The Triumph of the Radicals, 1939-1946

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The Struggle for Power: The Triumph of the Radicals, 1939-1946

2. The emergence of the Radicals in the Transvaal

By February 1939, Stuttaford, the Minister of Interior, was toying with the experiment of introducing a servitude scheme, whereby separate residential areas for Europeans and Coloureds, including Indians, would be set up if 75 per cent of the white residents of a township desired it. This shocked the NIC (now strengthened by the return of V.S.C. Pather, S.R. Naidoo and j.W. Godfrey) and the CB and SIA. Both bodies held many protest meetings and passed similar resolutions that deplored the scheme and depended ultimately on the intervention of the Indian Government and the goodwill of the Union Government. The radicals in Natal were not coherently organised to offer alternate proposals.

However, in the Transvaal, the radicals, led by Dadoo, had already in 1938 formed a left-wing ginger group, which Joshi described as

"Sincere, youthful, and courageous, they commenced their activity... in cultivating public opinion... in offering resistance [and] standing erect with a consciousness of their cultural heritage. The forces were not organised at this stage [1938], but they were clearly making headway."

Thus, when the TIC held a mass meeting of about 1,000 on 1 March 1939 to consider the scheme, not only were the radicals organised under the leadership of Dadoo, but they also enjoyed some measure of mass support. At the meeting, Dadoo, on behalf of the radicals, moved an amendment to the official resolution, which called on the TIC to elect a Council of Action to "devise ways and means of starting a passive resistance campaign" and called for closer co-operation with the other non-white political organisations.

This heralded the insistent demands of the progressives for militant resistance and for closer fraternal co-operation with the African and Coloured peoples. Previously the moderates had shunned these actions.

The TIC officials, however, refused to admit that the amendment had won. Valod, the president, made such a claim in a press statement and added that the TIC was not going to form a Council of Action. Dadoo maintained that it had won and pointed out that S.M. Nana, secretary and leader of the TIC, had offered to resign because the adoption of the amendment was tantamount to a motion of no confidence in the Congress officials. Both the Indian Opinion and Joshi said that the amendment was adopted.

Judging from Nana's offer to resign and the subsequent support given to the radicals it seems that the amendment had won. However, following Valod's action the radicals formed the nationalist bloc of the TIC, presumably using the term "nationalist" to denote their radicalism and probably borrowing it from India.

Whilst remaining within the TIC, the nationalist bloc conducted their own propaganda and agitational campaigns to win the support of the people. To achieve this, they called numerous meetings, put up posters and placards, distributed propaganda material and generally carried out a virulent campaign.

However, following representations iron the Indian Government and the outcry and protest of the Indians, the Coloured community, and the SACP, Stuttaford's scheme was shelved. But the Transvaal Indians did not escape. In its place the government introduced, in May 1939, the Asiatic Land and Trading Bill, in order to peg the position for two years. This once more postponed the Feetham resolution, (see above p. 111).

While the TIC and SAIC vacillated, the nationalist bloc called for passive resistance. At a mass protest meeting, called on 7 May and attended by about 3,000 people, a resolution was adopted which resolved:

"Upon resorting to passive resistance as the only means at our disposal to register our protest by self-suffering and... appoints... a council of 25. [to conduct] this struggle to its final end and determination".

But the SAIC refused to support the resolution. At an executive meeting, V.S.C. Pather, the president, ruled that in terms of Rule 16 of the constitution, the provincial bodies might make representations, but it was only the SAIC in "conference assembled", which could lay down a policy or principle on any issues which had national repercussions. At the end of the meeting, the executive passed a motion condemning the Bill, but gave no direction on how it was to be opposed.

Unperturbed by the rebuff, the radicals compelled the TIC office bearers to call a mass meeting for 4 June 1939 to decide on the issue. Just before the meeting commenced, a gang of hooligans, apparently hired by S.M. Nana and some of the other officials, attacked the passive resistance supporters with butcher knives, bottles, heavy clubs, bicycle chains and knuckle-dusters. As a result a young resistor, Dahyabhai Govindji, died and several others received severe injuries.

The incident swung Indian opinion in favour of the radicals, who now enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Indians in the Transvaal. This was emphasised at a mass meeting held on 9 July and was confirmed by the Agent-General, who was supporter of the moderates. He reported:

" The passing of the Asiatic Land and Trading act and the use of violence at the meeting. [swung] Indian opinion heavily in favour of passive resistance. Many of the branches of the TIC passed resolutions of no confidence in the officials and in support of Dr. Y.M. Dadoo and his rationalist movement".

The nationalist bloc capitalised on this issue and turned the funeral of Govindji into a mass political demonstration. Thousands cause from different parts of the Transvaal to attend the funeral, and almost every trading establishment was closed for half-day in Johannesburg and other parts of the province.

The mass meeting held on 9 July was attended by approximately 6,000 people (nearly 1/5 of the Transvaal Indian population), and from Natal came A. Christopher, S. Rustomjee, and P.R. Pather. All of the speakers condemned the Asiatic Land Tenure Act, 1939 and called on the people to prepare for passive resistance, a form of struggle that "Mahatma Gandhi had successfully utilised". Three resolutions were unanimously adopted. After condemning the Act as a violation of the Cape Town Agreement, aiming at the "ultimate annihilation" of the Indians, and a gratuitous insult to the Indian nation, the resolution on passive resistance said that the Indian community in the Transvaal :

"having exhausted all constitutional means... declares that the only means left to combat the Act is passive resistance... and declares that it be launched in the Transvaal on the 1st day of August, 1939".

The second resolution demanded the withdrawal of the Agency, and the final resolution denounced the moderates and expressed full confidence in the policies and programme of the nationalist bloc.

On 23 July, prominent Natal Indians called a mass meeting of solidarity, mainly from the CB and SIA. Except forj.W. Godfrey, the NIC leaders refused to sponsor the meeting.

These bold declarations caused consternation among some of the moderates. A.I. Kajee, in an interview with the Natal Daily News, condemned the passive resistance resolution as unconstitutional. He alleged that it would harm the Indians' cause and also that the nationalist bloc could not achieve anything without the support of the Indian community in Natal and the SAIC.

This interview was repudiated by V.S.C. Pather, who said that Kajee was expressing a personal opinion, since neither the SAIC nor the NIC had taken a decision on the issue.

S.M. Nana, the principal spokesman for the moderates in the Transvaal, believed that a passive resistance campaign would induce adverse reaction amongst the Europeans and moreover:

"Any measure of success... would be an encouragement to the native people to adopt it as a weapon to seek redress of their grievances. The Union Government cannot, even if it desires to do so, make any concession to the Indians in the face of a passive struggle because of its effect on the Native people of this country".

This statement mirrors accurately the political thinking and policies of the moderate leadership. Fearful of the consequences, which could affect their business interests, andjealously guarding their false sense of political and social superiority over the African people, the moderates were opposed to militant resistance, and they persisted in pursuing an accommodationist policy designed to please the authorities.

However, both Kajee and Nana were out on a limb in so far as the majority of the Transvaal was concerned. The last few months had demonstrated that the radicals enjoyed a lot of support and that a large section of the community was willing to offer resistance. Moreover, it seemed likely that Dadoo would supplant Nana as the principal spokesman of the Indians in the Transvaal. But external factors were to intervene.

A week before the commencement of the campaign, Mahatma Gandhi asked the radicals to postpone the struggle as he hoped that a honourable settlement could be achieved, since both the Indian and British Governments were in touch with the Union Government and he was in touch with the Minister concerned. He added, "it is the code of the passive resisters to seize every opportunity of avoiding resistance if it can be done honourably".

Acceding to his request, the nationalist bloc postponed the campaign. Dadoo offered the following explanation:

"Mahatma Gandhi has been our guide and mentor in all that the passive resistance council has been doing in this matter or, and we shall whole-heartedly await his advice".

Looking at the decision retrospectively, it seems that it was incorrect from the vantage point of the radicals. Not only were they on the verge of embarking on a militant struggle with a lot of support, but they were also suitably placed to win control of the TIC. The postponement had the effect of dampening the spirit of the people. Thereafter, Dadoo and some of the other radicals became deeply involved in the war issue, giving the moderates time to consolidate, thus making it possible for the latter to retain control of the TIC.

H and R. Simons, commenting on this, said:

"The impact of external events had once again turned the national liberation movement away from the path of mass struggle."

This is a one dimensional approach which ignores the important fact that, not only was Gandhi and his technique a symbol and rallying cry, but also that sense of the leading personnel, such as E.I. Asvat, P.S. Joshi, S.B. Medh and Nana Sita, were faithfully followers of Gandhi who would not go against his wishes. Thus, it was a combination of the external factor and the internal symbols and personalities involved which led to its postponement.

< 1. Introductory survey | 3. Formation of the NIA >

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Last updated : 03-Apr-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011

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