THE MAKING OF A SOCIAL REFORMER : GANDHI IN SOUTH
Africans and Indians in Colonial Natal
Gandhi, Africans And Indians In Colonial Natal
Africans and Indians worked in the agricultural sector, moved to the urban centers for employment, and competed for land in colonial Natal. They were bound to come into contact with one another as employers and workers, landlords and tenants, and buyers and sellers. Language was surely a barrier, but some probably relied on the emerging new patois known as fanagalo to communicate. There was some casual sex, and a few instances of marriage. But there was little by way assimilation of Indians into African social structures and vice versa.1 Relations between Africans and Indians mainly centered around their interactions in employment, land ownership, petty trade, and service.
As White rule was coming into place, racial tensions emerged, and officials and employers alike often exploited them for their own ends. Take for example the occasion in 1877 when eighty-six of the “Delta coolies all armed with large sticks and bludgeons” marched towards the Albion Estate in Isipingo, “shrieking vengeance against four kaffirs” who had been hired to prevent the Indians from passing through the estate’s mill.2 Or in another instance in 1896, when White shopkeepers organized knobkerrie-carrying Zulus to march up and down the Durban harbor to frighten the Indians on board the Courtland and Naderi.3 Racialized perceptions affected social relations as well. F.E.T. Krause’s African servants protested at having to serve an Indian who was his guest. The servants relented only after they had been assured that his guest, Gandhi, was an important person like “a native chief.”4
All of this suggests that in examining the emergence of White supremacy in South Africa, it is simply not enough to focus only on Blacks in their relationships with Whites, but to see how the two Black communities related to each other. In the very nature of the process of colonial consolidation over Zulus after they were subjugated, the presence of Indians would inevitably create dynamics in which the two subordinate groups would find themselves in conflict and competition. It is with this in mind that this chapter examines the role of the political economy in shaping African and Indian attitudes toward each other and the circumstances around which Gandhi conceptualized Indiannness and rejected the idea of seeking out allies from among the Africans. There were over 42,000 Indians in the colony in the 1890s and about as many Whites. The Zulu population, 375,000 in 1881,5 increased dramatically to 455,983 by 1891.6
The literature has usually focused on the rivalry between Indian and White workers in colonial Natal, and how, when the latter came to have influence over the government after responsible government was introduced in 1893, laws were passed to curtail the threat Indians posed in artisan labor employment. There has been little attention given to relationships between Zulus and Indians. A recent study examined the issue of identities in the context of Natal’s political economy, but it paid little attention to relations between Africans and Indians.7
Most Africans in Natal did not think of themselves in collective terms until fairly late in the nineteenth century. The Zulus were referred to as “abenguni” or “bakoni” by their neighbors. Early British traders in Port Natal and Cape used the term “Zulos.” In time, however, the presence of White settlers in Natal created an “alternative source” of identification.8 White rule saw the gradual erosion of the power base of the Zulu kingdom. Zulu land and resources shrank as five-sixths of Natal’s land passed into the hands of the colonial government or private landowners. Chiefly authority was undermined as a new class of Africans emerged in the amakholwa (believers) and as young men who made up the amabutho (military regiments) became laborers on white farms or in the mines, or served the towns as togt (casual) workers.
Indian employment, indentured and non-indentured, extended beyond the coastal region from Verulam in the north to Umzinto in the south to the interior in the area between Camperdown and Pietermaritzburg. From the 1880s, workers were involved in building railroads and mining coal in northern Natal. They worked on wattle estates, on tea and coffee plantations, and were used as shepherds and cattlemen in the midlands.9 Indeed, they were so widely employed that the Protector exaggeratedly ruled out in 1901 African labour in agriculture: “Native labour for farming purposes, or, in fact, for any other industry in the Colony, must, I think, be looked upon as a thing of the past, consequently the employers of coloured labour generally throughout the Colony have now realised the fact that without Indians they absolutely do nothing, and it is pleasing to note that, notwithstanding the hue and cry made against the introduction of Indians a few years ago by certain sections of the community, the majority of the people are now actually employing Indians themselves, either as household servants, general labourers, hospital attendants, etc.” The growth of mealies, tobacco, beans, and garden produce was “entirely in their hands.”10
Natal experienced a resurgence of economic activity after the South African War even if the postwar prosperity was enjoyed disproportionately as the per capita income in 1904 shows: £124 for Whites, £20 for Indians, and £4 for Africans.11 Competition and conflict accompanied the share of the resources among Indians and Zulus.
Indians worked alongside Africans, and it was inevitable they should experience some friction in the work environment. In agriculture, Africans and Indians are known to have worked on the same plantations, but we are less certain about the circumstances under which they labored individually and jointly. In 1875, there were 5292 Indians on the plantations as opposed to 7457 Africans, that is, 58 per cent of the total. The percentage of African workers employed in the cane fields dropped to 28 per cent in 1887 and 1888, and 18 per cent in 1907 and 1908. After the end of indentured importation, the percentage of African workers rose sharply to 44 per cent in 1914 and 15.12 It is likely that the increasing use of Africans as casual laborers was not reflected in these statistics.13
Africans were sometimes hired as sirdars (overseers) over Indians. In 1862, an African was used by the employer to lash an Indian tied to a tree, according to a report in the Natal Mercury.14 This may be an isolated instance, especially as the sugar industry was worked predominantly by Indians, but it is quite likely that in agriculture, industry, and public service there were many instances of employers and officials using similar strategies to keep Indians and Africans divided by differential treatment or by placing one group in a position of authority over the other. For example, Dorasamy working for the Redcliffe Estate testified to the Protector in November 1882 that two months earlier, a “Kaffir” took a large stick of sugar and struck him. He continued, “I fell down and the Kaffir was on top of me beating me with his fist. I took the first thing that was near me, a cane knife. The Kaffir told my master who was in the field. My master told six or seven Kaffirs to take hold of me, put me in the ground where they held me when the master thrashed me with a sjambok. When he finished beating me my master told me to go to work ....” There are other examples. Katharayan complained in 1888 that his employer encouraged “Kaffirs to beat” them to keep Indians in their place. C. Kannippa complained in 1902 about being assaulted by his employer D. Douglas, who threatened that in future he “would tell the Kaffir to beat” him.15 In 1891, G. Martin who managed the Quarantine Station in Durban wrote to the Protector to “send him some Kaffir Policemen to prevent the immigrants from straying beyond their limits…,” who obliged him with two African constables.16
Somewhat related is the case of F.R. Bloy who informed the Protector in April 1883 that he had employed “Kaffir Mazwi” to arrest Indian absconders. Mazwi had been active since December and had already arrested ten absconders, nine men and one woman. An African named “Coffee” was paid for arresting two Indian deserters at Lion’s River in April 1885.17
Good land was scarce in the colony, especially after the growth of commercial agriculture when great tracts of land passed into White hands. Many Africans, most of whom were amakholwa, acquired land when Crown lands were thrown open to the public. But the increasing number of Indians in the colony seriously affected the extent of land available to Africans. The Natal Land and Colonisation Company (NLCC), one of the biggest land speculators, preferred Indians over Africans because they used a crop rotation method that helped to conserve soil. Indian farmers who thus acquired land did not evict African labor tenants, but began replacing the rent tenants with other tenants (their compatriots presumably) who could pay higher rents.18 Indians acquired small holdings in northern Natal ranging from 3 to 25 acres in the 1880s and 1890s. By the end of the century, NLCC sold plots varying from 40 to 80 acres. By 1902, 2000 acres had been sold to the Indians in northern Natal. There were 600 Indian farmers in the Umhlali district; and in Verulam and Tongaat, Indians owned about 1400 acres.19 Land purchased by Indians was intended for White settlers but there were not enough buyers. African homesteaders could not own land outside of reserve areas although some chiefs were able to acquire land. In the early years ex-indentured Indians could seek land in lieu of return passages, and some of them took advantage of the law. In Umzinto, only fifty-two persons received land in the 1880s. In 1880, one A.F. MacKintosh applied for land on behalf of eighty-nine Indians. All eighty-nine had served under MacKintosh Indian Corps under his command.20
The presence of Indians as competitors was resented by Africans. In 1881, potential Zulu buyers complained that land was too expensive to buy or lease because the country was “full of coolies.”21 Reference here appears to be to the pressures created by the presence of the large imperial garrison in the colony in the years 1879 and 1881, when the British went to war against the Zulus and Boers respectively. It created opportunities for landowners in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and the surrounding countryside. Whites and Indians who grew produce on their land began subdividing their plots to accommodate new tenants. As rentals increased, many African families who lived in huts owned by landlords were forced to go elsewhere. The impact of being displaced from the land was felt particularly in the drought years from 1888 to 1893. Africans were forced to buy rice from Indian suppliers in the coastal areas, and the African homesteaders who supplied vegetables and grains to buyers in Durban and Pietermaritzburg were displaced by Indian and White market gardeners.22
The resentment to Indians was deep in some areas. Heather Hughes argues that the Qadi chiefdom feared being elbowed out of the country by White and Indian farmers. Private landownership eroded their chiefly powers. There were an estimated 14,000 Indians in the Inanda area by the 1880s, and large portions of the Riet River and Groenberg farms close to the Qadi heartland were leased by Indians. White landowners preferred Indian tenants to Africans because they had the cash to pay the rent per acre leased. Indian tenants had easier access to credit and were entirely engaged in agriculture since they did not have herds of cattle. Africans “perceived Indians to be the cause of the land distress” since they pushed up the price of land. Indians who sold treacle used for brewing isitshimiyana (beer) and ran eating houses were also blamed for drunkenness and crime among Africans. Dube was aware of the feelings of Africans when he said in 1912 that “people like coolies have come to our land and lord it over us, as though we, who belong to the country, were mere nonentities.”23
By the 1890s, Indians were being prohibited from owning colonial land in areas that the Whites considered exclusively theirs. Open competition was feared. Numerous letters appeared in the press by people who believed that the Indians were likely to swamp Natal. Indians succeeded, said one White colonist in 1894, because they worked hard on small lots sold to them by White farmers with borrowed money. They lived frugally, took their wealth back to India, and encouraged their compatriots to come to Natal. He concluded, “What does this mean? Simply that the coolies are coming here and enriching themselves at the expense of the Colony, and spending their money in India. The evil is growing daily….” He blamed the landowners for this development.24
There are many instances when sale of land was prohibited to Indians, although some were able to get around the hurdles. When Messrs R. Acutt and Sons organized the auction of land in Musgrave Road in Durban, the condition of the sale was that the lots could not be sold or resold to Indians. Yet one unseen bid did go to an Indian.25 In Pietermaritzburg, five lots of land in the Lower Illovo were keenly contested by Indians. But they all went to W. Pearce.26 In another instance, two lots were sold in Umgeni Road at Trimble’s land sale to Whites. When it was learned that the principals were Indians, Andrew Trimble cancelled the sale. Part of the condition of sale was that vendors should not accept Indian purchasers.27
Indians also acquired land in parts of Zululand in the early years. The agitation to prevent them from acquiring more land became strong after 1895. J.A.F. Ortlepp had sold land to Indians in 1876 in the Melmoth township. When he ran for public office in Melmoth in 1898, the opposing candidate used this against him, although Ortlepp had changed his stance and himself had become anti-Indian.28 It became difficult for Indians to acquire land in Zululand in such climate of anti-Indian feelings.
A report was filed by the sub-inspector of Verulam regarding the displacement of Africans by Indians from private lands. “The free Indian,” it stated, “is now gradually ousting the native from private lands, and forcing him into the locations, already crowded, except for those large sacrificed areas known as ‘Mission Reserves’.” Free Indians were also employing Africans. The result of this situation was that the African acquired the habits of the “Coolies.” “Experience shows that the native learns nothing but evil from his association with the coolies” who are thieves and “superlative liars,” said the writer.29
In another instance, the respondent to an interview in the Natal Witness said that if Zululand was opened to Indians, it would suffer the same fate as Natal, that is, it will be swamped. “We in Natal,” said the unnamed person, “know that but a few years ago, European storekeepers were to be found dotted throughout the colony. Today they are supplanted by the trading Hindoo.”30 Yet another instance was that of an individual complaining about “coolies” getting a foothold in Mapumulo where they were operating on agents’ licences because the Colonisation Company had refused to allow land to be sold to Indians for farming and maintaining stores.31
When the Natal Government officially barred Indians from owning land in Nondweni township in Zululand, Indians drafted a memorial protesting their exclusion because the action drew “invidious distinctions” between “European and Indian British subjects.” The memorial was signed by Abdul Karim H. Adam and others in Durban on February 25, 1896.32 In Umvoti there were twenty families cultivating 125 acres of land. A Mr. Essery did not think that the “coolies” would do harm. Still, he wanted to prevent the African reserve from turning into an Indian location, and a resolution to that effect was passed by Essery and seconded by W.F. Clayton.33
The presence of Indians in or near Zululand was a matter of concern in official circles from the 1880s. There was a directive from the Secretary of Native Affairs (SNA) in 1883 to establish the number of Indians in locations and/or kraals. In an area in which Dinnabezwa was chief, there was one Indian who was given permission by the chief to be there. In Alexandra County, an Indian had married an albino “Kaffir” and lived outside the Mabia location. There were also two Indians in G. Fynn’s location who had built their own homes. One “coolie” was said to be “loafing around.” In the Canada Mission Station, an Indian lived in the house of Daniel Zoba and had two wives. Five other Indians were trading with Africans for hides and fowls but were not living among the “Kaffirs.” In Umsinga, there were ten Indian traders who exchanged goods for goats and money. At Umzimkulu, an Indian lived in the kraal for many years. There was at least one instance of an African employer hiring Indian labourers. Umlauw in Stanger hired fourteen free Indians in his business venture by October 1884. Others were reported practicing as “doctors” among the Africans in locations in Insuza.34
The SNA files refer to several cases of Indian traders who were given permission to trade in stores and hides in or near mission reserves, but who were under threat to move through the offices of the SNA or the Colony’s Licensing Officer. In one case, the complaint was that the Indians buying the hides used their own false scales to cheat the sellers.35 Often pressure was put on the chief who leased the land.36 Sidumuka of the Nyavini clan wanted to give one V. Supramuna Pothee the right to use Lot 5 of Block A of the Ifumi Mission Reserve. Harry Escombe advised not to allow the establishment of Indian stores on mission land. He suggested an amendment of Act 25 of 1895, specifically subsection (d) of Section 2 to prevent this from happening.37 In another case, the lease of an Indian trader was renewed for five years in January 1903 on the American Mission Reserve. The occupant at the time was Konjibari. However, the lease was given to A. G. Kadwa. The Umzinto Magistrate ruled to eject Konjibari in October 1904. The SNA directed, “It is desired by the Trust that Indians shall not obtain a foothold in the Locations, and it is intended to get rid of all Indian tenants as opportunity arises.” However, the original lessee challenged the decision, and the Supreme Court set aside the decision in favor of Kadwa in February 1906. Under the circumstances, the Board decided it would not renew the lease after it expired on December 31, 1907.38
At Ifumi Mission Reserve, an African trader by the name of Charlie Mali was accused in 1908 of being a front for a store run by Ismail Amod for Ismail Dadabhoy. The charge was brought by Louis Mgadi who said in his letter of complaint to the SNA, “If Government objects to Indians having stores on Mission Reserve, they should go further and forbid the employment of Indians by natives who own stores on Mission Reserve.” Mali denied the charge. He maintained, “I got this Indian as a man who understands this line of business, to show me how to run my own business….” The licensing officer knew how to get Mali’s cooperation. “I should require him,” he said, “to give me a written undertaking not to draft an Asiatic into his business before considering a renewal of his license, and any attempt to do so would mean cancellation of his license.”39
In 1913, the residents of Umvoti Mission Station at Groutville petitioned to remove Essop Hoosen Patel who was running a store on the premises rented to him by Chief Martin Lutuli. The stores should be run by Africans, and Patel in their opinion was not a “fit and proper” person. The petitioners were backed by Walter Foss, a member of the American Zulu Mission who, in forwarding the petition, was told by the Commissioner of Native Chiefs that he should communicate his objection directly to the licensing officer. In any event, Chief Lutuli was pressed into giving Patel notice to quit, and not allowing any other Indian-run stores in the future.40 The American Mission Board in Inanda strongly resented the presence of Indians.41
White traders, like their counterparts in the urban areas often felt threatened by the presence of Indian traders. They were not slow to use colonial officials to eliminate the competition. H.E. Swales of Ndedwe complained that he suspected Indians of selling treacle to the African without proper trade licenses. According to Swales, they stood 800 yards from his store to sell the treacle. Although Indians could not go into the locations, they could not be prevented from selling on the public road. One of the officials commented that the African would buy where it was cheaper and more convenient. In any event, the SNA was not happy about the sale of treacle because it was being used to make isitshimiyana.42 Storekeeper J.W. Whittaker was similarly interested in shutting out Kajee from the Mapumulo Mission Reserve. The authorities replied that “the simplest way of disposing of him [Kajee] will be for the N.N. Trust who now are their landlords, to refuse to renew his lease when it expires.”43
Increasingly the colonial authorities wished to keep out Indians from mission lands. A request by the Tugela Irrigation Works to hire an Indian servant was rejected by SNA on the grounds that the “presence of Indians on Trust land is undesirable ….”44 The Durban General Agency acted in 1911 on behalf of an Indian or Indians who wanted to buy 300 acres of reserve land. The Department of Native Affairs replied that “no portion of the Umlazi Mission Reserve was available for Indian tenants.”45 At the same time, replacing Indians with Africans in public institutions was frowned upon. The colonial engineer wanted to replace in 1908 indentured Indians with Africans at a Lunatic Asylum, brickyard, and so on. “The obligatory labour obtained from the Native population is limited on the public road,” he said, and he did not want “to deviate from [that] principle.”46
In industrial labor, there was competition for similar jobs. For example, Indians who terminated their contracts in search of better employment in the Natal Government Railways (NGR), ended up as competitors with African workers who also sought out NGR jobs. By 1890, 3137 Africans and 2606 Indians were employed by the NGR.47 A few of the reported incidents suggest that relations were not good between them. A skirmish broke out in 1890 between Indians and Zulus in the railway barracks outside of Pietermaritzburg.48 Some tension was caused by employers who seemed to use ethnically/racially separated accommodation and tasks on plantations. Employers were motivated as much by the need to keep the labor force divided as by a desire to prevent racial tensions. In any event, the efforts to keep Indians and Africans separated created sufficient room for prejudices to fester and stereotypes to develop. In coal mining the law allowed Indians but not Africans to refuse underground work. The law protected Indian indentured miners in other ways, and when they were unhappy about conditions, as was the case with the Ramsey Colliery, they struck in 1906.49 Even this form of modest protection was not available to African workers.
If there was a perception that Indians seemed to be favored by White employers, nowhere was this more obvious than in the case of “special servants,” a select group of hand-picked migrants who came on contracts for particular employers. They worked in residential clubs and hotels as waiters, cooks, dhobis (washermen), or coachmen; in hospitals as orderlies and compounders; as interpreters and clerks in law courts; or in municipal services as policemen and postmen.50 Special servants were part of a work environment that included Africans as policemen, government messengers, post carriers, and domestic servants. Togt (casual) labor was popular with Africans. In 1889, the estimated number of such laborers was 7000. Peripheral Durban and Durban itself saw Africans and Indians entering the labor market at roughly the same time. The amakholwa were becoming carpenters, bricklayers, shoemakers, and so on.51 Africans in Durban were heavily male before World War II, and were limited to some sectors like domestic service, rickshaw pulling, and dockside work.52
Dhobis competed with and eventually displaced Africans doing similar work in the laundry business. Specifically with reference to the “old fashioned wash Kaffirs,” the introduction of improved water supply in two of the leading townships in 1887 had far reaching consequences. Zulu amawasha (washermen) did their washing on the river front, which meant that the washing had to be taken several miles away from the householder. Piped water made it possible for washing in white colonial homes to be done on the premises. With time, this displaced the town-based Zulu washermen. Within a decade, the Zulu washerman’s “challenger and effective rival,” according to Atkins, was the dhobi “whose hand laundries in the towns operated at cheap and therefore highly competitive rates.” Many of them were forced to migrate to the gold-mining towns of the Rand where they once again engaged in the laundry business. In time, dhobis were themselves forced out of business by White-controlled commercial laundries.53
There was also resentment, as we saw earlier, in having Africans in position of authority over Indians. Doorasamy Pillay’s petition to the Viceroy on July 14, 1884 on behalf of “traders and storekeepers from Mauritius and other colonies” objected to Indians being arrested by “Kaffir constables, who treat them with great cruelty, using unnecessary and undue violence.” The petitioners requested that if warranted, the Indians should be apprehended by “European or Indian constables, who do not use harsh measures, but treat all alike ….”54 Such racial stereotyping was common.
In terms of commercial services, Indian traders formed an important link in providing stores to the Africans as they were being drawn into a cash economy. There were forty traders in Umgeni and forty-six in the Lower Tugela in 1879, many of whom were Indians.55 In the beginning traders were White, but the appearance of Indians in the 1870s and 1880s gave White wholesalers an opportunity to use them as distributors in remote corners of Natal. This trade was significant. The annual combined turnover in 1904 of Indian traders and hawkers all over South Africa has been estimated at £25 million, and the Natal share of this total must have been substantial as the majority were based here.56 Small White traders in Natal complained that their Indian counterparts had cornered the “kaffir” trade.57 In rural Natal, one assumes that Indian traders did not face any competition from potential Zulus traders—there were amakholwa general storekeepers, however—and it would be useful to know about the interpersonal relations between Indian traders and Zulus, the extension of credit facilities to them, and generally the way the services were rated by Africans. Answers to these questions will also yield some idea of the nature of the relationship.58
By 1900, racial antipathy was evident in the attitudes between Africans and Indians particularly in the way the in which words like “kaffir” and “coolies” were used. Just as “kaffir” became a term of contempt for Africans, “coolies” or “amakulas” was used to refer to Indians. In sounding off on what Africans would think of the proposed formation of an arms-bearing Indian Volunteer Corp, John Bazley said in 1877, “The Kaffirs are down on the Coolies, and would ask, are these spider-legged bags to have guns, and Kaffir men not to have them?” Stereotyping suggests a growing awareness of the “other” in relation to oneself. Take the case of Rev. H. Mtimkulu who complained quite legitimately about the appalling conditions that Africans had to endure in trains. They were overcrowded, and the ticket office that catered for them opened only at the last minute as the train pulled in. Rev Mtimkulu was badly treated at Alcock’s Spruit. The language he used in his November 11, 1909, letter reflects racial stereotyping, “May the authorities ask what wrong I had done. I am not the only one. All the ‘kolwas’ here, he [the station master] irritates with offensive language, yet coolies sit on that very seat for which I was beaten.”59
Indians used similar stereotypes. An Indian named Subroti was killed in a freak accident when he and a “Kaffir” were greasing the axle-boxes of an empty wagon. The nameless “Kaffir” removed the stones; the wagon began rolling, and as Subroti tried to put on the breaks, he slipped and fell. The wagon wheel went over his neck, killing him almost instantly.60 In 1895, Ramasami working for E. Essery in the Riet Valley complained about being assaulted by an Indian sirdar aided by a “Kaffir sirdar named Damma” who held him by the legs.61 Ponnammal laid charges of complaint against her husband in January 1910 for having three other wives, one Indian and “two kaffir.”62
There are many other references to “kaffirs” by Indians. While the term was widely used to refer to Africans, it does suggest an attitude, a frame of reference that betrays an undercurrent of racial tension between Africans and Indians. A crime committed by an African against an Indian would certainly have enhanced racial prejudices. Panic followed in 1889 when a rumour circulated that “Natives” were going to attack Indians in Durban and were going to gather at the race course. Africans certainly came in large numbers, as many as 500 by one account, on May 15 or 16, 1889, but it turned out that the target of their wrath was not the Indians but the borough police. The “Native” police force was said to be overbearing and high-handed in its operations when arresting other Africans and charging them. Among those who gathered were 300 to 400 togt labourers. The Natal Mounted Police together with the Borough Police were able to scatter the group of angry protesters. That the Indians should have believed that they were the target suggests that feelings against them were less than friendly.63 In 1895 an Indian was murdered in the Springfield Flats in a particularly brutal fashion. It was the work of “kaffirs,’’ said the police report. Another was said to have been beaten in the vicinity by “Kaffirs.”64
L. Marria Pillay wrote a five-page letter in his own hand on September 22, 1905. He had been hired as a cook, but his employer, E.M. Green, forced him “to do those works which a Kaffir and two shillings Cooly” did.65 Where Africans exercised authority over Indians, there were complaints of one kind or another. On the issue of ill-treatment of Indians by Africans, Indian Opinion weighed in with the assessment that Africans were responsible for the use of excessive force. The April 15, 1905, issue said, “It is common knowledge that a native, an excellent servant, once promoted to some authority becomes a tyrant over those under him.”66 In a competitive situation, there was mutual distrust and animosity between the two subordinate groups.
It would be a mistake to think that normal and harmonious relations did not develop between Indians and Africans, though they were rare. When an ailing Moti came to the Mantyonga chief Swamana in the Inanda Native Location, the chief helped him with medication. When Moti died, the chief buried him after getting permission from the authorities.67 In another instance, Tika, who had deserted his employer in 1882, spent four months going from “kraal to kraal” working for Africans named Stoffel and Vagana. Tika earned a cow, two goats, and a pig from Stoffel, and only a cow from Vagana who considered the Indian a “malkop” (mad).68
Competition and conflict were at their most intense in the 1890s and 1900s as these two decades generated problems and issues around which identities became more sharply defined. Responsible government in 1893 gave greater say to White settlers in Natal’s affairs. Agitation against the Indians increased and gave rise to the NIC. The rinderpest epidemic devastated the Zulu cattle stock, and this natural disaster dramatically altered the social and economic systems that were central to Zulu society. Africans lost a total of 379,576 cattle (76 per cent) in 1897, and never quite recovered from it. The war between the Boers and Britons (1899-1902) did not leave Africans in the colony unaffected.69 After the war, Natal’s White authorities were determined to work for settler interests, abandoning, as Lambert says, the earlier “spirit of trusteeship” and “any sense of obligation for African welfare,” and “actively intervened to consolidate settler domination in Natal to prevent African competition.”70
Africans became indebted and impoverished, and their proletarianization hastened. They increasingly sought jobs in the urban environment. The economic depression between 1904 and 1909 caused a massive influx of African migrants into Durban where their number stood at 20,000 around 1910. No urban location for African settlement was laid out until 1910. The per capita income of Whites in Natal was twenty-four times that of Africans and Indians.71 Crime and resistance to the settler presence increased. There were 2416 instances of stock thefts and the like over two years from 1888 to 1889, and 6495 over a thirty-month period from January 1890 to June 1892.72 At least one other consequence of the migration to Durban was the formation of gangs among African youth, as Paul la Hausse points out, although he does not say whether their behavior was racially motivated.73 This form of socially deviant behavior had a bearing on the way identities came to be shaped.
Gandhi’s Indianness and Africans
Indianness began to develop almost from the time that the migrants began arriving from the subcontinent. But it was from the 1890s that it became more clearly defined as part of the political vocabulary of colonial Natal’s political economy. Indians and Africans used otherness to define themselves. Gandhi’s endeavors to create Indianness happened within this context. He gave it form and direction by placing it within an imperial context but its source was larger. For Gandhi, diaspora Indians were an extension of the diverse strands of those in India, and in Natal he and other Indians saw as advantage in considering themselves as the sum of the whole rather than isolated groups broken up into castes, classes, religions, and languages. Yet, even as Gandhi promoted unity, he did not seek to diminish the diversity that prevailed among Indians. He respected the rootedness of Indians in their ancient cultures even as he advised reforming outmoded practices. So, when he encountered the scores of community organizations among them, he worked with them and encouraged them to think of the larger issues as a basis of common interests.
Gandhi’s notion of Indianness in South Africa was intrinsically connected to the ancestral land of the immigrants. What did Gandhi mean by “Indianness”? It implied a geographic unity when he first used it around 1894. In his elaboration of the term thirteen years later he stressed the cultural and religious diversity of India. In Hind Swaraj (1909), he advanced the argument that the people of the subcontinent had always constituted a “praja,” that is a nation. India’s capacity to assimilate meant that it was a unified whole in spite of its many different parts. “India cannot cease to be a nation,” he said “because people belonging to different religions live in it.”74 He seemed to define India civilizationally and territorially. If British imperial rulers invoked unity to make possible the appropriation of “Indians” to refer to Queen Victoria’s subjects on the subcontinent, this could apply equally to parts like Natal, a British colony, to which people from India had migrated. If people in the subcontinent could be called “Indians,” so too could those who had migrated.
When Gandhi helped to establish the NIC in 1894, he did not intend to displace the hundreds of religious, cultural, and caste organizations that fundamentally served as identity markers for the transplanted communities. The NIC was simply one additional body with whose secular objective the migrants could readily identify. Joining it, or in some other way identifying with it, did not require them to give up affiliations with organizations for which they had primary loyalty. It acted like a coalition of these various other groups. Those leaders who were co-opted to serve on the executive committee came from many organizations.
In South Africa, the use of “Indians” had clear ideological implication different from the one intended by Gandhi. Natal’s White population felt threatened by the immigrants from India and proceeded to deal with them legislatively as a collective whole. Gandhi’s Indianness straddled both Natal and the Raj because it was part of his strategy to use the imperial framework to defend the rights of Indians as British subjects. However, in the unique circumstances in which the notion of Indianness became crystallized in South Africa, it came to be racialized. The system of White domination required that “Indians” be treated as a separate entity so as to discourage the idea of their uniting with other Blacks politically.
In the context in which Gandhi used the term, it served him well. His intention was to unite the Indians in South Africa. In the very first speech that Gandhi made in South Africa to a small group of Indians in Pretoria at the house of Haji Muhammad Haji in 1893, he stressed “the necessity of forgetting all distinctions such as Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Punjabis, Sindhis, Kachchhis, Surtis and so on.”75 Indeed, he suggested the formation of an association to make representations of the “Indian settlers,” and offered his services. Some months later when he returned to Durban, he took up the issue of resisting the Natal legislature’s attempt to deprive Indians of their right to vote in the colony. He got the support of the important merchants to take the lead in fighting for the Indians under circumstances that are well known. As in Pretoria, he stressed the need to unite all Indians. “In face of the calamity that had overtaken the community,” he said, “all distinctions such as high and low, small and great, master and servant, Musalman, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Sindhis, etc., were forgotten.”76 And a year later, by which time the NIC was established, he thought it was important that the body reflect a connection to India. “The name ‘Congress,’ I knew, was in bad odour with the Conservatives in England,” he said, “and yet Congress was the very life of India. I wanted to popularize it in Natal. It savoured of cowardice to hesitate to adopt the name. Therefore … I recommended that the organization should be called the Natal Indian Congress ….”77
Right from the beginning, there never was any doubt in his mind about seeking alliance with the Africans. Gandhi was asked about this later in his life, and, while the point of reference was different on each occasion, there is consistency in his responses. He did not deny that Africans had legitimate aspirations that could best be achieved through passive resistance. He doubted, however, whether they were ready for the kind of satyagraha campaign that the Indians were running. In this he was saying, if not directly then by implication, that the Indians had become acquainted with the use of peaceful methods, and Africans had not. Gandhi made a further distinction relating to the respective statuses of Africans and Indians: they differed both in their circumstances and in the goals they sought to achieve. The Africans were children of the soil with legitimate aspirations; the Indians were a minority building a case on the basis of the imperial doctrine of equality. Indians were not interested in seeking political power in South Africa for themselves. From Gandhi’s perspective there were no common goals that justified a united front.
He clarified his position on two separate occasions in 1936 and 1939. In 1936 when Gandhi was asked by Howard Thurman, Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University, “Did the South African Negroes take part in your movement,” he responded, “No, I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause. They did not understand the technique of our struggle nor could they have seen the purpose or utility of nonviolence.”78 He replied three years later to a similar question raised by Rev S.S. Thema of the D.R. Mission in Johannesburg. Gandhi said that it would have been a mistake for Indians to join the Africans politically because they would be “pooling together not strength but weakness.” Indians were not considered a “menace” by Whites. The Africans were bound to resist because they had been robbed of their inheritance. He continued, “Yours is a bigger issue. It ought not to be mixed up with that of the Indians.”79 There is no ambiguity or insincerity in his position. What is, however, more pertinent is that in the context in which he operated between 1893 and 1914, his actions were always open to ambiguous interpretation given his expressed beliefs in the cultural inferiority of Africans.
He told Doke, his earliest biographer, that he foresaw a collision between the White man’s desire to maintain ascendancy and African aspirations. “When the moment of collision comes, if, instead of the old ways of massacre, assegai, and fire, the natives adopt a policy of passive resistance, it will be a great change for the colony.” The solution was to give Africans a voice directly or indirectly in their affairs. The right to vote would be a “great solution” provided that it was linked to passive resistance. He qualified this further by saying that it should be done only when they are “fit to exercise the vote,” that is, “when the native people have risen sufficiently high in the scale of civilization to give up savage warfare and use the Christian method of settling a dispute ….” If the Africans adopted passive resistance, there need be no fear of the “horror of a racial uprising.”80
Gandhi feared that if Indians united with the Zulus they would probably be subjected to the same kind of brutal treatment that Africans had experienced during the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion. Besides, he was not sure whether as allies Africans would adopt nonviolence. The Indians stood to lose rather than gain by such an alliance. The only ethnic group he sought out as allies were the Chinese because they, like the Indians, were a minority not interested in challenging the White power structure but rather in protecting rights.81
Gandhi was actively loyal to the British Empire early in his life. “Hardly ever have I known anybody to cherish such loyalty as I did to the British constitution,” he said in his autobiography. He was aware of the defects in British rule, “but I thought that it was on the whole acceptable.” So, in Natal he joined the singing of the British national anthem, and in 1896 when he returned to India briefly, he served on Rajkot’s committee that had been appointed to celebrate Queen’s Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.82 His actions were open to ambiguous interpretation, however. He admired the Boers, and yet when they fought the British in the South African War (1899-1902), Gandhi felt he had to show his loyalty to the British by creating the Indian Ambulance Corps. When General Butler relieved Ladysmith which had been under siege by the Boers, Gandhi congratulated the general on behalf of the Indian Ambulance Corps.83 His behavior was consistent with his moral and political position, but it appeared partisan to others.
He made no attempt to cultivate the friendship of African leaders. In Satyagraha in South Africa, written in the 1920s, he remembered many people, and yet he did not mention by name a single African contemporary leader although periodically the Indian Opinion wrote on African leaders. He knew of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube who was to become the first President-General of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress). Dube, born in 1871, studied in the United States from 1887 to 1891, and upon his return to Natal in 1892, modeled an industrial school, the Ohlange Institute, upon the Tuskegee Institute of Booker T. Washington. Dube’s Ilanga lase Natal, an African weekly in English, used the same press as the Indian Opinion until the institute came up with its own.
The two met at least once. They were both present in August 1905 at the residence of Marshall Campbell who was hosting a reception for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Dube made a speech at the reception in which he criticized the colonial authority for depriving the Africans of their land and for imposing unfair taxes on them. The British delegation was sufficiently impressed with Dube’s work and donated £60 to the Ohlange Institute. Gandhi referred to the meeting in the Indian Opinion on September 2, 1905, and spoke highly of Dube as a man “one should know.”84 Dube knew Gandhi, and is reported as having said to Rev W.W. Pearson, an English clergyman, that he had “studied in depth the struggle fought by the Indians” under his leadership, and had nothing but respect for “all the Indians.” Could the Africans emulate the Indians? No, he did not think they could. For one thing, the Africans did not possess the “divine power” the Indians had. For another, the Africans would retaliate for “their safety” to provocation because “nobody [could] control their violent nature.”85 Prabhudas recalls that Gandhi had talks with Africans, and he implies in a 1992 interview that Dube may have been among them, although this is not clear. No African family lived at the Phoenix Settlement as part of the experiment in communal living, but there was one at Tolstoy Farm.86
There were Zulus all around Gandhi. They were included in the prayer sessions at the Phoenix Settlement and worked as laborers at the ashram. There is no evidence to suggest that Gandhi visited the Ohlange Institute as close as it was to the Phoenix Settlement.87 Gopal K. Gokhale visited it on November 11, 1912, and spent some time with Dube talking about the “Native question.” The students sang a couple of Zulu songs in his honor, and the band played music. Ilanga Lase Natal refers to the visit, but there is no reference to Gandhi having accompanied him.88 Others at the Phoenix Settlement developed some form of regular contact and communication with African schools in the area.89 An African worked in the press.90 On April 23, 1909, the Phoenix Settlement school visited the Inanda Seminary for African girls run by White ladies, and Dube’s industrial school. Gandhi was in jail at the time, but Indian Opinion (May 1, 1907) noted that the “carpenter shops, smithy, and turning benches were much admired.” At Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, which was used in the satyagraha struggle between 1910 and 1914, there is reference in the Kallenbach diaries to Africans who worked for payment and who associated with the residents in some fashion.91 The Collected Works refers to an agreement between Gandhi and Kallenbach in June 1910, “It is understood,” said Gandhi to Kallenbach, “that the ideal is not to employ native labour ….” Gandhi allowed an African named John, described as “a splendid boy,” food beyond thirty shillings a month. He was allowed to peg out a small area of about thirty acres beyond the fruit trees for one year. “I feel that it is much better to let the natives feel that here they may depend upon the fairest treatment. And I have no doubt that if it proceeds from the heart and is uniform, continuous and not from affectation, it will bless both the parties,” said Gandhi in a letter on November 6, 1911.92
All of this suggests that there was some contact between Gandhi and the Africans through the ashrams, but they are incidental and are not part of a deliberate strategy to involve Africans in the political movement. It is clear that he did not systematically seek out African leadership to canvass their opinion on issues of the day.
So the message he was giving to Africans was mixed. He led a small stretcher-bearer corps during the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906. In his Autobiography he believed that “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world,” and even if the Zulu uprising was not a “rebellion” he was obliged as a resident of Natal, to do his “bit” in the war.93 Gandhi was certainly sympathetic to the Zulus. As he said in 1928, “I doubted then and doubt even now if the outbreak could be described as a rebellion…;”94 and again, “… my heart was with the Zulus.”95 So they nursed the wounded Zulus who would otherwise have gone unattended because Whites refused to do the work. The corp’s work lasted for a month, and Gandhi was certain that its work was appreciated by the Zulu warriors even if there was a language barrier. As he said, “… from their gestures and the expression of their eyes they seemed to feel as if God had sent us to their succor.”96 While the Zulu warriors may have appreciated the help rendered by Gandhi’s band, the politics surrounding the conflict made it open to different interpretation.
The Zulu press was critical of Gandhi’s action, and the ambivalence shows. There are more than a handful references to Indians in the Izwi Labantu between 1906 and 1909. There was no sympathy for the Indian cause. “The countrymen of Gandhi,” said the newspaper, “are like the Mohammedans and Malays, extremely self-centered, selfish and alien in feeling and outlook.” Specifically with reference to Gandhi’s action during the Bambatha Rebellion, Izwi, according to Odendaal, reproduced without comment an extract from an American newspaper which stated “that the Africans in South Africa had not forgotten that Indians had volunteered to serve with the ‘English savages of Natal’ who massacred thousands of Zulus in order to steal their land.”97
There was some understanding for their common disabilities around the time the Union of South Africa was formed. Naledi ea Lesotho expressed admiration for the passive resistance campaign, and Indian Opinion expressed sympathies for Africans who were “our oppressed fellow subjects who are made to suffer for the same cause that we suffer, viz., our slight pigment of skin.” At another time, Indian Opinion stated that by discriminating against the various Black groups, the Whites were “trying almost to compel them” into creating a united front. Izwi Labantu and Ilanga lase Natal welcomed the editorial. African Chronicle and Indian Opinion stated that the proposed Act of Union amounted to a declaration of war against all Blacks. But the expression of such sentiments was rare and incidental, and did not translate into any collectively meaningful political action by the Black groups. Gandhi and Haji Habib set sail on the Kenilworth Castle on June 23, 1909, in the company of John X. Merriman, a liberal who was opposed to exclusive White rule, and Abdurrahman, leader of the Cape-based APO. They may well have discussed the situation, but no action resulted from it.98
The young Gandhi was influenced by segregationist notions prevalent in the 1890s. In a memorial he drafted in 1896, he said that denying Indians the franchise amounted to treating them “lower than the lowest native.” In another petition that he addressed to the British colonial secretary, he complained about the Indians having to be “huddled together in the same compartment with Natives.” Like other Indian leaders, Gandhi also endorsed a pass system for Africans. Public buildings should have three entrances so that Indians would not have to use one used by Africans.99 In an address in Mumbai, Gandhi said that the Whites sought to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”100 Even as late as 1909, he wrote, “We may entertain no aversion to Kaffirs, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is no common ground between them and us in the daily affairs of life.”101 Indians loathed to be treated like “Kaffirs” in an environment in which they wished to point out to the colonial authorities that they were civilized by the standards imposed by Whites. Many Indians complained about being treated like “kaffirs” having to carry passes, sharing public transport, or, as during the satyagraha campaign, having to share jail facilities with them.
Yet while Gandhi was aware of the differences, his experiences in jail seemed to make him more sensitive to their plight. He said, “It was, however, as well that we were classed with the Natives. It was a welcome opportunity to see the treatment meted out to Natives, their conditions [of life in jail], and their habits.”102 The later Gandhi mellowed; he seemed much less categorical in his expression of prejudice against Africans, and much more open to seeing points of common cause. His negative views in the Johannesburg jail were reserved for hardened African prisoners rather than Africans generally.
Given the circumstances around which Indiannness came into being, and the ambiguities inherent in its creation, the possibility of Gandhi’s molding a united front with other Black groups was never a realistic one. That this did not happen is partly to be attributed to the racial prejudices prevalent at the time. But Gandhi’s action was driven mainly by political considerations. Scholars like Maureen Swan who have been critical of Gandhi’s failure to unite with others, are inspired by the perspectives of a later era in South African history, and fail to fully appreciate the cultural and religious dimension around Indianness.103
The next two chapters show how strong that dimension was. Gandhi’s approach was based on Indianness, and he was able create a semblance of unity among Indians by cultivating the leadership of the various organizations across language, religion, and caste divisions. Interlocking membership of the various organizations helped. He was particularly good at creating alliances at key moments, moving from one to the other to keep up the momentum in the campaign he launched in 1907. Knowing and understanding the Indianness he created, he managed to overcome the ebb and flow of the campaign for the next seven years. When a group opposed him, he always succeeded in finding new allies. Under those circumstances, it is unlikely that he could have been able to do the same if Africans, about whom he knew little, had been part of his political campaign.104
Indians organized themselves around culture and religion significantly as a way to identify themselves, and, notwithstanding the fact Indianness saw them as one single group, they saw themselves as many groups, separate and distinct. Gandhi’s role was important, but it should always be measured in relation to the diverse cultural and/or religious bodies among the Indians. Worship in the mosques and temples, and participation in Mohurram and Kavady festivals created images of differentness. The cultural and religious activities of Indians, necessary though they were for the survival of the communities, set them apart from Africans and Whites alike.
Africans responded to the colonial structures by developing identities in relation to Whiteness and Indianness. There was competition and conflict in the political, economic, and social spheres as the three groups came into contact with each other. The White power structure was in a position to manipulate the subordination of Indians and Africans. As a subordinate group, Indians embraced many of the racist notions of the “kaffir” either as a way of identifying themselves more sharply, at least to stress the difference between them and Africans. There were many places of contact—in agriculture, in industries, on farms, in commerce, in service in the towns as co-workers, as landlords and tenants, buyers and sellers, employers and workers. They related with each other not as equals but as two despised groups (“kaffirs” and “coolies”) in a situation of competition and conflict. Where there was no mutual respect, stereotypes were bound to emerge. Indianness and Africanness, then, became sharper as both groups dealt with Whiteness.