The period 1860-1923 is characterised firstly by the introduction of indentured Indian labourers into Natal and of the "passenger" Indians who came to trade, and secondly by the Gandhi resistance campaign and the formation of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC - 1894), the Transvaal British Indian Association (TBIA - 1903), the Cape British Indian Council (CBIC – before 1917), and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC - 1919).

During the Gandhi campaigns of 1908 and 1913 a large section of the Indian community demonstrated its willingness to participate in militant struggles. However, the moderates, who assumed the leadership of the national and provincial Congresses, rejected militant resistance campaigns. They were to pursue an accomodationist policy in their attempts to improve and to articulate the grievances of the Indian people.

From 1917 to 1923, events on the international level were moving rapidly, with South Africa being arraigned at Imperial Conferences in 1917, 1918 and 1923. The representatives of the Indian Government, especially Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru at the conference in 1923, were vehemently critical of the treatment accorded to the Indians in South Africa.

The Union Government however remained intransigent in its attitude and insisted that the Indian question was a domestic affair. This attitude was markedly reflected in the Class Areas Bill of 1924.

The founding of the SAIC (1919)

Mohandas Karamchand (M.K.) Gandhi was instrumental in the founding of the NIC in 1894 and the TBIA in 1903. However, it was only as late as 1919 that the SAIC was founded. After a modest beginning the SAIC was to spearhead the struggle at the national level.

On the initiative of the Cape British Indian Council (CBIC) the first session of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was held in Cape Town from January 26th to 30th, 1919. After failing at the first attempt in 1917, the CBIC in a letter to the Indian Opinion dated May 21st, 1918 once again called for a national conference. In the appeal letter the president, A. Esmal, and the secretary, A. Ismail, justified the calling of such a conference on the grounds that:

In view of the disabilities and inconvenience which burden the Indians ... it has been decided to call together delegates from the whole of South Africa ... as matters affecting us will simply drift and remain in their present unsatisfactory conditions, unless we join hands ... and lay our troubles before the authorities. .... It is to be borne in mind that the main object for which we are striving to raise the status of His Majesty's subjects [Indian] and that this desirable and praise worthy end will never be attained until we put our grievances forward in a united and resolute manner.

Yet, it was only after further postponements in August and October that the first conference of the SAIC was opened by J.X. Merriman on 26 January 1919.

In his opening address the chairman, Sheikh Ismail (president of the CBIC), drew the attention of the delegates to the long list of racially discriminatory practices oppressing the Indians, and the war efforts of the Indians in South Africa. He added that they were meeting, to discuss what action to take on national issues, and those nine years of Union had only increased their grievances and disabilities which were evaded or ignored by the government.

 Hence, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was unofficially formed in 1919 to support the interests of the Indian community. This was necessary in view of the upsurge of anti-Indian agitation in the European community and moves to enact legislation to segregate Indians. It was only at the third national conference of Indian organisations, opened by the Mayor of Durban, Walter Gilbert J.P, that is was formally decided to establish the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and Omar Hajee Amod Jhaveri was elected its first President. However, the SAIC was under conservative leadership for many years, the SAIC depended on petitions and deputations to the authorities and appeals for help to the Government of India, which was then under British control.

A change in leadership

During the 1930s and 1940s, the SAIC leadership was challenged by radicals who advocated militant non-violent resistance to racist laws, and cooperation with the African majority, among them Dr. G.M. Naicker and Dr. Yusuf M. Dadoo. The two men were convinced that the South African Indian Congress could only advance in their struggle if they cooperated with national organisations representing African and Coloured people.

Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker lent all their efforts to building unity within the national liberation movement in South Africa and both men grew in stature, political experience and maturity. Dr Naicker and Dr Dadoo were elected to the leadership of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1945 and the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) in 1946 respectively.

The NIC and the TIC jointly led a passive resistance campaign from 1946 to 1948 in which nearly 2,000 men and women went to prison in protest against a law restricting Indian land ownership (see pegging act and Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act). Indian’s referred to this act as the ‘Ghetto Act’ and they rejected it in its totality even though Smuts had, ‘in-part’, granted them franchise. They considered the type of representation it gave them to be inferior, with no compensation for the infringement of their right to possess land. In June 1946 the Indian’s in Durban launched a passive resistance campaign against the act. Several hundred Indian’s put up tents on a municipal site which was within the controlled area, in other words, in the area where the Indians were not allowed to occupy land. When they were arrested, other Indians simply took their place. The campaign continued for several months and the Indian government broke off trade relations with South Africa in support of the protest.

Dr GM Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress, held aloft after addressing a Passive Resistance rally on 26 June 1946. Source: Mayibuye Centre (scanned from photocopy ©)

The following year on 9 March 1947, Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress groups signed a pact of cooperation with the African NAtional Congress (ANC), the pact was called the ‘Three Doctors’ Pact’ and was signed by Dr. Dadoo, Dr. Naicker and Dr. Xuma of the ANC. Also in March, Dr. Naicker and Dr. Dadoo, visited India to consult Indian leaders on the South African situation and to attend the Asian Relations Conference.

In September 1948, Dr. Dadoo and Dr. Naicker were elected to the leadership of the SAIC, with Dr. Naicker as President.

In 1952 a Joint Planning Committee composed of representatives from the ANC and the South African Indian Congress appointed a ‘volunteer in chief’, Nelson Mandela, and an Indian deputy, Ismael Cachalia, to lead three stages of disobedience in the Defiance Campaign. More than 8000 people were arrested during the Defiance Campaign, nearly 6000 in the Eastern Cape. In December 1952 just before the campaign's end, a particularly well publicised act of defiance took place in Germiston when 40 volunteers entered a Black township without the required permits. The group included seven Whites and was led by M.K. Gandhi’s son Manilal (NIC and Indian Opinion editor) and Patrick Duncan, the son of a wartime governor-general. The group was arrested, with the seven Whites being the first White South Africans convicted for civil disobedience against the National Party government.

Soon after the Defiance Campaign, the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, which was initiated by the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO) and the South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD) in 1953 was completed early in 1956.

The SAIC had members among the Treason Trial defendants and in uMkhonto weSizwe when it was formed in 1961. Though never banned, its leaders and membership were broken by state repression in the early 1960s.

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