CHAPTER THREE: The Emergence Of Grassroots Politics, 1979-1981 by Kumi Naidoo

My mind went over many things...the call by politicians to me to declare myself a black. Here I am gobbling curry and rice, speaking English as my first language, dressing like a westerner, looking to India as the land of my forefathers and delving into the religion of my ancestors - and searching for a cultural identity, a political identity and a few other identities. I suppose I can console myself with the fact that for political purposes I am black and that for some other purposes I may be non-white, or an Indian, or an Indian South African, or a South African Indian.

Talk of the Bazaar, The Leader, 13/3/1981.


Indian identity, one hundred and twenty years after the arrival of Indians in South Africa, was complex, differentiated and multiple. The high levels of heterogeneity resulted in diverse and disparate political attitudes. For organisations working to undermine apartheid, mobilising the support of any group on a racial basis was fraught with dilemmas, though organisations like the NIC argued that segregation, division and apartheid were part of the consciousness of all South Africans. By 1978, thirty years of apartheid social engineering had entrenched racial segregation into all aspects of South African life: material, physical, institutional and ideological. The state dealt differently with the various racial and ethnic groups, and this meant that mass mobilisation at community (residential) level was bound to be influenced by race. The key question is whether, in seeking to deal with the realities of apartheid socialisation, organisations also undermined the basis of apartheid ideology. For example, in their mobilisational strategies, were they successful in extending the experience of their constituents along race, class, gender, age and other non-ethnic lines?

This chapter looks at the impact of the 1980 school boycotts and traces the rise of civic organisations in response to the rent boycotts and the housing struggles of 1980 and 1981. It also explores the anti-Republic Day festival and anti-SAIC election campaigns in 1981. In so doing, it will chart the expansion of political organisation and consciousness over this period. By building on the analysis presented in chapter one, it will be shown that Indians continued to exhibit multiple identities with varying class, gender, and age interests and histories, and that these distinctions were central to determining their political response to apartheid.

Prelude to the 1980s

The banning of newspapers and nineteen Black Consciousness-aligned organisations on 19 October 1977 and the repression that followed left internal resistance in disarray. Grassroots structures had virtually ceased to exist, and pockets of progressive leadership lacked the means to communicate effectively with their communities. A re-evaluation of resistance strategies and tactics was necessary if the anti-apartheid forces were to rebuild their combative capacity. It was recognised that greater emphasis should be placed on grassroots participation and communities organising around “bread-and-butter” issues. The public crushing of the BC-movement instilled fear into both activists and non-activists. Thus, in thinking through new organisational interventions, repression was a key consideration. The resistance movement came to realise that unless it could harness substantial mass support, it would easily be crushed by the state.

The government’s ideological influence was even stronger than its coercive control. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which started television broadcasting in 1976, and Radio Lotus, which broadcasted to Indians, were powerful propaganda tools. The then Prime Minister, P. W. Botha, declared that the SABC would be directed not to give prominence to “revolutionary activities”. Since the SABC was financed by the state, he would ensure that it followed this policy. According to the official opposition, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), the bias of the SABC had left whites in complacent ignorance of the tensions building up in the country. This description could be extended to the majority of Indians. Following a decision by church leaders not to participate in SABC broadcasts because they were vehicles for racist propaganda, Bishop Stephen Naidoo and others withdrew from the religious programme, Epilogue. Foreign Minister Pik Botha pressurised the Transkei authorities about broadcasts on Capital Radio, which was located in the homeland, and noted that “despite promises, the situation has not improved. It is being considered to buy out the radio station in order to bring the situation under control.” Capital Radio was the only non-state owned electronic media source with a presence and influence in Durban.

As already noted in chapter two, Durban Indians were affected most by the Group Areas Act (GAA). By 1970 about 37,653 Indian families had been moved, representing over 300,000 out of a total Indian population of about 624,000. The forced relocation was mostly into Chatsworth, which absorbed almost a quarter of a million people in the space of fifteen years. These persons experienced accelerated social and cultural changes. For example, an increase in crime in the area suggested that social and psychological breakdown had contributed to the spread of unrest and dissatisfaction. Levels of social interaction, together with practicalities like the transport networks, had all been adversely affected. Furthermore, there was little stability and contentment since residents were not actively involved in problem identification and decision-making. By the early 1980s, 8% of houses and 0.5% of flats in Chatsworth were shared by two or more households. Overcrowding was most serious in rented outbuildings, some of which averaged 11 persons per building. There was an average of 4.4 persons per single family occupying outbuildings, and Indians had an overall average of 3.1 individuals per room in greater Durban. Lack of space became one of the most pressing social problems.

During the 1970s, Chatsworth and Phoenix became established working-class townships and accommodated over 50% of the national Indian population; however, there were also several middle-class enclaves. The older Chatsworth township had an established Local Affairs Committee (LAC) system which Phoenix lacked. In both townships, overall levels of economic stratification were extreme, and for any political organisation trying to draw Indians into resistance, it was essential to consider the economic and political realities of these townships. The vast economic and infrastructural differences that existed between African and Indian townships suggested that on balance, the Indian working-class held an advantage. The physical infrastructure of the townships had several shortcomings and appeared extremely poor when compared to the white working-class living conditions of Durban. In 1980, Chatsworth had one swimming pool, two public libraries and several mediocre sports fields to serve more than 300,000 people and was thus able to boast a better level of development than African townships.

By 1980 several programmes of co-option and control of blacks by the establishment had generally succeeded. For example, the number of Coloureds, Africans and Indians in the South African Defence Force (SADF) had risen to 5,250, constituting 15% of the army’s and one-third of the navy’s permanent force. In the police force, blacks were promoted more readily and given greater responsibility for work in their own areas. By the end of 1980 there were 21 Indian, 43 Coloured and 85 African commissioned officers in the police force, while nearly 50 police stations were under “non-white” command. Fear of political reprisals for opposing the state was intense and political frustration found other outlets. By the late 1970s there was a definite disaffection with white minority rule. However, at the same time it was generally recognised that there was no single political party that could claim to represent Indians. The NIC had already called for a boycott of the SAIC elections and was an important voice of the left in Indian politics. On the conservative front, the Indian Reform Party (RP), which dominated the existing nominated SAIC, joined ranks with Inkatha and the Coloured Labour Party to form the South African Black Alliance (SABA) in 1978. Most Indians viewed the SAIC as government puppets. Dr. Yunus Moolla, chairman of the SAIC, confirmed these perceptions by his frequent comments which reiterated the government’s point of view. The SAIC projected themselves as responsible citizens who needed to support the apartheid establishment’s policy on all major issues. Conflict was mainly restricted to issues of tactics and detail without opposing apartheid per se. Much of their concerns centred around the greatest gain for the emergent Indian bourgeoisie. Their sensitivity to developing a popular profile appeared to be largely incoherent despite the substantial backing of the state’s ideological apparatus and the extensive physical and human resources at the SAIC’s disposal.

By the late 1970s the NIC could correctly be described as being “for all practical purposes a body in name only.” There was criticism from both the left (mainly AZAPO) and the right (mainly SAIC) of the NIC’s “strictly non-racial but wholly Indian” nature. This view was confirmed, for example, by the failure of the NIC to support the strike by about 160 bus operators which affected several Indian commuters. There was a suggestion in some quarters that if the NIC ceased to be an “Indian organisation they would lose even the few supporters they at present have”. Others maintained that even though “it is an Indian ethnic body”, it still “has a useful role to fulfil.” A growing distance between the male, middle-class leadership of both the NIC and the SAIC and the working-class was evident. It was asserted that if the NIC called for a one-day strike by Indian workers, and “even if it had six months to campaign for such a strike, it would not get more than a handful to stay away from work.” This was because it simply had “no support worth the name” amongst the working-class, and tended to issue pious statements instead of doing anything of a practical nature.

Those Indians involved in politics, or seen as a political constituency, were predominantly middle-class. Major concerns focused primarily around the GAA and the limitations placed on Indian immigration. The Leader suggested that “what the Indian people are far more interested in at the moment is to be left alone with regard to their properties. What they want is power to repeal the [GAA].” The possible removal of 30,000 Africans from Groutville evoked concern amongst Indian farmers in the area because they were unable to find such cheap and willing labour elsewhere. The proposed eviction of 9,000 mainly working-class Indians from Motala farm, just outside Chatsworth, again illustrated the marginalisation of the Indian working-class.

NIC general secretary, Farouk Meer, recalls that the NIC’s understanding of its task and its constituency was as follows:

The NIC recognised class, cultural and religious differences. Indians were not a homogeneous grouping. We did not engage in any specific strategies aimed at any particular group. We were mindful that we were having difficulty reaching the working-class, we did not have trade union people...[Indian] trade unionism was never strong in the 1980s and that was one of the difficulties of reaching out to the workers. While we were conscious and aware of these factors we did not develop any specific strategies for any particular interest group within the Indian community. We went along and treated the Indian community as one entity. To try to discern the different interests for the different sectors of the community and to link those specific interests for the Indian community and to try and link them with the needs of the majority and thereby promote non-racialism and unity. That was the strategy we adopted.

This strategic choice not to disaggregate Indians and speak to their concerns beyond a generalised notion of “Indian” will receive greater scrutiny later. However, for now it must be noted that the imperative to respond to the concerns of Indians should not have been expressed in the failure to speak to youth, women, and different religious and cultural clusters amongst Indians - a failure which helps to explain the low level of solidarity across the racial divide.

The Botha government’s vague constitutional proposals suggested that Indians and Coloureds would enjoy a greater say in their own affairs. This earned the derision of the NIC and other liberal voices who maintained that it seemed as though “the government wants to create the illusion that Indian people, and other blacks are represented on decision making bodies and are responsible for decisions which affect them.” There was consternation when the Reform Party met Botha and when the Natal Association of Local Affairs Committees supported the new proposals. Despite these criticisms, 150 people applied for four SAIC vacancies when they became available. These were mainly middle-class, professional people, but there were also two trade union-related applicants: the secretary of the Durban Leather Workers Union, who had been involved in pension fund fraud, and another from the Garment Workers Union. Both these unions were associated with the conservative Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) to which the majority of unionised Indian workers belonged.

During 1979 there appeared evidence of Indians being recognised as “The Best Hated Racial Group”. As one observer put it: “Numbering 788,000 in a population of 27.4 million the Indians are a distinctive minority, yet the majority of that minority are poor enough to be despised, and of the others a number rich enough to provoke the envy of other race groups.” Besides the fear that Indians as a minority might have felt, the memory of the 1949 riots was exploited by right-wing politicians to herd Indians into the apartheid laager. “As a minority group the Indian community must therefore adopt the role of diplomacy and tactfulness,” said a SAIC leader. Pat Poovalingam, one of the first black appointees onto the President’s Council (PC), made a veiled reference to the riots. He suggested that it was “a small wonder that a shudder of fear goes through Indians every time there is a riot anywhere in South Africa, [they are] all too aware that [they offer] a ready and defenceless target for the anger of a majority.” These comments sought to position Indians not as partners in the resistance but as targets of the protests. In any event, this collaborative segment in Indian politics sometimes (and with some timidity) included Africans in their pleas for equity.

Throughout 1979 there was restlessness about various civic issues. Civic organisations, sometimes outside the ambit of influence of the NIC, used these issues to mobilise popular participation. For example, the Phoenix Working Committee (PWC) was active in addressing the need for transport for schoolchildren in Phoenix; the Motala Farm Ratepayers Association campaigned for support against their threatened removal; and the Shallcross Residents and Ratepayers Association struggled to get formal recognition from the Town Council. The NIC was also indirectly involved when Indian and African lawyers launched the Democratic Lawyers Association in May 1979. In Phoenix, the audience walked out in protest at the launch of the National Indian Labour Party - a group that was still-born. The organisers were jeered for suggesting that they should be grateful for government-provided housing, and that Indian people should not consider the problems facing Africans until they had “filled their own plates”. Around that time, there was also a furore over the exclusion of an African woman from the UDW residence on the grounds that Indians would not like her presence. The mainly Indian student body were incensed by this comment and later by the continued refusal of the rector to admit the student to the residence. Subsequently a petition campaign was launched in support of the student. This collective restlessness at grassroots level helped draw the NIC into civic work.

Before these developments the NIC had been relatively stagnant, in a largely reactive mode, and mainly issued press statements. There was a lack of grassroots mobilisation, and progressive political consciousness amongst Indians was low and largely confined to a small activist core influenced by Marxist revolutionary ideas. Various reasons were advanced for the lack of mobilisation: the fact that Indians belonged to conservative unions (a number of union organisers became members of the SAIC); the “inward-looking” nature of Indians, which was due in part to religious influences; the sensitive relationship between Africans and Indians; and finally, the fact that Durban had been relatively untouched by the events of 1976. A group of young intellectuals in the NIC offered their analysis, arguing that to stimulate grassroots activity, some form of public political intervention was necessary. This turning to the masses also invited some ridicule and the criticism that the NIC was not engaged in “real politics” since civic work at this stage, which was small and locally contained, was not regarded as politically significant. Therefore, before 1980 most people held the view that the SAIC was ineffectual because of its origins and its performance to date. The NIC was believed to have greater credibility and potential, but it needed to engage in practical work instead of indulging in idealistic political rhetoric. The NIC appeared to heed this criticism and publicly repositioned itself in 1980. The first thrust of its interventions was to support the creation of several housing action committees that co-ordinated municipal tenants’ protests and their campaign for the lowering of rentals in Indian and Coloured areas.

The housing struggles and the rise of a civic movement

As early as 1977, civic organisations in Coloured areas, Chatsworth and Phoenix were active in housing-related struggles. However, until 1980 each community fought its own battles, making no serious attempts to join other organisations and communities to work out joint programmes of action. By 1980 agitation from the NIC and the Anti-SAIC committees had resulted in a fairly clear political identity for the civic associations. The difference between the Croftdene Residents Association in Chatsworth and the LACs, according to one resident, was that “civic bodies are organisations created by the people for the people.” This rise in civic agitation was also reflected in the support given to the boycott of a bus service in the Natal North Coast, with residents and students resolutely trudging the three kilometres to Stanger each day for three months. The NIC was clearly becoming an integral part of community struggles, as were the Democratic Lawyers Association, the Anti-SAIC Committee and, to a lesser extent, AZAPO. UDW students were also becoming more involved in community issues, and at a meeting of approximately 1,500, they elected to support the civic housing struggle. On 29 March 1980 the NIC, together with representatives of approximately 50 organisations, formed the Durban Housing Action Committee (DHAC) to co-ordinate the work of various civic groups. For the first time, an attempt was made to link the housing struggles of Indians and Coloureds to the broader struggle against apartheid.

Women played an active role in the rent campaigns. Their actions were related to their identities as mothers, with comments like “The spectre of hungry mouths to feed, to any mother, particularly, would certainly not provide any frivolity”. Women’s actions were also some of the most confrontational, and their voices often reflected militancy and frustration. “They are killing our children. Why don’t they come with bombs and do it quicker”, one woman cried at a meeting to discuss rents. In both Phoenix and Chatsworth, although in a minority, some women emerged as senior civic leaders. The photographs of elderly Indian women giving the clenched fist salute at mass rallies appeared in several publications.

Coupled with the rent struggles, there was a campaign to prevent the Department of Community Development and the Durban City Council from selling houses to tenants for more than the original cost of the building. In July 1980 the government gave in to these demands by changing the interest rate structure. However, there remained an unresolved debate about whether it was in residents’ interests to remain tenants or to purchase homes. Despite a DHAC workshop to try and reach consensus on this, the debate continued well into 1981. Early in the year there were discussions on changing strategy in favour of small house meetings to improve communication between the leadership and the grassroots. However, open mass meetings provided militancy and power in negotiations and these were too valuable to forego permanently. The increase in rates drew the attention of civic leaders and the anger and concern of homeowners. There was increased political consciousness as some civic bodies, which had previously concentrated only on local issues, now adopted political demands. Thus, the Asherville Housing Action Committee (ASHAC) asserted that “no matter what they give us - even if it is free housing schemes - so long as we have no representation in the city councils, provincial councils and parliament, we are slaves.”

In April a candlelight vigil was held to show solidarity with tenants whose electricity was disconnected for withholding rentals. There was 100% support in Sydenham Heights, nearly 100% in Newlands East and 70% in Phoenix. This also helped to bolster support for the rent boycott at a time when support was waning. Eventually DHAC was forced to abandon the boycott in the face of “the evident intransigence and insensitivity of the council to the plight of the people.” However, DHAC claimed that it “had served its apprenticeship in the civic struggle and could claim to be a grassroots political body representing a greater group of people than any other body has ever achieved in Durban.” This claim was made despite the fact that DHAC had developed no constituency amongst Africans in the city. It would also be fallacious to assume that militant articulations at well attended meetings were an adequate assessment of the general attitude of Indians. It would appear that those who shifted towards an anti-government stance were those who felt particularly and directly aggrieved with the local government. The NIC made the most of the militancy, and infiltration of popular bodies, such as welfare and sports organisations, became a conscious strategy. However, the real extent of their support at this time was debatable, with only 100 people attending the annual commemoration of Gandhi’s birthday organised by the NIC. It was apparent that people responded to political mobilisation by the NIC and its allies on the basis of their self-interest rather than in support of the NIC’s political vision.

In the furore over the repressive action taken against boycotting children, DHAC maintained that as a civic body it was concerned not only with housing, but also with the inter-related problems of education and employment. Moves to consolidate the gains achieved in the community were evident with the revival of the Southern Durban Civic Federation and the merger of the Committee of Ten and the Central Parents Support Committee. The development of inter-racial unity was evident when a historic protest meeting of about 2,000 Indian, African and Coloured residents, which included worker unions, religious organisations and sporting bodies, voted to continue to withhold rent. However, the housing struggles had limited mobilisational potential. The issues directly affected only a small proportion of municipal tenants and did not engage the youth. This was to change in April 1980 when Durban students joined their national counterparts in protests against apartheid education.

The 1980 education boycott

The credibility of Inkatha had declined since 1976, when the organisation played an important role in stemming the militancy of its student population. By 1980, on the eve of the boycotts, the political climate in Natal allowed student activity to flourish. Coloured students in the Western Cape, aggrieved by text book shortages, precipitated what was to become a national protest against the discriminatory nature of black education. These events coincided with the achievement of liberation from white minority rule in Zimbabwe. Although the boycotts in Natal began at Coloured high schools, they found immediate support among Indian and African students. At UDW and at the University of Natal Medical School, where 700 students met and resolved to re-educate fellow students and to sensitise themselves to the conditions of blacks in South Africa specifically and in Africa generally, there was almost total support for the boycott. Students at UDW elected to form a Students Representative Council based on a constitution drawn up by the students. The education protest was not aimed at short-term benefits; instead student leaders and their supporters saw it as an opportunity to gather support for the ongoing struggle against apartheid. The authorities responded with repression, and there were daily reports of children being chased by police dogs, beaten with batons, and having tear gas thrown at them.

For the first time ever substantial numbers of Indian school students participated across the country in protest against apartheid education. The solidarity with Coloured and African school children was unprecedented. A new youth politics was born as a result of these spontaneous boycotts which led to, in certain cases, violent confrontation with the state. The conflict was clearly children versus the state; something which the state was ill-prepared for. In response to the targeting of their children, several parent committees were formed in Indian areas throughout Durban. The large turnout at mass meetings (sometimes up to 1,500 children and parents) was indicative of the militancy of the various affected communities. Despite the fact that the NIC made much capital out of these independent student actions, many of the slogans reflected a sympathy with BC: “One Azania One Nation”; “Black Power White Bums”; “Sell Outs Will Never See Azania”. The popularity of the British pop group Pink Floyd’s song “Another Brick in the Wall”, which included the line “we don’t need no thought control”, became so popular that it was promptly banned by the NP government.

After about 10,000 pupils were suspended by broederbonder Gabriel Krog, the Director of Indian Education, parental support for the boycotting children faltered. Many working-class parents expressed fear, scepticism and confusion about the goals and purposes of the education boycott. One survey showed that only 26% of white collar workers were completely supportive. In discussing the sympathy between youth and parents, one observer pointed out that:

What is crucial is that their thinking does bear some relationship to the thinking and discussions which take place in their parents’ drawing rooms. The parents are however inhibited from action because they are government servants, or employees in big firms.

Central to the parents’ concern was the morality of action which harmed children - newspaper headlines proclaimed “Don’t Touch Our Children - Parents Warn”, highlighting the crisis. The then cautious Durban Indian Child and Family Welfare Society condemned the arrests of schoolchildren. Members of the Teachers Association of South Africa (TASA) called for meetings with the education authorities to discuss the suspension and expulsion of children and 400 threatened to strike if no action was taken. A later poll showed that over a third of teachers were prepared to strike for an improvement in education. This constituted significant support since teachers were hitherto one of the most solidly co-opted fractions of the Indian middle-class. The suspensions of some students disunited students and resulted in the ending of the boycotts without coherence and lacking the unity that marked their commencement.

Fraser studied the attitudes and motivations of students six weeks after the boycotts ended. Contrasting her study with that of Schlemmer’s, which was conducted in 1977 among similar constituents, she identified a definite increase in political consciousness. In 1977, with a sample drawn from M.L. Sultan Technikon and Springfield College of Education and carried out in the wake of the 1976 uprising, it was found that only 11% of the sample accepted the term “Black” to describe themselves. In 1980 17% of Indian office workers, and an equal percentage of the M.L. Sultan Technikon students, found the term acceptable, with 22% of the UDW students classifying themselves as such. A more salient political perspective becomes apparent when the 1980 sample was divided according to commitment to the boycott. While both those fully committed to the boycott and those with reservations about it or who disagreed totally with it found the term “South African” equally acceptable, 83% of the students committed to the boycott found the term “Black” acceptable, while only 17% of those not supporting the boycott accepted the term. In 1977 the term most favoured was “Asian” (18%) but this had only 5% support in 1980. In addition, the term “Brown” received 13% support in the 1977 study and 0% support in 1980. However, this probably indicated the effect of Black Consciousness (BC) on the student body rather than political radicalism brought about by the boycotts. Of the percentage referring to themselves as “Black”, 78% favoured majority rule (a significant increase from the 39% of those favouring “Black” who supported majority rule in 1977). The finding that of the 72% who accepted the term “South African”, 71% favoured majority rule showed that the students were generally politicised.

The study also found there to be little differentiation between the ideology of BC and that of Congress. This suggested a high degree of rhetorical mobilisation with little input to ensure that the militancy was channelled into sustainable political organisation. An equal percentage (40%) of the group who accepted the term “South African” supported the NIC and AZAPO. A slightly higher degree of politicisation was evident in the group referring to themselves as “Black”, although they too did not distinguish between NIC and AZAPO, with 51% supporting the NIC, and 51% supporting AZAPO. Clearly, while militancy and mobilisation may have been high, political education and ideology were largely neglected. The boycott, whilst widespread, was without a great deal of co-ordination, and attempts at forming Pupil Representative Councils (PRCs) at high schools were restrained by fear of the repression which would have almost certainly followed the election of leaders. Later, when the boycott began to develop clearer strategic aims, the demand for PRCs became the prime concern.

UDW students were also aware of the problems they would have in sustaining student unity and action. The SRC had only recently been formed and was particularly sensitive to state repression as student activists were detained in a police crackdown in June 1980. The students’ strategy was to form residential area committees to co-ordinate their actions off-campus as more educational institutions closed and student leaders continued to be detained. Community work included a “Keep Chatsworth Clean Campaign”. However, about 100 UDW students (along with their brooms and buckets) were arrested. Students also made an effort to apply themselves to other concerns; for example, they raised money for fired strikers from Frame Textile Mills. In October 1980 UDW students launched a fund-raising drive to aid the boycotting tenants. Together with DHAC, the Community Services Unit - a body set up to involve students in community activism and labour issues - ran a workshop on housing which drew 300 students. Another concern which emerged was that some student leaders were from wealthy homes and so could afford to boycott government schools: “Many students were cynically dishonest about their boycott. They led their schools in boycott from the hours 8am to 3pm, and then rushed off to their private tuition. They did not lose anything.” Fraser’s study shows some support for this suggestion, with 63% of the university students from upper socio-economic backgrounds supporting the boycott as opposed to 50% of those from middle-class backgrounds and 51% of those from working-class backgrounds. Many working-class parents also criticised those NIC leaders who advocated a boycott but had their children in private white schools. My father, for example, said that while he supported the boycott, it would appear that the boycott leaders could easily send their children overseas or to private schools if they got expelled. “Chatsworth and Phoenix parents would just not have been able to afford that.”

The Release Mandela Campaign (RMC), launched before the boycotts commenced, was boosted by the national climate of resistance. In Natal there was sensitivity about how to deal with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who had only offered lukewarm support for the RMC, a factor which contributed to the ANC severing links with him in June 1980. The Inkatha leader had also sought to prevent African participation in student boycotts and worker strikes. His support for federalist options also manifested itself in June 1980, when he appointed the Buthelezi Commission to explore the development of a “multiracial entity” in KwaZulu and Natal. This cautious approach was also taken by the largest trade union in Natal, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), when Buthelezi was invited to address important trade union gatherings. For example, at the launch of the shopstewards’ council in Northern Natal, Buthelezi asserted that “Inkatha is the only black organisation in Natal which can possibly take up the major political issues on your behalf.”

When ANC-aligned Soweto leader Dr. Nthato Motlana was invited to speak at a Free Mandela rally there were behind-the-scenes attempts to ensure that he did not attack Buthelezi. The rally was a resounding success with about 5,000 calling for the release of Mandela. Numbers were also high at other meetings addressed by NIC leaders at the height of the education and housing protests. More than 3,000 gave NIC vice-president, M.J. Naidoo, a standing ovation at a meeting convened by the Merewent Parents’ Action Committee; 4,000 attended a meeting to protest against the detention of NIC and student leaders; and Indian shopkeepers in Durban closed their shops, displaying notices saying “We are closed in protest against the detention of our leaders: Attend mass meeting at Orient Hall.” There was a discernible drop in attendance at mass meetings after these periods of high mobilisation. In December 1980 only 300 attended a function to commemorate India’s awarding of the Nehru Peace Prize to Mandela, and only 100 people attended the annual Gandhi birthday commemoration. Earlier only 300 people were at the airport to greet NIC leaders returning from prison, and 700 people turned out to welcome home student leaders from detention. Nevertheless, the NIC had made massive strides in visibility and profile since the start of 1979, and entered 1981 with substantially greater confidence, clout and potential, having succeeded in establishing itself as an indispensable component of political praxis amongst Indians and blacks more generally.

In Chatsworth and Phoenix neither the NIC nor its pre-boycott activists actively sponsored the development of youth organisations. Only a few newly-emergent student leaders, largely on their own initiative, turned to this task. For example, Helping Hands in Chatsworth focused on youth concerns and the need to support charity work amongst Indians, Coloureds and Africans. There was little opportunity for youth to develop the distinctive life style they might have desired. Because of the dearth of facilities, lack of resources and poor standard of education they readily supported the education boycott. Active religious denominations and pop culture, however, also provided some sense of direction and had substantially more currency than political activism. It must also be appreciated that Indian youth constituted a fractured entity and displayed great heterogeneity. With regard to religion, one study found that Muslim youth - who were very active, especially after 1976 - had a higher regard than Hindus and Christians for the notion of youth activism. Less openness to the ideas of youth was detected amongst Hindus and Christians, with Christians generally tending to be a little more conservative than Hindus. Nevertheless, Indian youth were increasingly likely to react against paternalism and authoritarianism.

The anti-Republic festival campaign (ARFC)

Another issue of great importance during this time was that of the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the declaration of the Republic of South Africa, when the government scheduled a month of festivities to culminate on May 31, 1981. The advance notice of the festivities was seen by some as “a critical blunder” by the state, since it gave the ANC and its internal allies time to organise a counter campaign. More than 50 organisations, including churches, universities, political and student organisations, committed themselves to boycotting the celebrations. In armed struggle terms, the campaign was judged by Howard Barrell as the ANC’s most successful year inside South Africa since the Rivonia setback in 1963. Government agents attacked Motala in Mozambique on 31 January 1981. Among the casualties was Krishna Rabilal of Merebank. There was no public outpouring of anger by Indians. The commemoration of his death took place three years later, by which time levels of politicisation had grown. Of the 55 attacks carried out by Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) in 1981, ten were in Durban. The ANC’s Mac Maharaj suggested that the success of the anti-republic campaign lay in how:

by sheer accident, despite the [ANC] military’s wishes, for the first time, military work was a complement to political work. Visibly through the media, the matter became presented as a unified thing: that military action was complementing political action, and political action facilitating military action.

It was in this context of emerging alliance politics that the first call for a United Front was made by Popo Molefe in May 1981 in an address to the South African Council of Churches (SACC). Most of the criticisms of participation in the celebrations were either along the line of “last time (in 1971 during the 10th Republic Day anniversary) we participated and got nothing out of it”, or along the NIC line that Indians and blacks generally had nothing to celebrate, not having been given any socio-economic and political freedoms to mould their existence. Supporters of the celebrations included the likes of The Leader columnist Fakir, who was very proud that his grandfather had arrived as a common “coolie” labourer, and that he himself was now a doctor. Attempts were made by the education authorities to get Indian children to participate without their knowing exactly what they were doing. As agitation around the issue spread, pupils from several schools withdrew despite being trained for various events. Festival workers were called on to resign, and a blacklist of athletes who participated in the celebrations was drawn up by sports groups. Despite threats of state repression, the NIC convened an anti-Republic festival celebrations conference involving 190 delegates from a broad range of organisations. By the week before the festival, interest escalated with more than 200 Chatsworth scholars, including the writer, and 315 from Merebank being expelled for boycotting classes in protest against the celebrations. Prior to the outbreak of the boycotts, the education authorities sent threatening letters to parents warning that their children would be expelled if they joined the boycott.

A student-parent meeting called to address the expulsions drew 1,500 people, and some parent leaders pleaded: “Don’t force your children to go back in a manner detrimental to the community in the future.” UDW students responded by adding a demand for the reinstatement of expelled pupils to their own demands for cancellation of examinations to be held on June 16. This resulted in another boycott of classes. Meanwhile, more than 50% of the suspended scholars signed forms promising not to boycott again so that they would be allowed to return. However, of the 547 “apologies” which were given by the children involved in the boycotts, only 180 were accepted, leaving some 367 scholars with no schooling. The expelled students were re-instated in 1982 only after winning a court battle. They were allowed to write the end-of-year examinations at schools other than their own to prevent them from further “agitation”. There were two outcomes: some of the expelled students became dedicated activists and were later involved in a range of other organisations, including the ANC underground, while many others, mainly under parental pressure, eschewed politics.

UDW students demanded the removal of riot police from their campus, the removal of weapons carried by internal security personnel, the lifting of a ban on meetings and the re-admission of suspended students, pending the outcome of disciplinary hearings against them. The UDW administration adopted a hard line, believing that the concessions they made in 1980 had contributed to the confidence of the 1981 protests. The intransigence of the authorities led to an escalation of activity. Parents protested by marching on the department of Indian education and demanding a meeting with director Gabriel Krog. Nearly half of the UDW student population (about 3,000 students) opted to boycott examinations when the authorities refused to re-schedule examinations set for June 16, Soweto Day. About 500 students also de-registered in protest.

In Reiger Park, Transvaal, there had been four days of sporadic rioting when residents of the predominantly Coloured township protested against an Indian shopkeeper who had tried to erect a shop on ground marked for residential development. There was a shortage of houses and residents were opposed to the land being used for commercial purposes. Two teenagers were shot dead, and nearly 40 cars, three shops, a garage, and a home were destroyed by arsonists. While this was an attack on the merchant class and a reflection of historical antagonism between merchants and residents, the media portrayed it to Durban residents as a racial incident. The Leader, taking a different perspective, observed that: “The Reiger Park tragedy is not the result of racial conflict but is one of the direct effects of the [Group Areas Act].” It was against this background of resistance and uncertainty that the SAIC election campaign was waged.

Anti-SAIC elections campaign

Until 1981 the SAIC, set up under the SA Indian Council Act of 1968, had no directly elected members. They were appointed by the government or indirectly elected by members of local government structures which had little or no support from Indian voters. The election date had been postponed several times since 1977 due to opposition from voters who ignored the requirement to register. Why the state persisted in proceeding with these elections remains unclear; instead it displayed confusion and incoherence when faced with opposition from blacks across class lines. It has been suggested that although it planned to abolish the SAIC, the state was still keen to legitimise it. The government was also hopeful that the NIC would fragment in disunity over debates on whether or not to contest the elections. However 80% of voters had registered by election day on 4 November after threatened reprisals by the state.

Several independent candidates announced their intention to contest the 40 elected seats. A new political party, the Democratic Party, was established to fight the elections. Eventually, 81 candidates contested 34 seats and 6 seats were uncontested. The government’s relationship with the outgoing nominated SAIC was strained, and this meant that there were no substantial pre-election incentives for the SAIC to offer the electorate. The SAIC Executive Committee held the view that the holding of the elections would “be an exercise in futility”. However, this did not prevent many from making themselves available for election.

Three provincial anti-SAIC committees were created to co-ordinate opposition to the elections. This was another attempt early in the decade to form a political alliance comprising a range of organisations around a single issue. However, this process was preceded by debate within the NIC on the pros and cons of participating in the SAIC elections. Some members of the NIC - particularly a small, younger intellectual group - initially advocated participation in the elections. This group had several meetings with small groups of activists to discuss the issue. Discussion revolved around three propositions:

(1) That participation in state institutions need not necessarily imply acceptance of that institution and its functions. Participation in these bodies could be used for tactical gain. To support this argument, examples were given of the participation of the Social Democratic Party under the leadership of Lenin in the ‘toothless’ Duma parliaments after the failure of the 1905 revolution.

(2) That political boycotts should be used as a strategic weapon and should only be utilised when the popular classes could gain from it. At each stage of the struggle, the situation should be reassessed and action should be changed accordingly. A boycott cannot be an inflexible matter of principle.

(3) The effectiveness of the boycott strategy of the NIC had led to a growing alienation between the progressive leadership and its support base. Contesting the SAIC elections could facilitate extensive support and participation. The campaign itself would allow for public political discussion and the spreading of ideas which are otherwise difficult, given the repressive nature of the state in South anti-election campaign could be effectively crushed by the state and participation in the SAIC could lend a certain amount of protection from that repression.

This debate generated frustration and confusion among NIC supporters. It also provided ammunition for NIC-detractors who charged that:

The truth of the matter is that if the NIC had played a more meaningful role in the struggle for democracy; if it had reached out to the people and won their confidence and if it had effectively organised the people there would have been no chaos today.

Conflicts emerged amongst former allies. NIC leaders Pravin Gordhan and Yunus Mahomed were asked to leave the Phoenix Working Committee because they supported participation in the elections. The PWC was then criticised as it was a civic organisation and not a political body, and therefore had no mandate to support or condemn SAIC elections. However, there was limited grassroots support for participation in the election and there were no similar calls for other civics to adhere solely to civic issues. This conflict suggests that while these emergent civic bodies were within the realm of influence of NIC leaders and activists, a degree of independence was maintained and there was a willingness to defy their political counsel. This was particularly significant as Gordhan and Mahomed were among the more hardworking and visible NIC leaders involved in civic issues in Phoenix.

Gordhan, Mahomed and Jerry Coovadia (interestingly all of Gujerati, merchant class backgrounds) were also part of a highly-regarded ANC unit. They defined “rejectionist participation” as taking part in the elections in order to take over the SAIC and destroy it from within. It has now emerged that this position was adopted by the ANC NEC in relation to the SAIC in August 1979. Given that the pro- and anti- factions were at loggerheads, the ANC’s Mac Maharaj intervened with the backing of Dr Yusuf Dadoo, who was still held in high esteem by progressive Indians. The antagonistic groups met Maharaj in 1979 in London, where he told them that there were two basic considerations in deciding tactics for the anti-SAIC campaign: ensuring “the involvement of the masses” and “maximum unity” among them. This meant that what was “done on one front in one community” had to “dovetail with the rest”, and that rejectionist participation would not concur with the dominant tactics in African areas, where progressive forces favoured boycotts of all elections for state-created institutions. According to Barrell, Maharaj dissuaded the Gordhan unit from “rejectionist participation”, since he knew that this highly disciplined unit was more capable than its opponents of accepting compromise. The unit was pacified by a letter signed by Dadoo and Maharaj and given to them to take back to South Africa. It recommended a total boycott of SAIC elections but added that the final decision had to be taken by internal activists. The eventual decision favoured a complete boycott of elections. The pro-participation group subsequently threw their weight behind the boycott effort, and in a show of unity Gordhan and Mahomed were co-opted onto the NIC Executive.

The anti-SAIC lobby gained ground in many Indian neighbourhoods, extending its original goal of 20,000 signatures against the elections to 40,000 after the tremendous response in the first week of the campaign. But this soon fizzled out. A wide-scale campaign was planned and sub-committees were established in areas around Durban. Mass meetings attracting up to 800 people were held. “Peoples’ Unity”, the Natal Anti-SAIC Committee newsletter, was published in September 1981 and was widely distributed. Unions had also assumed a higher profile with the formation of the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA), the boycott of Wilson Rowntree products called by the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU), and the formation of a health workers body. There was, however, renewed concern about the fragility of nascent non-racialism with the threatened removal of 1,300 African households from St. Wendolin’s near Chatsworth to make way for Indian and Coloured settlements. A solidarity front, comprising 29 community, sports, trade union, religious and cultural organisations, banded together at a conference convened by DHAC to protest the proposed removals. This successful campaign would have won DHAC more support amongst African residents than Indian and Coloured residents who were desperate to acquire housing.

The ANC had declared 1980 as the year of the Freedom Charter (FC) (as it was the 25th anniversary of the document) and the 1980s as the “decade of freedom”. Consequently, at the launch of the Transvaal Anti-SAIC elections committee, the Freedom Charter was resurrected as the basis for their constitution. The Charter featured again when the NIC condemned the banning of its president, George Sewpersad: “The only solution to the problems of South Africa is a society based on the principles of the Freedom Charter.” The ANC’s thrust was to popularise the FC, campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and oppose the SAIC. In this way, both the NIC and the ANC allowed for a large number of organisations across racial lines to be drawn into the campaign.”

The SAIC elections were given extensive publicity through a planned public debate on participation between the NIC and President’s Councillor Mahmoud Rajab. Rajab did not appear at the meeting, but he initiated a debate in the media concerning the NIC’s communist links. The NIC was challenged to say whether it supported or opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and whether it supported “the Polish People’s right to decide their own future without threats and intimidation from the Soviet Union?” The anti-Communist theme underpinned the conservatives’ attack on the NIC and other pro-ANC Indians throughout the decade and into the 1990s. It should be remembered that at this time the ANC and SACP were banned, and open identification would have courted conviction for furthering the aims and objectives of banned organisations. The decision to display an ANC flag at an NIC rally in Chatsworth during the campaign caused controversy and resulted in security police interrogating and detaining activists. The conservatives and the state persisted in linking the NIC to the banned organisations in the hope that fear would deter people from attending NIC gatherings.

Through the Gordhan Unit and other individual links to the NIC and allied organisations, the ANC was able to significantly influence this campaign. An anti-SAIC activist, Ismail Momoniat, who was not a member of the formal ANC underground structures, recalls the form of contact with the ANC external mission during the campaign:

Our attitude was that we didn’t need to have formal contact in the sense where you would be a member. But clearly there were links with the movement. And one knew that; and we would get feedback. So we would have a grouping of a few people, we would meet, we would discuss things. If we felt there was a need to, we would send things out...we would then decide to approach one or two individuals...I think it was a very slow form of contact; it wasn’t very reliable. Now and again we would get answers...and I must say, to the credit of the ANC...we never got the advice: “Do one, two, three”. Rather…they would leave it to us to decide...Maybe offer their own advice and so on, but ask us to decide finally.

The leadership of the Transvaal anti-SAIC committee elected in 1980 was entirely ANC-orientated. In Natal, the anti-SAIC campaign was dominated by the NIC, in whose leadership a number of ANC underground members served at the time of the anti-SAIC campaign. A handful of MK attacks in the run-up to the SAIC elections, which included the bombing of the Durban offices of the Department of Indian Affairs on November 3, suggested the link between political and military forms of struggle which the ANC wished to convey. During the anti-SAIC campaign it became clear that in Durban ANC-aligned popular organisations among Africans remained weak.

The NIC and its allies drew extensively on Gandhi’s legacy as a campaign focus with such comments as “our campaign has shown the spirit ignited by Mahatma Gandhi and continued by the Naickers, Dadoos, Luthulis and Mandelas, lives on.” They also published a statement from Sushila Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Gandhi who lived in Durban. She claimed that if he were alive, he would advocate a boycott of the elections, and stressed that the “Mahatma’s last message to the Indian people was that we should work hand in hand with the African people.” Pro and anti-election protagonists, with the exception of AZAPO, harked back to Indian culture and India for legitimation in the eyes of the Indian populace. The NIC reiterated its links with Gandhi, provoking the comment that “perhaps the NIC should be honest with itself. To discard ‘Indian’ means that it cannot honestly use the by-line ‘Established by Mahatma Gandhi’ anymore.” On the other hand, the Reform Party, while employing similar tactics to combat the NIC rejection of the SAIC elections, proclaimed that although the RP was “in its infant stages”, its tactics were “no different from those used in the struggle in India.”

Women’s participation in the anti-SAIC campaign was substantially less than during the housing and student struggles. The same can be said of youth. However, the foot-soldiers of the campaign were largely young people who engaged in the largest pamphleteering exercise ever undertaken by the NIC. Limited support for the boycott of the elections came from a few religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian, who rejected the SAIC and called on their adherents not to vote. Sporting institutions were also not vigorously involved in opposition. Former SASO and NIC activists had filtered into the ranks of the Natal Council on Sport (NACOS), the regional wing of the anti-apartheid South African Council of Sport (SACOS). However, this trend of politicising sport was not reflected in the grassroots structures. For example, prior to the education boycotts, on 10 February 1980, three SAIC members were elected as patrons of the Chatsworth Football Association. Although there was vehement dissatisfaction with poor facilities, the deliberations of the association were in accommodationist rather than resistance terms. However, earlier in the year, in deference to Sharpeville Day, the Federation of Professional Soccer Leagues cancelled their official kick-off, and the South African Cricket Board cancelled weekend games.

The small but critical Indian press also contributed to the politicisation that occurred during the campaign. The Leader added its support by “urging [people] not to go to the polls on November 4 to indicate rejection of the Indian Council,” and were “certain the Indian community [was] far sighted enough to respond in a manner which will not give credibility to a body that cannot serve the best interests of all the peoples of this country”. A preponderance of letters to the editors of local newspapers condemned the elections and indicated a growth in political awareness. Some letters were critical of the reformist and reactionary nature of the SAIC; others pointed to “the ethnicity, undemocratic nature and failure of these bodies to represent the real wishes of the people”; and yet others played on the acronym SAIC stating that “this institution’s purpose and achievement will be to Sell All Indians Cheaply”.

Both the NIC and SAIC candidates seemed to have preferred house visits to mass meetings. For the NIC this was merely a variation in a campaign that had begun with mass meetings. In general their visits were received enthusiastically. They concentrated on small house meetings and advertisements placed in newspapers to discourage voting. The SAIC candidates’ strategy was described by The Leader as “Candidates shy away from public meetings”, the insinuation being that these candidates feared public hostility. The Reform Party asserted that the future of Indians “lies in a common goal to the white man.” The SAIC candidate for Western Cape was forced to resign from the progressive Western Cape Trader’s Association (WCTA) which had the slogan “No Taxation with Representation”.

A national anti-SAIC conference to seek alternatives for a democratic SA was convened by the Natal Anti-SAIC Committee (NASC) as a focal point of opposition to the elections. The October 1981 conference was attended by 109 organisations from throughout the country. A declaration which re-adopted clauses of the Freedom Charter, called for freedom and democracy in the long term, and in the medium term advocated the pursuit of Freedom Charter goals. NASC prioritised this national conference which furthered links between organisations rather than the high profile mobilising of potential voters. However, the anti-SAIC crusade did evolve new methods of visible public protest, and fears about state repression were reduced through the creation of a carnival atmosphere during the campaign. For example, protest motorcades drew a great deal of attention. “Smiles, nods of agreement with the sentiments expressed on the cars [posters], the odd clenched fist and a few hoots greeted the occupants of the cars at every turn.” Even before the NIC campaign, the SAIC had little support and it was evident that it would not take much for the elections to fail. Yunus Moolla, a SAIC supporter, admitted that he abandoned his call for a referendum on the elections because the SAIC would be rejected by Indians. The outcome of the poll was as expected with an average turnout of 10.5%, although this included spoilt papers. In some places the turnout was less than 5% of the registered voters. Only one constituency other than the “elite” Reservoir Hills had more than a 20% turnout. Almost all turnouts were under 15% and many were under 10%. What mobilisational successes the anti-SAIC election campaign achieved were dependent to a large extent on the youth, because of their important activist role. Nevertheless, organisational gains did not fulfill expectations, and the following reasons were advanced as an explanation: First, high school students were demoralized following expulsions after the Anti-Republic Festival Campaign boycotts and university students were engaged in annual examinations. Secondly, the level of organisation in inland towns in Natal was weaker. Thirdly, there was an absence of progressive trade unions with Indian membership. Fourthly, community organisations had experienced difficulties in sustaining both mobilisation and organisation. Fifthly, the presence of Inkatha hindered attempts to build non-racial unity. Finally, the fact that the NIC was a top-heavy organisation without proper branch structures ensured weak mobilisation. Nevertheless, during the anti-SAIC campaign the ANC began to develop a scale of visibility and influence in domestic politics which it had lacked since the 1950s.

The low poll represented a reversal for the NP and an advance for the ANC and the NIC. The NP’s endeavours to draw sections of the Indian population into alignment with government policy lay in tatters. For the ANC and the NIC the coalition-building approach of the ARFC had been advanced. Moreover, public projections of the Freedom Charter, a major goal of the campaign, put the ANC’s programme on the internal political map. The anti-SAIC conference had declared its sympathy with the Freedom Charter and its intention to boycott any institution and constitutional arrangement which did not arise out of national negotiations involving all interested parties (by implication, including the ANC). Opposition to the SAIC elections, however, did not imply unity of ideology or even direct sympathy with the NIC by the majority of Indians.


The political agitation during the education boycotts and the civic struggles of Indians transformed political consciousness, organisation and understanding about mobilisation amongst large numbers of people across divisions of class, gender and age. These events created the political space for the re-emerging political formations after the 1977 bannings. Beginning with a relatively moribund, shadowy and obscure organisation, the NIC was able to assume a public profile beyond that achieved since its revival in 1971. While the NIC could take substantial credit for instigating, planning and guiding the civic struggles, the education boycotts were more spontaneous in nature, with the NIC lagging behind the students. One of the key developments during this period was an agreement and understanding that struggles around short-term goals ultimately advance the broader democratic struggle and should not be dismissed as reformist interventions. The NIC and its allies recognised that organising people around their immediate grievances, especially when they are informed and conscious of the longer-term objectives, builds consciousness and organisational skills.

The NIC succeeded in advancing non-racialism and united action in the civic arena with the welding together of Indian and Coloured struggles. The failure to make connections with African communities would later prove to be a major weakness. Non-racialism, as an integral part of a developed political consciousness, is difficult to evaluate and measure. However the growth, albeit limited, in support of the NIC can at least be said to be indicative of heightened political awareness. Interaction across the racial divide in the education boycotts was also limited. Inkatha’s role in stemming the enthusiasm of the school students was a significant factor. Mainstream media portrayals, while often damaging, could not dent the power and message of the boycotts, since they were supported by thousands of people and not just a small band of NIC or AZAPO activists.

It would appear that the rapid politicisation of youth via the education boycotts far outstripped the broader political gains of the housing struggles. First, the student demands, though mainly educational, were national and had a more political focus. The housing struggles were aimed at local government and did not have the political importance or visibility of the student protests. Furthermore, while the student uprisings ran deep into almost every high school constituency, the housing struggles were limited to affected residents. These struggles clearly raised questions of identity, alliance and allegiance. A shift from neutrality to active opposition to the state was clearly discernible, as was the eroding of the already dented image of the SAIC and the Indian collaborationist component.

The education boycotts suggested that independent student action was valid and could contribute to the broader struggles of the working-class and the cause of national liberation. However, students needed to directly involve themselves in other organisations and types of resistance and to appreciate the capacity of systematic organisation to mobilise and educate people who did not occupy the same position in society. Different sections of the disenfranchised have different problems, different levels of consciousness and different potentials for organisation and resistance. The gravitation of students towards civic work and towards the support of worker campaigns and struggles required different tactics and strategies plus methodical, persuasive and sustainable grassroots organisation. The biggest weakness of the struggles in 1980 was the failure to generate a presence of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), or even an equivalent, in Indian areas. This would have contributed substantially to the building of non-racial praxis at least at a student level. The NIC did not apply its mind to this development. Even the formation of progressive youth organisations was driven largely by youth activists working independently of NIC support.

There were clearly signs of the inappropriateness of the wholly male, middle-class composition of the NIC executive. The boycotts and civic struggles had thrown up a whole army of activists most of whom the NIC failed to incorporate within its organisational structures. While this new brand of activists was encouraged to play a local leadership role, there was no attempt to consciously make space for leaders from the working-class conurbations of Chatsworth and Phoenix to emerge as provincial leaders. This neglect persisted throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s and would count as one of the biggest failings of the NIC.

The seeds for the adoption of a new type of alliance politics and new strategies and forms of organisation were sown during the period under discussion. Of particular note were the national anti-SAIC conference and the ARFC. The joint efforts to support the SAAWU-sponsored Wilson Rowntree boycotts strike also contributed. Women and youth also emerged as two powerful sectors in the resistance. However, the NIC failed to facilitate the coherent emergence of youth, student or women’s organisations. It had the opportunity to broaden its own internal structures by attempting to set up branches but failed to do so. While the detentions did disorganise the leadership, it was precisely these detentions which gave them a sense of moral appeal on which they could have capitalised. In the absence of a planned push from the NIC as an organisation, the newly-discovered energies of women and youth activists manifested themselves in a few independent women and youth organisations, but most withdrew from active political involvement. There were two main reasons for this: First, the NIC’s level of unpreparedness for this high level of political activism ensured that it was not able to respond appropriately. Secondly, the NIC was unable to influence activities in Chatsworth and Phoenix on a day-to-day level, since the leadership tended to operate largely by “remote control” from the city centre and the middle-class Indian suburbs around Durban.

From: Class, Consciousness and Organisation: Indian Political Resistance in Durban, South Africa, 1979-1996 by Kumi Naidoo