The 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign — A Resume of the Struggle
"We are now witnessing the first glow of a new dawn in South Africa and a decisive turning point in her history. Our country is entering a period of struggle for democracy for all, for a great united and happy South Africa." — Dr Y.M. Dadoo at a mass meeting in Johannesburg, 29 September 1946
"I would not shed a single tear if all the [Indian] Satyagrahis in South Africa are wiped out. Thereby they will not only bring deliverance to themselves but also point the way to the Africans and vindicate the honour of India. I am proud of them...." — Mahatma Gandhi, in a speech to the All India Congress Committee, Bombay, 7 July 1946
" ... the Indian community and its leaders— particularly those who came to the fore in the 1940s — played no small part in the injection of a more radical and more militant mood into the liberation movement as a whole." — Strategy and Tactics of the African National Congress" , document adopted by the ANC Consultative Conference, Morogoro, Tanzania, 1 May 1969
Paying tribute to the contribution of the Indian community in the liberation struggle. Nelson Mandela said that he was very much influenced by his fellow students at Wits in 1946 "when Ismail Meer, J.N. Singh and Zainab Asvat gave up their studies to go to prison under the Dadoo-Naicker leadership" .
— The Leader, Durban, 19 February 1993
The Indian Passive Resistance of 1946-48 was of great importance in the development of the South African liberation struggle and had a significant impact on India, the United Nations and world. It has been a source of inspiration to me in my efforts to promote effective international action against apartheid. I have, therefore, edited these documents as my tribute to the many heroes and heroines of that movement on its fiftieth anniversary.
I became interested in South Africa, while a student in India in 1943, when I read three pamphlets brought from Durban by a friend, one of them by Dr Dadoo and another by Peter Abraham. I was deeply moved by the account of the oppression and humiliation of the African and Indian people in that land of gold and diamonds.
The spirit of resistance was growing in South Africa during the war. Pandit Nehru, soon after release from prison in 1945, exhorted the Indians in South Africa to cooperate with the Africans. He had often expressed this view since 1927 when he represented India at the International Congress against Imperialism in Brussels and met the South African delegates, J.T. Gumede, President-General of the African National Congress (ANC), James La Guma and D. Colraine.
I arrived in New York for further studies in March 1946. The Indian community in South Africa was then preparing to launch Passive Resistance against the "Ghetto Act'. Their struggle was not only for their rights but for the honour of India. It was part of India's own struggle for freedom and of the colonial revolution which was beginning to change the map of the world. Looking for information on the movement, I learned that the Council on African Affairs had a library which received newspapers from South Africa. I visited the Council frequently and studied all I could find on the Indian Passive Resistance and other developments in southern Africa.
I was greatly impressed by the leadership of Dr Dadoo and Dr G.M. Naicker, by their call for unity with the African people, by their faith in the ultimate triumph of justice over the powerful oppressors, and by the courage and heroism of the Passive Resistors, including many women. I read also about the new spirit among the Africans and the great African mine workers' strike in August 1946.
The Council on African Affairs
I became acquainted with Paul Robeson, Chairman of the Council on African Affairs, Dr Alpheus Hunton, then Educational Director of the Council, and Dr W.E.B. Du Bois who was provided an office by the Council. I attended the huge mass meeting organised by the Council at the Madison Square Garden on 6 June 1946, to denounce racial discrimination in South Africa and call on the United States government to support African freedom.
Later in the year, at the Council, I met the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, led by Mrs. Vijaylakshmi Pandit, sister of Pandit Nehru who had greatly influenced Mr. Robeson. I attended a reception by the Council on 8 November 1946, for the people's delegation from South Africa, composed of Dr A.B. Xuma, President-General of the ANC, H.A. Naidoo, Sorabjee Rustomjee and Senator H. Basner. The Council brought together leaders of many organisations and trade unions to discuss action.
I went with a group of Indian students to a mass meeting of the Council at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on 17 November, to pay tribute to the African miners who had been killed. It was addressed by the leaders from South Africa, as well as Mrs. Pandit and V.K. Krishna Menon, personal representative of Pandit Nehru and secretary of the India League in London. I also led a group of Indian students to a demonstration in front of the South African Consulate on 21 November, the day when the United Nations began discussion on India's complaint of the treatment of Indians in South Africa.
The Council on African Affairs was of great help to Dr Xuma and his delegation in publicising their cause in the United States and lobbying the members of the United Nations, both on the racial problem in South Africa and on South Africa's plans to annex Namibia.
I was destined to spend most of my working life on South Africa. I joined the United Nations Secretariat in May 1949 and was responsible for research on South Africa for several years. From 1963 to my retirement in 1985, I was in charge of international action against apartheid. I am perhaps the only person who has followed United Nations discussions on South Africa from the first session of the General Assembly in 1946 until the problem was removed from the agenda after the establishment of a democratic government in 1994.
During the course of my work, I became acquainted with many of the veterans of the Passive Resistance Movement during their exile or on their visits abroad — Dr Yusuf Dadoo, M.P. Naicker, M.D. Naidoo, Mrs. Ama Naidoo, George Singh, Dr K. Goonam, Mrs. Zainab Asvat, Mrs. Fatima Meer, the Reverend Michael Scott— before I could visit South Africa for the first time in 1991 and meet many others. The Passive Resistance Movement not only initiated United Nations discussion of the racial problem in South Africa and the mobilisation of world public opinion in support of the South African struggle, but was a landmark in the liberation struggle. It was, indeed, the beginning of a continuous and determined mass movement for liberation from racist tyranny. It was the training ground for many Indians who went on to make great contributions to the national liberation movement.
It already carried within it the seeds of an alliance of the oppressed people and democratic whites: though the struggle was initiated by the Indian Congress in protest against legislation applying solely to Indians, it drew some non-Indian support from Africans, Coloureds and whites, and some of these joined the movement and suffered the rigours of the racist prisons. Dr G.M. Naicker first used the term “united democratic front” in July 1948 in his call for a new stage of the struggle. He clearly saw Africans in the lead of that struggle, as did the other Indian leaders and as did too Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. The ANC took that lead in the Congress Alliance and from it emerged leaders who have inspired the world. I was privileged to count many ANC leaders among my friends and to identify myself with the great liberation movement they led.
Now that the struggle has triumphed, I feel it is appropriate and essential to study the many episodes in the epic story of liberation and the many streams which joined to form the mighty river that swept away the legacy of baasskap.
The Road to Resistance
Indians arrived in South Africa — most of them as indentured labourers — with the assurance of equal rights as citizens of the British Empire, but were subjected to ever increasing discrimination and humiliation from the 1880s. Rabid racist groups among the whites picked them as special targets of hatred, especially as some Indians managed to compete with the whites in trade and professions.
They were deprived of the franchise, refused trading licences, segregated into overcrowded areas, prohibited from large areas of the country and required to obtain a permit to travel from one province to another. The intention was to make their life so difficult that they would be forced to leave the country.
M.K. Gandhi led the Indian people in South Africa in the great Satyagraha from 1907 to 1914, in protest against humiliating measures such as passes, poll tax and non-recognition of Indian marriages. Well over ten thousand Indians, including women and children, courted imprisonment. Nearly 60 000 Indian workers — in a total population of about 150 000 — went on strike despite savage violence by the authorities and employers. This resistance, the strength of public opinion in India and the intervention of the Indian and British governments obliged the government, to reach a settlement with Gandhi
The Smuts-Gandhi agreement covered only some of the demands of the Indian community. Gandhi was persuaded that there was now a new spirit in the government. He hoped that by patiently educating white public opinion, the Indian community could enable the government to grant full civil rights in due course. He sailed from South Africa in 1914, leaving behind him the great heritage of the Satyagraha.
But his hopes proved illusory. After a short respite during the First World War, anti-Indian agitation resumed. The white political parties vied with each other in trying to satisfy the agitators. Successive governments proceeded to institute new discriminatory laws and regulations against the Indians.
Struggle for Leadership
The Indian leadership restricted their pressures to petitions to the authorities and appeals to the Indian government. Two round table conferences between the governments of India and South Africa helped only to delay or mitigate some of the obnoxious measures.
By late 1930s, a new generation of leaders challenged the conservative strategies of the old. They included doctors, lawyers and other professionals, as well as trade unionists and students. The national movement in India as well as the antifascist and socialist movements in Europe inspired them. They called for mobilising the masses in resistance, and advocated unity with all other oppressed people and progressive whites.
They sought cooperation with the other racial groups. They were active in the non-European United Front, established in 1938,of which Mrs. Cissie Gool, part Indian, was President and Dr Yusuf Dadoo and H.A. Naidoo were leaders in the Transvaal and Natal. They held discussions with African and coloured intellectuals in the Liberal Study Group in Durban. They participated with the African people in the anti-pass campaigns, trade union struggles and other actions. They shared the vision of a democratic South Africa with equal rights for all the people, with progressive leaders in other communities.
The struggle between the old and the new leadership for control of the NIC and TIC continued from 1938 to 1945. This group took control of the NIC and launched a vigorous campaign of resistance against the South African government's first comprehensive Act to restrict Indian land rights. Passive Resistance Councils were set up in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Kimberly.
The Ghetto Act came into force on 2 June, and Indians observed 13 June as “Resistance Day” with a complete hartal all over the country.
On 13 June 1946, eleven days after the obnoxious Act, referred to as the Ghetto Act, came into force, over 15 000 people attended a meeting at the Red Square in Durban. The meeting 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 to 24 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. 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 Asval who had left her medical studies to join the resistance. 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 spectators who witnessed the assaults on 23 June donated £600 to the campaign.
The attacks attracted support, though small, from the leaders of the ANC and APO. Fifteen Africans and 47 coloureds joined the resistance. White support came from newly constituted groupings: the Council for Asiatic Rights in Johannesburg, and of Human Rights in Durban: the Reverend Michael Scott who courted imprisonment with seven whites 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.
The Union government stopped the violence after protests, including condemnation by Mahatma Gandhi. On 24 June the District Commandant of Police read a proclamation under the Riotous Assemblies Act, prohibiting any gathering within 500 yards of the intersection of Gale Street and Umbilo Road.
The 1946 Passive Resistance began closer political co-operation between Indians and Africans. In June 1946, the Joint Passive Resistance Council pledged the full support of the Indian people to the Anti-Pass struggle of the African people. In August, 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 for inciting the strike, there were three Indian members of the PRC — Dr Dadoo, J.N. Singh and M.I. Vania.
Pandit Nehru promoted this cooperation between Indians and Africans by his advice to Indian South Africans to cooperate with the African majority, and his firm support to African aspirations. On the eve of his assumption of office as the leader of the national government on 1 September 1946, he said in a message to the Indian community:
"The struggle in South Africa is ... not merely an Indian issue.... It concerns ultimately the Africans who have suffered so much by racial discrimination and suppression.... Therefore, the Indians in South Africa should help in every way and cooperate with the Africans."
Racism becomes a world issue
When India lodged a complaint against South Africa with the United Nations, it was still a colony under British rule. But before the opening of the General Assembly session, a national government led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru took office on 1 September 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 importance India attached to the South African problem was reflected in the composition of its delegation. Mrs. Vijaylakshmi Pandit, the leader of the delegation, was assisted by Sir Maharaj Singh, former Agent in South Africa; Justice M.C. Chagla, an eminent jurist; V.K. Krishna Menon, secretary of the India League in Britain; and senior civil servants familiar with the South African problem.
The task of the delegation 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.
General Smuts, a member of the Imperial War Cabinet, was highly regarded in the West. He personally led the South African delegation to the United Nations.
There was also a multi-racial delegation from South Africa at the United Nations observing the proceedings, advising the Indian delegation and informing other delegations of the issues at stake.
Prior to the discussion of the Indian complaint, the General Assembly took up the question of South West Africa on 4 November 1946.
Sir Maharaj Singh, in his speech opposing the South African request, 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, thanks to the initiative of India. The General Assembly rejected the South African request by an overwhelming vote. That was a great encouragement to Dr A.B. Xuma, who had appealed to the members of the United Nations to oppose the annexation of South West Africa, and to the African people in South Africa and South West Africa.
The debate on the Indian complaint began on 21 November in the Joint Committee of the First and Sixth Committees of the General Assembly. A French-Mexican resolution supported by India was adopted in the Committee on 2 December by 24 votes to 19, with 6 abstentions. It required a two-thirds majority when it went to Plenary for final adoption.
India was able, with intensive lobbying, to secure its adoption on 8 December by 32 votes to 15, with 7 abstentions. Significantly nine of the 16 European countries voted for the resolution,
The two United Nations decisions were a severe blow to the prestige of Field Marshal Smuts and to the system of racism in South Africa. The resolution on Indians in South Africa was cautious and far from unanimous, but the opinion expressed by the Assembly that the treatment of Indians should be in conformity with the relevant provisions of the Charter, was clearly a call for equal rights for all the people of South Africa. The resolution was also important for the United Nations as its first action on a human rights problem.
Indians, and indeed all black South Africans, gained a moral victory through the Indian Passive Resistance, supported by the diplomatic efforts of India. But Field Marshal Smuts was neither willing nor capable of implementing the United Nations resolution in good faith. He had a long record of appeasing racist agitators in order to remain in power. He had proposed the Ghetto Act to appease the Dominion Party of the English-speaking Natal whites and needed their support to stay in office. Instead of responding to world opinion, he made a series of statements on his return to South Africa, denouncing the United Nations and its members,
The Joint Passive Resistance Council, while greatly enthused by the United Nations resolution, did not entertain any illusions,
decided to continue the struggle while awaiting progress on discussions between the South African and Indian governments as called for by the United Nations resolution. Resisters began to occupy the camp once or twice weekly instead of daily.
The Council also decided to send Dr Naicker and Dr Dadoo to India for consultations with the Indian Government. The government refused passports to them, but had to relent after wide scale-protests and the intervention of the Indian government. The delay gave them an opportunity to conclude a historic agreement with the ANC and arrive in Delhi in time for the Asian Relations Conference.
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, in isolation, 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, recognised 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 9 March 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 lo all citizens of South Africa and their national organisations to cooperate in this struggle. While discussions between the African and Indian Congresses continued, leaders of TIC — Yusuf Cachalia and I.C. Meer — began talks with the leaders of the ANC Youth League — A.M. Lembede, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela — who were by now playing an important role in the ANC.
In the meanwhile, racist elements organised a boycott of Indian traders and threatened violence against those who patronised them.
Guardian, Cape Town, reported in March 1947 that students from the University College of Potchefstroom picketed Indian shops and that a number of scuffles occurred between them and the European customers trying to make purchases,
The District Police Commandant ignored repeated phone calls from the TIC. It continued:
"A number of lawyers (in Lichtenburg) have been refusing work from Indians, including the collection of their debts from residents in Lichtenburg. It is reported that school teachers in the town have taken it upon themselves to give daily anti-Indian lessons to their classes ... On all roads leading to Lichtenburg boards recently appeared bearing the words: 'South African Europeans do not patronise the Coolies.' A number of petrol pumps have recently been removed from Indian stores (in Zwartruggens). Africans are being intimidated, victimised and physically assaulted and robbed for having dealings with Indian stores."
But, supported by the TIC, the Indian traders did not panic and the boycott petered out.
Prime Minister Smuts tried new tactics to avert further international condemnation. Retreating from his earlier position, he sought to appear reasonable by agreeing to a round table conference with India, though not on the basis of the United Nations resolution, if India withdrew its sanctions. He tried to divide the Indian community by encouraging. A.I. Kajee and other "moderates" to form rival organisations—Natal Indian Organisation and Transvaal Indian Organisation—and lobby India to accept his conditions.
Before the racial problem was discussed at the next session of the General Assembly, the authorities in Durban stopped arresting Passive Resistors, and the press ignored the continued resistance,
Britain and the United States, which had become hostile to the Indian government because of its staunch opposition to colonialism and racism, assisted Smuts. A Royal visit of King George VI and his family to South Africa was arranged in March 1947 with a view to reinforce the position of Smuts.
Meanwhile, developments in the Indian sub-continent — especially the communal conflict that accompanied the partition of India in August 1947 — undermined the prestige of India and its efforts to secure a stronger condemnation of racism in South Africa.
At the General Assembly, India proposed a resolution to call upon South Africa, India and Pakistan to hold around table conference on the basis of the 1946 resolution.
The resolution was adopted by 29 votes to 15, with 5 abstentions in the Committee. In Plenary, it received 31 votes in favour, 19 against, with 6 abstentions, and was not adopted as it fell short of a two-thirds majority.
The Indians in South Africa were disappointed: they won a moral victory, but there was no advance. They proceeded to consider a new phase of resistance, in view of the "no arrest" tactics of the authorities in Durban.
In January 1948, Passive Resistance was extended to another frontier, defiance of the Immigration Regulations Act of 1913 which prohibited Indians from crossing inter-provincial boundaries without a permit, in effect confining them to the province where they were domiciled.
A first batch of 25 Resisters were sentenced, on 10 February 1948, to one month's imprisonment suspended on condition that the offence was not repeated, and were deported to Newcastle across the border. Fifteen of the 25 Resisters recrossed the border and were sentenced to three months' hard labour (plus one month's suspended sentence). Nearly one hundred Resisters were sentenced by May for crossing the Natal/Transvaal border either way.
End of Passive Resistance and move towards a united front
While the Indian Passive Resistance was initiated in protest against the Ghetto Act, it had soon assumed a wider scope as its leaders began to call for the abolition of all colour legislation and the attainment of democracy.
I.C. Meer, one of the leaders of the movement, said in January
"The Passive Resistance struggle is merely a prelude to bigger things to come, a prelude to the united struggle of all oppressed non-Europeans and progressives for a democratic South Africa, free from colour bar and racial discrimination.
On 1 June 1947, the NIC Conference referred in its resolution to "the struggle for the vindication of the honour and self-respect of the Indian people, and to win democratic rights for all."
Dr Naicker and Dr Dadoo told the court on 26 February 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 [Indiana 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."
The racists became concerned over the impact of Indian resist on the other oppressed 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."
But it was clear that while the small Indian community had blazed the trail, it could not by itself defeat racism or even secures the rights of Indians.
On 22 May 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 United Party of Field Marshal Smuts was defeated in the general elections and the National Party, espousing the policy of apartheid, formed a new government.
On 2 June, NIC and TIC issued a joint statement suspending Passive Resistance pending a meeting with the new government so that discussions could be held "in an atmosphere removed from any strained conditions" .
There was little hope, however, that the new government would be more conciliatory. Passive Resistance was not resumed though the government refused any discussion with the Indian Congresses. 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."
Whether the suspension of Passive Resistance, as a tactical move in the Ghandian tradition, was appropriate, may be debated. But it was clear that the time had come for a reassessment of the situation. Reference must be made here to the view expressed by Field Marshal Smuts that Indians had erred in their resistance to the Ghetto Act as their resistance contributed to his defeat and to the coming to power of a more oppressive government.
Justice M.C. Chagla, a member of the Indian delegation to the United Nations in 1946, recalled:
"I remember General Smuts once telling me: 'I know how strong you feel about this racial question ... I don't feel at all happy about what is going on in my country. But remember, a leader of a country, whatever his own ideas may be, cannot carry his own countrymen beyond a certain point. I have done my best to restrict racial legislation as far as possible. But I would be overthrown if I go beyond what I have done, because I will never be able to carry public opinion with me.' He then prophetically added, 'You have attacked me and condemned me, but remember a time will come when you will realise that what I have done is nothing compared with what will be done and what will happen in the future.'"
Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit spoke to him after the United Nations resolution was adopted in 1946. She wrote in her autobiography:
"Hearing that he was in the lounge, I went up to him and said, 'I have come to you to say that if, in the course of this unhappy debate, I have said anything which was not up to the high standard Gandhiji had imposed on me, I ask your pardon.' He took my hand in both of his. 'My child,' he said — he was eighty-plus to my forty-plus — 'you have won a hollow victory. This vote will put me out of power in our next elections, but you will have gained nothing.'"
The Indian Passive Resistance movement had aroused the Indian people to mass political action. The membership of the NIC, with the participation of trade unions and other organisations, rose from a few hundred to 35 000 by 1947. The TIC had no membership, but its mass rallies, like those of the NIC, began to attract many thousands of people.
The Ghetto Act could not be enforced for two years. Not a single Indian had agreed to join the Land Tenure Advisory Board. The communal representation offered under the Ghetto Act was stillborn.
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 laid the foundations for the unity of the oppressed people. The objective of the struggle came to be defined and understood as the overthrow of racism and full equality for all the people in a democratic society.
The racist system in South Africa became subject to growing world condemnation. There were the beginnings of sanctions against the racist regime with the imposition of a trade embargo by India and the recall of its High Commissioner from South Africa.
The balance of forces thus began to shift, even if slowly, in favour of liberation. The ferocity of apartheid was a reflection of the weakening of the racist forces rather than their strength.
The Indian resistance advanced the cause of liberation and 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. But a continuation of Indian resistance alone was no longer likely to serve any purpose. Widest unity of all the oppressed people and a militant programme were essential to counter the disastrous course chosen by the white electorate poisoned by racist propaganda.
But, in 1948, the African people were not yet ready for a joint struggle.
The ANC had less than five thousand members at this time. 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.
It was only at the end of 1949 that the ANC went through a transformation as Indian Congresses had in 1945-46, with the leaders of the Youth League assuming leadership of the parent organisation and securing the adoption of a militant Programme of Action.
Before progress could be made on cooperation, however, both Indians and Africans had to go through a severe test — the ghastly riots in Durban in January 1950. The ANC and the Indian Congresses intervened to restore peace. The cooperation that had developed during the Passive Resistance helped save lives and frustrate the designs of the racists to provoke conflict between the two communities.
The mad rush of the apartheid regime with new legislation for racial segregation and repression helped the efforts of the leaders who had striven hard for African-Indian unity in struggle. 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 in protest against new repressive legislation and in mourning for those who lost their lives in the struggle for liberation.
This first major action by national leaders of the African and Indian Congresses was followed by further discussions leading to the great Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws, and the emergence of the Congress Alliance.
The Passive Resistance of 1946-48 was not a struggle that failed, but the blazing of the trail for the march of freedom.
A new stage in the struggle
The Indian Passive Resistance and the growing militancy among the African people in 1946-48 represented the dawn of a new stage in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
H.I.E. Dhlomo recognised this in view of the "tremendous effect" that the Passive Resistance had on African sentiment. In an article in The Forum, reproduced in Indian Opinion of 12 July 1946, he recalled that there had been two views among Africans, as among Indians, on concerted action: some Africans felt that "they had separate battles to fight and must do so independently" while others thought that the struggle of all oppressed peoples was one and that cooperation is necessary" . He observed:
"The Africans are witnessing how a numerically inferior group of 'foreigners' is not only putting up a fierce struggle to gain full rights in the country of their birth, but is succeeding to embarrass the authorities and stir the public. 'Why cannot Africans, who have a better case and greater numbers, also do it?', they are asking themselves ... For better or for worse, it (the Passive Resistance movement) ends and begins a period, an attitude and a philosophy in matters of race relations in this country."
For Indian South Africans, too, the Passive Resistance was a watershed. They had felt that they had been discriminated, unlike immigrants from other countries and their descendants, because India was under foreign rule. Their great struggles had been in a sense, a part of India's struggle for freedom. Freedom songs of India were sung at Indian rallies in South Africa and Indian patriotism moved Indians to heroism.
India received independence on 15 August 1947, in the middle of Passive Resistance but that did not alleviate the situation of Indians in South Africa though free India could provide international support. This helped persuade Indians that the choice was between meek acceptance of discrimination and total identification with the other oppressed people of South Africa, especially the African majority, as advocated by the Dadoo-Naicker leadership and urged by Pandit Nehru.
Such unity in struggle could only be viable on the basis of a rejection of any discrimination or humiliation, the denial of the legitimacy of white domination, and the demand for full equality for all South Africa.
India's own commitment to liberation became stronger. Indian public opinion had originally become greatly concerned over racism in South Africa because it affected the Indian minority and the honour of India. Under the influence of the Passive Resistance movement and the leadership of Pandit Nehru, it soon became equally concerned with the oppression of the African people, and regarded the struggle of the black people of South Africa as its own.
This sensitivity enabled the Indian government to make an exceptional contribution to the South African liberation struggle and numerous Indians and people of Indian origin around the world helped build the international movement against apartheid.
As Indians and Africans cooperated in joint struggles, the Indian people were able — because of the heritage of the community, notably the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, the experience of the Passive Resistance movement and the achievements of that struggle — to make a significant contribution.
The Congresses learned from the experience of the earlier Satyagraha in organising the movement in 1946. For instance, the PRCs were set up as separate entities from the Indian Congresses; they were meticulous in keeping detailed accounts as Gandhi 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 supporters of the struggle: the Council for Asiatic Rights in Johannesburg and the Council for Human Rights in Durban were similar to the Committee of European Sympathisers during the Satyagraha. They set an example which was followed later by the Congress of Democrats and the Liberal Party.
Mahatma Gandhi helped greatly in promoting the unity of the Indians in struggle. In a message to South Africa in May 1946, he called on the Indians to launch a Satyagraha, and added: "They must not selfishly submit to the contemplated segregation nor accept the racial franchise.
He wrote to his son Manilal on 25 June 1946, encouraging him to rush back to South Africa from India because of the launching of the Passive Resistance Movement: "I approve of your returning soon. What seems to be happening is excellent? You should participate in it wholeheartedly."
He dismissed letters from A.I. Kajee and S.B. Medh who complained that Dr Dadoo was a Communist. He wrote on 27 November 1947, to Mr. 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."
He said in the message he gave to Dr Dadoo and Dr Naicker on 18 May 1947: "I have no doubt that those South African Indians who seek to create a division will do harm to themselves and to the great cause of liberty for which the movement of Satyagraha has stood and must stand."
While Passive Resistance remained in the consciousness of black South Africans, some felt that such resistance was not feasible without a leader like Mahatma Gandhi who was prepared for utmost sacrifice, and without adequate organisation and active efforts at securing support from some whites in South Africa. 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 like Dr Dadoo and Dr Naicker 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.
Two thousand persons from the small Indian community went to prison and suffered other indignities. They did not waver from non-violence when they were brutally assaulted by the racist criminals. They did not succumb when the courts imposed fines and ordered their properties auctioned.
Many Indian students — like I.C. Meer, Miss Zainab Asvat and A.M. ("Kathy" ) Kathrada — gave up their studies to work for the movement. Several young men below the age of 21 volunteered as Resisters at the risk of being whipped as minors, and three — Jacky Govender, Harold Solly and Albert Vittie — were in fact sentenced to lashes. The participation of women was one of the most significant and inspiring aspects of the Passive Resistance.
Gandhi had invited women to join the Satyagraha in its last stage in 1913. The appearance of women Satyagrahis had a great impact in persuading Indian workers to go on strike. But the total number of women Satyagrahis was limited and, of them, only two were Muslim women.
In 1946, women participated in the resistance from the outset and many Muslim women volunteered. The number of women Resisters rose to about three hundred. The women showed great courage in the face of violent assaults by white hooligans. Women were also prominent in recruiting volunteers and in fund-raising.
If the Indians could produce such a leadership and demonstrate such 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. A number of African and coloured people participated in the Indian resistance and suffered imprisonment, thereby disproving the myth that they were not capable of discipline and non-violent resistance. The programme of action adopted by the ANC in December 1949, on the proposal of its Youth League, was similar to the programmes followed by the Indian Congresses and incorporated the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi. 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."
The Defiance Campaign of 1952 was based on non-violence and non-cooperation with evil preached by Mahatma Gandhi.
The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the experience of the Indian Passive Resistance Movement of 1946-48 had thus an impact on the course of the liberation struggle. Even when the ANC decided on armed struggle, there was great emphasis on avoiding loss of life. Non-violent resistance continued in new forms throughout the struggle. The influence of Gandhi may also be discerned in the spirit of reconciliation which followed the establishment of a democratic government 1994. I believe that the thought of Mahatma Gandhi was tested and enriched in South Africa's struggle for liberation.
New York June 1996