8 December 2023

By Imraan Buccus

November was marked as Indian arrival month in KwaZulu-Natal. Various provincial events paid homage to the workers shipped from the sub-continent in the nineteenth century to service the labour demands of colonial Natal. Those 150 000 workers found themselves bonded to sugar, tea, and wattle plantations; the coal mines; the Natal Government Railways; municipal sanitation staff and even domestic service. They came variously from the southern and northern provinces of India impoverished by a rapacious British colonial system intent on fuelling its industrial revolution with loot from the colonies.  

This “human cargo” loaded on “coolie ships” in the wake of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire fanned the globe from the Trinidad to Guyana, Mauritius, Fiji, Reunion, Guadeloupe, Surinam and Natal. The workers spoke languages as diverse as Tamil, Telegu, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, and Bhojpuri and carried with them faiths and cultures as vast as the contemporary sub-continent. Over the past decade, the descendants of the workers have privileged the telling of “worker histories from below” outside the formal academic circuit -where the indentured are telling their own history. 

The delayed release of The Indian Africans co-authored by late struggle stalwart and United Democratic Front (UDF) co-founder Paul David along with his younger comrades Kiru Naidoo, Ranjith Choonilall and Selvan Naidoo has turned several dominant storylines on their heads. The lavishly illustrated 376-page book is the latest offering from the stable of heritage publisher, Micromega. 

Prominent among the contested narratives is the image of the passive Indian mythologised by Gandhian non-violence. They argue that Indian workers have a powerful track record of rising in revolt in the face of injustice. One thread that weaves throughout is the resistance milestone was the 1913 strike that had 20 000 Indian workers down tools. The authors point out that in an age without Twitter or WhatsApp let alone access to the telephone, the militant workers were able to bring the economy of Natal to a complete standstill. The strike is in their view the largest single mobilization of workers to threaten the stability of the state. 

Dispensing with the usual reliance on domestic sources, the authors scoured untapped archives including the United States Library of Congress and the American press of the period. The New York Tribune of 18 November 1913 is cited at some length saying: “The East Indian residents of Natal today declared a general strike which was accompanied by rioting and the burning of sugar plantations. The police force is insufficient to deal with the rioters, and white women and children are in a state of terror.

Troops have been ordered to some of the disaffected districts. In Durban itself, practically the whole East Indian community struck work and became so aggressive that a demand was made for the proclamation of martial law. In the country districts hundreds of acres of sugarcane was burned. The revolt of the East Indians was brought about by the exclusive laws in force against them ….” 

The quote is accompanied by a graphic cartoon showing a group of strikers, one with a hitched sari and a clenched fist.  

The Indian Africans also draw in publisher and intellectual, Dr John Langalibalele Dube, founding president of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) and editor of Ilanga lase Natal where he “praised the resolve of the Indians to resist unjust laws”. Reference is made to the belief that white colonialists were struck with the fear that Africans were waiting for a signal from the Indians to join the strike. The authors assert that “united action among black peoples would have spelt disaster for colonial rule” conceding that there was no organised formation for such mobilisation. The strike did however add to the brewing militancy of the period including frequent strikes by both black and white mineworkers organising separately.  

Reference is made to the attraction of the growing communist movement among Indian workers that caught fire around the globe following the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The authors note that: “In the 1920s and 1930s, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) succeeded in organising across racial lines but there was never a critical mass to shake the colonial establishment in the way the 1913 strike did.” 

The bonded labour system of indenture theoretically came to an end in South Africa in 1911 when Indian immigration was stopped under pressure from activists who pointed out that the system reproduced the actual conditions of slavery including intense violence. Citing YS Meer et. al. in the published Documents of Indentured Labour (whose author was actually the banned Professor Fatima Meer) the book demonstrates the case of Alamaloo, colonial number 152104, thirty-year-old female and Ponnusamy, colonial number 151105, male, receiving discharge certificates as late as 1934.  It is believed that the decisions to re-indenture for periods of two years between 1917 and 1934 was a reflection on the prevailing conditions on the open labour market including the Great Depression, the punitive system of taxation, repressive segregationist laws and the constant threat of repatriation to India.

The authors stress that in 1946, “Indians rose in revolt yet again” with the Passive Resistance Campaign that defied residential racial segregation by the Durban Municipal Council which was a forerunner to the 1950 Group Areas Act. Thousands were sentenced to hard labour under the radical leadership of Dr Monty Naicker, Dr K. Goonam, Kesaval Moonsamy, MD Naidoo of the Natal Indian Congress. The authors take the view that the NIC campaign “was in good part to inspire the celebrated 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws”.

To back up the claim they refer to the robust debates in planning the 1952 programme where Volunteer-In-Chief, Nelson Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom: “… the state was far more powerful than we, and any attempts at violence by us would be devastatingly crushed. This made non-violence a practical necessity rather than an option.”

In this instance it appears that Indian Opinion editor, Manilal Gandhi, had a profound impact on the direction of Mandela’s thinking at a time when other African countries were mounting armed resistance to colonial rule.

In the apartheid repression that followed with the 1956 Treason Trial and the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, it became clear that non-violence was a limiting and frustrating strategy.  “With the turn to the armed struggle in 1961, activists like Ebrahim Ebrahim, Billy Nair, Sunny Singh, MD Naidoo, Masla Pather and Mac Maharaj were imprisoned alongside their African comrades on Robben Island.” 

The Indian Africans is a fresh take on the contested terrain of race, ethnicity, identity, and political strategy. The authors took up the challenge from the activist photographer and poet Omar Badsha that the history of South Africans of Indian descent has to be looked at through African lenses. The book produced by the amateur historians is a thoughtful addition to the growing literature on worker-inspired narratives.

Dr Buccus is editor of Al-Qalam.

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