[ Paper written at the request of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid for a special meeting in honour of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, in October 1985. Published by the United Nations Centre against Apartheid and reprinted in London and New Delhi.]
India's contribution to the struggle against apartheid has been highly praised by the leaders of the freedom movement in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the outstanding leader of that movement, paid a handsome tribute to India and its leaders in a letter smuggled out of Robben island prison in 1980. Great appreciation has also been expressed by African leaders for the role of India since 1946 in promoting international support for the freedom struggle in South Africa, and its many actions and initiatives in solidarity with the oppressed people of that country.
While such expressions of appreciation are most gratifying, it must be emphasised that the contribution by the Government and people of India to the freedom movement in South Africa is more than an act of solidarity. It has deep roots in India's own struggle for freedom and dignity.
The humiliations and indignities to which the people of Indian origin were subjected in South Africa, and the struggle for their human dignity led by Mahatma Gandhi, have had a great influence on the Indian national movement. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, it had developed an international outlook, espousing uncompromising opposition to colonialism and racism and recognising that India's own freedom was meaningless unless all the peoples under colonial and racist domination were free. It felt a particular affinity with the freedom movements in South Africa and other
Soon after assuming office as Prime Minister in the Interim Government of India, Pandit Nehru declared at a press conference on September 27, 1946:
"The kernel of our policy is the ending of colonialism all over Asia, or for
that matter, in Africa and elsewhere and racial equality ... and the end of
domination or exploitation of one nation by another."
This, he stressed, was the only way to bring about world peace and progress. While India was concerned with the treatment of people of Indian origin in South Africa as an affront to the dignity and honour of the nation, he saw the issue in the context of even greater oppression of the African majority. India, therefore, took the lead in ensuring United Nations consideration of apartheid and in promoting solidarity with all the oppressed people.
The Government and people of India have entertained great respect for the liberation movement in South Africa and its leaders, and have been unequivocal in support of their struggle. The contributions made in that cause, and in implementation of the United Nations resolutions, were never regarded as a sacrifice but as a national duty.
It may be useful to trace the evolution of India's concern and commitment, not only for an understanding of the role of India, but also for pointing to the lessons of its long experience of solidarity with the struggle for liberation in South Africa.
Gandhiji in South Africa
"The oldest existing political organisation in South Africa, the Natal Indian Congress, was founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1894. He became its first secretary and in 21 years of his stay in South Africa we were to witness the birth of ideas and methods of struggle that have exerted an incalculable influence on the history of the peoples of India and South Africa. Indeed it was on South African soil that Mahatmaji founded and embraced the philosophy of Satyagraha." - Nelson Mandela in a letter from prison in 1980
After the abolition of slavery, the British settlers in the Natal arranged with the Indian Government to recruit indentured labour for their sugar, tea and coffee plantations. Thousands of poor and illiterate Indians were enticed to go to South Africa with promises of attractive wages and repatriation after five years or the right to settle in Natal as free men. The first indentured labourers reached Natal on November 6, 1860. They were soon followed by traders and their assistants. After some time, the whites faced serious competition from the traders, as well as the labourers who became successful market gardeners after the expiry of their indenture. They began an agitation to make it impossible for Indians to live in Natal except in semi-slavery as indentured labourers. In 1893, when Natal was granted self-government, the Government began to enact a series of discriminatory and restrictive measures against the free Indians.
The Indian traders who had settled in the Boer Republic of Transvaal were also subjected to similar discrimination, while Indians were excluded from the Orange Free State.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a young and diffident barrister, arrived in South Africa in 1893 to represent an Indian trader in Natal in a civil suit against an Indian trading firm in Pretoria. Within days, he encountered bitter humiliations such as being pushed out of a train and being assaulted for walking on a footpath. The experience steeled him: he decided never to accept or be resigned to injustice and racism, but to resist.
He helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, bringing together Indians of all classes, speaking a variety of languages, into one organisation to struggle for their rights. It was the first mass organisation in South Africa.
Proceeding to India in 1896, he travelled all over the country publicising the situation in South Africa, meeting leaders of the Indian National Congress, editors and others. When he returned to Durban in January 1897, he was brutally assaulted by a white mob and barely escaped lynching. The incident was widely reported in India and England, and the British Government was obliged to instruct the Natal authorities to take action against his assailants. Gandhiji refused to prosecute them and went on with his work.
When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899, the British Government gave as one of the reasons the discrimination against British subjects of Indian origin in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Gandhiji organised an ambulance corps on the British side, though he felt sympathy for the Afrikaners. At the end of the war, however, the British administrators enforced more stringent restrictions on the Indians in the Transvaal.
In 1907, the Transvaal Government enacted the "Black Act" (Asiatic Registration Act) requiring compulsory registration and finger-printing of Indians. The Indian community defied the law under the leadership of Gandhiji, and many were imprisoned in this first Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) launched by him.
Within a few months, General Smuts agreed to release the prisoners and repeal the Act in return for voluntary registration by the Indians. But the Government broke the promise and maintained the Act, though with some amendments, so the Indian community resumed the struggle in 1908. Thousands of Indians burnt their registration certificates. The Satyagraha continued this time for several years as the white authorities, who were negotiating for "selfgovernment", resorted to harassment rather than mass arrests.
Gandhiji went in a deputation of Indians to Britain in 1909 to oppose the granting of self-government to South Africa under white rule, and met with many members of Parliament and public figures. But the British Government ignored the pleas of the Indians - and, indeed, of the African majority - and transferred power to the white minority in 1910.
Meanwhile, the Satyagraha received wide attention in India. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a prominent national leader with whom Gandhiji was in constant communication, initiated a debate in the Legislative Council of India and secured a resolution in 1911 to prohibit recruitment of indentured labour for Natal.
Subsequently, with British encouragement, Gokhale visited South Africa in 1912 and met Generals Botha and Smuts who undertook to repeal the Black Act and abolish the poll-tax.
But again the undertaking was not kept. Moreover, the Indian community was infuriated at a judgement of the Cape Supreme Court in 1913 declaring all marriages, other than those according to Christian rites and registered with the Registrar of Marriages, beyond the pale of law in South Africa.
Gandhiji then revived the Satyagraha on a much bigger scale, inviting women and indentured labourers to join. Tens of thousands of workers in the Newcastle coal mines and in plantations on the Natal coast went on strike and defied brutal police violence. Thousands of Indians went to jail.
Public opinion in India reacted strongly and even Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, criticised the South African Government and expressed his "deep and burning" sympathy for the Satyagrahis. There were also protests in Britain. As a result, General Smuts reached an agreement with Gandhiji in January 1914 repealing the poll-tax and validating Indian marriages. This was a compromise, as other discriminatory measures remained, but provided some security for the Indian community. Gandhiji suspended the Satyagraha and left South Africa in July 1914.2
The experience of Gandhiji in South Africa had a tremendous influence in India, and he was hailed as a "Mahatma" as he proceeded to develop the Indian National Congress as a mass movement leading to the independence of the country.
In South Africa, despite his great respect and sympathy for the Africans, his political activities were confined essentially to the Indian community as it was in a particularly vulnerable position. His influence on the freedom movement in that country was, therefore, by example. But as Oliver Tambo said in New Delhi on November 14, 1980: "His imprint on the course of the South African struggle is indelible."
Gandhiji, moreover, was a great publicist who recognised that while the success of Satyagraha depended primarily on the courage and sacrifice of the resisters, it should obtain the understanding and sympathy of public opinion. He attracted the support of a number of whites in South Africa who soon became supporters of the African cause. Public opinion in India was aroused as on few other issues.
Gandhiji also helped promote awareness of South African racism in Britain.
2 Before leaving South Africa, Gandhiji sent as a gift to General Smuts a pair of sandals he had made in jail. Recalling this in 1939, General Smuts wrote: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."
Gandhiji was also in frequent correspondence with people in other countries, including Count Leo Tolstoy, who wrote to him:
"And so your activity in Transvaal, as it seems to us, at the end of the world,
is the most essential work now being done in the world, and in which not
only the nations of the Christian but of all the world will undoubtedly take
The efforts of Gandhiji thus helped to attract international attention to the issue of racism in South Africa long before the United Nations began considering the matter.
Solidarity of Freedom Movements
"... there is a real moral bond between Asiatics and Africans. It will
grow as time passes." - Mahatma Gandhi in Harijan, February 24, 1946
"It would be a grave omission on our part if we failed to mention the
close bonds that have existed between our people and the people of
India, and to acknowledge the encouragement, the inspiration and
the practical assistance we have received as a result of the
international outlook of the All India Congress." - Nelson Mandela in
his letter from prison in 1980
Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian National Congress developed a strong international outlook, with the elimination of colonialism and racism all over the world as the foremost concern, and established contacts with freedom movements in other countries.
Africa had a special place, partly because of the concern of Mahatma Gandhi. Pandit Nehru, for his part, was always passionate in denouncing the humiliation of Africa and felt that Asia had a duty to help Africa regain its dignity and freedom. He said in his address to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi on March 23, 1947:
"We of Asia have a special responsibility to the people of Africa. We must
help them to their rightful place in the human family."
And in his concluding statement at the Asian-African Conference in Bandung on April 24, 1955, he declared:
"We have passed resolutions about conditions in this or that country. But I
think there is nothing more terrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the
past few hundred years. Everything else pales into insignificance when I
think of the infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of
Africans were carried away as galley slaves to America and elsewhere, half
of them dying in the galleys... even now the tragedy of Africa is greater than
that of any other continent, whether it is racial or political. It is up to Asia to
help Africa to the best of her ability because we are sister continents."
There were friendly contacts between Indian and African leaders during the course of their struggles for freedom.3 Both Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru repeatedly stressed the solidarity of Asian and African peoples and advised the Indians in Africa to identify with the African majority. One of the first acts of Pandit Nehru, after becoming Prime Minister in the Interim Government of India, was to send instructions to Indian envoys in Africa that India did not want Indians to have any special privileges at the cost of Africans anywhere. He called upon the Indians to co-operate with Africans in order to gain freedom for Africans.
The Indian national movement, which began in the 1880s, and the South African national movement, which began three decades later, developed on parallel lines - in organisation, forms of resistance and ideology - in protracted struggles against powerful forces. India had, therefore, a special appreciation of the concerns and aspirations of the latter.
The bond between the national movements of India and South Africa became stronger during the Second World War. The Indians in South Africa were no longer recent immigrants, but were born in South Africa and developed deep roots in that country. With the encouragement
of the Indian national movement, they recognised that their destiny was linked to that of the African majority and increasingly participated in joint struggles against racist measures.
The militants - from Gandhians to Marxists - under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Dr. Monty Naicker, took over leadership of the community by the end of the war, from the so-called "moderates" who were compromising with the racist regime, and entered into a pact with the Afr