The passive resistance campaigns led by MK Gandhi in South Africa had huge consequences not only for the history of the country but also for world history in general. Gandhi’s campaigns forged a new form of struggle against oppression that became a model for political and ethical struggles in other parts of the world – especially in India (the struggle for independence) and the United States (the civil rights campaign of the 1960s).

Gandhi himself was transformed by the struggles he waged: his first battles for the rights of a small group of Indians in South Africa eventually broadened his outlook into a more universal struggle for human rights. From a representative of a small faction of one ethnic group Gandhi was forced by the logic of his ‘experiments with truth’ to become a defender of the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden. Yet for some critics he was too constrained by the limits of his middle-class formation and failed to generalise his commitment to a truly universal philosophy of human rights.

Gandhi, as Maureen Swan has demonstrated, was not the initiator of Indian political activity in Natal and South Africa. Indian traders and middle classes had already formed associations to represent their interests before Gandhi arrived in South Africa.

It was around 1904 that Gandhi began to think about his ‘duty’ to the wider community, and not just to his clients, although Swan argues that at that time Gandhi was still thinking about the wider middle classes, and not indentured labourers or non-Indians. She writes:  ‘By 1904, however, he had begun to develop the humanistic, universalist political philosophy out of which passive resistance grew. But Gandhi's politics lagged behind his ideology. The first passive resistance campaign was started in Johannesburg in 1907 with, and for, the wealthy South African Indian merchants whom he had so long represented.’

Gandhi’s first passive resistance campaign began as a protest against the Asiatic Registration Bill of 1906. The bill was part of the attempt to limit the presence of Indians in the Transvaal by confining them to segregated areas and limiting their trading activities.

Indians in South Africa

Indians first arrived in South Africa in 1860 as indentured labourers. Between then and 1911, 152,000 Indians had come to work on the sugar estates, most of them from Calcutta and Madras. After 1890 Indians also began to work on the railways and in coal mines. By the turn of the century, there were about 30,000 indentured workers in Natal, and before the Anglo-Boer War a few thousand had moved to the Transvaal.

Indentured Indians arriving in Colonial Natal. Source:

By the 1880s, some Indians began to open shops or trade as hawkers, a development perceived as a threat by Whites, especially in Natal, where the Wragg Commission of 1885-7 found that Indian traders were responsible for ‘much of the irritation existing in the minds of European Colonists’. After Natal was granted self-government in 1893, the government passed a series of laws discriminating against Indians, requiring them to undergo literacy tests, keep accounts in English, and denying them the vote.

After 1895, the workers who had completed their terms of indenture had to pay a tax if they wanted to remain in the country. They were required by law to pay a tax of £3 a year for each member of the family – a huge amount of money at the time. This measure was aimed at pushing people back into indentured labour and encouraged them to return to India.

After 1903/4 Indians were no longer allowed to work in the gold mines on the Rand and opportunities to earn the money to pay the taxes were severely limited. By the middle of the decade, many Indians were severely in debt and went back into new contracts as indentured labourers. They were poorly paid, lived in squalid conditions and death rates were high.

Working conditions were better in coal mines and on the railways, but in the sugar plantations strict control of the workforce meant they could not organise themselves into unions – workers were not allowed to leave their places of employment without written leave, which was rarely given. Strikes were spontaneous and short-lived, and more often workers resorted to other forms of resistance, such as absenteeism, desertion, petty theft or sabotage.

While an Indian elite (made up mostly of Muslim businessmen) already existed, a new elite also emerged from among the Tamil workforce, most of them the children of freed indentured labourers – this new group numbered 300 in a 1904 census. Most of these were salaried white-collar workers - some teachers, small farmers and entrepreneurs, but also lawyers, civil servants and accountants in the mix.

By the late 19th century, Indians had spread to the four colonies that would become the Union of South Africa in 1910, and whites in all of these colonies perceived them as a threat. Governments in all the colonies enacted laws to limit Indian rights to reside and trade. They were required to carry passes and after 1898 were even forbidden to walk on pavements.

Satyagraha: the first campaign

After the victory of the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Indians in the Transvaal had hoped that the British administration would treat them more favourably, but the British instead passed a string of laws to limit the rights of Indians. In August 1906 the Transvaal Government Gazette published a draft of a new law which made it compulsory for all Indian males above the age of eight to be registered and have their fingerprints taken and recorded.  Gandhi said the law would spell ‘absolute ruin for the Indians of South Africa”¦ Better to die than submit to such a law’.

Now Gandhi began to clarify his concept of passive resistance, outlining its rationale. He disliked the notion of passivity, and called for people to come up with an appropriate name for the new mode of resistance. When his nephew made a suggestion, Sadagraha (firmness in a good cause), Gandhi adapted the idea and coined the word ‘Satyagraha’, which means ‘truth force’.

Gandhi biographer Louis Fischer says Satyagraha ‘means to be strong not with the strength of the brute but with the strength of the spark of God’. Satyagraha, according to Gandhi, is ‘the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self’. The intention is to convince the opponent and not to crush him, to convert the opponent, who must be ‘weaned from error by patience and sympathy’.

Before the law came into force, Gandhi organised a mass meeting on 11 September 1906 at the Imperial Theatre in Johannesburg, where 3000 people pledged to defy the law – a short while later this would develop into the first passive resistance campaign. On 20 September 1906, the Crown government passed the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance No. 29, which became known as the ‘Black Act’.

Gandhi went to London in October to appeal to the British to abolish the Black Act in their crown colony of Transvaal, and met with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Elgin, and John Morley, Secretary of State for India, addressing MPs in a committee room of the House of Commons.

The British vetoed the law in December 1906, while Gandhi was on a ship returning to South Africa. But the British granted the Transvaal self-government from 1 January 1907, leaving the new administration under General Louis Botha free to re-enact the law, this time as the Transvaal Registration Act. The law eventually came into force on 31 July 1907, after the British government approved the act on 9 May 1907.

On 11 May Gandhi announced that Indians would embark on their campaign against the Black Act.

The First Campaign

Of the 13,000 Indians in the Transvaal, only 511 had registered by the last day of registration, 30 November 1907 – the campaign was thus underway, with the majority refusing to register.

Indians were served with official notices to register or leave the Transvaal and Gandhi was arrested on 27 December. Gandhi and a group of resisters appeared before a magistrate on 11 January 1908. He appealed to the judge to be given the heaviest sentence, and he was sentenced to a term of two months. Four other Satyagrahis were jailed with Gandhi and by 29 January the figure had risen to 155.

In jail, Gandhi spent his time reading Ruskin, Tolstoy and the holy books of various religions – the Baghavad Gita and the Qur’an. He was approached by Albert Cartwright, editor of the Transvaal Leader, on behalf of Jan Smuts. Cartwright promised that if Gandhi and his supporters registered voluntarily, the Black Act would be repealed.

Gandhi met with Smuts on 30 January, the agreement was formalised and he was immediately set free. The other resisters were released the next morning.

The agreement with Smuts drew criticisms from some passive resisters. They wanted the act repealed before they would register, but Gandhi saw the move as the way of the Satyagrahi. He said: ‘A Satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear. He is therefore never afraid of trusting the opponent. Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him for the 21st time – for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed.’

At a public meeting, Gandhi, cognisant of the predicament of his opponents, explained to the community that Smuts was under pressure from whites to limit Indian immigration, and that a voluntary registration would leave room for the state to treat all citizens equally. This way, Indians would not be bowing to force, which took away from their dignity. Voluntary registration would indicate to the state that the Indians would not bring other Indians into the Transvaal illegally and would place an obligation on the state to treat all equally.

A huge and fierce Pathan member of the community accused Gandhi of having sold out the community for £15,000. He swore that he would not allow himself to be fingerprinted and would kill anyone who voluntarily agreed to fingerprinting. Gandhi answered that he would be the first to be fingerprinted, saying: ‘Death is the appointed end of all life. To die by the hand of a brother, rather than by disease or in such other way, cannot be for me a matter of sorrow. And if, even in such a case, I am free from the thought of anger or hatred against my assailant, I know that that will redound to my eternal welfare, and even the assailant will later on realise my perfect innocence.’

On the morning of 10 February, Gandhi went to his office, where a group of large Pathans had gathered outside, including Mir Alam, a client of Gandhi. When Gandhi and a few Satyagrahis began walking to the registration office, they were followed by the Pathans, who assaulted Gandhi just before he arrived at the office. The Pathans were arrested but Gandhi called for their release, saying he had no desire to prosecute them as they had acted in the belief that what they were doing was the right course.

The injured Gandhi was taken to the nearby home of the Reverend Doke, and he called for the registration official to come to the house to complete the registration process.

Gandhi then went to the Phoenix settlement, which he had established, and wrote various articles, published in the Indian Opinion, explaining and justifying his course of action. Although many Indians disagreed with his ideas, they continued to support Gandhi.

However, before long the government reneged on the agreement – a development that some writers say was a result of a misinterpretation of the agreement on the part of Gandhi. The act took account of the voluntary process but retained the compulsory-registration law. Gandhi accused Smuts of ‘foul play’ and being a heartless man.

Mahatma Gandhi and residents of Tolstoy Farm. Source: Durban Local History Museum.

On 16 August 1908 thousands of resisters met at the Hamidia Mosque, and more than 2000 registration documents were burnt in a large cauldron. Resisters also began engaging in other forms of resistance - trading without licences, and crossing over from one province to another without permits.

Gandhi spent his time at his office, which became a headquarters for the Satyagraha movement, and also at Phoenix in Natal, where his family were living. He attracted many supporters, especially Christians, who saw his actions as extensions of Christ’s principles. Gandhi was close to Oliver Schreiner and her brother, senator and attorney general of the Cape WP Schreiner, and his closest friends included Henry Polak, Hermann Kallenbach and Sonya Schlesin.

The next move in the Satyagrahi’s battle saw Sorabji Adajana declare that he would enter the Transvaal without a permit, and present himself for arrest to the border authorities at Volksrust. But Adajana was allowed into the province, and only arrested when he failed to leave. Others who tried to enter the Transvaal were arrested at Volksrust, including Gandhi’s son Harilal.

Satyagrahis now became eager to be arrested, and were imprisoned when they tried to cross provincial boundaries. Gandhi was again imprisoned from 10 October to 13 December 1908. He took up cooking duties for his 75 fellow Satyagrahis in prison and performed various laborious tasks, including cleaning toilets.

Gandhi was again imprisoned from 25 February to May in 1909. Smuts sent two religious books for Gandhi, who also read works by Henry David Thoreau, notably the well-known Civil Disobedience.

Smuts agreed to keep negotiations going with the passive resisters but secured an undertaking from the imperial government to stop the flow of indentured labourers to Natal – a demand he first made in 1908. By April 1909 the government began to deport some who took part in the campaign.

Throughout the campaign 3000 people were arrested. Fifty-nine people were deported to India in April, and a further 26 in June 1910. Six thousand Indians left the province. Ultimately, the campaign had failed to halt government plans to limit immigration and to secure the general rights of Indian citizens – they were not even recognised as citizens.

Between the two campaigns

Moves were now afoot to forge a Union of South Africa out of the four colonies. Prime Minister General Louis Botha and Smuts went to England to facilitate the process. Gandhi set sail for England and arrived on 10 July 1909, determined to avert anti-Indian legislation that he expected to be enacted in the new union. With the British government acting as mediator, Gandhi and Smuts struggled to reach a compromise. Gandhi demanded equality for the Indians, but Smuts gave little – he was determined to limit Indian immigration, prepared only to allow educated, professional, English-speaking Indians to come to the Transvaal.

Gandhi publicised the Indian issue, meeting with MPs, editors, journalists and various ideologues. He returned to South Africa in November 1909 and in May 1910 established Tolstoy Farm – a retreat for Satyagrahis, a place where their families could live while they were in prison. Kallenbach, who had bought the farm and donated it to the Satyagrahis, taught Gandhi how to make sandals, and the residents engaged in various self-help activities such as farming, carpentry, and making foodstuffs such as bread and marmalade.

The immigration question was at he top of the Union government’s agenda, and Smuts was now Minister of the Interior. By 1911 the resistance movement had dwindled and its main activities were negotiations with the government. In 1911 Gandhi met with Smuts and agreed to suspend the campaign.

Towards the end of 1912, Indian nationalist G.K. Gokhale toured South Africa on the invitation of Gandhi, to assess the condition of the Indian community. He travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg and met with Union cabinet ministers, including their leaders, Smuts and Botha. Gokhale reported to Gandhi  that the Black Act and the £3 tax on former indentured labourers would be repealed. Gandhi was sceptical.

In parliament, Smuts said that the £3 tax would not be repealed because Natal’s White employers would not allow it. In the Cape colony, a judge ruled that only Christian marriages would be recognised.

Gandhi called for a strike and a renewed passive resistance campaign against the £3 tax at a meeting on 28 April 1913. There were other demands: the right of Indians to travel between provinces, fair trading laws, recognition of marriages conducted under Hindu and Muslim rites, and the right to bring wives and children from India to South Africa.

Gandhi’s leadership was not without its detractors. Several critics laid into him, accusing him of egoism, of insincerity – especially since he had not supported earlier campaigns against the £3 tax – and of antagonising the white population.

The 1913 Campaign: Strikers and Marchers

Women jailed for the passive resistance campaign

The campaign was launched in September 1913. The first resisters were women who crossed over from the Transvaal into Natal, while women from Natal crossed over into the Transvaal. The Natal women were the first to be arrested, and outraged Indians flocked to join the cause. The Transvaal women were not arrested, so they went to Newcastle and persuaded workers to go on strike.

Gandhi went to Newcastle and spoke to the striking miners, whose employers had turned off the water and lights in their compounds.

On 13 October a meeting was held in Newcastle, and Gandhi was represented by veteran passive resister Thambi Naidoo, who was also president of the Johannesburg Tamil Benefit Society. The meeting formed a passive resistance committee, and Naidoo tried to get workers at the railways to go on strike, but failed. Naidoo was arrested, but was released on 15 October, when the committee addressed 78 workers at the Farleigh colliery. The workers went on strike, were arrested and warned to return to work on 17 October. They refused, and within a week the strikers swelled to 2000. Within two weeks, between 4000 and 5000 workers went on strike. Gandhi, Thambi Naidoo and labour activist CR Naidoo moved around the area, urging workers to join the strike.

On 23 October Gandhi announced that he would lead a march of workers out of the compounds and that they would seek arrest. The plan was to lead more than 2000 strikers across the border into the Transvaal, stopping at Charleston. The march was set to take place from 6 November.

The Indian Mineworkers Strike in 1913 was part of the passive resistance campaign. Source: Omar Badsha, Private Collection.

Coalmine owners then sought a meeting with Gandhi, and Gandhi met with them on 25 October at the Durban Chamber of Commerce. Gandhi explained to them that the strike was a response to the government’s failure to uphold its promise to Gokhale to repeal the £3 tax. The mine owners consulted with government, which denied that they had promised to repeal the tax, and planned to issue an ultimatum for the workers to return to work. On the day, 6 November, before the ultimatum could be communicated, Gandhi led 200 strikers and their families on the march to Charleston. The next day, Thambi Naidoo led a further 300 strikers towards the border. Another column of 250 left the next day, and after a few days some 4000 strikers were on the march for the Transvaal.

The strikers were supported by Indian businessmen, who arranged for food to be distributed along the length of the march. The strike was costing the organisers about £250 a day for distributing a minimal diet of bread and sugar. Money was also sent from India to support the strikers.

The strike spread to the south of Natal by the beginning of November, and by the 7th the strike was effectively underway, joined by about 15000 workers in spontaneous fashion. Workers at South African Refineries, Hulett's Refinery, Chemical Works, Wright's Cement and Pottery Works, and African Boating, among others, joined the strike.

Many strikers congregated in townships and some went to Gandhi’s Phoenix settlement. However most, according to Swan, remained in their barracks, refusing to work. Swan also notes that the strikers were unorganised, and motivated by rumour and unconfirmed reports of support from Gokhale, among other reasons.

Meanwhile the marchers were on the move. They went first to Charleston, on the Transvaal-Natal border 60km from Newcastle. They were given 1,5 pounds of bread and some sugar, and told to submit to the police if they were beaten, to behave hygienically and peacefully, and not to resist arrest. They arrived without incident, and were fed with food donated by local businessmen and cooked by Gandhi.

Gandhi informed the government of their intention to continue into the Transvaal, and called on them to arrest the strikers before they arrived, but Smuts calculated that the strike would dissolve before long, and he decided on a policy of non-intervention. Gandhi decided that if the strikers were not arrested, they would march to Tolstoy Farm in Lawley, 35km southwest of Johannesburg, covering 30 to 40km a day.

The marchers then crossed the border into Volksrust, just 2km from Charleston, and proceeded to Palmford, a further 14km away, where Gandhi was arrested. He appeared in court in Volksrust but the judge allowed for bail, which Kallenbach paid, leaving Gandhi free to join the marchers.

When the marchers arrived at Standerton, Gandhi was again arrested, this time by a magistrate. Again he was freed. Two days later, on 9 November, Gandhi was arrested yet again.

On 10 November the government arrested the marchers in Balfour and put them on a train to Natal. Gandhi was arrested on three occasions during the march, and on 11 November he was sentenced nine months’ hard labour. Within a few days, Polak and Kallenbach were also arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

By the end of November, the strike was also coming to an end, and workers began returning to their places of employment.

The strike – by about 20 000 Indian workers in total – paralysed sections of the economy of Natal, especially the sugar industry, and questions arose regarding law and order exercised by the authorities. Rumours that black workers were poised to join the strike sent shivers through the province. Police were sent in and some workers were shot and killed.

The Compromise

Reactions to the strike and march stung the government, especially those of Imperial Britain. Lord Harding, the British viceroy in India, delivered a speech in Madras, India, in which he lashed out at the South African government and demanded a commission of inquiry. The British government also expressed its disapproval, and Lord Harding sent his envoy, Sir Benjamin Robertson, to South Africa to placate local opinion about the Indian question in South Africa.

The government released Gandhi, Kallenbach and Polak on 18 December 1913, and announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Gandhi was opposed to the appointment of two of the members of the three-man Soloman commission, but Smuts ignored his objections. Gandhi announced that he would lead a mass march on 1 January 1914, but when white railway workers went on strike, Gandhi withdrew his threat, reasoning that to continue would be against the spirit of Satyagraha.

Release of passive resistance leaders from prison. Source: Transvaal Pictoral

Smuts and Gandhi entered into a series of meetings to resolve the Indian question – after Smuts had declared martial law while dealing with the railway strike. Acknowledging that Indians saw Smuts as having broken his word after the 1911 negotiation, Smuts insisted that the pair pore over every word so that no misinterpretation was possible. On 30 June, they concluded their agreement, which became law in the form of the Indian Relief Bill.

The agreement gave recognition to Indian marriages, abolished the £3 tax and all arrears accruing from it, set 1920 as the deadline for new Indian immigrants and limited the movement of Indians from one province to another.

Gandhi’s detractors launched attacks on him, but Gandhi was satisfied that they had achieved what they had set out to do, and deferred the winning of further freedoms to a later date.

Gandhi left South Africa for England on 18 July 1914, never to return again. However he would continue to have an interest in South African affairs, and would meet with Communist Party leader Yusuf Dadoo years later when the latter went to India to gather support for Indian struggles in South Africa.

The Aftermath in South Africa

Gandhi’s struggles didn’t culminate in equal rights for South Africa’s Indians, who were subject to a string of discriminatory laws in the years after Gandhi’s departure from the country in 1914.

In 1946 the Smuts government introduced the ‘pegging’ and ‘ghetto’ acts, aimed at limiting the trading and residence rights of Indians, a development that led to a vigorous passive resistance campaign led by Yusuf Dadoo and others.

Chief Albert Luthuli was committed to the principle of non-violence, and led the African National Congress (ANC) until his death in 1967. The ANC was committed to the principle of non-violent resistance until the late 1950s, when it began to contemplate armed struggle. It was the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 that became the turning point for the ANC, after which violent resistance was sanctioned.

Later, in the 1980s, the UDF also took up the principle of non-violent resistance, especially leaders such as Alan Boesak, Desmond Tutu and Mkhuseli Jack, many of themspecifically citing Gandhi as an influence.

International Legacy

Gandhi was admired by African-American leaders in the US from the 1920s onwards, and Marcus Garvey and WEB du Bois publicised his works. A delegation led by Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister, theologian, and academic from the American South, met with Gandhi in 1936. Bayard Rustin and trade unionist A Philip Randolph formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago in 1942. CORE staged non-violent protests against racist employment practices in Chicago, and Rustin was jailed for three years when, as a conscientious objector, he refused to serve in the army during WWII.

Gandhi proved to be a major influence on Martin Luther King, who rushed out to buy as many books as he could on Gandhi after listening to a lecture by Mordecai Johnson on non-violent resistance. King and Rustin were the prime movers behind the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which reached its height in period from 1963 to 1967.

Gandhi also inspired liberation fighters in Africa, and the Fifth Pan-African Congress, which met in Manchester in 1945, ‘endorsed Gandhian passive resistance as the preferred method for resistance to colonialism in Africa’. Kwame Nkruma explicitly cited Gandhi as an influence, and while Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere never fully accepted the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, they used the concept to guide their political struggles.

In France, Lanza Del Vasto, who had lived with Gandhi in the 1930s at an ashram in India, founded a Gandhi-inspired organization, the Communities of the Ark. Del Vasto fasted for twenty days in 1957 to end the torture of Algerians by the French military.

The 1980s saw a reawakening of the principle of non-violent struggle, with groups in Poland (the Solidarity movement), Chile, the Philippines, Palestine (the Intifada movement), China and Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi) adopting Gandhian methods of resistance to oppressive laws.

Other movements also used Gandhian ideas. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament cited Gandhi as an influence in its struggle to urge nations to reject the use of nuclear weapons. Environmental movements such as Greenpeace have used non-violence as a method to fight their battles against nuclear proliferation and ecological destruction. The German Green party leader Petra Kelly, an activist against nuclear weapons, has spoken of her admiration for Gandhi, ML King and David Thoreau. She said:

In one particular area of our political work we have been greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. That is in our belief that a lifestyle and method of production which rely on an endless supply of raw materials and which use those raw materials lavishly, also furnish the motive for the violent appropriation of raw materials from other countries. In contrast, a responsible use of raw materials, as part of an ecologically-oriented lifestyle and economy, reduces the risk that policies of violence will be pursued in our name.

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