January 27, 1997




NAGAPPAN AND VALLIAMMA - two young Indians in their ‘teens, who gave their lives in the satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa - symbolise the contribution of people of diverse communities in the long struggle for freedom and dignity in this rainbow nation. They constitute an unbreakable link between South Africa and India - partners in a common struggle.


   They were the first of several Indians in the Johannesburg area who gave their lives in the liberation struggle. They were followed in recent years by Suliman “Babla” Saloojee and Ahmed Mohamed Timol who died in detention; and Yusuf Akhalwaya and Prakash Napier who fell in the armed struggle.


   The Indian people in the Transvaal launched a non-violent struggle in 1906, under the leadership of Gandhi, in defiance of legislation designed to harass and humiliate them. No less than 2,500 persons from the small Indian community of ten thousand went to prison, many of them repeatedly.


   The authorities tried to disrupt the campaign and break the morale of the resisters by various means, including the enforcement of harsh prison conditions.


   Swamy Nagappan volunteered as a resister and went to prison in 1909. He and his colleagues were forced to break stones from early morning in the bitter cold. He contracted double pneumonia and died on July 6, 1909, soon after release. He was also eighteen then. His companions said that “he thought of the struggle and struggle alone till he breathed his last. He never repented of going to jail...”


   The campaign was later suspended in the hope of reaching a negotiated settlement, but had to be renewed in September 1913, after the formation of the Union of South Africa. The Cape Supreme Court had delivered a judgment declaring that marriages which were not contracted under Christian rites were invalid, thus invalidating most Indian marriages. The government ignored appeals by the Indian community for legislative redress. The resistance was extended to the whole of South Africa and Gandhi invited women to join.


   One of the volunteers was Valliamma, a young girl of sixteen or seventeen from Doornfontein.


   Doornfontein had played an important role in the Satyagraha in the Transvaal. Thambi Naidoo, one of the closest associates of Gandhi who went to prison fourteen times, lived there. His entire family, including his pregnant wife, volunteered in this last stage of the struggle.


   Valliamma’s father, Munuswami Moodaliar - who lived on President Street and owned a fruit and vegetable store on Market Street - was an ardent supporter of the resistance and had spent a term in prison. He could not join the resisters this time as he was ill and due to undergo an operation. His wife, Mangalam, went with Valliamma.


   They hawked without permit, crossed into Natal in defiance of the law, and proceeded from town to town exhorting the Indian workers to strike. They were arrested on December 22, 1913, as they crossed back into the Transvaal at Volksrust and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour.


   Valliamma was ill with fever when jailed and her condition deteriorated in prison. The prison authorities offered her release and encouraged her to go home but she refused. When she was released on 11 February, she was suffering greatly.


   Gandhi visited her at home and wrote that “her emaciated body was terrible thing to behold”. But she declared that she was ready to go to jail again and did not mind if she had to die for the honour of the Indians and India. She passed away on February 22, 1914. To quote Gandhi, “Valliamma was no more with us in the flesh, but she left us the heritage of an immortal name...”


   One of the last engagements of Gandhi before he left South Africa was to attend the unveiling of the gravestones of Nagappan and Valliamma in the Braamfontein Cemetery on July 15, 1914.


   It was a sign of madness of apartheid that the cemetery was declared a white area, denying Indians access to the graves of their martyrs.


   Now, finally, they are restored to all the people to inspire them in their efforts to build a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa - or in the words of Mahatma Gandhi in 1908, a nation where “all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen”.