A different challenge to the racial order was meanwhile under way in the Transvaal, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Since arriving in southern Africa in 1893 at the age of twenty-four, hired by a Durban-based Indian merchant company on a year’s contract to assist in a law-suit against an Indian trader in the Transvaal, Gandhi had made it his business to campaign for Indian rights. His initiation into the region’s racial milieu had been swift. Travelling by train with a first-class ticket on the journey from Durban to Pretoria, he had been told by a white conductor at Pietermaritzburg to vacate his first-class compartment and move to the baggage car. When he refused to leave, the conductor summoned a police constable who pushed him off the train. Gandhi was left in the waiting room at Pietermaritzburg on a bitterly cold winter’s night, with no light, shivering in the cold. ‘I began to think of my duty,’ he wrote later. ‘Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation.’
The next day, on the stage-coach journey to Johannesburg, he was involved in an altercation with another white conductor over seating arrangements. On arrival in Johannesburg, he was refused admission to a hotel. Then on the train journey from Johannesburg to Pretoria, travelling again with a first-class ticket, he was told by a white conductor to remove himself to third class. An English passenger intervened.
The year that Gandhi spent in Pretoria, honing his skills as a lawyer, he described as ‘a most valuable experience’. But he was constantly reminded of the inferior status accorded to Indians. Indians were subject to night-time curfews; they were also prohibited from using public sidewalks. Taking one of his customary walks past Kruger’s house one day, a policeman pushed and kicked him into the street.
After Pretoria, Gandhi settled in Durban, helping to launch the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and playing a prominent role in its campaign for Indian political rights. Indians had first come to Natal in 1860, recruited as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations. By the time Gandhi stepped ashore in Durban in 1893, the Indian community in South Africa numbered 76,000. Most were of humble Hindu origin, but there was also a sprinkling of Gujerati merchants, commonly Muslims, attracted by the prospects of trade. Wealthier, more confident and ambitious than the labourers, they constituted an elite group within the Indian community and were at the forefront of protests over discriminatory measures. Most were based in Natal, but several hundred were resident in the Transvaal.
When the Anglo-Boer war broke out, Gandhi saw an opportunity to impress on the British authorities the loyalty and value of the Indian population. The ambulance corps he organised performed with considerable distinction, often evacuating wounded men under heavy fire, notably at the battle of Spion Kop. Natal’s prime minister, Sir John Robinson, publicly thanked Gandhi for ‘his timely, unselfish and most useful action’ in assembling a corps of 1,100 volunteers. ‘All engaged in that service,’ said Robinson, ‘deserve the grateful recognition of the community.’
There were, however, limits to British gratitude. Indian activists, like Gandhi, expecting that the advent of British rule in the Transvaal would lead to increased rights soon discovered that the British authorities were no more sympathetic to their claims than the Afrikaners had been. Officially, Transvaal law had hitherto excluded ‘Asiatics’ from citizenship, denied them the right to reside or to own land outside segregated locations, and restricted their trading activities. In practice, Kruger’s government had been lax in implementing its own regulations. But British officials proceeded to enforce them with considerable zeal. Milner led the way, supporting white demands for stricter controls. ‘South Africa is essentially a white man’s country,’ he said in 1904. ‘The Asiatics are strangers forcing themselves upon a community reluctant to receive them.’
Gandhi still retained hopes that Britain would eventually deliver on its promises of justice and equality for British subjects. He was concerned only with the welfare of the Indian population - and in particular the interests of what Gandhi called ‘respectable’ Indians, like himself - rather than with the wider issue of civil rights affecting Africans and Coloureds as well. Indeed, he objected to ‘the mixing of the Kaffirs’ with Indians as vehemently as did the whites. ‘If there is one thing which the Indian cherishes more than any other,’ he wrote in 1903, ‘it is the purity of the type.’
Active in both Natal and the Transvaal, he launched a Durban-based newspaper, Indian Opinion, as a vehicle for the Indian merchant class and enrolled as an attorney of the Transvaal Supreme Court, opening offices in Rissik Street in Johannesburg. He helped finance a Johannesburg vegetarian restaurant run by a German woman who, according to Gandhi, was ‘fond of art, extravagant and ignorant of accounts’. The restaurant eventually went bust, but it was there that Gandhi met Henry Polak, an English sub-editor on the Transvaal Critic. Polak was an admirer of the work of John Ruskin and lent Gandhi a copy of Ruskin’s book Unto This Last, a treatise on the merits of life based on simplicity and self-reliance. Gandhi read the book on a train journey to Durban. ‘The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it,’ wrote Gandhi. ‘It gripped me. Johannesburg to Durban was a 24-hour journey. The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to charge my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.’ Gandhi proceeded to set up a communal settlement on one hundred acres of land at Phoenix, fourteen miles from Durban, intending, once he had retired as a lawyer, to live there, working as a manual labourer. But he only ever visited Phoenix for brief periods.
When the Bambatha rebellion erupted in 1906, Gandhi offered his services once more to the British authorities. ‘I bore no grudge against the Zulus, they had harmed no Indian. I had doubts about the “rebellion” itself. But I then believed that the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world. A genuine sense of loyalty prevented me from even wishing ill to the Empire.’ Gandhi was given an honorary rank of sergeant-major and appointed to head an Indian ambulance corps.
Gandhi’s expectations of British rule were modest enough. ‘What the Indians pray for is very little,’ he wrote in a memorandum for the British Indian Association of Johannesburg. ‘They admit the British race should be the dominant race in South Africa. They ask for no political power. They admit the principle of restricting the influx of cheap labour . . . All they ask for is freedom to trade, to move about, and to hold landed property . . . And they ask for abrogation of legislation that imposes disabilities on them.’
What galvanised Gandhi and the Transvaal’s Indian community into action against the British authorities was draft legislation introduced in 1906 requiring all Asian males over the age of eight to be registered and fingerprinted, and making any Asian who failed to produce on demand a registration certificate liable to arrest without a warrant and to deportation. Gandhi denounced the draft legislation as a ‘Black Ordinance’, reducing Asians ‘to a level lower than the Kaffirs’. At a mass meeting in the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg in September 1906, he called on ‘every British Indian in the Transvaal’ to be ready to go to prison ‘rather than submit to the galling, tyrannous and Un-British requirements’ proposed in the legislation. ‘Going to gaol is a unique step, a sacred step, and only by doing so can the Indian community maintain its honour,’ he told the audience. With a roar of enthusiasm, the 3,000-strong crowd rose and pledged themselves under oath ‘not to submit’ to the Ordinance and to suffer the consequences.
This new political technique was called at the time ‘passive resistance’. But Gandhi disliked the term and, after offering a prize for a better name, settled on satyagraha, a Gujerati expression which meant ‘soul-force’ or ‘truth-force’ but which was more commonly used to denote non-violent struggle.
Armed with his mandate, Gandhi led a delegation to London to protest to the colonial secretary, Lord Elgin. ‘Our lot is today infinitely worse than under the Boer regime,’ Gandhi told him. Elgin responded by withholding assent to the ‘Black Ordinance’, not out of concern for Indian rights, but to evade the issue until the Transvaal was granted self-government and could assume responsibility for the decision.
Shortly after Het Volk won the 1907 election, Louis Botha’s government introduced similar legislation subjecting the Asian population to a pass system. Though Elgin had the power to intervene on discriminatory measures, he declined to do so. The British government, he said, felt ‘that they would not be justified in offering resistance to the general will of the Colony clearly expressed by its first elected representatives’. Other legislation followed, restricting Asian immigration into the Transvaal.
Returning from England, Gandhi mobilised the Indian community. Despite government threats to impose prison terms or deportation orders on defaulters and to withhold trading licences, by the time the final deadline for registration had expired at the end of November 1907, only 545 applicants out of a possible total of 7,000 or so had come forward.
It fell to Jan Smuts, as Botha’s colonial secretary, to deal with the challenge. Smuts decided ‘to strike at the head, not at the tail’ - to prosecute leading dissidents rather than their followers. The first wave of arrests took place on 28 December 1907. Gandhi and some twenty others were rounded up and summoned before a magistrate’s court. ‘I had some slight feeling of awkwardness,’ Gandhi wrote later, ‘due to the fact that I was standing as an accused in the very Court where I had often appeared as counsel. But I well remember that I considered the former role as far more honourable than the latter, and did not feel the slightest hesitation in entering the prisoner’s box.’ He pleaded guilty and asked the court for the maximum sentence of six months’ hard labour and a £500 fine. Much to his disappointment, he received a lighter sentence - two months’ simple imprisonment - than most of his companions.
The fear of government reprisal, however, soon took its toll on the protesters. While in prison, Gandhi received ‘discouraging’ reports from newly arrived colleagues. ‘They told me that people were losing courage. The hawkers, they told me, had stopped going their rounds for fear of prosecution for hawking without a licence . . . Those who went to gaol lost their nerve in a few days and some of them hinted they would not go to gaol again.’
With the movement in danger of collapse, Gandhi sought a compromise. In a letter to Smuts on 28 January 1908, he proposed that, if the legislation was repealed, ‘Asiatics’ would agree to register voluntarily. Smuts replied with a non-committal letter. Two days later, the two men met. Both were destined to have a profound personal impact on the fortunes of the British empire. Though from disparate backgrounds - Smuts was brought up in a staunchly Calvinist home in the fertile farmlands of the western Cape, Gandhi was part of a Hindu family of the Vaishya caste in the arid state of Porbander on the west coast of India - both were British-trained lawyers with a deep admiration for the workings of the British constitution.
No record was taken of what the two men said to each other, but they got on well together; they were of similar age. Gandhi left the meeting a free man and told his followers that he had reached an honourable understanding with Smuts that the Black Act would be repealed and that the Indians could now register themselves voluntarily without suffering any stigma. Smuts, however, denied that he had made any such promise. Though he introduced legislation to validate voluntary registrations, he refused to repeal the Black Act. Whereupon Gandhi accused him of a breach of faith and resumed the campaign.
At a mass meeting in the grounds of a Johannesburg mosque in August 1908, demonstrators burned some 2,000 registration certificates and trade licences. During the campaign, hundreds went to prison, hundreds more were fined. Gandhi himself served two more prison sentences; in Pretoria, he was marched through the streets in handcuffs. But after months of agitation the movement faltered and collapsed. By February 1909, almost all Asian males had taken out registration certificates. During his third spell of prison, Gandhi learned that the British Indian Association was bankrupt and that ‘the people have been financially ruined’. Released from prison in May 1909, he broke down in front of the crowd in Johannesburg which had gathered to greet him.
Gandhi’s ideas about the power of non-violent struggle were eventually to become a phenomenon of the twentieth century. But in South Africa, where he developed them, they were little more than a footnote to its turbulent history. More momentous events were under way.