THE GREAT MARCH - The 1913 struggle: Gandhi's last South African campaign

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By Aparna Basu The author is Chairperson, National Gandhi Museum, Raj Ghat
  • Published 2.10.13
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Gandhi’s last satyagraha in South Africa, which began 100 years ago in 1913, was the culmination of a long struggle. About a third of the Indians in Natal province were indentured labourers working in mines, plantations and railways. They had been brought from India on a five-year contract, with the promise of land and rights at the end of the ‘indenture’. About 30,000 were ‘free’ Indians who had completed ‘indenture’ and who were living with their families. Another 5,000 were traders. Before the Boer War (1899-1902) there had been no restriction on Indians migrating from one province to another. But the Natal government started feeling that the existence of free Indians would undermine white hegemony and removed the voting rights of the few free Indians who had qualified. A three-pound tax was imposed on all ‘free Indians’ to force them to re-indenture or return to India.

Gandhi opposed this discriminatory law by making representations to the authorities, providing free legal advice to indentured labourers, leading delegations to the British government and writing letters in the press defending the rights of Indians. On a visit to India in 1901, he met public leaders and editors and secured their support, corresponded with Indian members of parliament asking them to influence British public opinion. He started the Indian Opinion in 1903 to inform people in South Africa, India and Britain about the plight of Indians in South Africa.

In June 1906, the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance was introduced by the Transvaal government which required every Indian man, woman and child above the age of eight to register his or her name with the registrar of Asiatics and take out a certificate of registration. Failure to do so was a criminal offence. In response to this Black Act, a public meeting was held in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg in September 1906, attended by about 3,000 people who took a vow to defy the law. In January 1908, Gandhi appeared in court after disobeying an order to leave Transvaal within 48 hours. He asked for the harshest penalty of six months’ imprisonment with hard labour for organizing defiance of the Registration Act. The magistrate, however, awarded him two months’ simple imprisonment. He gladly went to prison to enjoy what he called the ‘free hospitality’ of His Majesty’s hotel. One hundred and fifty other resistors were also put behind bars. This was the first of many imprisonments of Gandhi and the first non-violent challenge to the racist regime of South Africa. He called it satyagraha or soul force.

By 1908 he felt confident enough to challenge the Black Act. Over 2,000 people defied the act in Transvaal and went to jail, some of them repeatedly, in spite of increasingly severe punishments, harsh prison conditions, confiscation of property and deportations. Satyagraha was suspended after the formation of the Union of South Africa in the hope of a negotiated settlement. But the talks failed.

In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale visited South Africa. He met ministers of the government, including General Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts. After these meetings, he was convinced that a settlement was imminent and advised Gandhi to return to India in a year. Gandhi was sceptical of this.

Gandhi’s apprehension proved right. When ministers broke their promise, Gandhi wrote to Gokhale and told him that he would fight unto death. While preparations were on to resume the satyagraha, a fresh grievance came to light which worked as a catalyst. The Cape supreme court in March 1913 ruled that all marriages not performed according to Christian rites were illegal, that is, most Indian marriages were invalid. That made the children illegitimate and deprived them of inheritance. Naturally, Indians in South Africa were deeply agitated. At the same time, the authorities in Natal began to prosecute those Indians in criminal courts who could not pay the annual tax of £3 each.

Satyagraha was resumed in September 1913 in both Natal and Transvaal, and this time women living in Tolstoy Farm were invited to join the struggle. These women were, with one exception, all Tamilians. They entered Orange Free State and from there crossed into Transvaal without permits, but were not arrested. Gandhi decided to ask his co-workers and relatives of Phoenix settlement to enter Transvaal and the Transvaal sisters, who had not been arrested, would enter Natal. A 16-member ‘invading’ party, including Kasturba Gandhi, crossed the Transvaal border to break the law

The Phoenix party was arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour on September 23, 1913. The Transvaal sisters were also sentenced for the same term on October 21, 1913 and kept in the same prison with the Phoenix party. Women’s bravery in this satyagraha was beyond words. In Maritzburg jail they were harassed and when released some of them were mere skeletons and could be saved only by great effort. Valliamma R. Munuswami Mudaliar, a young girl from Johannesburg, died within a few days of her release on February 22, 1914.

The mine workers of New Castle, following the women, went on strike and started entering Transvaal in succeeding batches. Gandhi went to Newcastle to lead them. He stayed with hundreds of workers at the house of D. Lazarus, a middle-class Christian Tamilian. But Lazarus could not feed the hundreds of labourers, so the solution thought out was to take the labourers to the Transvaal and see them safely deposited in jail. The Transvaal border was 36 miles from Newcastle. Gandhi decided to march with them on foot. The strength of the workers was about two thousand. This Great March from Newcastle to the border town of Charlestown began in the early morning of October 28, 1913. Gandhi was arrested three times and released on bail. The march continued and he joined it each time after his release. Meanwhile, Hermann Kallenbach and Henry Polak took charge of the marchers. Gandhi had planned to take the marching labourers to Tolstoy Farm to stay for the time being if they were not arrested. On the morning of November 10, 1913, when the marchers reached Balfour, three special trains were ready at the station to take them and deport them to Natal. Gandhi was hauled up before the magistrate and prosecuted on the principal charge of inducing indentured labourers to leave the province of Natal. He was lodged in Volksrust jail. Kallenbach and Polak were also arrested.

The ‘blood and iron’ policy of the South African government stirred India deeply. Gokhale sent C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson to assist Gandhi. Lord Hardinge, the viceroy of India, courageously denounced the high-handed policies of the South African government. Negotiations began between Gandhi and the South African government under pressure from Delhi and London. Eventually, a commission was appointed and the Indians’ relief bill was passed, whereby the major points on which the satyagraha struggle had been waged were conceded. The £3 tax on the ex-indentured labourers was abolished; marriages performed according to Indian rites were legalized, and it was decided that a domicile certificate bearing the holder’s thumb-imprint was to be sufficient evidence of the right to enter South Africa.

Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893 as an unknown barrister. By the time he left he was a well-known public figure and political organizer. It was in South Africa that he developed his ideas of non-violence, practising them as a means of fighting racial discrimination by Europeans of Indians. This was his first large-scale and successful employment of non-violent civil disobedience. It is truly amazing how he mobilized Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Parsis and Christians, miners, plantation workers, women and traders to march with him to defy unjust laws, abandoning their homes, giving up jobs, facing starvation and physical violence and courting imprisonment without raising a finger against their opponents.

Gandhi presented the minister of the interior, Smuts, a pair of sandals he made in prison. Smuts wore them for many years “even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”. On July 18, 1914 Gandhi sailed for England on his return journey to India. He inspired Indians and Africans of later generations by his example.