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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Indianness Reconfigured, 1944-1960: The Natal Indian Congress in South Africa

Surendra Bhana

Founded in 1894 by Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) sought to weld together the diverse cultural and religious immigrants from the Indian subcontinent into a single, coherent, and secular organization. In the process of the NIC's creation, "Indianness" came into being and subsequently became firmly embedded in South Af-rica's politics. In the early years of the NIC's existence, "Indianness," in its restricted sense, was central to the organi-zation's efforts to win rights for the immigrants. It succeeded in gaining a few concessions for the "Indians" in South Africa, but it failed to halt the general deterioration of their political status in the emergent White supremacist state. The use of "Indianness" was revived in the interwar years, thanks to Gandhi's continued influence. But its ineffectiveness in producing desirable results gave rise to newer orientations in the NIC during the 1940s.

This essay examines the circumstances around which these transformations occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. "Indianness" was redefined to allow for a strategy that included an alliance with other Black political groups in South Africa. The earlier definition would have confined the NIC narrowly to "Indian" members in its activities. The new definition opened the NIC to a multi-racial vision of South Africa. To be sure, "Indianness" was still important in defining the NIC membership. But its broader definition allowed the NIC to think beyond its self-imposed ethnic boundary and prepared the NIC for the role it played in the post-1970 liberation movement.

In the South African context, reference to the migrants from the subcontinent as "Indians," implied "Indianness" as a characteristic that united them as a collectivity. At the very least, "Indianness" suggested a geographic unity to the place of their origin. The term also acknowledged the cultural and religious diversity of the imagined "India." If British imperial rule in India had created a semblance of unity to make possible the appropriation of "Indians" to refer to Queen Victoria's subjects, this could apply equally to parts like Natal, a British colony, to which the people from the subcontinent had migrated. If people on the subcontinent could be called "Indians," then those who migrated also could be given the same appellation.

In South Africa, the use of "Indians" to refer to the immigrants from the subcontinent had clear ideological implications. Natal's White population felt threatened by the immigrants from "India" and proceeded to deal with them legislatively as a collective whole; and in response to this development the "Indian" leadership, most particularly Gandhi, sought to organize the "Indians" into a unified political force. Gandhi's "Indianness" straddled both Natal and the Raj in India. It was part of his strategy to use the imperial framework within which to defend the rights of "Indians" as British subjects. That strategy was the basis of the South African "Indian" politics for much of the 1920s and 1930s. But in the unique circumstances in which the notion of "Indianness" became crystallized in South Africa, it became racialized in the creation of White supremacist rule. White rulers in South A frica used "Indianness" to prevent "Indians" from joining other Blacks politically. They too sought to use "Indians" as an undifferentiated mass to serve their own political ends. Yet, even as "Indians" became an accepted term in the South Africa political landscape, "Indianness" underwent changes to allow for an alliance with other Black groups.

When the NIC was established, its primary function was to articulate the collective interests of the Indians; and since the Indians had no formal representation at any level, it was in effect a lobbying organization. But whose interests were being articulated and defined by the NIC? For much of the NIC's existence before 1945, it was dominated by the merchant elite, and the issues it took up reflected, by and large, their interests. The high subscription rates kept the body out of reach of most of Natal's Indians. The elitist nature of the NIC in the 1890s and 1900s did become an issue among Indians who were not merchants, but its membership did not become broader. The mass support that Gandhi achieved in 1913-14 in the last phase of the satyagraha campaign (1907-1914) came mainly from middle to poorer classes of Natal's Indians, many of whom were probably never members of the NIC. Class divisions among the Indians are important in the way they had an impact on Indian politics during Gandhi's stay in South Africa, and often showed the contradiction inherent in the artificial unity created by "Indianness." While the NIC sought to speak for, and take up issues on behalf of, all "Indians," the wealthy Indian merchants, many of whom were its members, often encouraged distinction between themselves as "Arabs," a mis identification that nevertheless carried status and some privilege in the colonial hierarchy, and the great masses of their compatriots who were called "coolies."1

Yet, even among the elite who controlled the NIC, there was considerable diversity, and the question is how the organization overcame the differences to give "Indianness" the kind of political cohesion that it has had. Quite simply, the NIC was never intended to displace the hundreds of religious, cultural, and caste organizations that served fundamentally the needs of the transplanted communities. Information as to how these organizations functioned is limited. Records that would document their activities probably do not exist. But it is clear from reports of their activities in newspaper sources that they had a powerful hold over their members. As a group that had migrated from another land and culture, Indians retained strong ties with their ancestral homes. The organizations that they formed sought to recreate bits of that world in language, religion, and culture. The first generation of Indians wanted to make sure that their children retained the old world legacies. It was a time when, as sojourners, many of them made frequent trips to India.2

Gandhi recognized the important role played by the cultural organizations. He sought directly for the NIC the support of key individuals from among them, or ensured that important caste and/or religious bodies were represented on the NIC executive. The composition of the NIC executive membership suggests at least some attempt to maintain representational balance of the most important cultural bodies.

Initially, the colonial authorities were suspicious of the NIC. It seemed to them like a secret organization with links to other similar bodies in India. In time they would see the advantage of allowing the NIC to exist to keep the Indians politically separate from the Africans. In any event, the Indians were eager to distance themselves from the indigenous people. Given the NIC's emphasis on "Indianness," Africans did not fit the strategy. Africans were "children of the soil," and were relegated to an abject status for their supposed backwardness in the colonial hierarchy. The Indians considered themselves part of an advanced civilization deserving of equality. The NIC's best strategy was to stress, therefore, separation from other Blacks. In an era in which racist attitudes prevailed, it was a strategy that did not require Natal's Indians to think non-racially even if they were so disposed. Indeed, as an organization devoted to Indian interests, the NIC did not even raise the larger issues related to the political subordination of the Blacks generally. As a minority, Indians preferred to stress that they represented no threat to the White colonial power base.

When the NIC was revived early in the 1920s after some years of inactivity, it was dominated by leaders drawn primarily from the wealthy merchant section of the Indians. While segregation had become enshrined in the constitution that created the Union of South A frica in 1909, Indians were not specifically targeted for separate treatment until the 1920s. The threat of additional segregation galvanized the NIC leadership. It placed great store on the British imp e-rial connection to find satisfactory solutions. That strategy yielded the Cape Town Agreement of 1927 which formally introduced the mediatory role of the Government of India in matters relating to Indian South Africans. A diplomatic representative was sent from India whose status was upgraded from "agent" to "agent-general," and later to "high commissioner." The diplomatic agent served mainly to improve communications between India and South Africa, but otherwise his presence added confusion to the South African Indian political scene. On the one hand, he could not be seen to be actively promo ting the cause of South Africa's Indians; and on the other, he had to moderate their interests for the sake of British dominion harmony, such as it was. In a situation of such ambivalence, his role often created dissension among the Indians.3 Yet as long as India sought to play a role in the affairs of the South Africa's Indians, the NIC's leadership was obliged not to seek political allies from among the other Black organizations.

The NIC's policy would in time be overtaken by the changing circumstances of the inter-war years. Since immigration restriction came firmly into place by 1913, the population composition of the Indians in South Africa gradually changed. The percentage of individuals born in South Africa increased. Many second generation Indians had fewer direct connections with India, although, of course, transmigrational sentiments were still strong. The second generation Indians were beginning to look upon South Africa as their home, and were more likely to insist upon their rights as South Africans, although they continued to embrace a form of "Indianness." They identified with India's struggle for independence, and wanted India to play a role in their fight in South Africa, but for the most part they wanted that struggle to take place within the context of South Africa's politics rather than the imperial context. This was clearly the case, as we will see below, when segregation became an issue once again.

Attempts at segregating Indians mounted in the 1930s. There were complaints by White groups that Indians were "penetrating" areas they regarded as reserved for them by customary practice. The Durban City Council (DCC), supported by the Natal Municipal Association (NMA), charged that Indian encroachment into White areas had increased. Even though several commissions of inquiry confirmed that encroachment was negligible, White politicians in Natal forced the government of J. C. Smuts to enact in Parliament the Occupation of Land (Transvaal and Natal) Restrictions Act of 1943, better known as the Pegging Act. For three years, all new land and property transactions between Indians and Whites required the approval of the government.4

The Pegging Act seriously undermined the NIC's politics of moderation. Worried that statutory segregation might become permanent, NIC leader A. I. Kajee, after consulting with Prime Minister Smuts, announced his plan to set up an independent board of five persons (two Indians and three Whites) to review all land and property deals between Indians and Whites when the Pegging Act expired. The plan was known as the Pretoria Agreement.5

This agreement was attacked from all sides. The DCC and the NMA were touting for radical racial zoning, and scuttled it in the provincial legislature. And the NIC's more outspoken members who opposed any form of segregation on principle, attacked it as self-imposed segregation. This group of individuals formed the Anti-Segregation Committee of Action in April 1943, which was converted into the Anti-Segregation Council (ASC) a year later. The ASC mounted a successful campaign to take over leadership of the NIC. On October 14, 1945, the old leadership resigned, and a week later ASC members were dramatically elected as the new NIC leaders before a crowd of 7,000 enthusiastic supporters. This marked the beginning of new directions in the NIC.6

Who were the new leaders? They were predominantly individuals with backgrounds in the professions, civil service, and trade unions. While professionals like doctors and lawyers were few in number in the 1940s, their prominence in the movement was in part the result of their identification with the "ordinary" Indians in Natal. The 1920s and 1930s had seen a steady drift of Indians from the countryside to urban centers constituting the working-class elements, many of whom became rank-and-file supporters of the new leaders, while some went on to become leaders themselves. The professionals brain -stormed about adopting new approaches, as was the case with the Liberal Study Group that met regularly in Durban to discuss issues of the day. Among the new leaders were young "radical" students, physicians trained abroad, trade unionists, and members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). This was an age when the cross affiliation of membership to political organizations was common.7

World War II had raised the expectations of all Black leaders. All of them supported the anti-colonial movement in Asia and Africa at the time, and were not slow to point to the contradictions apparent in the Allied nations' stated goals of freedom and justice for all, and the racism and exploitation inherent in maintaining colonial empires. Nowhere was this contradiction more obvious than in South Africa which had joined the Allied war effort. Black leaders became more confident and assertive about their rights; and they were prepared to take bold steps to achieve them. Below, the biographical sketches of a few of the leading activists in the NIC illustrates this.

Dr. G. M. (Monty) Naicker, who served as president from 1945 to 1961, was born in 1910 to a father who had a successful business exporting fruit. In 1927, he was sent to Edinburgh and Dublin to complete his matriculation and medical education. He returned in 1934 and began a medical practice in Durban. He was a member of the Liberal Study Group before he joined the NIC. Monty Naicker also participated in unionizing Indian workers. He was vocal in his criticism of the old NIC leadership at the time the Pegging Act was passed. His stand appears to have propelled him into a leadership position in the ASC. In 1945, an enthusiastic crowd of 7,000 unanimously elected him to the NIC presidency. A Gandhian more than a Marxist, Naicker had a passion for freedom and justice, and believed that the best way to achieve them was to demand fully what rightfully belonged to Indians as citizens of the country. He was different from the leadership he had replaced in at least two ways: he was prepared to use direct action to achieve NIC goals; and his broad notion of "Indianness" was easily translated into multi-racialism and this allowed him to think of cross-ethnic alliances.8

Many of Monty Naicker's contemporaries, like him expressed politically progressive ideals and, in addition to being members of the NIC, were active in trade union organizations and/or the CPSA. H.A. Naidoo (1915-1971), T.

N. Naidoo (1901-1953), and M.P. Naicker (b.1920) were all active in trade unions. M.P. Naicker in addition edited the CPSA organs Guardian and New Age, and later the African National Congress (ANC) journal, Sechaba. Others were attorneys like N. T. Naicker (b. 1924), J.N. Singh (1920-1996), George Singh, and I.C. Meer (b. 1918). Meer was also a member of Communist party. Debi Singh (1913-1970) was a teacher; and Ahmed Seedat (b. 1916), a bookkeeper, was a member of the CPSA.9

Others like Dr. Yusuf Dadoo (1909-1983), Ahmed Kathrada (b. 1929), and Nana Sita (1898-1969) were not situated in Natal but worked closely with the NIC from their political base in the Transvaal. Dr. Dadoo studied in India and the United Kingdom to become a physician. Upon his return from abroad he became involved in politics, and was perhaps one of the most influential activists in the 1940s. In 1937, he became a founder-member of the Non-European United Front, that promoted Black unity. Two years later he joined the CPSA and remained until his death its most faithful adherent right even when the organization went underground. In the 1940s he was to take over the leadership of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), a body like the NIC that was established in the Transvaal in 1927, and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), a national body of which the two provincial organizations were constituent parts.10 Ahmed Kathrada came to Johannesburg from the Transvaal countryside to finish his schooling. Instead he was drawn into a life of political activism in the TIC, SAIC, CPSA, and ANC. He was one of the leading members of the ANC "high command" after this organization was banned in 1960, and was jailed together with Nelson Mandela and others, and was freed only in 1989.11 Sita was a trader who was deeply influenced by Gandhi, an influence which guided much of his activism in the TIC and the SAIC.12

These then were some of the people who took over the leadership of the NIC or of the organizations that worked closely with it. Most were left-of-center politically. They opposed segregation in principle, favored militant action, and were anti-imperialistic. Some were CPSA members, yet one must make distinctions between passionate communists like Dr. Dadoo and others who subscribed to communism only superficially and briefly. After 1945, the NIC did not seek no ideological purity among its members as long as they accepted a broad multi-racialism and were committed to an uncompromising stand against segregation. The NIC adopted a 10-point program in 1945 that reflected accurately its position and determined its agenda for the next 15 years.

These developments reflect the growing South Africanization of the Indian population. Immigration restrictions prevented infusions of new migrants from India. The numbers of South Africa-born predominated and youthful third-generation Indians were ready to claim their South African heritage as a right. They became more readily familiar with South African ways through Western-oriented formal education, and spoke the languages of the land more fluently. The South African Indian population was about 250,000 at the time, of whom 210,000 were in Natal, 30,000 in the Transvaal, and 10,000 in the Cape. In sports, politics, and the workplace, they created organizations that were more secular in their orientation and less culture-specific. The Indians among themselves crossed religious, language, and caste boundaries in associating with each other. There was fluidity of relationships both among themselves and in their association with others outside of the group. All these developments changed the nature of post-1945 "Indianness."

It would be a mistake, however, to argue that the religious and cultural activities that defined "Indianness" among the Indians lost their relevance in how they chose to identify themselves. Indeed, newspaper sources that I examined are full of references to them. As in the early days the NIC sought to accommodate these facets of the continuing Indian experience. Belonging to the NIC did not mean that one had to give up membership in one's own cultural and/or religious organization.

There are numerous examples of leaders within Indian cultural organizations who also served in executive capacities in the NIC. A.I. Kajee was a patron of the Muslim Institute; Cassim Amra was a member of the CPSA, served on a Muslim Institute committee, and was a member of the Nizamia Muslim Society; V. Lawrence was closely associated with organizations of the small Catholic Indian community; Monty Naicker, president of the Hindu Youth League in 1936, remained strongly Hindu in his religious orientation throughout the years he led the NIC and beyond; S.R. Naidoo was a secretary of the religious organization known as the Hari Bhajan Sadbhakta Saara Sangraha in Cato Manor, Durban; P.R. Pather was a member of the Hindu Tamil Institute from 1918 to 1951, an organization that promoted the Tamil language; and V. S.C. Pather was an important member of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha in Durban. These individuals circulated in more than one community and saw no conflict in balancing their cultural concerns with the secular goals of the NIC.

Even as the NIC was beginning to redefine "Indianness" to allow for multi-racialism, the introduction of apartheid in 1948 imposed a narrower, statutory definition of the term so that Indians could be compartmentalized into a hardened racial category. Here I examine two sets of events that were to see the NIC, despite apartheid, firmly on the path of multi-racialism within its broad definition of "Indianness." These were the launching of the Passive Resistance campaign (1946-1948), and the alliance with the ANC, among others, to participate in the political campaigns of the 1950s. However, contradictions abounded, as we shall see in the conduct of the NIC's routine business.

When the Pegging Act expired in 1946, the Smuts government passed the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, which the Indians labeled the "Ghetto" Act. The law provided for compulsory residential and trade segregation for Indians in Natal, and for indirect representation in the national parliament and the provincial legislature. Smuts had hoped that the Indians would accept the trade off: segregation for voting rights. But the NIC was in no mood for compromises. Even before the law was passed on June 2, 1946, the Indians had declared their intention of resis ting it through mass meetings and protests. The militant forces in the NIC, TIC, and a Cape action group had joined forces to form a Joint Passive Resistance Council (Joint PRC)14 although the Cape Indian Congress held out.

The Joint-PRC dramatically launched the passive resistance campaign on June 13, when some 15,000 individuals pledged at the Red Square in Durban to resist the law. The campaign went through two or three phases and was conducted on separate fronts from June 13, 1946 to June 13, 1948.15 It involved illegal occupation of vacant plots in violation of the 1946 law, and crossing provincial boundaries illegally to court arrest. (Indians were prohibited by law from traveling freely across provincial boundaries). In the first year of the campaign over 1,700 volunteers came forward in Natal. Others came from the Transvaal and the Cape. Over 60 percent of the Natal volunteers had a work-ing-class background, which is remarkable considering most of the leadership was drawn from among the intellectuals. There was great enthusiasm in the initial stages of the campaign. The organizers maintained their own organs of publicity since the campaign was largely ignored by the White press. They succeeded in publicizing their case in an international forum like the United Nations. Monty Naicker and Dadoo undertook a successful trip to India between March and May of 1947. The ANC and the CPSA were among the political organizations that supported the campaign.

White reaction was unmistakably hostile. A small number of Whites resorted to physical abuse. White politicians began a systematic campaign of vilification. In the Transvaal, vigilance forces in the countryside called for a boycott of Indian shops; and the political and cultural organizations of the Afrikaners were not slow to recognize the advantage of this to small Afrikaner businesses. In Natal, Whites emphatically rejected in February 1947 extending even a limited form of municipal representation to Indians on a communal roll. Ninety per cent of those voting said no.16 Indians had been deprived of the municipal franchise in 1924. The newly elected apartheid government of 1948 branded Indians as "foreign and outlandish," and "unassimilable," and continued to think of repatriating them to India. It was willing, however, to deal with "acceptable channels," that is, Indians who were not "communistic," advocating the "violation of the law," and "agitating for outside help." The anti-Indian climate was at least in part responsible for the explosion of tensions between Indians and Africans in January 1949 when riots broke out in Durban.17

The apartheid state was clearly intent on keeping Indians and Africans politically separate and the 1949 riots served its purpose well to promote the idea that racial separation was necessary and desirable. But the riots were also a warning to the NIC that it needed to reconfigure its policies. There was a sense that the resistance camp aign served as a prelude to the strategy that was to unfold in the years to come. "We are of the opinion that the Passive Resistance struggle of the Indian people in South Africa is only a prelude to bigger and greater struggles and feel confident that the decision of the Native Representative Council will hasten the day when the alignment and unification of all non-European forces against racial oppression will become a reality."18 Only a handful of Africans, "Coloureds," and Whites, however, were actively involved in the campaign. The campaign demonstrated the need for allies.

Various individuals and organizations had been advocating a broad alliance of Blacks since the 1920s. The Non-European United Front and its successor, the Marxist Non-European Unity Movement had called for such an alliance. The opportunity for the NIC to call for an alliance with other Black organizations came after 1945. Although it is not clear why the NIC approached the ANC for an alliance, the multiracial orientation of the two organizations was an important factor in its decision. The leadership of the two organizations was predominantly drawn from among the educated elite with strong middle class backgrounds. The first significant breakthrough occurred when Monty Naicker, Dadoo and the ANC president, Dr. Alfred Xuma signed a pact in 1947 committing their organizations to mutual cooperation in the future. It is important to note that the initiative came from the Indians. The pact did not call for an amalgamation of the two organizations. I do not think that the Indian and African leadership believed this was necessary or desirable at the time. Multi-racialism did not require either of the organizations to compromise on their ethnic orientations.

What the agreement did mean was that the NIC leaders would gradually prepare the organization for joint political efforts with the ANC. In 1948 the NIC and the TIC captured control of the national body, the South African Indian Co ngress (SAIC), from the conservatives who did not subscribe to the idea of alliance. (The NIC was always the most important constituent member of the SAIC, the other two being the TIC and the Cape-based group). They were then ready to advance their commitment at the national level. On April 15, 1949, the executive members of the ANC and the NIC created a coordinating council to pursue actively the goal of greater cooperation between the two - the riots had made this imperative.19 Monty Naicker's 1950 presidential address stressed unity. Apartheid was a fear-driven policy, a "cancer" destroying everything healthy, and threatening "perpetual bondage," he said. His reference to democracy's indivisibility implied that the NIC had to think multi-racially, perhaps even non-racially. He was indeed redefining "Indianness" beyond its implied ethnic boundary.20 While the NIC's membership was not racially exclusive, Naicker's multi-racial approach was arguing that the various political organizations create an alliance to achieve common goals while at the same time retaining their ethnic and/or racial membership. He did not believe that the rank-and-file members of the various organizations were ready for non-racialism, that is, their merging into one body across traditionally accepted racial and ethnic divisions that prevailed then. The ANC was using similar language.21 The groundwork having been carefully laid, the Indian congresses would work closely with the ANC and other organizations similarly committed to alliance politics throughout the 1950s. The ANC, with the support of the SAIC, CPSA, and the African Peoples Organization, a body that was founded in 1902 to serve the interests of the "Coloureds," declared June 26, 1950 as a day of protest against apartheid. The two most dramatic instances of their close collaboration are the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People movement.

The idea of defying apartheid's laws was mooted at a meeting of the executive members of the ANC and the SAIC on July 29, 1951. Several laws were targeted that most seriously affected each of the Black communities. A joint planning council was established.22 The Indian congresses were expected to mobilize their constituents as the NIC had done during the 1946-1948 passive resistance campaign, and to contribute to the pool their expertise and resources. So, the Defiance Campaign was launched in June 1952. In Durban, the 1946-1948 passive resistance movement was being replayed. Many of the same individuals were involved. There were mass public gatherings, defiance of the targeted laws, followed by arrests and detention, and press releases for local and overseas audiences. But in Natal, which was expected to make the largest contribution, the response was weak. By December 10, 1952, only 269 individuals had volunteered participation out of a total of 8,080 who took active part for the whole country.23 The enthusiasm of the earlier campaign was mis sing.24

If the Defiance Campaign did not live up to expectations, it nevertheless served the important function of firming up the alliance between the ANC and the Indian congresses. It set the scene for the alliance to grow during the rest of the decade, most notably in the Congress of the People (COP) movement. Joined by three other organizations - the South African Coloured People's Organization (SACOD), the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and the White-based Congress of Democrats - the alliance produced in 1955 its non-racial vision of South Africa in the form of the Freedom Charter, a statement of aims that was to serve the liberation movement for the next three decades. The Indian congresses were well represented among the 2,844 people at the COP meeting in Kliptown (near Johannesburg) on June 25 and 26, 1955. They popularized the alliance in all their publications, and gave prominence to the four-spoked wheel representing unity and singleness of purpose; and they actively canvassed for signatures to support the Freedom Charter.25

The NIC agenda books after 1955 make frequent references to the Congress alliance, and most notably to the Freedom Charter. Whereas in earlier decades there were references to the Cape Town Agreement and the need for round table conferences with India as a participant, there was a noticeable shift to the need for grassroots support for the alliance. "Our distinct and independent role in the Congress Alliance," said the 1959 NIC agenda book, "is to see to it that the Indian people are brought into ever-increasing participation in the constantly widening struggle for nonracial South Africa."26 That there should be such a statement late in the 1950s suggests that the NIC had not quite succeeded in rallying the support of the Indian masses. The question is why.

One cannot discount the fact that Indian leaders were increasingly hampered by state repression. Many of the key leaders, for example, were among the 156 individuals charged with treason by the state in 1956, and they were tied down for years defending themselves in Pretoria where the proceedings were being conducted. There is also the question whether the NIC leadership had adequate resources to conduct the grassroots efforts necessary to bring Indians into the Congress alliance. An anonymous internal memorandum drafted soon after the Defiance Campaign suggests that there had not been adequate preparation of the activists or others from whom the NIC expected support. At the height of its popularity in 1946-1948, the NIC claimed a membership of 35,000. The enrollment fee was only one shilling in sharp contrast to the 60 shillings of the 1890s. Even though a proper count was not kept from year to year, it is clear that it steadily dropped in the late 1950s. There has always been an assumption in early works that the Indian rank-and-file, especially those with working-class backgrounds, supported the NIC's policy of multi-racial openness. A recent study by Bill Freund, Insiders and Ou tsiders, suggests that the Indian working classes were ambivalent about the racial openness that the NIC was promoting because of its perceived threat to their interest by growing numbers of African workers. Furthermore, apartheid created jobs and houses; and a rising middle class was beginning to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle even with the restrictions of the political system.27 It is possible then, that the NIC failed to develop deep and lasting grassroots support among those it considered part of its constituency.

Perhaps the major reason is to be found in the contradiction inherent in the politics of the multi-racial alliance. Each of the members of the alliance continued to address the ethnically based needs of its own constituents. Ethnic integrity was maintained even as multi-racialism was stressed. And yet, the Freedom Charter's "non-racialism" implied a vision that considered ethnicity as irrelevant to organizing the future politics of South Africa. This contradiction would have been less apparent if the Black alliance considered "multi-racialism" as a route through which "non-racialism" was to be reached. But I have seen no evidence of such a discourse. So, the NIC's central executive and branches (28 in 1949 and 17 in 1955), in their routine business, continued to focus entirely on issues related to Indians. Land, agriculture, labor, trade, civic amenities, housing, health and social we lfare, and education committees took up issue as they affected Indians. In education, the NIC went to extraordinary lengths to provide schooling for the ever-growing number of children who could not be accommodated by existing state facilities. The NIC established in 1948 the Congress High School and ran it at least until 1956 when the pressure for school education abated somewhat.28 The NIC also took a strong stand against segregated university education when the Extension of University Education Act was passed in 1959. It promised "total noncooperation," and looked into providing alternative university education for Indians with the help of London.29 The NIC was especially strong in defending the Indians against the Group A reas Act of 1950. This law threatened to relocate them forcibly into segregated areas. It sponsored many rallies and workshops to oppose the law; distributed information on how Indians would be generally affected by it; and provided legal consultations for anybody who wished to challenge it in a court of law.30

The NIC, then, like all the other ethnically defined bodies of the time, was seeking to promote multi-racialism through structures and practices that were ethnically exclusive. It is, of course, true that the state wa s bent on imposing racial separation through its policy of apartheid, and the NIC was in no position to non-radicalize Indian schools, hospitals, residential areas and the like. But I have not found any evidence to show that the NIC seriously debated "non-racialism" and all its implications. I do not think that the leadership considered converting the NIC into a fully non-racial body to fight the racial system. In any event, the apartheid state made non-racial political bodies illegal. The actual NIC membership remained Indian although there were no constitutional provisions to restrict it. Africans, Whites, and "Coloureds" freely associated with the NIC without any restrictions whatsoever. The NIC leadership sometimes used the terms "multi-racialism" and "nonracialism" interchangeably. It supported the "non-racialism" of the Freedom Charter, but in practice it operated as an ethnic unit working for "multi-racialism."

The NIC's broadened notion of "Indianness" allowed it to create an alliance with non-Indians. In doing so, the Indian identity opened itself to be part of the political struggle being waged in the 1940s and 1950s. Indians did not feel particularly threatened by the invasion of the foreign "other" because so much of what essentially defined "Indianness" was still embedded in the cultural and religious organizations of people who traced their origins to the Indian subcontinent. Despite a few misgivings, multi-racialism was acceptable to most. This open-ended "Indianness" allowed the NIC to forge lasting ties with the ANC, significant because it laid the basis for the NIC's participation in what turned out to be the last phase of the liberation from apartheid, from the 1970s to 1990. In this process, the NIC had the opportunity once again to redefine "Indianness".


This article is based on the author's book, Gandhi's Legacy: The Natal Indian Congress, 1894-1994, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1997. In this essay, the term "Black" is used to refer to Africans, "Coloureds," and Indians collectively. I am grateful to Dr. Marc Becker and Hershini Bhana for their helpful comments and suggestions in the original draft of this paper.

13. The ten points were: adult franchise, unconditional repeal of the Pegging Act, abrogation of the Housing and Expropriation Act (under this law the state had enormous powers to expropriate land and demolish property on it in the name of slum clearance), removal of provincial barriers that prohibited Indians resident in one province from legally moving into another province, free and compulsory education up to standard eight, trading rights without discrimin ation, removal of the industrial color bar, state subsidies for Indian market gardeners and farmers, provision of adequate civic amenities, and cooperation with other Black national organizations.

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