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Indian Resistance in South Africa

Brothers in Struggle

     Indians first emigrated from their homeland to South Africa in 1860. The first influx arrived in Natal to labor in the sugar fields. Then, from about 1872, merchants and traders began to immigrate into the country. A bourgeoisie of teachers, nurses, and clerks began to develop in Natal around 1900. Though these diasporic Indians spoke different tongues and professed all three of the salient faiths of the Indian subcontinent (Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity), they found unity as “The Indian Community” in their new home, something they would not have been able to do in the old country. Though marked tensions existed between the classes within the Indian Community, the Indians managed to co-exist “in relative harmony.” [1] However, until the mid-1940’s, despite both being socially and economically oppressed by European South Africans, Indians and Black Africans failed to find political unity. But in 1945, radicals favoring non-European unity seized the leadership of the erstwhile conservative and non-integrationist Natal Indian Congress. This coincided with the arrival of the fist of Apartheid; the National Party made it clear in their successful 1948 election campaign that neither “coolies” nor “kaffirs” would be treated favorably in this new era. The time for co-operative struggle had arrived.

     The Natal Indian Congress was formed in 1894, and the inception of the Transvaal Indian Congress followed in 1904. These organizations, the first organizations for the advancement of the rights of Indians in South Africa, came into fruition with the aid of a lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived in South Africa in 1893. In 1906, when the Transvaal created a law requiring Indians to carry identification cards, Gandhi led the first ever passive resistance campaign for Indian Rights, one among several campaigns of civil disobedience led by the lawyer during his years in South Africa. Gandhi found himself in jail on several occasions.

     Contrary to popular belief, Gandhi did not believe in the equality of all mankind. Gandhi had no interest in fighting for the rights of Africans. Contrariwise, Gandhi’s aforementioned first campaign in 1906 was sparked by anger among Indians who felt they were being reduced “to the status of pass-bearing Africans.”[2] And Gandhi volunteered to help the South African authorities quell an African insurrection in 1906 by leading an Indian Ambulance Corps. But Gandhi’s traditions of passive resistance were carried on by the next generation of Indian activists in the 1940’s, and these later non-violent actions and demonstrations had a profound influence on the ANC and Nelson Mandela himself.

      While studying at the University of Witwatersrand in the early 1940’s, Nelson Mandela befriended two Indian students, Ismail Meer and Jaydew Singh. Meer, Singh, and Mandela had an inauspicious encounter with the law together when they all boarded a tram, whereupon a policeman arrested the Indians for “carrying a kaffir.”[3] The Indians and Mandela were subsequently taken into custody.

      In 1946, Singh and Meer were two of hundreds of Indians who partook in a Passive Resistance Campaign in response to the Asiatic Land Tenure Act, passed by the Smuts government. This act substantially reduced the property rights of Indians in South Africa; it was known commonly as the “Ghetto Act” because it restricted the residence of Indians to certain areas. This campaign was held in the spirit of Gandhi; the participants freely went to jail. A leader of the movement, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, telegrammed this message to Gandhi himself after the first group of demonstrators had been taken into custody: “CONSIDER POLICE ACTION AND ARREST FIRST VICTORY. SPIRIT OF RESISTERS EXCELLENT. THEIR NON-VIOLENT BEHAVIOUR UNDER EXTREME PROVOCATION AND ASSAULTS MAGNIFICENT. STRUGGLE CONTINUES. MORE AND MORE VOLUNTEERS WILL GO INTO ACTION ACCORDING TO PLAN. WE SHALL RESIST.”[4] The eloquent Communist Dadoo had this to say to the magistrate when he himself was arrested during the campaign and charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act[5]:

We shall continue carrying on the struggle against the Ghetto Act. Our struggle has the support and consent of the Indian people in South Africa, and is a struggle which has the widest support in India. We hope our action will show democratic-minded people all over the world that in discharging our duty as passive resisters, we are not only doing service to the Indian people, but that we are doing our duty to all true democrats and fighting for our rights in South Africa.

To the Indian community I say that the struggle will be a hard one and a long one, but that should not daunt them; they should rally to the call and do nothing that will impair the self-respect and national honour of the Indian people. I hope they will continue their struggle with renewed vigour, but in a non-violent manner in keeping with their code of Passive Resistance and do what men and women have done in the war just concluded - a war that was fought for democracy and decency.

     Dr. Dadoo was subtly, suavely, and eloquently insulting his Afrikaner oppressors with his praise of South Africa’s participation in the Allied cause of World War II. Many Afrikaners, reactionary to being “dragged into another of ‘England’s wars’”[6], supported Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and the Axis powers during the War. Thousands of pro-Nazis in South Africa were interned during the War.

     Dadoo was sentenced to three months of hard labor.[7]

     The impact of the Passive Resistance Campaign was immeasurable. As Dadoo had said, India herself began to show her support for Indians in South Africa. The South African Indian Congress persuaded India (which was on the cusp of independence at the time) to bring up the issue of racism in South Africa at the United Nations. And retroactive to the Passive Resistance Campaign, as Mandela put it in a 1996 speech, “India became a champion of the world campaign against all forms of racism.”[8] Though it was economically disadvantageous, India broke off economic relations with South Africa as a result of the actions of her diasporic sons and daughters.

     Krishna Menon, chairman of delegation of India to the UN from 1953 to 1962, was chairman of the India League in London in 1946. Reacting to the Passive Resistance Campaign, he established a South Africa Committee to make the struggles of both oppressed races, Indians and Africans, public. Mr. Menon went on to champion the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed races of South Africa throughout his tenure at the United Nations.

     But an even more propitious result of the Passive Resistance Campaign than the influence on Indians outside of South Africa was the influence on Africans within South Africa. The non-violent resistance philosophy that was spearheaded by Gandhi and emulated in the Passive Resistance Campaign by the likes of Dadoo, Meer, and Singh left a tremendous impact on the African National Congress and Mandela himself as a direct result of the Campaign. Mandela, reflecting on the actions of the Indians who valiantly stood up for their rights in 1946, wrote the following[9]:

The Indian community was outraged and launched a concerted, two-year campaign of passive resistance to oppose the measures...the Indian community conducted a mass campaign that impressed us with its organization and dedication. Housewives, priests, doctors, lawyers, traders, students, and workers took their place in the front lines of protest. For two years, people suspended their lives to take up the battle. Mass rallies were held; land reserved for whites was occupied and picketed. No less than two thousand volunteers went to jail, and Drs. Dado and Nicker [movement leaders] were sentenced to six months' hard labor....The government crippled the rebellion with harsh laws and intimidation, but we in the Youth League and the ANC [African National Congress] had witnessed the Indian people register an extraordinary protest against color oppression in a way that Africans and the ANC had not....The Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the Youth League were calling for. It instilled a spirit of defiance and radicalism among the people, broke their fear of prison, and boosted the popularity and influence of the [Indian protestors]. They reminded us that the freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions, and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action, and, above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice. The Indian campaign hearkened back to the 1913 passive resistance campaign in which Mahatma Gandhi led a tumultuous procession of Indians crossing illegally from Natal to the Transvaal. That was history; this campaign was taking place before my own eyes.

     Had the Indians in South Africa not taken a stand of non-violent resistance to oppression in 1946, South Africa might still be asphyxiated in the stranglehold of Apartheid today. The braveness of Meer, Singh, and a myriad of others was the kindling that lit the requisite fire within the hearts of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, respectively the most prominent organization and the most crucial figure in the destruction of Apartheid. It was the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign that pushed the ANC and Mandela to successfully fight for the rights of the oppressed African race.

     Indian resistance in South Africa did not stop in 1946. But from then on, the Indian Congress and the ANC would co-operate and fight alongside each other in the struggle for liberty.

     Ironically enough, the leaders of the ANC and the Indian Congress were brought together to ease a violent Indian-African conflict in the slums of Durban in January of 1949. The Apartheid government apparently instigated the conflict and intentionally did nothing to obviate a riot until it was too late. Later, the authorities apparently “opened fire indiscriminately and killed many Africans.”[10] 130 were killed in the riots. As tragically impeding as the race riots may seem, they acted as a catalyst towards unity between the ANC and the Indian Congress. In their efforts to quell tensions, the ANC and the Indian Congress collaborated with each other and worked towards a common goal. Furthermore, the outbreak of Indian-African fighting indicated to the organizations that unity is now desperately needed, lest violence continue to run rampant in South Africa.

     The Indian Congress and the ANC jointly supported a May Day strike initially planned by Communists in 1950. At the time, “Africanist” Mandela was obstinately opposed to union among non-Europeans in the struggle, and thus he opposed the May Day strike. Mandela was so vitriolic in his crusade against the strike that he pushed an Indian speaker off the dais at an ANC meeting. Despite Mandela’s best efforts, the strike went forward successfully, though it ended in violence in some localities. Acting co-operatively, a fortnight thereafter the ANC and the Indian Congress planned another day of protest (and this time Mandela acquiesced). Though the June 26th day of protest was met with minimal success, it was a prominent act of unity between the ANC and the Indian Congress.

     Mentor of Mandela and secretary-general of the ANC Walter Sisulu soon conceived the idea of a campaign of mass defiance for Africans, Coloureds, and Indians alike. This campaign would “deliberately court arrest and imprisonment by contravening selected laws and regulations in ways similar to the Indian passive resistance campaign of 1946”[11]. Mandela once again opposed the co-operation of Indians (and Coloureds), but his protests went unheeded at the annual conference of the ANC in December 1951, and so, once again, he was coerced to acquiesce.

     The campaign was co-led by Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, the Communist who led the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign. The campaign also featured Yusuf Cachalia, the Indian whom Mandela once shoved down.

     Four days prior to the 26th of June 1952, the set date for the “Defiance Campaign”, Mandela spoke at a Durban rally organized co-operatively by the ANC and the Indian Congress, addressing 10,000 Africans and Indians. This rally marked an important day in the history of South African unity: Nelson Mandela, not too long ago a virulent Africanist, proclaimed to the crowd that “We can now say unity between the non-European people in this country has become a living reality.”[12]

     The influence of Indian action against Apartheid had at last convinced Mandela to accept and extol non-European unity. Nelson Mandela, champion of equality and unity today, would most likely not have been the same had it not been for continuing Indian resistance against racial oppression and a willingness among the Indian people to co-operate with the Africans.

     During the fantastically successful Defiance Campaign, which lasted for several months, Nelson Mandela was arrested together with Yusuf Cachalia. Appositely resonating with Mandela’s newfound beliefs on unity, he was now enduring sacrifice alongside an Indian man whom he once saw as an enemy. On that evening, Mandela certainly saw that his race and the Indian race were truly brothers in struggle.

     Later on in the campaign, Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Cachalia together urged members of the one South African race unused in the campaign thus far­—the Whites—to take up the struggle in the name of democracy at a meeting organized by the ANC and the Indian Congress, working together closely. Thanks to joint efforts by the ANC and the Indian Congress, Whites were no longer silent towards the end of the struggle. One White arrested was an erstwhile governor-general’s son. As Cachalia remarked, Patrick Duncan’s arrest “came as a gift from heaven. It stopped the campaign from becoming racial.”[13]

     Since the work of their organizations had been so intertwined in the Mass Defiance campaign, it was appropriate that the leaders of the Indian Congress and ANC fell together. Among others, Dadoo, Cachalia, Sisulu and Mandela were arrested and tried. They were all found guilty of “statutory communism” (which wasn’t Communism in the traditional Marxist-Leninist sense, as Judge Franz Rumpff freely admitted, but rather a nebulous term which can be used to describe any action the Apartheid government doesn’t like so that they can imprison whomever they want) and sentenced to nine months of hard labor; the sentence was suspended for two years. The government also banned certain individuals, notably Dadoo, from ever participating in an Indian Congress (or ANC) meeting again.

     From its inception, the Defiance Campaign was a joint effort among Indians and Africans. And despite the consequences for its leaders, the Defiance Campaign was a momentous success. The oppressed people of South Africa had become inspired, and, as a result of the Campaign, the injustice of Apartheid had gained more international intention. As Mandela biographer Martin Meredith put it, “The campaign showed…what could be achieved through African and Indian collaboration.”[14] And Mandela had at long last learned that hard-line Africanism could not win the struggle. After witnessing the phenomenal success of close collaboration between the ANC and the Indian Congress during the Defiance Campaign, Mandela realized that freedom for South Africa required inter-racial co-operation.

     His stubbornness and perversity often impeded his mental progress, but the course of events from the Indian Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946 to his own trial alongside Indian activists gradually taught Nelson Mandela the most important lesson he would learn in his lifetime: any democracy in South Africa would need to be non-racial. And now that he knew this sacrosanct lesson, Nelson Mandela would give his life for it.

      Indians in South Africa were the first to demonstrate non-violent resistance against racial oppression to the populace. And when the African majority was ready to hold civil disobedience campaigns of its own, South African Indians passively resisted alongside. The co-operation of Indians with Africans during their struggles proved to all those who doubted the power of inter-racial unity that they were wrong. A stubborn young African named Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela learned this lesson from the Indian resisters and made that lesson his life; Nelson Mandela would sooner give up his physical life than renounce that lesson of the power and necessity of racial unity. He was incarcerated for decades because that same stubbornness that hindered him before wouldn’t let him repudiate the lessons he had learned. And when a new South Africa was finally born, it was Nelson Mandela who christened her, and he christened her in the name of racial equality. The evils of Apartheid might still be enforced today had it not been for those pioneering Indian resisters. As strong and mighty as African resistance was, it was the Indians who showed them the way to liberty and fought alongside them as brothers in struggle.


Meredith, Martin. Nelson Mandela. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

1998 Teachers Guide Migration in History Lesson Plan Text [web page]

From slavery to democracy [web page]


Statements of Krishna Menon in the UN General Assembly [web page]

Struggle, Collaboration and Democracy The 'Indian Community' in South Africa, 1860-1999 [web page]

Yusuf Dadoo - a biography [web page]


[1] Source: http://www.epw.org.in/34-07/comm3.htm
[2] Source: James Meredith, Nelson Mandela, pp. 57
[3] Source: Meredith, pp. 39
[4] Source: http://www.sacp.org.za/docs/HISTORY/dadoo04.html
[5] Source: http://www.sacp.org.za/docs/HISTORY/dadoo04.html
[6] Source: Meredith, pp. 76
[7] Some discrepancy is present among the sources on the length of Dadoo’s sentence. One source said his sentence was three months of hard labor, but another said it was six months. The source that contained the text of Dadoo’s telegram and response to the magistrate claimed it was three months, so that is the duration that I have accepted.
[8] Source: http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mandela/1996/sp0613.html
[9] Source: http://www.thehistorynet.com/NationalHistoryDay/teach98/lesson3/lesson3_text.htm
[10] Source: http://www.sacp.org.za/biographies/dadoo.html
[11] Source: Meredith, pp. 92
[12] Source: Meredith, pp. 94
[13] Source: Meredith, pp. 96
[14] Source: Meredith, pp. 97
Well, that's it! /me hopes you learned something, other than that he used the word "diasporic" twice in his bloody paper.

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