Gandhi and the burning of passes

Pass that Indians were forced to carry in the Transvaal, 1908

In August 1906, the British administration in the Transvaal passed the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance (Black Act) to control the entry of Indians into the Transvaal. Every Indian man, woman and child older than 8 years had to register with the Registrar of Asiatics. Indians and Chinese who did not register by a certain date would no longer be allowed to stay in the Transvaal. The law required Indian people to have their fingerprints taken in order to be issued with their registration certificates. The certificate had to be carried at all times and be produced on demand to any policeman who asked to see them. An Indian who could not produce a certificate could be fined and sent to prison. Gandhi moved to the Transvaal and set up an office in Johannesburg. He wasted no time in mounting a campaign to oppose the new law.

Gandhi contacted Leung Quinn, the leader of the Chinese community, to discuss the Black Act as it applied to that community too. The majority of the Chinese people in South Africa were brought as indentured labourers to work on the Transvaal gold mines.

Within a few days, on 11 September, thousands of Indians and Chinese attended the meeting held at the Empire Theatre and vowed not to submit to the Black Act, no matter what the consequences and the government’s threats. This vow came to be later known as the Satyagraha Oath, and it marked the beginning of the eight-year-long Satyagraha Campaign and the Birth of the Satyagraha movement.

Smuts did not repeal the Black Act as he had promised. His breaking of the agreement angered the Indian community and Gandhi sent a letter to Parliament, reminding Smuts of the terms of their agreement. In the letter, Gandhi warned that if Smuts did not repeal the Act as promised the Indians would burn their registration certificates.

 By the closing date of registration in terms of the Black Act, only 511 Indians had registered out of the total Indian population of over 13 000 in the Transvaal. Gandhi gave Smuts until 16 August 1908 to respond.

On this day, the Indian community held a meeting on the grounds of the Hamidia Mosque in Johannesburg. A three-legged pot stood in the corner of the grounds, waiting to be used to burn the registration certificates, if necessary. A telegram arrived from Smuts, saying that the government could not agree to the request of the community.

The certificates were burnt and the Satyagraha Campaign started again. The newspapers gave vivid descriptions of the bonfire, in which more than 2 000 certificates were burnt.


References:
• SAHO. (2017). Asiatic Law Amendment Act is passed in Transvaal parliament leading to increased Indian protest under MK Gandhi . Available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/. Accessed on 19 January 2017
• SAHO. Age of Hope – Gandhi & the Birth of Satyagraha. Available at https://www.sahistory.org.za/.   Accessed on 19 January 2017.

Last updated : 03-Feb-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 01-Feb-2017

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