On June 13, 1996, President Nelson Mandela inaugurated a year-long observance of the 1946 Indian passive resistance in South Africa. Speaking at the University of Natal in Durban, he described the campaign as "an epic of our struggle for liberation" and paid tribute to Dr. G.M. Naicker, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and other leaders of resistance. He recalled that India had raised the issue of South African racism at the United Nations, broke off economic relations with South Africa and became "a champion of the world campaign against all forms of racism". The following article is based on the introduction prepared by Mr. Reddy for a souvenir book released by President Mandela on that occasion.
The Indian passive resistance of 1946-48 was a landmark in the history of the South African liberation struggle. It was the first episode in a continuous and determined mass movement for liberation from racist tyranny and the training ground for many Indians who went on to make great contributions to the national liberation movement. It initiated the mobilisation of world public opinion in support of freedom in South Africa.
It already carried within it the seeds of an alliance of the oppressed people and democratic whites: though the struggle was initiated by Indian Congresses in protest against legislation applying solely to Indians, a number of Africans, Coloured people and whites not only declared their support but joined the movement and suffered the rigours of racist prison.
The passive resistance aroused the Indian people to mass political action. The membership of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), with the participation of trade unions and other organisations, rose from a few hundred to 35,000 by 1947. The Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) had no membership, but its mass rallies, like those of the NIC, began to attract many thousands of people.
The Indian movement set an example to all the black people of South Africa, and gave them confidence that the monster of racism could be defeated. It helped prepare the way for an entirely new stage in the struggle against racism - away from mere petitions and compromises with racism, and towards confrontation with the system of white domination to eradicate racism and secure full equality for all the people in a democratic society.
Passive Resistance Launched
Early in 1946, the Smuts Government announced its decision to introduce the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill, severely restricting the rights of Indians to own or occupy land. The bill also provided for the election by Indians - on a separate communal voters' role, under qualified franchise - three Europeans to the House of Assembly and two Europeans to the Senate, as well as two members to the Natal Provincial Council.
The entire Indian community opposed this measure. The conference of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), still under the control of the "moderates", adopted a resolution accusing the government of appeasing "extreme white reactionaries". It resolved "to mobilise all the resources of the Indian people" to oppose the proposed legislation which it described as "an insult to the national honour and dignity of the Indian nation". It also decided to send delegations to India, Britain and the United States. Public opinion in India was outraged at the decision of the South African government to proceed with the legislation despite repeated representations by the Indian government. In March 1946, when the SAIC delegation arrived in India, the Viceroy's Executive Council announced its decision to terminate the trade agreement with South Africa. Mahatma Gandhi supported the SAIC decision to resist. The working committee of the Indian National Congress, in a resolution of March 1946, asked the government of India to withdraw the High Commissioner in South Africa if the Union government would not suspend action on the legislation, pending a round table conference "to consider the whole policy of the Union Government against non-white peoples of the earth".
As the South African government proceeded with the legislation - described by Dr. G.M. Naicker as the "Ghetto Bill" - the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congresses set up Passive Resistance Councils (PRCs) - under the leadership of Dr. G.M. Naicker, President of NIC, and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, President of TIC - to organise resistance. The councils agreed that immediately after the Ghetto Bill became law, resisters from all over the country would defy it by occupying municipal land at the corner of Gale Street and Umbilo Road in Durban.
The Ghetto Act came into force on 2 June.Passive resistance began on 13 June which was observed as "Resistance Day" with a complete hartal by Indians all over the country. A mass meeting of over 15,000 people in Durban was followed by a march to the Gale Street "Resistance Plot" where, under the leadership of Dr. Naicker and M. D. Naidoo, the first batch of seventeen passive resisters, including seven women, pitched tents in defiance of the Ghetto Act.
The government took no action for several days and the police stood by while white hooligans attacked the camp nightly from 16 June, pulled down the tents and assaulted the resisters, including women, with ever-increasing savagery. On 21 June, Krishensamy Pillai, a plainclothes policeman, was attacked in the vicinity of the resistance camp, beaten unconscious and thrown in a gutter: he died of the wounds a few days later. On 23 June, five resisters were beaten unconscious and thrown in the gutter; Miss Zainab Asvat and Mrs. Rabia Docrat were injured, and J. Joshi, leader of a batch of resisters, fell unconscious. None of the hooligans was ever charged.
The resisters were undeterred and remained non-violent. "Hooligans or no hooligans, carry on we must, and carry on we shall," said Miss Asvat who had left her medical studies to join the resistance. Mrs. Docrat, who received serious internal injuries, said in a statement:
"The brutal assault on myself and my fellow resisters are signs of the weakness of our oppressors. We may be harmed and physically maimed or even die, but the spirit of our people will not die because of these brutal and cowardly attacks. In the face of all WE SHALL RESIST." These organised acts of terrorism against peaceful resisters, condoned by the authorities, greatly increased support for resistance. Thousands of Indians visited the camp every night to show their support and admiration for the resisters and hundreds enrolled as resisters all over South Africa.
The cowardly racist violence moved the Reverend Michael Scott and Benny Sischie, a student at the Witwatersrand University, to join the resisters. Michael Scott recounted how he stood in a group of resisters which was attacked. He was pushed and insulted by the bullies, while Miss Asvat, who was with him, was bleeding. He recalled that she said to him, "It's not their fault, they don't know what they are doing". He commented that her religion had taught her more than the attackers had found in the story of the Crucifixion.
Violence stopped only on 24 June when the Smuts government took action after wide protests, including condemnation by Mahatma Gandhi.
Meanwhile, the police arrested the resisters for the first time on 21 June, charging them with "trespassing". They were found guilty but cautioned and discharged. That very evening they went back to the Resistance Camp. They were again charged with "trespassing" and given a suspended sentence of 7 days' hard labour.
It was only on 27 June that the first group of resisters, including Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker, were sent to prison, this time under the Riotous Assemblies Act.
Doctors and lawyers, workers and traders, farmers and housewives, students and teachers joined the resistance and went to prison. The resisters included many priests and theologians; Mrs. "Cissy" Gool, a City Councillor of Cape Town; the 79-year-old Ebrahim M. Kotwal; and several schoolchildren, some of whom were sentenced to flogging. They numbered nearly two thousand by June 1948 when the resistance was suspended.
The Ghetto Act could not be enforced. Not a single Indian agreed to join the Land Tenure Advisory Board. The communal representation offered under the Act was still-born.
Support by Africans and Europeans
A very significant aspect of the passive resistance was the profound effect it had on African and Coloured people and the mutual cooperation which developed between the Indian Congresses and their organisations, the African National Congress (ANC) and the African People's Organisation (APO). Dr. A.B. Xuma, President-General of the ANC, announced at a mass meeting in Johannesburg on 21 April:
"I declare from this platform that we Africans do not only sympathise, but will support and assist in all possible manner the Indians in their struggle against this inhuman legislation..." No less than 15 Africans and 47 Coloured people joined the Indian resistance in an exceptional demonstration of solidarity.
Indians, in turn, supported African struggles.In August 1946, when the African mine workers went on strike and were brutally suppressed, the Transvaal PRC organised relief for the miners. Among the 51 persons who were charged with inciting the strike, there were three Indian members of the PRC - Dr. Dadoo, J. N. Singh and M. I. Vania.
The leaders of the Indian Congresses also sought support from whites. White sympathisers formed the Council for Asiatic Rights in Johannesburg and the Council for Human Rights in Durban to support the passive resistance. Both organisations tried, under difficult circumstances, to educate European public opinion and promote wider understanding of the Indian cause. They published several pamphlets and wrote letters to the press for this purpose.
Eight whites joined the passive resistance and suffered imprisonment. They included: the Rev. Michael Scott, a British priest in Johannesburg; the Rev. W.H. Satchell of St. Aidan's Mission in Durban; and Miss Mary Barr, a British teacher in India who became an admirer of Gandhiji and was then living in Durban.
Racism becomes a world issue
In June 1946, the Indian government sent a formal request to the United Nations that the treatment of Indians in South Africa be considered by the the General Assembly at its next session. Before the opening of the Assembly session, a national government led by Pandit Nehru took office on September 1, 1946. The new government regarded the South African problem as its most important concern at the United Nations. It also decided to oppose South Africa's request for the annexation of the mandated territory of South West Africa.
The task of the Indian delegation to the United Nations, led by Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, was not easy. Much of the world was under colonial rule and of the 54 members of the United Nations, only ten were from Asia and four (including the Union of South Africa) from Africa. Though the Organisation was born during the war against Nazi racism, the Western world had not become sensitive to racism against non-white peoples, as demonstrated by the colonial wars which followed the end of the world war. Many members were, moreover, very cautious and legalistic about the role of the United Nations.
While General Smuts personally led the official South African delegation, a multi-racial people's delegation arrived in New York to assist the Indian delegation. It was led by Dr. A.B. Xuma and included H.A. Naidoo and Sorabjee Rustomjee, representing the PRCs, and Senator H. Basner.
When the Assembly took up the question of South West Africa, Sir Maharaj Singh, the Indian delegate, described the treatment of the African majority in South Africa to show that annexation of South West Africa would only entrench similar discrimination and oppression in that territory. His statement - based on his personal knowledge as the former Agent of India in South Africa - set the tone for the discussion and had great effect on many delegations which had little knowledge of the situation in South West Africa. The racial problem in South Africa, especially as it affected the African majority, thus came under international scrutiny.
The General Assembly rejected the South African request by an overwhelming vote.
After the debate on the Indian complaint which followed, the Assembly adopted, on 8 December, a French-Mexican resolution, supported by India, by 32 votes to 15, with 7 abstentions. The opinion expressed by the Assembly that the treatment of Indians should be in conformity with the relevant provisions of the United Nations Charter was clearly a call for equal rights for all the people of South Africa.
The ANC (Transvaal province) said in a message to the TIC in December that the Indian struggle had created history within a short space of time.
"The passive resistance movement has exposed South Africa's Non-European policy of colour discrimination to the entire world. We are grateful that world opinion is with us in our struggle for democracy in this country."
Moves toward a United Front
The mutual support of African and Indian Congresses in the struggles of 1946, and the success of the joint delegation to the United Nations, encouraged the African and Indian Congresses to consider continued cooperation in the common struggle against racism.
Leaders of the Indian resistance had recognised for many years that the small Indian community, by itself, could not secure its rights. But cooperation with the African majority required efforts to educate the two communities to discard their prejudices and fight the manoeuvres of the racist regime to "divide and rule". The Indian radicals worked hard to persuade the Indian community that cooperation with the African majority was essential. They built bonds of friendship with the Africans by supporting their struggles. African leaders had now come to reciprocate the sentiments of the Indian leaders, recognising Indians as valuable allies.
In December 1946, the ANC Annual Conference in Bloemfontein instructed the National Executive "to consider the possibility of closer cooperation with the national organisations of other Non-Europeans in their common struggle." Discussions which followed led to the "Joint Declaration of Cooperation" signed by Dr. A. B. Xuma, Dr. G.M. Naicker and Dr. Y.M. Dadoo, Presidents of the ANC, NIC and TIC respectively, on March 9, 1947. They pledged full cooperation between the African and Indian peoples in the struggle for full franchise, equal rights, freedom of movement, compulsory education and removal of all discriminatory and oppressive legislations from the Union's statute book. They appealed to all citizens of South Africa and their national organisations to cooperate in this struggle.
The Indian leaders not only demanded the abolition of the Ghetto Act but repeatedly called for the abolition of all colour legislation and the attainment of democracy. Dr. Naicker and Dr. Dadoo told the court on February 26, 1948, that the struggle of the Indian community was part of "the struggle of the whole Non-European and democracy-loving peoples of South Africa to turn this country into a democratic State".
The broader objective of the Indian resistance was recognised by friends and foes alike.
Dr. A.B. Xuma said in his opening address to the TIC Conference in April 1948:
"Your struggle, your sacrifices and your determination has been an object lesson to us...
"Your campaign made it possible for our case - the African's case, the case of South West Africa - to come before the United Nations. I want to thank you for the leading role that the [Indian] delegation played for the cause of human rights on behalf of the non-represented Africans. "Through your struggle in the past 18 months, you have severely wounded colour discrimination and domination in South Africa... "You are not fighting for the Indians alone. You are fighting for the freedom of all South Africa - white and black." On May 22, 1948, four days before the general election, African, Indian and Coloured leaders, as well as a number of whites, organised the Transvaal- Orange Free State People's Assembly to demand "votes for all". The stage was being set for cooperation in a struggle for full equality rather than mere concessions. The racists became concerned over the impact of Indian resistance on the African people. The National Party election manifesto, after listing a series of measures it would take against Indians, declared:
"The Party will take drastic action against Indians who incite the Non- European races against the Europeans."
Soon after the National Party, espousing the policy of apartheid, won the election and formed a new government, NIC and TIC issued a joint statement on 2 June suspending passive resistance pending a meeting with the new government. There was little hope, however, that the new government would be more conciliatory. Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker came out of prison in July and called for a united front against fascism. Dr. Naicker told a mass welcome meeting in Durban:
"We have reached a stage when we can no longer think in terms of the Indian people alone. We must form a United Democratic Front and challenge any force that will lead the land of our birth to the fate of fascist Germany or Japan."
Marxists and Gandhians
A significant aspect of the passive resistance was the cooperation between Communists and Gandhians.
A majority of the activists who initiated the movement for mass action against discrimination were Communists, like Dr. Y.M. Dadoo, Naran Naidoo, A.K.M. Docrat, M.D. Naidoo, H.A. Naidoo, George Ponnen and Cassim Amra. They became a major force in the Indian community when they secured the cooperation of Gandhians like Dr. G.M. Naicker, Molvi I.S. Cachalia and Nana Sita.
The Communists had gained organisational experience in trade unions and other organisations. Communists and Gandhians had worked together in opposing the conservative leaders of the TIC and NIC, and calling for resistance against racist laws. Many of them volunteered, at great personal sacrifice, to man the offices of the Congresses and PRCs, and to work in the various departments responsible for recruitment and training of volunteers, fund- raising, publicity, assistance to dependents etc.The organisational ability demonstrated by the Indians impressed African leaders.
Communists and Gandhians had in common a spirit of sacrifice and a sense of discipline. They agreed on the Gandhian methods of struggle despite their differences on Gandhian ideology. The Communists for their part stressed the importance of cooperation with the Africans and other oppressed people; most of the Gandhians had no hesitation about cooperation so long as the struggle remained non-violent.
The Communists brought organised labour into the movement and, through their international contacts, helped to promote publicity and support from abroad, while the Gandhians helped secure the participation or support of a number of businessmen and traders.
The Indian Congresses learned from the experience of the satyagraha led by Gandhiji in 1907-14. For instance, the PRCs were set up as separate entities from the Congresses; they were meticulous in keeping detailed accounts as Gandhiji was. Women were invited to participate in resistance as in 1913 and the response was impressive. The Congresses encouraged the formation of committees of European sympathisers and gave great attention to publicity and to obtaining moral and political support from abroad.
The passive resistance movement had, moreover, the benefit of the active support and guidance of Mahatma Gandhi who enjoyed great respect in the Indian community. He encouraged his son Manilal to rush back to South Africa from India, and to participate wholeheartedly in the passive resistance. He dismissed letters from South Africans who complained that Dr. Dadoo was a Communist. He wrote on November 27, 1947, to S.B. Medh:
"The best way is not to bother about what any `ism' says but to associate yourself with any action after considering its merit. Dr. Dadoo has made a favourable impression on everybody here."
His support of the Dadoo-Naicker leadership, and of unity between Communists and Gandhians, was particularly significant in view of the alienation between the nationalists and Communists in India at the time.
Mahatma to Mandela
While the satyagraha led by Gandhiji on South African soil had influenced the thinking of leaders of all the oppressed people in the country, there had been doubts about the feasibility of passive resistance by Africans.
Some felt that such resistance required a leader like Mahatma Gandhi who was prepared for utmost sacrifice. There was also the view that while Indians, presumably because of their culture, could wield the civilised weapon of satyagraha with strict non-violence and discipline, the African could not.
The Indian passive resistance of 1946-48 not only brought this method of resistance again to public consciousness, but showed that South Africa had leaders who were prepared to sacrifice and capable of leading a non-violent struggle. It also proved the readiness of the people to suffer in the cause of freedom.
If the Indians could produce such a leadership and demonstrate a spirit of sacrifice, there was no reason why the African and Coloured people could not. In fact, a leadership of the same stature had developed in the ANC and the black trade unions. The African and Coloured people who participated in the Indian resistance disproved the myth that they were not capable of discipline and non-violent resistance.
But, in 1948, the African people were not yet ready for a joint struggle. The ANC had less than five thousand members. While Dr. Xuma, its President- General, signed an agreement for cooperation with the Indian Congresses and was generous in his praise of the Indian passive resistance, he did little to educate the African people on the need for united and militant struggle. Nor was he prepared for the sacrifice that leadership of mass resistance entailed.
At the end of 1949, however, the ANC went through a transformation, similar to that of the Indian Congresses in 1945-46, when the leaders of the Youth League assumed leadership of the parent organisation and secured the adoption of a militant Programme of Action. As Nelson Mandela explained in his autobiography: "... we thought the time had come for mass action along the lines of Gandhi's non-violent protests in India and the 1946 passive resistance campaign... The ANC's leaders, we said, had to be willing to violate the law and if necessary go to prison for their beliefs as Gandhi had."
After the May Day massacre of peaceful African demonstrators in Johannesburg in 1950, the ANC and SAIC, together with the Communist Party, organised the national stay-at-home on 26 June in protest against new repressive legislation and in mourning for those who lost their lives in the struggle for liberation. This united action by the African and Indian Congresses was followed by further discussions leading to the great Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws in 1952, a non-violent campaign in which over 8,000 people of all racial origins went to prison.
The liberation struggle became a united struggle of all the oppressed people of South Africa as well as democratic whites. A "Congress Alliance" was formed soon after the Defiance Campaign, with the Freedom Charter as a common platform. When the ANC was banned after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Mandela organised a multi-racial group to lead the armed struggle. The United Democratic Front emerged as a powerful force in the 1980s, and the internal resistance, combined with international action, finally led to the overthrow of apartheid.
The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the experience of the Indian passive resistance movement of 1946-48 had thus a significant impact on the course of the liberation struggle. Even when the ANC decided on armed struggle, it took great care to avoid loss of life. Non-violent resistance continued in new forms despite intense repression. The influence of Gandhiji may also be discerned in the spirit of reconciliation which followed the release of Mandela in 1990 and the establishment of a democratic government 1994. The thought of Mahatma Gandhi was tested and enriched in South Africa's struggle for liberation.