The tragedy of the Indians’ fight for freedom in South Africa lies in the fact that the leadership has always been in the hands of those who represented the merchants and traders, while the poor Indians, workers and peasants, though they have always suffered most in the struggle, have never been able to achieve leadership. The bourgeois leaders of the Indian community have been prepared to call in the assistance of the Indian workers and peasants. But in the end they have always compromised with the white imperialists. They have failed to take up the fight for the demands of the workers and peasants. In particular they have prevented the oppressed Indian masses of poor people from making common cause with the Zulus and other oppressed native people in South Africa.

Black Man’s History Series, Umsebenzi, 3/8/1939.


The complex and diverse history of Indians in South Africa is covered in detail elsewhere.[1]

This chapter seeks to provide a broad historical sketch of the political development of Indian South Africans from their arrival in Natal in 1860 to 1979, with a primary focus on the resistance initiatives of Indians in Durban. In so doing, it assesses the role of class, consciousness and organisational form in the political development of a particular segment of South Africa’s black population. Since its inception, organised Indian politics has been characterised by a complex mixture of accommodation with, and resistance to, the political status quo.[2]

Most of the existing literature suggests that historically the Indians made a significant contribution to the struggle against white minority rule in South Africa. Evidence to support this claim is often seen in terms of the passive resistance (PR) campaigns of 1907, 1913, and 1946, and Indian involvement in the Defiance campaign and the Congress of the People. However, this overview attempts to clarify some of the weaknesses and difficulties experienced during the various resistance initiatives leading up to the 1980s. In setting the scene for the rest of the study, the chapter is divided into two broad sections, covering firstly political organisation from 1860 to 1960, and secondly the post-Sharpeville years from 1961 to 1979.

Early political organisation 1860-1960

The early years, 1860-1944

Indians were introduced into the body politic and the economy of Natal as indentured labourers between 1860 and 1911, and were differentially incorporated into a subordinate socio-economic position as dependent bonded labour. Marks and Trapido record that:

The majority of Indians were Hindu from South India who worked on the sugar plantations and coal mines in Natal. This migration was paralleled by a smaller number of largely Gujerati Muslim merchants and traders, who initially attempted to achieve political acceptance at the expense of poorer Indians. Their identity as a community was forged in the face of bitter discrimination and the constantly reiterated demand from white politicians that they be repatriated to India.[3]

Following the end of their five-year indenture contracts, over 52 per cent of these labour migrants opted to remain in Natal.[4]

Indians were differentiated along lines of class, religion, kinship and language from the time they first arrived as “passenger” Indians. The class composition became more complex as indentured labourers acquired the status of “free” Indians. Mainly through trade and enterprise, a small number of Indians established themselves as an urban middle-class. As Thiara notes, both occupational and economic activities and the residential settlement of Indians were determined by the macro infrastructure and the nature of their mode of entry into South African society. While indentured Indians generally became rural labourers and independent farmers, passenger Indians made up the commercial middle-class.[5]

Large numbers were also employed in the hotel trade and in work for the Durban municipality. Indians in Natal occupied an intermediary position between white settlers and the majority African population, which was manipulated by the colonial establishment from the inception of migration and settlement.[6]

The economic success of Indians as well as their numerical growth aroused fears of “swamping”, which manifested itself in white anti-Indianism and led to a number of discriminatory measures being passed by the Natal government.

The internal makeup of Indians as well as their structural location and positioning in relation to other groups, were crucial in determining early organised political responses. Swan illustrates how between 1893 and 1914 Indian politics were “crucially shaped by the social and economic stratification of the Indian population”.[7]

However, as has been argued by many, the heterogeneity among Indians was generally not reflected in national political organisation during this time. Most political studies, with a few exceptions focus exclusively on Gandhi and include little reference either to the inherent differences, other leaders or the masses of the people.[8]

In this way Indians, constructed as a homogeneous group, have been depicted as the “done to rather than the doers”.[9]

Indeed, action by indentured workers on the estates, albeit spontaneous and individualistic, preceded organised political action but has attracted little academic attention. The fact that indentured workers lacked the resources needed to initiate organisation, whereas traders were able to invest money and energy in political organisation, played a key role in shaping the contours and emphasis of Indian political organisation.[10]

Differing interests and the various divisions among Indian workers and traders, and between traders themselves, have been highlighted by Ginwala.[11]

The “diversity of Indian politics”, which were far from general, unified, or homogenous, has also been emphasised by Pahad.[12]

Essentially the Indian political community comprised only the highest strata of the population: merchants, petty traders and western-educated white collar workers. Moreover, the political community was predominantly male, and to date little attention has been given to the historic role of Indian women in political struggles. Inevitably, the ideological basis of their politics was consistent with maintaining a relatively privileged position in the economic hierarchy, and at no time did Indian politics during the earlier period seek a radical transformation of the social order. They emphasised their difference and a belonging to India, and, while stressing the need to present a united front, Indian organisations remained exclusive, seeing the struggle of African and Coloured people as essentially separate. While there is a need to critically examine the form and content of Indian politics during this time, it is also important to be vigilant against the danger of “presentism”, that is of measuring something that happened over a century ago with a yardstick of the present.[13]

As argued by some, it is important to contextualise Indian political activity historically and locate it within the wider South African context, particularly in relation to what was happening among other organisations, such as the African National Congress (ANC), which were also facing similar issues of philosophy and leadership.[14]

Organised Indian political expression in Natal did not owe its origins to Gandhi: it pre-dated his arrival in South Africa by several years. Gandhi was inducted into merchant politics as a hired representative at a time when there was an urgent need for a full-time organiser. His legal training, fluency in Gujerati and English, and ideological compatibility with the merchants rendered him particularly suitable for the task.[15]

The Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and later the Transvaal British Indian Association (TBIA), formed in 1894 after Gandhi’s arrival, were the direct descendants of the pre-Gandhian Indian Committee set up to campaign against discriminatory measures. Both the NIC and TBIA sought to protect established Indian commercial interests by means of polite constitutional protest. The only discernible new element in Indian politics between 1893 and 1906 was the more careful planning which derived from the use of a full-time organiser.[16]

The membership of the NIC consisted exclusively of trader Indians, since the majority of Indians could not afford the annual subscription fee of three pounds, and at the same time, meetings of the organisation were conducted in Gujerati, a language spoken by the minority trader class. While other organisations were established during this period, such as the Natal Indian Educational Association (which aimed at English-speaking free Indians), and the Natal Indian Patriotic Union (which sought to identify with the workers), they were generally “elite-based” and failed to undermine the hegemony of the NIC.[17]

Seven years after the formation of the NIC, Gandhi established the Indian Opinion, the first Indian newspaper in South Africa. This signalled a significant development for the NIC as the paper effectively became an organ for the party and sought to inform both the national and international community of events in South Africa. Although influential, given the levels of literacy at that time, the impact of the newspaper on the indentured community was bound to be limited. Nevertheless, it is likely, given the novelty of the newspaper and the desire of people to acquire news of both India and the conditions of Indians in Natal, that stories covered were spread by word of mouth.

While the first PR campaign organised by Gandhi was restricted to the Transvaal and focused on trader concerns, there was a subsequent widening of issues in the second campaign which concluded in 1913. The emergence of an upwardly mobile strata drawn from the indentured community, accompanied by a shift in Gandhi’s outlook and fading support from the traders, resulted in the three pound tax - one of the most profound grievances of Natal Indian workers - being pushed high on the agenda in 1913. Historian Jay Naidoo offers a likely reason why this took place: The three pound tax had no place in the struggle before 1913 because the problems of indentured labourers, the ex-indentured labourers and the tax, were, as far as principle was concerned, peripheral to India’s relations with Britain. To Gandhi…, the tax was not an empire issue...He appealed to the Indian miners of Newcastle to come out on strike not because they had been abused and exploited...but because India’s honour had been put at stake.[18]

The 1913 strike, regarded as a watershed in the history of resistance by Indian workers, involved thousands of workers across the country. The three pound tax, which drove ex-indentured workers into further indenture contracts, and extreme labour conditions led many to participate in the strike. As a result workers had to endure increased brutality from the state and from sugar barons, resulting in the injury and death of many, including women and children. Women participated generally in Gandhi’s early experiments in non-violent resistance, and they played a prominent role in 1913 as they travelled from the Transvaal to Natal, going from mine to mine appealing to Indians to cease work. The campaign achieved two of its objectives: the abolition of the three pound tax and the recognition of traditional Indian marriages. The historic Smuts-Gandhi Agreement and passage of the Indian Relief Act in 1914 were further outcomes, the latter being vigorously opposed by groups of Indians who argued that Gandhi had accepted the principle of repatriation.[19]

At the time of Gandhi’s departure, Indians continued to be deeply divided, and their political organisation was influenced by identification with India, class and religious affiliation as well as racially separate community spaces. However, despite these differences, Indians were “drawn together” as a result of racist exclusionary measures. Despite provincial differences, in 1920 the South African Indian Congress was formed to represent a single voice of the Indians in national and international forums.[20]

During this time the South African Indian question was also moved to the Imperial Conference, and in 1927 the appointment of an Indian Agent in South Africa who mediated all dialogue with the government further reinforced the separation of the Indian question from wider black concerns.

Like the provincial organisations, the South African Indian Congress was dominated by a trading elite, and the concerns of this section of the community were reflected in the organisational ideology, based on “methods of gaining and maintaining the goodwill of those in power. Characterised by negotiations, deputations, petitions, conferences and discussions, the underlying strategy was one of gradualism, bargaining and compromise”.[21]

Despite attempts to present a united voice and project a collective “Indianness”, disunity and differences were highlighted, especially over the 1927 Cape Town Agreement and the 1932 Colonising Scheme. The South African Indian Congress was accused of representing only wealthy interests and marginalising issues that affected the poorer working-class Indians. From the early 1930s, a period of intense anti-Indian legislation, Indian political activity was energised by the formation of organisations which sought to challenge the hegemony of the Congresses resulting in the fragmentation of Indian political organisation. While an organisation such as the Colonial Born and Settlers Indian Association (CBSIA), formed in 1933, attempted to voice the interests of South African-born Indians of indentured origin, it proved ultimately to be no more effective than its predecessor in terms of strategy and tactics.

India played a critical role in uniting Indian political organisation during this period of contestation of the NIC. The Government of India, which continued to support the Congresses, effected a merger of the CBSIA and the NIC by exerting pressure through its Agent General, resulting in the formation of the Natal Indian Association (NIA) in 1939. A small group of moderates who resisted the merger continued to operate under the banner of the NIC.[22]

Throughout this period, Indian political organisation remained separate and autonomous from that of other oppressed groups. However, while Indians adopted a posture of racial superiority over Africans, it is also important to take cognisance of developments within African mobilisation at a time when African people themselves were struggling to reinstate themselves in a restructured and industrialising society. It was not until the 1940s, when a new generation of educated radicals began to stress class and racial unity as a goal, that the contours of Indian political organisation began to change.

The defiance years, 1945-1960

The urban experience spawned a working-class which embraced strike action to improve its position as well as a younger and more radical professional leadership, with a wider outlook, which contested the narrow notion of community. This led to the rise of radicalism which, however, was to prove difficult to sustain while race and ethnicity remained the paramount identities.[23]

Increased industrialisation and urbanisation in the post-war period created both opportunities and the structural context which allowed Indian trade unionism and political organisation to grow and become radicalised. The employment of Indians changed drastically between 1939 and 1946, and of the total Indian population, 72.8% lived in urban areas by 1946.[24]

Since the 1930s trade unionists and younger political leaders, many of whom had working-class origins and were members of the Communist Party, had sought to challenge the moderate NIC leadership. The emergence of a new leadership coincided with a heightened consciousness among workers, who embraced trade unions as a means of seeking redress at a time of adverse economic conditions. As pointed out by Vahed, the organisation of workers in a range of employment sectors, including railways, mines and sugar, was widespread, so that between 1934 and 1945 a total of 43 unions with Indian membership were registered in Durban and 16,617 Indians were registered members by 1943.[25]

Moreover, Indian workers were involved in 46 strikes in Durban between 1937 and 1942, the most famous among them being at the Durban Falkirk factory.[26]

While strike action involved both African and Indian workers, the practice by white employers of replacing Indian workers with Africans served to alienate Indians from union activity. According to Vahed, Whereas prior to the 1930s they were engaged primarily against white racism, the African presence after this time added a new dimension as Indians were sandwiched between white racism and the attempts of Africans to carve a niche in the racialised urban economy. Indian monopoly was threatened in areas that they had once dominated. They became disenchanted with unions, were averse to strike action and sought to protect particular industries for their employment...Radicalism declined as workers became conservative and passive. The failure of non-racial unionism resulted in many of the radical leaders turning to nationalist politics which, in turn, promoted a racial and ethnic resistance identity.[27]

At a national level, the emergent “radical” Indian leaders, who drew largely on the support of Indian trade unions, presented a challenge to the older moderate leadership of Indian political organisations, as agitation over Indian “penetration” into white areas led to plans for further restrictive measures. Differences over strategy finally caused fragmentation, with radicals finally gaining ascendancy in 1945 and calling for both a PR campaign and closer co-operation with ‘non-white’ political organisations. It was by retaining links with India and greatly heeding the advice of Gandhi that, during the war years, radicals made the greatest impact on Indian politics, especially with their anti-war policy and a boycott of a government Commission set up to investigate Indian “penetration”.[28]

While the strategy of PR provided continuity between earlier and post-war Indian politics, in the latter period it held the potential for more militant forms of struggle. The Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill (Ghetto Act) of 1945 provoked the first major post-war PR campaign since the departure of Gandhi. During the two years of the campaign, a total of 2,000 resisters were imprisoned.[29]

While the campaign was seen as a “symbolic struggle to awaken all the oppressed people of South Africa and bring about a situation of togetherness”, issues affecting African people were hardly raised.[30]

However, the campaign resulted in raising the membership of Indian political organisations so that in June 1947 the NIC had 34 branches with a total membership of 34,875.[31]

These developments coincided with Indian independence; indeed Indian nationalism had a strong ideological influence on the radical Indian leadership who had more contact with India than Africans. The level of organisation reflected by the frequency of propaganda production - in the form of the news-sheet Flash - is noteworthy. The participation of women, especially in their humiliation at the hands of “white thugs”, was given great prominence.[32]

Although there was a clear shift in the consciousness of both leaders and workers accompanied by an attempt to develop cross-racial unity, race and ethnicity remained strong organising principles for Indian political organisation. The following statement, appearing in Flash, is one example of the way “Indianness” was evoked during the campaign:

It is for us as true sons and daughters of Mother India to follow in their footsteps and vindicate the honour of our community and our motherland. As a true Indian, you must become a passive resistance volunteer in order to protect the honour and dignity of our people.[33]

Despite attempts to solidify African-Indian unity through the Dadoo-Xuma-Naicker Pact of 1947, this goal remained unfulfilled, especially as the events of the 1949 Durban riots further exacerbated the separation between African and Indian people. While the riots will not be discussed in detail, it is important to record that they constitute one of the most powerful social events in the history of Indian South Africans, and their legacy still endures to the present.[34]

The late 1940s and early 1950s, a time of increased discrimination and the entrenchment of racial separation, were also marked by the heightened political resistance of inter-racial alliances of the oppressed groups. In 1948 the NP declared its commitment to the policy of separation between white and non-white racial groups. The NIC understood the NP policy as follows:

The Party holds the view that Indians are a foreign and out-landish element which is unassimilable. They can never become part of the country and they must therefore be treated as an immigrant community. The Nationalists accept as a basis of their policy the repatriation of as many Indians as possible. There needs to be a separation between Europeans and Indians in every sphere, as well as between Indians and other indigenous non-European groups.[35]

The early years of Nationalist rule were marked by a heightened experience of racial oppression by all black groups. The Group Areas Act (GAA) of 1950, which sought to systematise segregation and which became the cornerstone of apartheid, had a particularly vicious impact on Indians. Under the GAA, the government had absolute power to reallocate land according to race, and any group residing in an otherwise declared area was resettled. Since Indians, prevented from inter-provincial movement, were largely concentrated in Natal, where they had substantial property holdings, they were the group most severely and disproportionately affected by the Act.[36]

Plans announced by the Durban City Council in 1952 involved the displacement of a total of 3,100 whites, 55,000 Indians and 80,000 Africans.[37]

The GAA thus physically symbolised racial separation and inequality as well as the fragmentation of blacks into separate and mutually exclusive communities.

The apartheid plan was unfolded in a period when political co-operation between Indians and Africans came to fruition. The Indian Congresses, together with the ANC, were at the forefront of these struggles, which were waged through a mixture of strikes, school and consumer boycotts and PR campaigns. However, as ANC leader Z.K. Matthews observed, the attempts at unity had “not run a smooth course”.[38]

He was also at pains to illustrate that the adoption of PR techniques, while inspired by Gandhi, did not mean that “Indians...are teaching Africans.”[39]

Matthews, like other ANC leaders, was concerned that unity would be “frustrated by the dangling of faint hopes [that would include] better support of Indian and Coloured education”.[40]

Also, Chief Albert Luthuli, in his presidential address in October 1953 to the Natal ANC raised concerns regarding perceptions of Indians amongst Africans:

I have deliberately referred to the need for a multi-racial democratic front because there is much confusion on this subject in Natal, especially as regards our co-operation with Indians. Some in Natal are being misguided by the Indian bogey. This is being fanned by Nationalist propaganda. Africans must get it into their heads that the stumbling block to their progress are the many discriminatory laws made by a white parliament...why hate the recipient and not blame the giver for not giving Africans those rights and privileges. Even numerically the Indian can never be a danger to South Africa. It is only white propaganda that makes the Indian appear a mortal danger.[41]

When the Defiance Campaign was launched in 1952, resulting in 8,557 arrests by 1954, the membership of the ANC was greatly boosted and the formation of the Congress Alliance, in the face of planned separation measures, was a major symbolic breakthrough for opposition movements.[42]

Indian participation, particularly in the aftermath of the 1949 riots, was largely limited. These nascent attempts at non-racial unity were met with severe state repression and the arrest of 156 leaders whose trial continued until 1961, when they were finally freed.[43]

Following the formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe in 1961, mass arrests, detentions and bannings forced the ANC into exile, and the entire executive of the Indian Congresses was banned, rendering these organisations non-existent, posing new dilemmas for Indian political organisation.

The Post-Sharpeville years 1961-1979

From Sharpeville to Durban, 1961-1972

The banning of the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) following the Sharpeville uprising decimated resistance and led to a political vacuum. 1961 also signalled a decisive shift in the NP government’s view of Indians in South Africa, since they were finally accepted as permanent citizens of the Republic. The Minister of the Interior made a statement in Parliament on 16 May 1961 introducing a new policy regarding Indian South Africans - a policy which was implemented during the 1960s and which put an end to the insecurity that had marked the first century of Indian settlement in the country.[44]

Following the position of outright antagonism, as witnessed in the political statements of NP politicians during the 1948 election, the seeds of incorporation began to be sewn in a systematic way when the NP set in motion plans to bring Indians and Coloureds into its fold and finally end the discourse of repatriation. The failure of the South African Indian Congress to mobilise effectively against the establishment of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1961 paved the way for the government to progress its plans for developing separate structures for Indians, particularly the National Indian Council, later to become the South African Indian Council (SAIC), as well as for the entry of more conservative Indians into the public space. These structures included only nominated members and had purely consultative and advisory powers until 1974, when the SAIC became a partly elected body. They were part of the plan to ensure that Indian demands were channelled through the government and were to be used for the implementation of a separate development policy.[45]

As pointed out by Desai, the majority of participants in the South African Indian Congress were drawn from the Indian commercial class and, as in earlier periods of Indian political history, they focused primarily on Indian trader concerns.[46]

While on the one hand, developments in this period guaranteed Indians a place in the country, they also created a high level of insecurity, leaving little space for the articulation of political opposition and concerns. In addition, the GAA displaced thousands of Durban Indians, initially to Chatsworth, which was established in 1964. Later Indians were relocated to Phoenix when it was established in 1976. In addition to the material suffering wrought by the GAA, the consequences for the social and community life of Indians were most pronounced. Increased transport and housing costs brought financial hardship to many; the fragmentation of extended family networks further eroded the support structures and exposed greater class differences.[47]

Moreover, it can be argued that the GAA made Indians conservative and introverted as it reduced the level of cross-racial interaction. These developments took place during a period when radical Indian politics had been effectively stifled, thus creating a space for the rise of Indian conservatism, fully aided by the state apparatus. In addition to the acknowledgement of Indians as citizens, the state also began a development programme aimed at upgrading the standard of life of Indians. This resulted from changes in the economy which required more skilled people, and from the fact that Indians, as a minority, did not constitute a threat to white power, thus making it more strategic to invest resources into Indian education.

Between 1962 and 1972 Indian resistance politics entered a vacuum which resonated with developments among African and Coloured communities as well as the white left. During this period, several people were sent to Robben Island and their trials were frequently reported in the Durban media, resulting in a contradictory impact on Indian consciousness. This evoked support and sympathy for Indian activists who were imprisoned, and generated anger against the government. It also acted as a strong deterrent for people to be involved in politics, since it created great fear. Little work has been done on the location of Indian resistance politics from 1962 to the present, with the exception of one recent study.[48]

However, for my purposes it is necessary to point to some significant developments during this period. The first of these relates to the ANC in exile, which at its Morogoro conference of 1969 recognised Indians and Coloureds as integral parts of its political constituency. A commitment was made by the ANC to promote the organisation of Indians, Coloureds and democratic whites. This occurred at a time when the NIC had become moribund. Internally, resistance energies began to regroup in the late 1960s around the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) within which several Indian activists, especially in Durban, were prominent. BCM members were at first divided over the establishment of an exclusively black organisation. Some were concerned with being labelled racist, while others feared that the BCM would become an “amorphous collection” of Africans, Indians and Coloureds. Some students in fact favoured an exclusively African organisation.

Many high profile BC activists, including Steve Biko, Barney Pityana and Saths Cooper, resided in Durban, making the city a key national centre of resistance activity by 1972. Biko was a medical student at the University of Natal, at that time the only place in South Africa where Indians, Africans and Coloureds were housed together. It was there that Biko had seen the beneficial effects of working alongside all black students.[49]

A BC student publication, reflecting Biko’s views, urged blacks to seek common ground: By all means be proud of your Indian heritage, of your African culture, but make sure that in looking around for somebody to kick at, choose the fellow who is sitting on your neck.[50]

While BC was trying to develop a common approach involving all blacks, the SAIC created a platform for those Indian politicians who largely accepted the idea of separate development. However, it also articulated some criticism of government policy.

Against the wider backdrop of heightened trade union activity and radical student organisation, there were attempts to revive political activity through the formation of the Committee of Clemency which called for the release of political prisoners, and a bread boycott by the Labour Party which involved Indians.[51]

Following the relative success of these campaigns, there were moves to re-launch the NIC. On 25 June 1971 Mewa Ramgobin stressed the NIC’s Gandhian roots at a meeting called to secure a mandate for the revival of the NIC. No mention was made either of the Freedom Charter, the Congress Alliance or the period of the 1940s and 1950s.[52]

Subsequently, several branches of the NIC were established leading to its re-launch in October 1971. This was immediately shrouded in political and ideological controversy.

The ANC, it would appear, were not fully unanimous about the revival of the NIC, nor did they seek to provide a political line on the issue. They recognised that there were tendencies towards both unity and diversity. Unity in response to the fundamental fact of South African life, white supremacy; diversity because of the differential techniques of domination and exploitation of each group...The different levels of national consciousness, the historical legacy of separate national movements, and even some inter-black prejudices (always encouraged by government), could not be made to disappear simply by ignoring them or by ideological appeals only.[53]

Younger activists, influenced by the BCM, demanded that the NIC abandon its narrow ethnic appeal and incorporate all black people into its membership and end the legacy of separate organisation. They also rejected an alliance with whites and stated that the “ideals of Gandhi were no longer historically appropriate for the current times”.[54]

The BC grouping found themselves in a minority and the NIC rejected any ideology which propagated black exclusiveness. As will be shown in later chapters, this debate and tension continued into the 1990s. In 1972 the NIC finally decided to retain its Indian character with a vote on the matter (32 votes versus 30).[55]

Those activists favouring a BC approach abandoned attempts to try and transform the NIC and later participated in the formation of the Black People’s Convention (BPC).[56]

The NIC failed to provide a response to the criticisms that BC adherents directed at the revival of an ethnically- based body.[57]

However, involving mainly students, the BCM constituted a political elite as far as most Indians were concerned and did not develop a significant following in Indian areas. The debate over NIC membership was overshadowed by the question of whether to participate within government-created structures. While a vote decided against participation, this debate continued throughout the 1970s.

During this time, A.M. Rajab, the chair of the SAIC, accused the NIC of extreme militancy. An NIC spokesperson responded that “the NIC will always make its plea for Indian political advancement in a responsible manner without resorting to violence of any kind”.[58]

The Chair of the NIC, George Sewpersadh, added:

Why is non-violence essential to our struggle?

Because non-violence is the path of dignity. It is the way of all rational men. It is that which differentiates man from animals. It is that essential which constitutes the culture of a nation. It is a moral weapon and it is morally justifiable...we do not need to unleash a similar violence since we know clearly the immorality of it all. We cannot counter an anarchy with an equal anarchy. There is enough for all of us in the struggle by non-violent means.[59]

This tendency to stress pacifism ran into conflict with the rising militancy, including support for the armed struggle within African political organisation and contradicted the trend of NIC activists who had embraced Umkhonto We Sizwe at its formation. Given the repressive context, it would have been virtually impossible for the NIC to publicly embrace armed struggle. Some in the NIC might have argued that the emphasis on non-violence, as an inviolable principle, was simply a strategic ploy. However, the frequency with which it was mentioned, the potency of the language used and the utilisation of Gandhi as a peg, all contributed to making it difficult for Indians to gravitate towards the ANC and other BC organisations that were becoming more militant in their articulation and practice. Furthermore, NIC discourse and practice during the early 1970s, and later, did not exhibit an explicitly progressive approach to the participation of women as equals in resistance activity. The NIC also failed to develop a specific appeal among the Indian working-class, which constituted 70% of the total Indian population. During the mid-1970s the form of the liberation alliance was not fixed. As noted by Slovo, “It shifts and develops to suit not only changing objective conditions but also ideological changes amongst the masses who are constantly re-educated by political activity”.[60]

With regard to underground structures, Slovo was emphatic that it was “both impractical and inefficient to encourage a number of parallel underground organisations of African, Coloured, Indian and the few white revolutionaries, each with its own leadership”.[61]

Nonetheless, the ANC by the mid-1970s was committed to recruiting “those revolutionaries from the minority groups” who were “unconditionally devoted to the liberation struggle and who [were] ready to participate in underground work”.[62]

The Durban strikes, Soweto uprising and beyond, 1973-1979

By the early 1970s, while opportunities for Indian workers opened up in the textile and clothing industries, some parts of the Durban economy were not as open to employing Indian labour.[63]

Competition between African and Indian workers over scarce employment opportunities increased during this period. It is estimated that over two million African workers were engaged in work in the non-agricultural sectors by 1970.[64]

African trade unions had been in existence since the first world war, and despite fluctuations, by 1945 African trade union membership stood at 150, 000. Although strikes by Africans were illegal, they were a regular occurrence.[65]

As detailed earlier, Indian unions were also numerous in the 1930s and strikes were common, though union action waned by the late 1940s. The 1973 Durban strikes, consisting of a series of spontaneous actions by workers, were seen as a highly significant event in South African social history, and represented a departure from earlier worker action.[66]

Tensions between Indian and African workers after the 1949 Durban riots were tangible, while dissension also existed among Indian workers themselves. However, though the strikes have been referred to as African strikes, and an assumption has been made that a conflict of interest existed between the two labour providers, it is apparent from the available literature that Indian and Coloured workers played a significant role in the strikes. There is inconclusive speculation, however, about whether participation was driven by genuine support for the grievances or by a fear of non-participation. Sipho Buthelezi has argued that official statistics underestimated the size of the strike because they generally ignored Indian solidarity strikes.[67]

He suggests further that the massive involvement of Indians indicated a degree of non-racial working-class solidarity previously unseen in South Africa.[68]

Media reports quoting employers indicated fear on the part of Indians. However, Indian workers were also reported to have approached strike leaders and expressed concern about reprisals from their employers. One African strike leader stated that: “The Indians want to join us but they are scared of the employers. They want us to chase them out of the factory so that they will have an excuse”.[69]

Saths Cooper also recalls an absence of animosity, despite media reports to the contrary, when he and other BC activists investigated such allegations.[70]

Trade union leader Jay Naidoo, when reflecting on the strikes in 1985, stated that:

Africans of Durban realised full well that their real enemy was not the Indian but certain social and political of the most optimistic signs is to witness how Indian and African workers expressed their solidarity during the Durban strikes in 1973.[71]

An investigation of the strikes reveals the absence of overt conflict between Indian and African workers and instances where Indians actually encouraged African workers to strike. Undoubtedly Indians participated in many of the strikes and gave various reasons for doing so, including demands for higher wages and fear of African workers, but it is likely that “about half of those who gave reasons for striking were striking together with the Africans, rather than out of fear of them”.[72]

A survey conducted by the Institute of Industrial Education showed that Indians expressed a high degree of solidarity with African workers. Slovo echoed this observation, arguing that the attempts by the government to secure Indian acceptance of relatively powerless institutions had essentially failed and that Indian workers in Natal “showed an impressive degree of solidarity with the striking Africans”.[73]

By 1975, while there existed a considerable gap between rich and poor Indians, it was asserted by the government that there was an absence of an established Indian middle-class.[74]

It is likely that these claims were made in order to discourage Indian agitation for greater political representation. However, the government claimed that this was being addressed by a rapidly expanding body of Indians entering various professions, including those who held senior positions as lecturers, teachers and public servants, as well as those who had taken up skilled employment in industry or managerial positions in the financial sector.[75]

Slovo suggested during this time that: Class differences and antagonisms within the oppressed groups have a significant bearing in the struggle for social change, and of respective roles in relation to the imperative of linking the national with social revolution.[76]


However, the ANC recognised that the overwhelming number of Indians were working-class, and that the emergent “commercial bourgeoisie...[were] barred from using its economic resources to break into the top layer of the capitalist structures.” [77]

There was an optimism that Indians “form a natural ally of the African masses even though the ruling class often attempts to use the [Indians] slightly more favourable position to divert them from full involvement in the struggle for all-round radical change.”[78]

Durban did not feature prominently in the 1976 student rebellion even though there were both university and high school boycotts in some African communities. There were attempts in some Coloured high schools to join the protest but they did not come to fruition.[79]

The Indian schools in Durban were virtually untouched by the events of the period. Among tertiary students, Kogila Moodley observed that in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising well over half of the black students arrested in Durban by the police for distributing pamphlets were Indians.[80]

Moreover, while youth nationally shunned Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s calls for calm and normality, Durban’s youth were generally unwilling to risk generational conflict since many African parents discouraged their children from participating in the boycotts.[81]

In the wake of African hesitation towards the student rebellion, Indian involvement was also limited.

It is evident that during this time the BC philosophy gained ground among Indian university students, and that those who moved into NIC politics by the late 1970s had been politicised through the BCM. By the end of the 1970s and after the banning of the BCM, a grouping of younger NIC activists emerged and stressed the need to work within civic organisations in Indian working-class areas, pointing out that the BCM had only succeeded in reaching university students. This created further tension within the NIC, as we shall see in the next chapter, as debates about participation in the SAIC elections were re-opened. While AZAPO, formed in 1978 after the banning of the BCM in October 1977, continued the BC tradition, it had a limited impact amongst Indians.[82]

Cultural differences also influenced the relationship amongst black people. However, by the late 1970s, Kogila Moodley noted that: “In the educational sphere, the increasing direct identification of Indian and African students, in spite of separate education, has been noticeable.”[83]

She further suggested that:

Although officially the Black Peoples [Convention] could not show significant numbers of Indians as members, due to fear of political repercussions, the idioms and essential message of this movement have penetrated the minds of a significant number of university students and, to an even greater extent, high school students.[84]

Nevertheless, the mass of Indians were untouched by the resistance activities in the 1970s. The pro-Frelimo rally at the Curries Fountain Stadium in 1974, the death of Steve Biko in detention in 1977, and the trials of several Durban BC activists, including some Indians, all received prominent media coverage. Indeed, television, introduced in 1976, became a powerful shaper of political opinion and cultural production among Indian people, along with Indian radio programmes, especially in the face of growing press restrictions.[85]

A government source observed in 1975 that:

As a minority group [Indians] are, of course, constantly exposed to radio, press, and cinema media that have their roots in a Western Civilisation. Hence the Indians in South Africa cannot be called Orientals in the true sense. Nevertheless they are in the process of evolving a cultural pattern that is unique.[86]

It is against this background of political, cultural and economic transition that the events of the coming decade and a half will need to be analysed.


The history of Indian politics in South Africa is a complex mixture of accommodation and resistance. By providing an overview of the key trends and developments during the period 1860 to 1979, it has been established that class was a key determinant in shaping political strategies and choices. In the earlier period, class served primarily to differentiate indentured and merchant class Indians. This divide was reflected in Indian political organisation through which the NIC disproportionately reflected the agenda of the Indian trader class, with the exception of the 1913 strikes. 1913 represented a departure from earlier trends and created a space not only for the greater participation of Indian women but also for the mass participation of Indian workers. A common ethnic identity did not exist during this period, so much so that Gandhi referred to “the different Indian races inhabiting South Africa”.[87]

One of the projects of the NIC was to weld together persons of different caste, language, religion and region into a common “Indianness”.

In so doing, the NIC turned to India for inspiration and guidance, thus reinforcing the distance between themselves and other oppressed groups. The insertion of radical political elements into the NIC opened up a space for worker participation within the Congress. More importantly, the 1930s and 1940s were marked by the growth of trade unionism and Communist Party politics. While there were specific Indian worker agendas during this period, the seeds for a non-racial class unity were sown for the first time. This created the basis for political alliances between Indians and Africans, resulting in their joint participation in the Defiance Campaigns. However, it is important to recognise that these campaigns often involved only the leadership and active membership of the Indian Congresses. It is of little surprise then that the 1949 riots had such devastating effects, with both the Indian and African leaderships being unable to intervene and secure solidarity, thus frustrating potential class and racial alliances while serving to reinforce a collective Indian identity.

The riots left an enduring legacy which continues to influence popular consciousness to the present. However, the political campaigns of the 1950s, the co-operation between Indian and African workers during the Durban Strikes of 1973, and the visibility of Indians in the BCM all contributed to the possibility of non-racial political discourse and practice. The shift in state policy to co-opt Indians and abandon the goal of repatriation set the basis for changes in the structural context of Indian existence. These developments, particularly with regard to educational upliftment, had a powerful impact on consciousness. Apartheid policy thereafter sought to strengthen Indian ethnic identity and dissuade alliances with other oppressed groups either on the basis of race or class. The growth in media technology, the greater desire by the state to control the electronic media and constrain the print media served further to reinforce political introversion. The repressive instruments of the state complemented the ideological interventions of the government, especially after the 1977 bannings. In any event, as in the earlier periods, during the 1970s Indians exhibited high levels of heterogeneity which was now also affected by residential location. The new Group Areas of Chatsworth and Phoenix were communities in the making and included residents with diverse histories and backgrounds. Yet one of the most powerful implications of the implementation of the GAA was the construction of “pure” Indian spaces which made non-racial solidarities harder to achieve. Nevertheless, the two major working-class constructs of Chatsworth and Phoenix threw up several issues of struggle and frustration which set the basis for political agitation within these townships, and potentially, with residents of other townships who shared these feelings of marginality and exclusion from the white power structure. It is to these incipient struggles that we now turn in the next chapter.

End notes:

[1]F.Meer, Portrait of Indian South Africans (Durban, Avon House, 1969); H.Kuper Indian People in Natal, (Durban, Natal University Press, 1960).

[2]E.Pahad, The Development of Indian Political Movements in South Africa, 1924-1946 (Sussex University, unpublished PhD thesis, 1972); F.Ginwala, Class Consciousness and Control: Indian South Africans, 1860 - 1946 (Oxford University, unpublished PhD thesis, 1974); S.Appavoo, Apartheid and South African Indians: A Critical Study of a Minority Group in a Situation of Political, Social and Legal Discrimination (Bradford University, unpublished PhD thesis, 1983).

[3]S.Marks and S.Trapido, in S.Johnson (editor), South Africa: No Turning Back (London, Macmillan, 1988), p.10.

[4]M.Swan, Gandhi: The South African Experience (Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1985), p.1.

[5]R.K.Thiara, Migration, Organisation and Inter-Ethnic Relations: Indians in South Africa 1860-1990 (University of Warwick, unpublished PhD. thesis, 1993), p.111.

[6]Marks and Trapido, in Johnson, op.cit., p.4

[7]Swan, op.cit., p.270.

[8]Swan, op. cit.; B.Pachai, The International Aspects of the South African Indian Question 1860-1971, (Cape Town, Struik, 1971).

[9]Thiara, op.cit., p.147.

[10]Thiara, op.cit., p.149.

[11]Ginwala, op.cit., introduction.

[12]Pahad, op.cit., p.7.

[13]Interview, R.K.Thiara.

[14]Thiara, op.cit., p.163.

[15]Swan, op.cit., pp.14-16.

[16]Swan, op.cit., pp.272.

[17]Swan, op.cit., pp.14-16.

[18]Swan, op.cit., pp.144.

[19]Meer, op. cit., p.33.

[20]M.Palmer, The History of the Indians in Natal (Natal Regional Survey 10, Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1957), p.81.

[21]Moodley, op.cit., p.104.

[22]Meer, op. cit., p.34.

[23]G.Vahed, The Making of Indian Identity in Durban, 1914-1949 (Indiana University, unpublished PhD thesis, 1995), p.221.

[24]Cited in Thiara, op. cit., p.169.

[25]Vahed, op. cit., p.233.

[26]V.Padaychee, cited in Vahed, op. cit., p.234.

[27]V.Padaychee, cited in Vahed, op. cit., p.240.

[28]D.R.Bagwandeen, The Question of “Indian Penetration” in the Durban Area and Indian Politics: 1940-1946 (University of Natal, unpublished PhD thesis, 1983).

[29]Pahad, op. cit., p.275.

[30]Thiara, op. cit., p.173.

[31]Passive Resister, 6 June 1947.

[32]Passive Resister, 6 June 1947.

[33]Flash, Number 45, 30 June 1946, p.25.

[34]See for example K.Kirkwood and M.Webb, The Durban Riots and After (Johannesburg, SAIRR, 1949).

[35]Dr.M.Naicker, Group Areas Act and Its Effects on the Indian People of Natal, NIC conference, 5/5/1956, Durban.

[36]F.Meer, “Uprooting and Resettling: The Case of Indians in Durban”, South African Outlook, Winter 1975, p.131.

[37]L.Kuper, H. Watts and R.J.Davies, Durban: A Study in Racial Ecology (London, Jonathan Cape, 1958), p.16.

[38]Z.K.Matthews, “South Africa: A Land Divided Against Itself”, Yale Review, Summer 1953, p.8.

[39]Z.K.Matthews, “South Africa: A Land Divided Against Itself”, Yale Review, Summer 1953, p.11.

[40]Z.K.Matthews, “Racial Antagonisms”, speech given at Yale University, 1953.

[41]A.Luthuli Papers, Film MISC, 708, Reel One, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University, p.4.

[42]Cited in Thiara, op. cit., p.236.

[43]Ginwala, op. cit., p.10.

[44]RSA, Department of Information, The Indian South African, (Pretoria, Government Printer, February 1975), p.8.

[45]A.Desai, Arise Ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian 1960-1995 (Johannesburg, Impact Africa Publishing Co., 1996)

[46]A.Desai, Arise Ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian 1960-1995 (Johannesburg, Impact Africa Publishing Co., 1996)p.33.

[47]Moodley, op.cit., p.117.

[48]Desai, op.cit.

[49]Quoted in M.Barr, To Sing of Africa: The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Yale University, unpublished paper, 1986), p.6.

[50]Quoted in M.Barr, To Sing of Africa: The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Yale University, unpublished paper, 1986), p.6.

[51]NIC, History of the Natal Indian Congress, (Durban, unpublished paper, 1985).

[52]NIC, History of the Natal Indian Congress, (Durban, unpublished paper, 1985).

[53]J.Slovo, “South Africa: No Middle Road”, in R.Segal (editor), Southern Africa: The New Politics of Revolution (Middlesex, Penguin, 1979), p.174.

[54]J.Slovo, “South Africa: No Middle Road”, in R.Segal (editor), Southern Africa: The New Politics of Revolution (Middlesex, Penguin, 1979), p.34.

[55]Desai, op.cit., p.43.

[56]Desai, op.cit., p.43.

[57]R.Singh and S.Vawda, “What’s in a Name?: Some Reflections on the Natal Indian Congress” in Transformation, Volume 6, 1988, p.7.

[58]Desai, op.cit, p.36.

[59]Desai, op.cit, p.36.

[60]Desai, op.cit, p.178.

[61]Desai, op.cit, p.178.

[62]Desai, op.cit, p.178.

[63]B.Freund, Insiders and Outsiders: The Indian Working-Class of Durban, 1910-1990 (London, James Currey, 1995), p.78.

[64]Institute for Industrial Education, Durban Strikes 1973: Human Beings with Souls (Durban, Institute for Industrial Education, 1974), p.3.

[65]M.Horrell, cited in Institute for Industrial Education, op. cit., p.3.

[66]Institute for Industrial Education, op. cit., p.6.

[67]S.Buthelezi, “Lessons of the 1973 Durban Mass Strikes,” Azanian Worker, Vol.2, No.3, pp.22-26.

[68]Cited in A.Drew, “Political Representation and the Indian Question in South African Politics”, South Asia Bulletin, Vol.7, No.2, Fall 1992, p.64.

[69]Institute for Education, op.cit., p.58.

[70]Drew, op.cit., p.64.

[71]Leader, 11/1/1985.

[72]Institute for Education, op. cit., p.63.

[73]Slovo, op.cit., p.203.

[74]RSA, Department of Information, The Indian South African (Pretoria, Government Printer, February 1975), p.12.

[75]RSA, Department of Information, The Indian South African (Pretoria, Government Printer, February 1975), p.12.

[76]Slovo, op.cit., p.127.

[77]Slovo, op.cit., p.126.

[78]SSlovo, op.cit., p.127.

[79]Interview, C.Roberts.

[80]Moodley, op.cit., p.454.

[81]A.Brooks and J.Brickhill, Whirlwind Before the Storm (London, IDAF, 1980), p.131.

[82]M.West, “Indian Politics in South Africa: 1860 to the Present”, South Asia Bulletin, Vol. 7, 1987, p.107.

[83]K.Moodley, “The Ambivalence of Survival Politics in Indian-African Relations” in B.Pachai, (editor), South Africa's Indians: The Evolution of a Minority (Washington, D.C., University Press of America, 1979), p.454.

[84]Moodley, op.cit., p.444.

[85]Interview, S. Chetty.

[86]RSA, Department of Information, The Indian South African, (Pretoria, Government Printer, February 1975), p.66.

[87]Indian Opinion, 11/4/1908

From: Class, Consciousness and Organisation: Indian Political Resistance in Durban, South Africa, 1979-1996 by Kumi Naidoo