South African Indian Council (SAIC)

In 1961, Indians were officially recognised as a permanent part of the South African population and the Department of Indian Affairs was established with a White minister. Until then, the government had intended to ‘repatriate’ Indians, returning them to India. But the Indian community’s resistance to repatriation and India’s refusal to permit a mass dumping on its territory forced the Nationalist Party government (Nats) to accept the presence of Indians in South Africa as a permanent reality, albeit as second-class citizens.   

Soon after this change in policy, the Nats established an Asian Affairs Department run by the Minister of the Interior, J de Klerk, who announced that the division would ‘cater for the interests of Asiatics in a broad field. The division must serve as a channel through which he rightful needs of the Asiatic community can be brought to the attention of the government ”¦ It will gradually develop into a separate department.’

Later in the same year, the division was reestablished as the Department of Indian Affairs, run by Minister WA Maree. The department dealt mainly with issues related to immigration, registration, and the movement of Indians between provinces.

Anti-apartheid organisations such as the South African Indian Congress opposed the formtion of the department, which they saw as part of the apartheid structure, reinforcing policies of segregation and control. But more moderate organisations such as the South African Indian Organisation (SAIO), although critical of the formation of the department, pleaded with the Nats to be recognised as the representatives of the Indian community.

Recognising that some Indian leaders were amenable to government’s policy of separate development, the Nats invited these individuals to discuss the establishment of a National Indian Council to work with the department. Held in Laudium on 10 December 1963, the conference resulted in the council’s establishment. It was a body that would make recommendations to the government about matters affecting Indians – in essence it was meant to serve as a link between the government and the Indian community.

The establishment of the council attempted to ensure that militant demands were averted and Indians were brought within the fold of apartheid structures. However, many in the Indian community rejected the body as they viewed it as a puppet for the government.

But key figures from the SAIO defected to the National Indian Council, which was re-established as the South African Indian Council in 1965. The council fully accepted its role within the framework of separate development, evidenced in a request by the SAIC’s MD Coovadia in 1965 for the establishment of an Indian Group Area south of Johannesburg, in what is today Diepkloof in Soweto. Another such instance saw the SAIC objecting to the proximity of Coloured people to an Indian area in Newlands, Cape Town.

The council was made up of Indians from the middle class, and mainly represented the interests of traders who wanted restrictions on trading in non-Indian areas lifted. In this they accepted the policy of residential segregation, regarding mixed areas as liable to ‘racial friction’. Many council members also benefited from the status quo, using their positions on the council to secure lucrative deals.

Such benefits inspired the Chairman of the SAIC in 1970, HE Joosub, to announce that  ‘the world must recognise that apartheid is not always bad, however much the word may be used as a term of abuse against South Africa’.

Until 1974 the SAIC was comprised only of government nominated individuals. Earlier, in 1972, the state announced that five members of the Council would henceforth be elected in polls. In 1974 the body was reconvened with a new system whereby half the members were elected by Indian people. The SAIC was still without legislative powers and thus, even with its new formation, it was seen as a useless advisory body whose recommendations were never taken seriously by the Nats. The newly revived Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the South African Indian Congress objected to this new government-backed body, calling for universal franchise in a unitary state. 

By the late 1970s even council members expressed frustration at their impotence, and RAM Saloojee resigned from the council in 1977. In 1978 Council member Abram Mayet announced:

‘I feel that the Council, in spite of having made various resolutions in the past ”¦ has been reduced to a body which can merely pass resolutions on to the authorities. While they pass the motions, the motions go down somewhere in the sewage drain. Nothing really happens to it.’

Another Council member, YS Chinsamy, said in 1979:

‘I want to say, quite honestly, that I do not think that I have achieved very much in the 15 years I have spent on the Council.’

The Anti-SAIC Campaign

Opposition to the SAIC had been growing within the anti-apartheid movement. and the Natal Indian Congress was revived in October 1971 to oppose the Nats’ plans to co-opt Indians. The NIC considered participation in the elections for the Council, but the body was splil between ‘participationists’ and ‘non-colaborationists’. In the end, the latter prevailed.

Other developments galvanised oppsition to the Council. The Anti-Constitutional Proposals Committee (ACPC) was established in May 1979 to opose Council elections as well as the government’s plans for a three-tier parliament with White, Coloured and Indian houses.

Mrs Luthuli, Mrs Sisulu and Dr. Jassat at anti SAIC meeting, Durban, 1981. Source: Private Collection, Omar badsha

Opposition to the elections saw the government postpone its plans, but eventually the date was set at 4 November 1981.

On 6 June 1981, a meeting was called in Lenasia, Johannesburg to discuss how the Indian community should respond to the upcoming elections for the SAIC. From this meeting, the Transvaal Anti-SAIC Committee (TASC) was established, with Dr. Essop Jassat as the chairman, to oppose the SAIC elections. At the same time, similar bodies were formed in the Cape and by the NIC in Natal.

The committees actively campaigned for a boycott of the SAIC and the election. These boycotts began in August and were kicked off with a series of public meetings. On 19 August 1981 a meeting of 3000 people was held in Lenasia and it became the biggest Indian political rally since the 1950s. This was followed by mass leafleting, press statements and house-to-house visits; prospective candidates were threatened with embargoes against their businesses if they stood.

On 10 and 11 October 1981, 110 organisations, including the NIC, the Anti-SAIC committees, trade unions and sports organisations, met in Durban. The main speakers at the conference included Archie Gumede, Albertina Sisulu, Samson Ndou (from the General and Allied Workers’ Union) and Sisa Njikelana (from South African Association of Water Utilities). The conference rejected the government’s policy of separate institutions of representation and adopted the Charter for Change which proposed guidelines for a democratic South Africa. 

The first SAIC elections were held on the appointed date, 4 November 1981. Of the 45 members of the Council, 40 were up for election with the other five being nominated. Some 297 040 Indians out of a population of 350 000 eligible voters registered to vote in the SAIC elections. However, on the day of the election only 10.5% of the registered voters cast their ballot. In Fordsburg, an Indian suburb of Johannesburg, the percentage poll was 1.75%.  Despite the low turnout, the Minister of Internal Affairs declared that the government would look upon the SAIC ‘as the only representative body that exists today on a national level that would serve the interests of [the] community’ (Bhana and Pachia, 1984: n.p.). The first sitting of the Council took place on 22 February 1982 with Amichand Rajbansi as chairman of the SAIC’s executive committee. 

Tricameral Parliament

In 1981, the South African Senate was replaced with the President’s Council, an advisory body consisting of 60 nominated members from the White, Indian, Coloured and Chinese population groups. Following a request by President PW Botha, in 1982 the President’s Council made representation on proposals for constitutional and political reform. As a result, in 1983 the National Party government introduced the Tricameral Parliament – a House of Assembly for Whites, a House of Representatives for Coloureds and a House of Delegates for Indians. Each of the three chambers determined the laws relating to their own racial group.

Transvaal Anti-SAIC Conference

At the annual TASC conference on 23 January 1983, attended by various community-groups, it was decided to revive the old Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC). In his closing speech at the conference, Dr. Allan Boesak, who was at the time the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said:

We cannot accept a ‘new deal’ which makes apartheid work even better. We cannot accept a future for our people when we had no say in it. And we cannot accept a ‘solution’ which says yes to homelands, the Group Areas Act, to laws which make us believe that we are separate and unequal. (, 2011)

The conference called for the launch of a united front to co-ordinate the mass campaigns against the Tricameral Parliament. TASC leaders proposed that a committee be formed to look into the feasibility of establishing such a front. The result was the launching of the United Democratic Front (UDF), six months later, on 20 August 1983 at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town.

Tricameral Parliament Elections

On 2 November approximately 70% of the White electorate voted in favour of the Parliament. The elections for the House of Representatives and Delegates were held on 22 August and 2 September 1984, respectively. Due to the massive anti-Tricameral Parliament campaign that the UDF and its affiliates ran, which involvedhouse visits, mass meetings and pamphleteering,there was a low Coloured and Indian voter turnout. Despite this the new Tricameral Parliament was inaugurated in early 1985.

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