This chapter comes from the book Class, Consciousness and Organisation: Indian Political Resistance in Durban, South Africa, 1979-1996 by Kumi Naidoo
The resistance against the government’s constitutional restructuring was one of the most important campaigns waged by South Africa’s liberation movements in the 1980s. For Indian and “Coloured” people, the low turn-out on election day was an important indication of political sentiments towards the government’s “reform strategy”. But the activities in the Indian townships and suburbs of Durban in the run-up to the elections were perhaps even more instructive. Ebrahim Patel asserted that it was a mistake to see the elections as the litmus test of community response to the new dispensation. The election results...represent only a frozen moment in a dynamic historical process. And it will reflect only one form of political activity during that moment (i.e. voting or boycotting). A more comprehensive view needs to take into account...the varied non-electoral responses (strikes, school boycotts, marches, demonstrations, mass rallies, etc.) of a community to the continuing process of change in South Africa.
An examination of these non-electoral responses thus allows a clearer picture of the period to emerge with a better understanding of organisational developments and the implications for consciousness formation.
The previous chapter focused on the participationists’ campaign to encourage Indians to embrace the new constitutional framework. This chapter seeks to examine the anti-election activities from the period from April 1984 until the elections were held on 28 August 1984 - perhaps the most politically charged period in the history of Indian South Africans.
Background to the anti-election campaign
The space for political resistance in Indian areas had changed between October 1977, when Black Consciousness-aligned (BC) organisations were banned, and 1984. The limited but significant recommendations concerning trade union and urban residency rights for Africans put forward by the Riekert and Wiehahn Commissions in 1979 created greater possibilities for civic and trade union organisation. As we saw in chapters three and four, during this period, civic organisations in Indian areas were being initiated. The government also lifted banning orders on prominent NIC leaders in 1983 in an attempt to secure broader acceptance of the tricameral parliament. The state calculated that these unbannings might encourage the NIC itself to participate in the elections, or that at least it might be divided by the issue. Furthermore, the constitutional restructuring, as an integral part of the government’s “Total Strategy”, made it imperative for the government to allow extra-parliamentary opposition, albeit limited.
Before the anti-tricameral campaign, a key impediment to Indian political resistance to apartheid was fear. Political repression was widespread, and most Indians preferred to avoid government reprisals by not engaging in political opposition. The tricameral elections opened up significant possibilities for the political organisation and mobilisation of the left in Indian politics. Anti-election supporters visited people’s homes to encourage them to reject the government’s reform strategy. Posters and other political ephemera proliferated. The government reluctantly tolerated a short-lived peace as the boycott lobby began to organise itself. These factors resulted in demystifying the political arena and making opposition less threatening to Indian people. In fact, the election campaign had an almost carnival atmosphere, and people felt more at ease to express their feelings. There were numerous street debates between the public and campaigners for both participation and non-participation. People lacking formal education were able to challenge and confound seasoned politicians of both camps with penetrating questions. The tricameral elections assisted the resistance movement by providing it with an immediate and appealing political issue around which to organise and mobilise popular opposition.
The anti-election forces spanned the ideological divides that existed in extra-parliamentary resistance politics. AZAPO, an affiliate of the National Forum, was active mainly at tertiary educational institutions. In Durban, eight AZAPO members were charged for displaying anti-election posters and distributing anti-election leaflets. Skilled media liaison enabled AZAPO to increase its profile around this campaign, especially in the print media. The African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA), an affiliate of the New Unity Movement, also emerged at this time consisting of about thirty members, all of whom were Indian. They were almost all professionals, including many university intellectuals. They placed great emphasis on the theoretical clarity of their cadres. APDUSA, like AZAPO, adhered to non-collaboration with state institutions at all levels as a key principle. However, the main anti-election protagonist was the NIC.
The NIC: “From activist organisation to people’s organisation”?
The NIC advocated non-participation on tactical grounds. This had become entrenched as the favoured strategy since the imposition of the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act (Ghetto Act) in 1946. Though the NIC was the main protagonist of the anti-election campaign, it also had the backing of the UDF and its affiliates. This chapter focuses on the NIC campaign across Natal and the popularisation of its anti-election message. We begin with an examination of the NIC’s organisational structures, which demonstrates that the NIC experienced unprecedented growth during this campaign.
Before the anti-election campaign the NIC consisted of an executive committee and loose, informal, area committees which met irregularly. They would convene around substantive issues, such as the formation of the UDF or the referendum debates. Most Indian activists involved in progressive youth and civic organisations in different parts of Natal regarded themselves as NIC members. As Ranchod confirmed:
While [the NIC’s] formal membership does not appear to be large, it does enjoy the support of activists in community-based organisations in the housing, social and educational spheres. The clear rejection of apartheid...has enabled the congress movement to attract youth and a significant number of professionals.
In response to the anti-tricameral campaign, the NIC established an organising committee (OC) in April 1984. The OC was mandated by the executive to handle the day-to-day publicity for the campaign, and to arrange activist forums where ideas were exchanged between OC members and locally-based activists. It was here that the four-phase campaign of the NIC was adopted, constantly monitored and evaluated. Hence, the seven-member OC operated as the nerve centre of the campaign. It met at least once every day, and its members always made themselves available for campaign work. The NIC office oversaw the implementation of tactics formulated at often extended OC meetings whose decisions were ratified by the executive committee.
In mobilising resistance to the elections, the NIC gained a new lease of life. Regional structures created early in 1984 were given substance as the campaign progressed, and it was clear that they would be retained after the elections if they proved effective in achieving the NIC’s two main goals: to advance the anti-election campaign, and to bring as many people as possible into the NIC fold. The NIC hoped to consolidate the regional committees into local branches, which were officially sanctioned by their constitution. Gradually, people set up numerous grassroots structures, appropriate to the particular local realities which came to overshadow the dormant branch structures of the NIC. Local NIC members recognised that they could not rely on broad political pronouncements alone. They needed to develop a well-grounded organisational presence.
The NIC executive committee consisted of about fifteen members, most of whom were male, middle-class professionals with high profiles amongst Indians. However, only one member came from one of the two major working-class townships of Chatsworth and Phoenix: Roy Padayachee, the director of a local NGO in early childhood education, and one of the most “low profile” of all the executive members. At the height of the campaign, the executive met weekly to check progress, receive reports from the OC and to deal with matters beyond the scope of the OC. It continued to run the affairs of the organisation outside the campaign. The burgeoning NIC structures represented a concerted effort among ANC-aligned Indians to beat the government at its own game.
The NIC’s four-phase campaign
The NIC devised a strategy which was to be implemented in four phases to ensure the broadest possible impact and involvement of Indians in the anti-election campaign. (See Table 6.1) The first phase, known as the “reach and teach” phase, extended from April to June 1984, when the NIC undertook some 100,000 “house visits” in Natal. Khetso Gordhan, NIC executive member, full-time UDF organiser and OC member, describes the house visits:
The purpose of the house visits was to discuss with and inform people about the nitty-gritty of the constitution and to counteract government propaganda. The pamphlet we took with us informed people about the 4:2:1 ratio in the tricameral parliament and the NIC’s reasons for rejecting the new constitution. The idea was not to tell people to reject it, but to give them enough information to decide what they thought of the option. We discussed where the country was going to with non-racial unity, and broader political policy issues. People often wanted to talk about local issues. This informed us what we should be doing. We realised that we needed to form local organisations to take up day-to-day problems where such bodies do not exist, or to refer people to existing organisations like civics.
The NIC did not hold mass meetings during the “reach and teach” phase, but candidates continued to call meetings at which NIC members and sympathisers made their opinions felt. Public confrontation became a successful part of the NIC’s campaign and intensified as the campaign progressed. The NIC, the state and the election candidates collectively determined the parameters of the campaign. The NIC attempted to meet with various community organisations, and even in more far-flung local structures, NIC activists were encouraged to build contacts with organisations and to work with sympathisers.
Activists had to learn (or re-learn) many lessons about their constituencies. For example, they learned that house visits in working-class and lower middle-class areas were less fruitful at weekends, when large numbers of people were under the influence of alcohol. House visits were also ruled out on Tuesday nights, when “Dallas”, the highly popular American soap, was screened on television. Apart from the more obvious forms of SABC propaganda, activists began to realise that the nature of television programming was orientated towards developing a docile, inactive, captive television audience that would withdraw from politics and other civic interests.
The strategy of NIC activists varied according to the class base, political awareness and material resources of different areas. For example, venues were secured with greater ease in certain middle-class areas so that public meetings, at a logistical level, could be more effectively organised. Activists also had to modify their language level and idiom according to the class composition of a particular area. Middle-class Indians tended to have a greater knowledge about the complexities of the new constitution than did their working-class counterparts. Consequently, activists spent more time explaining the constitution in working-class areas. These realities reflected the fact that there were competing interests and identities amongst Indians. On the one hand, people defined themselves as part of an Indian minority group, while on the other, distinct class cleavages amongst Indians meant that there was a level of inter-class hostility. Yet other Indians chose to identify instead with similar ideological and class fractions in other racial groups.
The second part of the campaign, the “agitational phase”, ran from 1 to 21 July. This phase relied on shorter, more focused house visits. This approach was intended to be a much more agitational one...you were not simply going to inform people but you were going to say to them this is why we need to reject these candidates....this is our position and this is why we think it is important. The propaganda distributed by the NIC became more urgent in tone during this phase and attacked both government policy and candidates’ opportunism. The NIC held its first set of public rallies, attracting crowds of between 300 to 600 people.
The third phase, the “confrontational phase”, lasted from 22 July to 18 August. Mass meetings challenging candidates to “Face the People” became a common feature. The NIC also released a list of “counter-candidates” who would spearhead the boycott campaign. They were all veteran NIC members, who, it was claimed, had a record of community service outstripping any of the other candidates. The aim was to show the electorate that the NIC had a higher calibre of people who “were not willing to sell their souls for thirty pieces of silver”. However, the NIC did not pursue the counter-candidate strategy consistently or aggressively and most of the “counter-candidates” were high-profile leaders of the NIC who lived in elite Indian suburbs and were not resident in the townships of Chatsworth and Phoenix. This strategy, therefore, failed to popularise local NIC leadership in these major townships.
Mass mobilisation was the key goal of the NIC’s work in this period, and it peaked at the first UDF anniversary meeting on 20 August 1984 and the NIC ninetieth anniversary rally a week later. Both events drew crowds of about 9,000 people and represented the largest gatherings held in Durban since the 1970s. The third phase saw an extraordinary level of activity and concerted energy as the NIC attempted to reach the maximum number of people with a massive distribution of pamphlets and other propaganda. There were numerous verbal confrontations on the streets between participationists and boycott advocates, and many were acrimonious and bitter. It was at these clashes that the participationists revealed their racist prejudices and dubious political integrity, some accusing NIC activists of “simply wanting their sisters to sleep with Africans” and of giving priority to African aspirations at the expense of Indian interests.
The state tried to hinder the efforts of the anti-election campaigners when it began to look as if the candidates were in disarray and the anti-election lobby was becoming more sophisticated. For example, the South African Transport Services (SATS), which administered railway property, arranged for NIC billboards (hired from an advertising agency) on their property to be painted over. W. J. Mitchell, the SATS Natal chief, claimed that as a government agency, SATS did not want to “be accused of taking sides in political issues”. Responding to NIC claims that during the white constitutional referendum the NP was allowed to advertise on railway property, Mitchell said: “The referendum issue was a non-political matter!” At first the Durban City Council also considered banning the posters of the NIC from being displayed on council property but later reversed its stance under pressure from the NIC. For the first time during the 1980s, NIC members could now openly put up posters in public places without fearing legal infringements and repressive reprisals. However, the proliferation of election materials from both pro and anti-election campaigners saw the rivals remove each other’s posters in the struggle for limited wall and pole space.
The third phase demonstrated that the UDF/NIC alliance attracted larger mass gatherings than did their opponents. This contributed to a sense of triumph amongst the NIC. An elderly woman, emerging from one mass meeting said: “all the things we have been bottling up inside us for so long came out today”. When election candidates invited to “face the people” at these meetings rarely arrived, the gatherings were still used productively. NIC executive members addressed the meetings, with substantial time being allocated for audience participation. Often people raised critical questions, ranging from the need for a clearer alternative to the government’s proposals, to the fear of “African domination” in a future democratic society. Some people expressed disappointment with the NIC for not participating in the elections and for “letting the stooges get in”. The extent of this view, also encountered by NIC activists in the field, is not easily quantifiable. One study conducted in Pietermaritzburg found that if the NIC had participated, 62.2% of registered voters would still not have voted, while 17.6% would have voted for the NIC, and 16.8% were undecided. Only 3.4% would have voted for some other candidate. Voters often challenged NIC viewpoints in the field. Although violent responses and verbal onslaughts did occur, these isolated incidents were usually perpetrated by candidates and their canvassers.
Perhaps the most important question posed by people during the campaign was: What alternative did the progressive movement offer to the government’s new constitution and election process? The participating parties and the state stressed that the alternative could only be violence. Rajbansi’s “ballot or the bullet” formulation further invoked the supposed threat of violence emanating from strategies of the NIC and its allies.
Solidarity was taking part in an insidious campaign by the state and its functionaries to show the NIC and the United Democratic Front as proponents of violence. The Solidarity campaign...fitted in with the consistent pattern of attacks on [the NIC] by the state in which it was suggested that the NIC and UDF were agents of the ANC and Moscow, and took instructions from the KGB.
The NIC offered the Freedom Charter as an alternative to the government’s “reform package” and declared:
Only a highly organised people, united in struggle and equipped with an...understanding of...our struggle, led by an experienced leadership, can guarantee the success of our struggle. This is what we will contribute towards, outside of this Government’s plans...This does not mean that we will ignore the day-to-day problems of our people. We are committed to participating in every possible way in the daily struggles of our community for lower rents, bus fares, higher wages, better living and working conditions. We work for the establishment of strong, democratic, community-based organisations, as well as workers’, women’s, students’ and youth organisations. These organisations...are best equipped to lead our people, articulate their demands and improve their lives.
The issue of political alternatives was debated spiritedly at NIC public meetings. Many people did not see the Freedom Charter of 1955 as an adequate alternative. Some of the views expressed noted that “the Charter represented a vision for a democratic society without explaining how exactly we would get there”, or that the Charter was “little more than a collection of well-intentioned slogans lacking a sense of strategy”. The practical concerns about how a democratic government would ensure that “there shall be housing, shelter and comfort for all” were not clear to many.
During this third phase, the NIC aimed to consolidate mass mobilisation into an increase in its membership. At NIC meetings people signed up and joined the campaign. They did this openly, despite the danger stemming from the likelihood that the organisation was infiltrated by informers. As part of its attempt to facilitate recruitment, the NIC conducted a survey of attitudes towards the elections. The NIC regarded such fieldwork as one of its most important activities because it helped the NIC to understand the changing attitudes of its base and to foster greater contact at that level. The strategy worked and produced a significant increase in NIC membership as well as an almost haphazard creation of various local structures claiming to be allies.
The fourth phase of the campaign extended from about 18 to 28 August, election day itself. The government’s attacks on the UDF reached new heights, with allegations linking the UDF to the ANC increasing at an alarming rate. On 21 August, the eve of the “Coloured” elections, security police raided the homes of leading UDF members in Natal and the Transvaal. The government detained about twenty UDF leaders, including the NIC’s president and vice-president, invoking Section 28 of the Internal Security Act that allowed for indefinite “preventive detention”. The NIC effectively used the detentions to argue the justness of its cause and the anti-democratic character of the “reform” being offered by the government. After the detentions, the NIC capitalised on the fact that many traders in the Durban central business district were Indian. They called on business people to close their shops at a specified time to show their support for the NIC. Both the NPP and Solidarity condemned the detentions, and the latter also tried to profit from the NIC call to traders by supporting it. The NIC responded by sending another letter to the traders asking them not to close their shops. The traders, no doubt happy to secure a day’s taking, kept their shops open. Solidarity called for the shops to be closed on the day of the elections in order to encourage voters to turn up at the poll. The traders ignored the request.
A further occurrence during this phase was the “special votes” debacle. The “special votes” mechanism was aimed at people who were seriously ill, the elderly, those more than fifty kilometres away from the polling booth, or in similar disadvantaged situations. Several reports of irregularities were received by NIC activists in the field, and candidates accused each other of abusing the special votes provisions. The state, hoping for a high poll, allowed the participating parties to abuse this provision. NIC activists were ignored by the Indian officials when alerting them to the irregularities.
The NIC hastily developed three approaches in response to the abuse of special votes. First, they employed a preventive strategy. NIC activists explained to people what their legal rights were, and the NIC took out advertisements in newspapers and wrote articles in UDF publications alerting people to the special votes fraud. Activists assured people that they did not have to vote and that they could not be forced to do so. The second strategy was to apply pressure directly “at the point of contact”, which involved acquiring a list of people who had already cast special votes to check whether these were legitimate. The third approach involved collecting information about fraudulent behaviour and pursuing legal action. This needed the co-operation of people who were coerced into casting special votes. However, this strategy was unsuccessful since it would have resulted in perjury convictions for those who had cast special votes, even if this was under duress. Ultimately, there were 24,740 special votes, constituting an astonishing 30% of all votes cast.
The third and fourth phases saw a sharp increase in the number of newspaper advertisements advocating non-participation. These played a crucial role in the campaign. Both NIC and participationist campaigners attested that on house visits people often referred to the full-page newspaper advertisements in regional and national newspapers. The NIC took out more full-page newspaper advertisements than did all their adversaries combined. This can be seen as an indication of their commitment to heightening the political consciousness of the general population instead of exclusively targeting registered voters.
The NIC campaign, during the third and fourth phases, also involved a concerted strategy to move into the Durban city centre. It was illegal to distribute leaflets in the city since this was a violation of a by-law related to littering. Instead, the NIC distributed stickers which people displayed on their clothing. The open display of pro-NIC sentiments further eroded the prevalent fear of opposing the government. Public response to the stickers was favourable. Some of the stickers read “I support Congress”, “Rajbansi Does not Speak for Me”, and “Don't Vote”. On Saturdays leading up to the election, the stickers, together with anti-election motorcades, created a carnival atmosphere in the black section of the city centre.
A repetition of the NIC message was a further focus of the fourth phase of the campaign; for the last time about 50,000 “Don’t Vote” pamphlets were distributed. They simply stated: “Congress Says Don’t Vote”. The message had developed a much sharper focus and the “Don’t Vote” campaign reached its peak. By the last week of the campaign, the NIC’s political message had become a dominant factor in popular deliberations about the elections.
The NIC’s political message
The NIC, despite its confident approach throughout the campaign, cannot claim to have determined the terms of the political discourse, nor the pace or the course of events. It often found that it had to immerse itself in the prevailing popular discussions of the period. Ratnamala Singh and Shahid Vawda question the way in which NIC political messages were crafted, particularly because of the ethnic identities they reinforced:
There are frequent indications in the NIC discourse that political mobilisation occurs within the terms of apartheid reality rather than as destabilising of that reality. A more complex view of resistance to apartheid and transformation towards a non-racial society is to act on the basis that certain types of changes can be effected where they are identified as being necessary within the space of apartheid hegemony.
Unlike the NIC, AZAPO, APDUSA, the National Forum and some of the trade unions did not locate their statements “within the terms of apartheid reality”. An analysis of the political pronouncements of these organisations shows that they simply negated altogether the notion of any ethnic consciousness or special concerns inherent amongst Indians. Singh and Vawda further argue that:
The language of mobilisation for the campaigns mounted and the issues chosen around which to organise are therefore crucial if the intended political effect is simultaneously to subvert the ethnic constitution of subjects on the one hand and foster a non-racial consciousness on the other. Discourses which jumble together intra-community concerns and trans-community commitments may produce the effect that the “Indian” as an ethnically constituted political subject remains intact.
Sections of the NIC were mindful of this complexity. However, they had to consider the racial exclusivity of the political mobilisation of the collaborating parties, and had to respond to fears that Indian youth would be sent to the army and to claims that Indians would benefit under the new dispensation. They had to deal, for example, with a candidate’s manifesto which declared that: “Indians not only wallow in racism but are clannish, sectional and class-conscious. We are equal oppressors of the black man”.
In the context of such articulations, the NIC’s Indian-tag was regarded as important. The NIC felt that the notion of an Indian ethnicity should be exploited sensitively for the purposes of drawing on, and redefining, Indian people’s conception of themselves. The NIC attempted to ensure that its political language corresponded to the consciousness prevalent among its constituents. It accepted that most people saw themselves as Indians and had yet to develop a broader sense of non-racialism. The need to acknowledge Indianness was especially important, since the participating parties implicitly concerned themselves exclusively with Indian political and economic advancement. The NIC had to address this directly, and also had to deal with the state portraying them as ANC functionaries who did not really have the interests of the Indian people at heart. This angle of attack was replicated by the participationists, who sometimes explicitly linked the NIC to the ANC in their pronouncements. Although Singh and Vawda’s criticisms of the NIC language of mobilisation are valid, the NIC believed it needed to convince its constituency of its commitment to the interests of Indians as well as its “trans-community” commitments. While the NIC’s rhetoric did indeed build on ethnic identity, its strategy was not always uniform and took account, for example, of class differences. Also, it did promote the Freedom Charter as a non-racial vision of a democratic South Africa. However, balancing the imperatives of “Indian concerns” and a “non-racial vision” was a task that was laden with difficulties and contradictions. There was support from non-Indian resistance organisations such as the Joint Rent Action Committee, Black Sash and the Wentworth Improvement Project, with people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Denis Hurley speaking at public meetings.
Another issue at the level of political language and symbols was the evocation of Mahatma Gandhi. The NIC made extensive symbolic use of its founder, arguing that he would have rejected the elections. This claim was contested by the participating parties. Participationists argued that Gandhi’s acceptance of the 1936 “slave constitution” of India indicated a preference for co-operation rather than abstentionist politics. In any event, even within the ranks of the NIC there was some displeasure at the use of Gandhi as a symbol. In the words of one activist:
It was good for the older generation, but the Indian youth is more aggressive than that. I had problems with the overuse of Gandhi in the advertisements. It also served to enforce Indian ethnic identity rather than erode it and promote a non-racial consciousness.
This re-insertion of Gandhi into the political space of Indian politics in South Africa in the 1980s, and the accompanying battles over who could legitimately claim his mantle, was to endure into the 1990s. Gandhi as historic figure has featured prominently in Indian left politics in South Africa (but not in India itself). Furthermore, as we will see in the next chapter, present-day India adopted an interventionist stance regarding Indian politics in South Africa.
Notwithstanding some of the weaknesses in its political pronouncements, the NIC had to evolve the organisational and financial muscle to spread its views. The NIC campaign, excluding most of the expenses associated with public meetings, cost R200 000. Most of the money was raised from Indian supporters, and a substantial amount came from NIC executive members themselves. The greatest proportion came from Pietermaritzburg, Northern Natal and the South Coast, where there were wealthier business interests and farmers. There was no financial offering from the UDF or any other structure. The accumulated debt lasted for a year and a half after the campaign. Anti-election efforts for the “Coloured” House incurred similar costs. None of the NIC workers were paid for their work. Participationist parties, on the other hand, had set up offices with salaried public relations functionaries and full-time organisers. Neither did financial considerations inhibit the political activity of the KwaZulu homeland-linked Inkatha movement.
The Inkatha factor
During the campaign Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, made many explicit threats against Indian participation in the elections. He firmly rejected the elections, and succeeded in influencing the small Reform Party not to take part, though many of its members defected to participating parties. Buthelezi and Inkatha had campaigned for a “no vote” in the white referendum. He stated that while the PFP was dragged into the new constitution kicking and screaming protests, some of our Indian and Coloured brothers and sisters ran after the new constitution with their tongues hanging out in anticipation of what privileged benefits they could get by participating.
Buthelezi was, in effect, assailing the Indian equivalent of the political position he himself occupied within the African political spectrum. Ironically, Buthelezi articulated a view broadly similar to that of the NIC on this issue, although there had been many harsh verbal exchanges between Inkatha and the NIC in the past.
Days before the election, Buthelezi told a gathering at the Durban City Hall that he was under great pressure from certain sections of Inkatha to call for a boycott of all Indian businesses. He advised Indians and Coloureds on the eve of the elections to think seriously of their future, as a time might come when the numerically dominant Africans would be called on to display their magnanimity by securing the civil liberties of minorities. Rajbansi insisted that he did not desire to “cross swords” with Buthelezi, and instead expressed his intention “to discuss the matter privately” with him. Candidates, however, argued in street confrontations and occasionally at their meetings that if people like Buthelezi, bantustan leaders and other African state functionaries did not have qualms about participating in government-created structures, why should they? Buthelezi’s opposition to the elections appeared to have had some influence on the Indian bourgeoisie and the upper middle-class since he had threatened a consumer boycott. However, had the threat been widely felt - and there is no evidence of this - there is little likelihood that people would have been intimidated from participating if they had a deep desire to do so.
The state media gave limited coverage to Buthelezi’s pronouncements since they contradicted government views. Accordingly, his verbal barrages did not penetrate the Indian “electorate”. The SABC were steadfast in giving only limited media coverage to the boycott lobby, even refusing a Solidarity request for a live debate with the NIC. The English language print media, being less supportive of the state constitutional agenda, adopted the same position. AZAPO charged that the “imperialist media” was once again showing its colours by touting for participation and by glossing over the role of the Black Consciousness Movement in the anti-election effort. This tendency, they argued, underlined the fact that whites could never articulate black interests or even begin to properly understand the black experience. The NIC, though, could count on the support of other influential organisations that helped to counterbalance the sophisticated submissions of the ideological state apparatus.
An analysis of other anti-election forces
The University of Durban-Westville (UDW), where the Students Representative Council (SRC) had been banned a year earlier, was a site of much electoral mobilisation. Many students interpreted the SRC ban as a joint offensive by the Broederbond-controlled university administration and the state to prevent students from making a contribution to the anti-election effort. However, boycotts protesting against the elections led to a closure of the campus. The pro-participation Graphic newspaper noted in an editorial:
Professor Greyling, by closing down the University, let loose 6 000 free and unpaid volunteers for the boycott brigade. These youngsters, some in search of excitement, others having been brain-washed by the [NIC] and yet others really believing that they were changing the world, rampaged the streets and roamed the residential areas sowing psychological terror.
Although these assertions were dramatic in the extreme, there is no doubt that the closure of the campus significantly increased the person power of the “boycott brigade”.
In high schools, by contrast, there were weak attempts to organise boycotts. Students from more than fifty schools and higher educational institutions participated in protests in the days before the elections. The Director of Indian Education recorded isolated incidents in NIC strongholds. On election day itself, there was a large stayaway of high school students. Estimates ranged from 50% to 90%. Most of the activists in the anti-election campaign were students. This was partly reflected in the aftermath of the elections, when many NIC structures were enervated as a result of students returning to their classes and examinations. The state had erred badly by scheduling the elections in a non-examination period, unwittingly facilitating the participation of students in the anti-election activity.
Organisations such as the Natal Council on Sport (NACOS), the National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA) and the Democratic Lawyers Association (DLA) supported the anti-election campaign by issuing press statements, and some of their affiliates sent letters to their members, and advertised in the press, urging a boycott. The Teachers Association of South Africa (TASA) was not as energetic in its opposition as it was when it spearheaded protests of various organisations in 1983 as the SAIC took control of Indian education.
Various religious groups devoted much effort to deciding what the appropriate response would be to the state’s attempts to co-opt them. The South African Hindu Maha Sabha, an organisation claiming to represent the bulk of the country’s Hindus, was involved in the elections in an unofficial way: both its president and secretary stood as candidates. Ibrahim Bawa, the director of the Islamic Council of South Africa, declared that his organisation supported a boycott on “moral, ethical and religious grounds”. Weeks before the elections a mass meeting of more than 600 Muslims in Durban urged a stayaway. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Black Reformed Christians proposed that ABRESCA members who voted in the elections should have communion withheld from them. Another group of Indian Christian pastors and leaders came together to explain the biblical and ethical grounds on which they could not take part in the elections. Diakonia, the Durban-based ecumenical agency, also called for an abstention from the polls:
Coloureds and Indians who participate will alienate their communities from Africans...[They] will become jointly responsible for the laws which perpetuate and reinforce racial discrimination and economic exploitation. We have no hesitation in saying that this constitution and participation in it poses a grave threat to South Africans of all races.
A similar call by Durban Archbishop Denis Hurley was condemned by the conservative NP-aligned South African Catholic Defence League. However, the influence of the progressive churches would have extended to only about 20% of Indians who were Christian.
The official position adopted by national religious bodies was less significant than the activities of small, grassroots religious formations. Individual candidates accessed the support of particular temple, mosque and church networks. NIC and its allies fared inadequately in this terrain. With a few exceptions they were unable to engage these local religious networks. There was evidence of religious and ethnic allegiances in the unofficial articulations of certain candidates. While no definite pattern existed, the street discussions sometimes included religious and ethnic slurs. There were also linguistic cleavages (although language competency was minimal), between the “roti ous” (persons of Hindi-speaking descent) and the “porridge ous” (persons of Tamil-speaking descent). However, the effect of this was minor and was felt primarily among some of the older generation.
All the major black trade unions called for a stayaway from the polls, but stopped short of calling a work stoppage to protest against the elections. Progressive trade unions did not become involved in the mechanics of the campaign, but issued propaganda explaining why the constitutional changes were farcical. The majority of Indian workers were members of the conservative Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) whose white-dominated leadership supported the “new deal” and therefore the election. Some candidates hoped to boost their performance at the polls by enlisting the support of the local Indian leadership of TUCSA unions. TUCSA affiliates in Durban were often little more than an amalgam of a “glorified social club and a welfare benefit society”. There sometimes existed a fraternal relationship between factory owners and the union functionaries. Where these factories were owned or run by the Indian bourgeoisie, owners attempted to exercise influence over their workers to vote in the elections. There were rumours that some TUCSA officials were considering negotiating for half a day’s holiday on election day so that workers could vote.
The tension-ridden relationship between the UDF and the NIC, on the one hand, and the progressive unions, particularly FOSATU, on the other, resulted in the absence of any meaningful co-operation around this campaign. A complex and sensitive relationship persisted between the union federation and Inkatha. Buthelezi and his associates still addressed meetings of FOSATU. FOSATU, the UDF and Inkatha were united in their call for non-participation in the elections, and this did open up potential possibilities for structured alliances. Ultimately though, all these initiatives remained separate enterprises. The elections represented a missed opportunity for progressive unions to make headway in organising Indian workers. Shamim Marie notes that the anti-election campaign was nevertheless a positive, politicising influence on Indian workers:
The revival of the NIC in the 1970s ... played a role in bringing politics back into the lives of the Indian people, particularly through anti-election campaigns. Indian workers responded to these campaigns by not going to the polls and so showed their rejection of the new deal the government was offering them.
However, Marie states that “these struggles have been separate struggles involving Indian workers only”, and that Indian workers’ unions remained largely unaffected.
The contradictory demands of mobilisation and organisation created difficulties during the campaign. The imperatives of a high-profile national political campaign destabilised the agendas of grassroots civic and youth organisations, who were often allies or creations of the NIC. However, the campaign also had a positive impact on community-based organisational endeavours. In some areas the impetus generated a climate for the emergence of youth organisations. In Chatsworth and Phoenix, for example, first-time activists formed youth organisations soon after the elections. The same could be said of civic organisations. In general, the campaign heightened the political awareness and consciousness of activists and gave greater political content to grassroots organisations. The high level of mobilisation facilitated historic non-racial rallies, such as those held to commemorate the UDF’s first anniversary and the NIC’s ninetieth. The disproportionate influence of the NIC within the UDF in Natal was reflected in the anniversary rally advertisement, which featured five non-African UDF leaders and supporters. The campaign illustrated the failure of the NIC to integrate its activities with developments in the African townships.
Non-racialising a separate campaign
Many NIC members were aware of the need to “non-racialise” the campaign. The mass rallies did represent an advance in united action and growing black unity. Nevertheless, attendance at these gatherings accounted for just a minute fraction of the people in the region. NIC propaganda displayed photographs of Archie Gumede, Natal-based president of the UDF, and Virgil Bonhomme, a prominent Coloured leader in Natal, who was vice-president of the UDF. Yet, following the detention of UDF (including NIC) leaders, Congress, in a widely-distributed pamphlet proclaiming that “Our Leaders are in Jail”, mentioned Archie Gumede but attached more prominence to four other NIC leaders. For most readers, the “our” would have been read as Indian leaders in an exclusive sense rather than as black leaders in an inclusive sense. Here we have an example of what Singh and Vawda referred to earlier as the confusion between intra-community mobilisation and trans-community commitments.
The most important measure of an increasing consciousness among Indian people was their willingness to identify with the Coloured, and especially the African, communities and to choose united action when possibilities were presented. Pravin Gordhan, regarded by many as the key architect of the NIC election strategy, gave an optimistic account of attempts to build non-racialism:
In the course of our...work we [attempted] to develop non-racialism in practice and this was reflected during the anti-election campaign where Indian, African, Coloured and white activists went door-to-door in...areas where elections were due to take place, asking people not to vote. The NIC [worked] closely with the United Committee of Concern, which [represented] the coloured areas in Durban, and with our comrades from the African areas. The co-operation is not simply at the leadership level...we are co-operating in the field. But it is a limited process.
However, not as much non-racial united action occurred during the campaign as the above comments might suggest. Joint door-to-door work between African and Indian activists did take place, but only on four occasions at regional “blitzes”. There was also some non-racial activism on the day of the elections. In Chatsworth, African students from the medical school spent the day doing house-visits and driving in motorcades. White students gave legal assistance. Coloured activists, fresh from their success a week earlier, easily slotted into the NIC election day machinery.
The structural constraints engendered by the GAA created “concrete divisions” that exacerbated the task of fostering non-racial unity. Besides distances between townships, lack of transport, work obligations, language barriers and lack of time and resources, UDF activists in African townships in Durban had to cope with constant battles with Inkatha, and were struggling to consolidate their own community-based civic and youth structures. There were, nonetheless, several discussions about incorporating a non-racial praxis into the campaign. As one activist stated:
We talked about this all the time and we did a bit of mixed activist work, but this was a bit superficial. There were so many other organisational imperatives that this important issue became neglected in the process.
There remained a definite pessimism about the extent to which the growth of non-racialism was being advanced by the campaign:
Not enough was done in terms of linking up the Koornhof bills with the anti-election campaign...but the mixing of activists in the field was the one area where a lot more could have been done. This meant bringing activists from African areas into Indian areas. Not so much the other way round. Not because it is not necessary but the important thing to do was to radicalise Indians.
In doing so, however, the NIC would have opened itself to attack from the right. Participationists and the state were certain to claim that the UDF and NIC were recruiting African activists in order to intimidate potential voters.
Some felt that this should not have deterred the NIC and the UDF:
This would have been the opportunity to raise the issue and defend our non-racial position. If an Indian and African activist teamed up and visited almost every house, look at the impact of that. No amount of media shit would have affected the person’s experience of talking to this young African guy who would not be provocative, or intimidating, and talking to them in a mature way about the future of our country. That would have created an impression much greater than any newspaper.
Clearly, the structural constraints referred to above militated against the attempts at mass non-racial work even though there could have been more activities. The power of the media to miscommunicate (from the NIC’s perspective) attempts at forging non-racialism were ever present in the thinking of many activists.
An interview with Gumede by the SABC’s Cliff Saunders was deliberately orchestrated to sow division between Indian and African people early in 1984. The interview highlighted a single sentence in which Gumede attacked “a small minority within the Indian community which is actively collaborating with the apartheid regime”. Saunders, Rajbansi and others attacked Gumede for being a racist. Having burnt their fingers with the Gumede interview, the UDF took a decision not to grant interviews to SABC-TV. At the same time fake pamphlets were mysteriously distributed in Indian areas by unknown persons seeking to spread racism, disunity and confusion. The NIC underestimated the impact of the Gumede interview on Indian political consciousness. It seemed that not only Buthelezi, but also the UDF leader, were adopting an anti-Indian stance. The attempts by the UDF to rebut this portrayal in the media were not given the kind of coverage that initiated the media manipulation in the first place.
Perhaps the greatest advance for non-racialism was the close working relationship that developed between Indian and Coloured activists. The state had miscalculated by scheduling the elections on different days, thereby unwittingly facilitating this process. It meant that Indian activists could work in the Coloured areas up to the House of Representatives (HoR) election day. After the HoR elections, Coloured activists could operate in Indian areas. Joint activism had been fostered by the attendance of both Indians and Coloureds at activist forums.
Election day and beyond
A day before the elections, on 27 August 1984, executive members of the NIC met with the Port Natal Divisional Commissioner of police in order to “seek assurances that members of the police force would not hinder or prevent NIC representatives from presenting their views to the electorate to dissuade them from voting on election day”. The NIC stressed their right to monitor developments on voting day and to persuade people not to vote. In a letter to the chief electoral officer they stated: “This activity is not only lawful but represents an exercise of our democratic rights. If you disagree we would like to know your precise legal basis so that we can determine the nature of the legal proceedings to be adopted”. Planned activities for voting day included “the wearing of Don't Vote T-shirts, house to house visiting, and the use of motorcars bearing posters and stickers”. Police representatives pointed out that handing out leaflets was a contravention of a by-law and that monitoring voting at polling booths was illegal. The NIC campaign, according to executive member Professor Jerry Coovadia, was to be conducted with due regard to the two provisions. As a result, Durban experienced few serious confrontations between police and campaigners on election day. By contrast, in Lenasia, the largest Indian township in the Transvaal, violent clashes occurred between anti-election protesters and police.
The Coloured elections served as a dress rehearsal that helped prepare Indians for election day logistics. They helped Indian anti-election organisers to anticipate the candidates’ tactics and the degree of state repression. As Khetso Gordhan explains:
The main theme was to be as close as possible to people and to protect them from intimidation. For every 500 or 1000 houses...a group of people...monitored the situation and reported back to a central office for that particular township. They would then report to a central office for the whole region.
The monitoring of streets began as early as 4.30am in some areas where the stream to work began at dawn, and continued in all areas until the polls finally closed. The public generally reacted favourably to these “protectors” on the streets. The monitors comprised working NIC members who took the day off and hundreds of pupils and students. The candidates claimed that Congress activists were “manning street corners, and when our cars go to fetch voters to the polls, they are warned not to get into the cars”. They and the state described “the mere presence of anti-election campaigners...as intimidatory”. The overwhelming presence of anti-election campaigners ensured that on election day the extent of the intimidation from candidates was limited. However, NIC activists accused both the candidates and the state of widespread intimidation. NIC pamphlets sought to assure people that they “will not be breaking the law” if they did not vote and that they “cannot be charged”.
The NIC called on the participating parties to undertake joint monitoring of the polling booths with them to prevent any intimidation. The parties refused. The following statement captures the NIC viewpoint on the issue:
The strong-arm tactics used by the candidates in the campaign...bluffing people about pensions, losing their homes, getting rent increases...continued on election day. We did not physically stop people from voting...we didn’t believe that was appropriate political behaviour. If people were going to vote in their thousands then it meant that our campaign was a failure, that we didn’t understand the Indian community’s consciousness and we didn’t know what was in their best interests.
The NIC was confident that the Indian people were politicised enough by the campaign to be able to make an informed decision about voting. Even government apologists like Ranchod acknowledged that intimidation by anti-participationists was rare, and could not have deterred people if there was a genuine will to participate. Pillay concurred, stating that “the claim that the mass stayaway from the polls was the result of intimidation is a gross distortion”.
While anti-election activists did not intimidate voters they sometimes employed scare tactics against candidates and their active supporters. For example, a bus owner who displayed pro-election posters on one of his buses had anti-election slogans sprayed on them. Many candidates’ houses were sprayed with anti-election slogans. Candidates also claimed that they had received death threats. Aggressive verbal attacks at public meetings were often regarded by participationists as unfair activity.
Contrary to state propaganda, the major intimidators were not the NIC activists but the candidates themselves. For genuine intimidation to occur, the intimidators must have some power or must give the impression that they possess power. The NIC did not enjoy the same status that popular grassroots organisations in the African townships did, although it claimed to be the best supported political body amongst Indians. Nor did it have the power to force compliance if people were adamant about voting. The candidates, on the other hand, notwithstanding their relatively low status amongst the Indian populace, were perceived as “government men”, or at the very least people who were rich and had contacts in high places. This provided the basis for abuse by the participationists.
The government had prepared propaganda in anticipation of a low turnout. The Minister of Constitutional Development stated that low percentage polls were characteristic of “developing communities” and a “lack of democratic traditions”. The other reasons given by the government for the low turnout were ignorance, apathy, lack of party strength and intimidation by the anti-constitution lobby. Similar claims were made by the participationists, who argued that a “very carefully structured psychological warfare was conducted, in the preparation of which both psychologists and lawyers were obviously involved”.
More credible defences point to the immaturity of the parties, candidates’ lack of understanding of campaigning procedure, the fact that the voters’ roll was ready only a month before the election, the candidates’ lack of time and experience to conduct effective house-visits, the relatively small number of canvassers, and the fact that Indian workers tended to work later and so had limited time for evening canvassing. Candidates pointed out that the poll of registered voters rose from 13.4% in the 1981 SAIC elections, to 20.3% in 1984, and the number of actual votes cast rose by 115%. It has been noted that “in general, the vote could have been a lot worse for the government. They could just about live with it. The turnout had been low, certainly, but not farcically so”. In the assessment of Essop Pahad, senior ANC and SACP member, proof of the victory lay in the low poll that was recorded during the elections. This was admitted to by the racist regime itself. But the victory had broader consequences. Because the poll was so low, none of the candidates were therefore confident that they could speak on behalf of the Indian people. The participationists were humiliated and the state’s new parliament got off to a shaky start. Anti-election activists felt that they had cause to celebrate.
Voting behaviour is a complex social-psychological phenomenon and several factors can combine to influence people to abstain, including the absence of an electoral tradition, organisational and logistical shortcomings, apathy, lack of interest, ignorance, intimidation, disaffection with the legitimacy of the elections and the numerous other problems generally facing new electorates the world over. NIC activists attributed the success of the anti-election campaign to antagonism towards the candidates, the popular opinion that they were “out to feather their own nests”, opposition to the proposed constitutional structure, the threat of Indian conscription, support for the NIC call, and the financial costs of the new parliamentary chamber. Many factors other than emphatic rejection of the state’s co-option strategy accounted for the low poll. The government also undermined the legitimacy of the election by not holding a referendum for Indians, in contrast to procedures for whites and despite earlier promises and expectations. In addition, the arrests of UDF and NIC leaders on unsubstantiated charges of treason undermined the limited legitimacy of the contentious elections beyond repair, forcing some ambivalent bystanders into solidarity with the UDF. Political apathy was only a minor factor.
The rejection of African exclusion was not equivalent to a desire for genuine non-racialism and fully-fledged majority rule, although the cause of non-racialism was advanced slightly. At the same time, Africans and Indians supportive of the UDF succeeded in familiarising their constituency with the Freedom Charter, which partly served to illustrate the differences between the UDF, APDUSA, AZAPO and Inkatha agendas.
While the NIC often addressed the Indian people as if they were a homogeneous entity, in its organisational and mobilisational thrust it sometimes reflected a knowledge and sensitivity, albeit to an inadequate extent, of class cleavages. For example, the class base of an area often determined the dress of activists, the language employed and the issues raised. Working-class Indians rejected the constitution because those who were participating were wealthy and corrupt and, in their capacities as members of the SAIC, had not previously offered them any substantial assistance. Furthermore, it did not appear that the working-class would gain anything in material terms. Rather, many believed that they would have to bear the costs of the Indian chamber and that this would exacerbate their declining living standards.
Middle-class, educated Indians were more likely to support the new tricameral set-up and to understand its complexities. As one Conservative Party MP, pointed out: “If a bus should run over the Minister of Constitutional Development, there will be nobody who understands the new constitution”. Middle-class Indians rejected the new constitution because they were embarrassed by the “clowns” who were making a “laughing stock of the community” and who were acting in their self-interest. They tended to be more politically aware and were sensitive to the exclusion of Africans from parliament. This was so although there were indications, albeit weak ones, of potential upward mobility for middle-class fractions under the new political arrangements. The small Indian bourgeoisie, adopted a sympathetic attitude towards the new system primarily because they thought it would open economic opportunities for their advancement.
The space to organise politically, though not legally, was facilitated by the general political climate generated by the whole election process. The work of the NIC, aided by this climate which it helped to create, did affect people’s decisions about whether to participate in the elections. The NIC did not employ an exclusively task-oriented approach. That is, they did not campaign simply to ensure that people did not vote. Their focus was more long-term and concerned with developing progressive consciousness and building popular organisation. Undoubtedly the NIC underwent significant organisational growth, but at the same time the campaign exhibited certain important weaknesses. While it generated significant political activity, not enough was done to consolidate organisationally. This failure was due to a lack of time, task-oriented pressures and an inadequate vision of the goal towards which the leadership and its members intended to carry the organisation. After the campaign, the NIC lost activists as peoples interest waned. The organisation was down to 25-30% of its peak level in terms of members, resources and activities. One of the most critical tasks facing the democratic movement was to consolidate some of the gains achieved organisationally during the 1984 anti-election campaign:
Perhaps one of the problems that the mass democratic movement was not able to resolve then, was how to sustain the high level of political involvement and commitment of the community. Nevertheless the campaign made it possible for hundreds of activists to come into the political struggle itself.
The evidence does not suggest that Inkatha and Buthelezi played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the Indian tricameral elections but the threats made by Buthelezi, as we shall see later, lingered on into the future and contributed powerfully to the construction of consciousness. Adam and Moodley noted, however, that:
In the Indian case, the so-called Zulu factor is often mentioned as crucial. However, this cannot explain the even lower poll among Indians in the Transvaal, where Buthelezi's warnings to Indians not to allow themselves to be co-opted hardly carried weight.
However, there was a sensitivity amongst most Indians regarding African exclusion, and how their participation in the elections would be regarded.
The increased political consciousness generated by the campaign was reflected in larger mass meetings, the larger numbers of people engaged in political activity and the liveliness of debates and the willingness of people to take sides over the elections. Such levels of political participation had not been seen since the 1950s. People attended public meetings out of personal interest and a curiosity to see how their lives would be affected by the major political upheaval that the constitutional restructuring signified. Unlike in previous years, progressives now had a concrete issue that was compelling and had great mobilisational and organisational potency. The campaign gave the opportunity for the progressive Indian organisations to mobilise Indians on a very immediate political issue. However, the majority of peoples exposure to the campaign was through house-visits by both participationists and the advocates of boycott.
There was a massive propaganda campaign on both sides. The NIC’s was the most widespread and successful. However, some activists overestimated the extent of their success. They argued that because people did not vote, they were therefore rejecting the constitution and that this signalled a concomitant increase in progressive political consciousness. The enormity of this mistake would be learnt painfully a year later, when Indian-African relations soured in Durban, reversing the hard-won gains for which the NIC and other anti-participation organisations had worked for so painstakingly. These developments will be examined in the following chapter.