitudes to the new constitution, conducted six weeks prior to election day, 87.5% of the registered voters stated their intention to abstain from voting. Of these, 57% said that the elections would “make no difference”, 15.8% said they were “boycotting” the elections, and 12.8% said they were “too busy” to vote. While no equivalent study exists for Durban, observations made at that time suggest that attitudes were similar to those in Pietermaritzburg.
As suggested above, many of the candidates did not feel a strong commitment to their parties, often defecting to other parties in search of a more secure nomination or a more hopeful seat. For example, Ronnie Bandulalla, a NPP stalwart whose nomination was not guaranteed, defected as soon as he secured a nomination from Solidarity. Lemon suggests that such defections might be indicative of a “village politics” mentality pervasive amongst Indians, or evidence that attractive parliamentary salaries were the prime motivation for many candidates. Carrim believes that financial rewards were indeed the major factor: The salaries, perks and power that go with...positions in the HoD constitutes potential for corruption. This is so for [those] whose qualifications and skills would not have secured for them jobs of equivalent reward and power in the wider society. They simply do not have the breeding and panache to make MPs. But there is a sense in which they feel that they have a right to these rewards as a recompense for their unpopularity and vulnerability in the community.
Many a participant would say, “well if it’s not us it will be somebody else” or that “there will always be someone willing to do it and it should rather be me because I can do it the best”, as justification for participation.
The NPP and Solidarity each spent approximately R1million on their campaigns. Each candidate spent about R10 000. Some candidates spent as much as R500 on a one-hour aeroplane display which carried self-serving, predictable banners such as: “Vote for Kassie Ramduth on Tuesday”. Little emphasis was placed on participation as a strategy other than in the few Solidarity and NPP newspaper advertisements. However, the combined endeavours of the candidates and the boycott lobby ensured an unprecedented level of political campaigning amongst Durban’s Indians. “Never before has this community been inundated”, observed Pillay, “with such a barrage of political views from both protagonists and antagonists of the new constitution”. The two months preceding the campaign saw “incessant propaganda”, mainly in the Indian press, and “this had led to a political conscientising of a hitherto mainly apolitical community”.
Despite the similarity in their party platforms, the NPP and Solidarity differed in their organisation and mobilisation strategies. Solidarity was marginally more open than the NPP in its campaign strategy, and held more public meetings, although many were restricted to specially invited guests. The candidates’ meetings were often confined strictly to local constituents, and were generally closed to NIC members, although NIC sympathisers (usually low-profile) in most of these areas guaranteed that NIC supporters were able to attend and challenge the speakers. Solidarity and the NPP displayed great skill in manipulating public functions. For example, they would set up questions from the floor so that invited speakers could make expanded speeches, tactics which suggested a lack of confidence in their chosen political direction, and their own ability to defend that position in public.
In the first days of Solidarity’s existence, as it set up its branches, the party elected people whom they did not know personally as office bearers. As a result, NIC activists easily infiltrated Solidarity, although this was not an official or widely utilised NIC strategy. For example, the Chairperson and Secretary of Solidarity’s Bayview branch were initially NIC members. When Solidarity discovered this, the branch re-organised and used the defunct, conservative Bayview Civic Association (BCA) as a base. The BCA had not held a public meeting in almost a year but it held a clandestine meeting with about thirty people crammed into a small back room of a local pub. The civic meeting was abruptly adjourned and was transformed into the re-launch of the local Solidarity party branch. Most of those present did not know they were attending a Solidarity meeting. The NIC activists present were cognisant of Solidarity’s intentions because they had an intelligence source from within Solidarity. As on other occasions, questions posed by NIC members led to the disruption of the meeting.
Infiltration of meetings was part of the NIC’s strategy, and it was left to local branches and supportive local organisations to undertake such action. The anti-participationists decided that it was important to conduct themselves in an unthreatening, persuasive manner at meetings. For example, in response to the targeting of the middle-class by participationists, NIC activists - whose normal attire was mainly jeans, takkies (trainers) and t-shirts - frequently dressed formally when attending candidates’ meetings and used language trimmed of radical rhetoric. These efforts were not intended to disrupt meetings, but rather to get an inside track on the parties’ campaigns. More importantly, meetings were used as a forum to raise well argued criticisms and questions which would sow doubt in the minds of those present, and so win over those who were wavering. It was recognised that vigorous or unruly agitation at such meetings could have lost, rather than won, allies. There were, however, many cases when members of the public who were not committed to local NIC party discipline would raise issues in an emotional and aggressive manner. A few NIC members were also guilty of this conduct. Sometimes such attacks were of a personal nature since many of the candidates had blemished records in their public life.
The attendance of NIC supporters as well as many sympathetic outsiders led to Solidarity and NPP meetings being restricted to those with invitations, thereby ensuring that the participationists’ campaigns were closed to democratic involvement. In contrast, the NIC and the UDF maintained an open door policy, and even invited HoD candidates to present their cases at public rallies. A few Independent candidates took up the gauntlet, and whilst they were treated with courtesy by the NIC organisers, they were usually ridiculed by the audience at these gatherings. Solidarity and the NPP chose not to attend Congress meetings even when invited. However, in one instance Solidarity’s Dr. Reddy agreed to debate with NIC executive member Billy Nair, who had recently been released after twenty years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. This debate, at the predominantly white University of Natal, had little impact on Indian consciousness. Of greater importance was a television debate which involved Solidarity’s Poovalingum and the NIC’s Dr. Farouk Meer. Poovalingum’s major line of attack was to try to link the NIC with the ANC and therefore with the armed struggle. This line of argument served to frighten people from becoming actively involved in NIC structures, but did not result in a concomitant identification with the “non-violent” participationists.
The participants in the elections attempted to portray the boycott lobby as supporters of violence, thus playing on the widespread, erroneous romantic belief that Indians have a cultural propensity for pacifism. State officials invited to speak at gatherings of conservative Indian organisations frequently referred to this propensity. The history of Mahatma Gandhi, who formulated his philosophy of Sathyagraha (passive resistance/soul force) in South Africa, reinforced this myth. The participationists believed they could turn public opinion against the anti-election lobby by portraying it as violent, an image that was consistently supported by the media. Clearly, the view that non-violence is intrinsic to Indians is fallacious and is based on racist stereotypes which have gained some currency among Indians themselves. The notion of the non-violent Indian would deter recruits to the ANC’s military wing, especially since by 1984 over 500 Indians were involved in ANC operations directly or indirectly inside and outside the country. Although Gandhi played a considerable part in constructing an Indian political philosophy, there was no reason to believe that Indians would remain non-violent in all possible circumstances. In any event, Gandhism had failed to prevent violence in the independence campaign in India. The history of India’s own political development, including the recent rise of a militant Hindu fundamentalism, is laden with violence. In reality, the pressures of urban existence ensured that Indians were (and are) as peaceful or as violent as any other people living under similar material and political conditions.
As was commonplace in South Africa during this period, support for the armed struggle or “violence” was equated with support for communism. NIC supporters and activists were often labelled “communist agitators” by the state, election candidates and their supporters. The public identification between the NIC and the ANC, apart from its historical linkages, was primarily via the NIC’s association with the UDF and its propagation of the Freedom Charter. The NIC, mainly for security reasons, did not openly propagate its support for the ANC and the armed struggle. Some NIC strategists claimed that it was for this reason that the Congress needed to elevate the profile of Gandhi during the campaign, so as to counteract the claims of support for violence and adherence to communism. The NIC also read out at public meetings a message of support from Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, supporting their stance.
It is not surprising that this line of attack failed. In fact, both NPP and Solidarity used known “gangsters” in the elections at different levels, and especially as bodyguards, campaigners and intimidators. There were several close-to-violent clashes at a few candidates’ meetings as a result of this. Reddy, for example, was pressed on the issue of why known thugs were being used to support the candidature of one of his members. He denied this, but when evidence was placed in front of him he lost his temper and struck out against the NIC supporter who then laid charges against him. Reddy and the candidate in question laid counter charges against two NIC activists. One of Chatsworth’s notorious gangsters, “Kariah”, approached the writer with posters and pamphlets from candidate George Thaver who had promised him “protection from the law” if he canvassed for him.
In the week prior to the elections, both parties held major meetings in the constituencies of their party leaders. The candidates hired professional security firms and only admitted people with invitations. At the NPP meeting, Rajbansi and his wife stood at the door scrutinising people and personally checking their credentials. Both meetings resulted in scuffles between pro-and anti-participationists. The NPP and more frequently Solidarity paid some of their campaign workers, promised them jobs if elected, and hinted at their future enhanced status within their specific residential communities. Those who supported their campaigns without being paid to do so or expecting some material advantage were largely relatives, family friends and sometimes neighbourhood associates, and rarely had organisational support. Most canvassers saw their role as “doing the candidate a personal favour” rather than as supporting a political cause. Some unashamedly stated that they were participating in the election process as a result of knowing the candidate for a long time or being indebted to him for some favour. They often admitted to not being interested in politics and not understanding the significance of the constitution.
Many pro-participation canvassers were derided, screamed at, had their cars attacked, and had doors slammed in their faces. Some candidates who falsely used the name of prominent community figures in their manifestos were attacked in the press as liars. At least ten candidates withdrew from the elections at the last moment, partly as a result of popular expressions of anger. Canvassers were unable to explain why participation was a suitable political option and were often perplexed by arguments put forward by potential voters. NIC members reported that they often did not need to intervene in such street debates since members of the public were able to do so effectively. Since the main concern of candidates’ canvassers was to get a specific candidate elected, they were only acquainted with the “virtues” of their particular candidates. While the NIC emphasised education and politicisation, the candidates focused more on getting votes. The participationists were vote-orientated rather than consciousness-orientated, and exhibited little interest in building long-term organisation.
The sheer number of candidates ensured that the turnout would exceed the abysmal 8% poll of the 1981 SAIC elections. For example, in the constituency of Phoenix, the second largest Indian township in the country, there were nine candidates, and in Springfield, seven. The national results of the Indian elections were inconclusive, as far as the participating parties were concerned (See Tables 5.4 and 5.5). The official percentage poll was set at 20%. Of the potential 514,946 voters only 83,613 voted. The UDF calculated the percentage of people voting, counting as eligible all people over 18 (as recorded in the 1980 census), and came up with a poll of 15.5%. The Natal Mercury concluded that only 16 out of every 100 potential voters went to the polls. The NPP, which won 18 seats, took control of the HoD with a narrow majority of one over Solidarity. The UDF had been under attack from various forces, mainly Inkatha and the State, since its creation in Natal. Despite the Indian and Coloured elections, it had the lowest polls of all provinces.
The ephemeral nature of the parties contesting the elections and the methods of developing patronage regimes exhibit similarities with the pre-institutionalisation of voting systems internationally. For example, in the US large scale white male voting emerged before the institutionalisation of either a party system or a bureaucratic civil service state. All that parties could offer were rather particular benefits including, in some cases, turkey at thanksgiving. Ties were personal and based on ethnicity, often unlike anything that one would recognise as social movements or political parties. Since the system to offer policies was not in place, parties had no reason or capacity to offer any programmatic policies. In the Durban context we can replace the turkey with chicken biryani and add the complications of apartheid, but the lack of an institutionalised voting system and culture must count as an important reason for the dismal showing of the participationists.
The state had invested significant political import in the outcome of the elections. However, it was clear that irrespective of the result or turnout it would not alter the trajectory or timing of the reform process. Personalities, not policies, were the deciding factor in the outcome of the HoD elections. The electorate recognised the lack of ideological differences amongst the participating parties, and these perceptions would be borne out by the performance of the elected candidates in the HoD. As Carrim observed later,
What [provided] grist to the corruption mill [was] the lack of ideological divisions between the different parties. This [made] it easy for an MP to slip from one party into another - depending on who [offered] the best deal. So...Rajbansi can speak of “dangling carrots” to get his way. This explains why it [was]...not possible for any one party to establish a...stable majority.
The day the tricameral parliament was convened there were still doubts about how many seats the NPP had won, how long it would remain the majority party, and which MP belonged to which party, and for how long. MPs sought the best deal for themselves without regard to which party offered it to them, often altering allegiances for greater personal advancement. They switched allegiances after they had been elected on a party (or independent) ticket and did not consider it necessary to re-contest the elections. Instead, they “offered rationalisations which were devoid of any substance”. The candidates’ lack of concern at the low poll reflected their lack of social accountability. This was clear from the fact that no candidate regarded the low poll as reason to withdraw from the HoD. The success of the anti-election campaign, however, placed a burden on the state to provide concessions to the newly-elected MPs in order to enhance their low credibility. Accordingly, Indian conscription, a highly emotive issue in the campaign, was shelved.
There were four major reasons for the candidates’ failure to encourage participation. First, they underestimated the Indian record of resistance and the fact that any constitutional dispensation excluding Africans was not likely to receive wide support among Indians. Secondly, the deteriorating material position of the lower middle-class and the working-class inspired their cynicism towards government initiatives, especially those of Indian collaborators. Thirdly, the mobilising efforts of the anti-election lobby were persuasive and successful. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the high levels of disillusionment and scepticism about politics and politicians were based on their observation of the performance of LACs and the SAIC. The failure by the state to consult Indian political opinion via a referendum added further to this marginalisation.
The candidates lacked a coherent and consistent discourse that spoke to people’s concerns and aspirations. The elections spurred on the growth of a myriad of small political parties and groups to support candidates: none of them possessing the political confidence or leadership to engage the “electorate” in a sustained, creative or dynamic manner. The parties said very little about the technicalities of opposition within the new parliamentary structure, which would later be the real test of democratic legitimation. Consequently, participation as a political strategy did not become a component of people’s consciousness. Rather, the questionable promises, the methods of canvassing, and the general conduct of the candidates and campaigners served to alienate people, irrespective of their class position, from the participationists and the very concept of participation.
The participationists were motivated mainly by the lucrative rewards that would accrue to them rather than by a deep commitment to the strategy of participation. Neither were they able to dispel the scepticism about their ability, once elected, to mount an effective opposition in parliament and by so doing “help to dismantle apartheid from within”. The participationists were also not able to present themselves as potentially effective public representatives, despite the assistance of the state’s ideological apparatus. Furthermore, they had very little contact with the electorate in sharp contrast to their anti-election opponents’, whose efforts we now analyse.