Like Ayesha Fakie, I also once asked my father why his father left India in the 1880s, for South Africa, of all places.
He gave me a clear and definitive answer. My grandfather was the youngest son of a farming family in Gujarat. When the family hosted a wedding for two of his sisters that involved the requisite open-house invitations to the neighbouring 26 villages over a festive period of some seven days, the farm was mortgaged to pay for this.
At the same time, gold and diamonds had been discovered in South Africa and some Indians had immigrated in pursuit of a better life. Many had gone before as indentured labourers to the sugar fields of Natal.
My grandfather decided, like many before and after him, to pack up his dreams and set sail for South Africa which was then part of the British Empire and presented an opportunity to fulfil these – to escape the prospective penury of rural Gujarat and the post-1857 oppressiveness of Imperial British India.
He began life in the new country as a hawker and soon built his business into a successful enterprise. By about 1905 he owned most of Boom street in Pretoria and his business was thriving.
He was active in opposing British laws that visited restrictions and indignities on Indians in South Africa. He was chairman of the Transvaal British Association; one Mohandas K Gandhi was secretary of the association. The first passive resistance campaign was launched from my grandfather’s home.
As a result, many of his white creditors, in an effort to exact retribution and silence him, called for their money and despite being able to meet all calls bar a few, his business was sequestrated. He went to jail in the passive resistance campaign and on his return he began anew and paid every outstanding creditor one pound and one shilling for every pound owed.
Later, on hearing of my grandfather’s death, Gandhi sent this tribute from India:
“It is my mournful duty to bring to public notice another South African Indian whose death has been just cabled to me. He bore the honoured name of Ahmed Mohamed Cachalia. He was for a number of years President of the British Indian Association of the Transvaal. It was during the passive resistance campaign that Mr Cachalia suddenly leapt to fame and acquired among the Indians of South Africa a prestige unequalled by any other Indian.
“It was on the 31st day of July 1907, under the shadow of a tree in the holy mosque of Pretoria, that Mr Cachalia hurled defiance at the might of General Botha and his Government. Mr Hosken had brought a message from the General to be delivered to the great mass meeting that was held in the mosque compound, to the effect that in resisting the Transvaal Government, the Indians were breaking their heads against a stone. Mr Cachalia was one of the speakers. As I am dictating these few words of humble tribute, his voice rings in my ears.
“He said: ‘In the name of Allah, I wish to state that though my head may be severed from the trunk, I shall never obey the Asiatic Registration Act. I consider it unmanly and dishonourable to subscribe to a law which virtually reduces me to slavery.’ And he was among the very few who never flinched through those long and weary eight years of untold sufferings. Mr Cachalia was by no means amongst the least of the sufferers. He felt that as a leader his sacrifice should be striking, and that he should stop at nothing if thereby the honour of this country might be saved. He reduced himself to poverty. He said goodbye to all the comforts of life to which he was used, and night and day worked for a cause he held sacred.
“Naturally he acquired a wonderful hold over the Indian community throughout South Africa and his was a name to conjure with amongst them. As may be imagined, there were often disputes among Mohammedans and Hindus and other sections of the community. Mr Cachalia held the scales even between the conflicting interests and everyone knew that his decisions would be absolutely just and sound. Mr Cachalia was practically illiterate, he was a self-made man. But his common sense was of the rarest order. It always stood him in good stead and he was able to command the confidence and respect of many Europeans who came in contact with him. The loss is irreparable and it would be doubly felt by the community, coming as it does, closely after Mr Sorabji`s death. May God Almighty give this noble soul the rest and peace which, I am sure, he fully deserves.”
On his death my maternal grandfather, Ebrahim Aswat, became chairman of the association, and so began a chain of resistance and principled opposition to the injustice meted out by the British authorities and their successors in title over the time span of a century. Many others trod this road – Thumbi Naidoo and the role of his family comes to mind. They threw their lot in with the struggle of the African people against apartheid and played a disproportionate role in delivering the freedom we all now enjoy.
It began many years ago. 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. The struggle of the Indian people continued and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was unofficially formed in 1919 to support the interests of the Indian community.
The SAIC was under conservative leadership for many years, the SAIC depended on petitions and deputations to the authorities and appeals for help to the government of India, which was then under British control.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the SAIC leadership was challenged by radicals who advocated militant non-violent resistance to racist laws, and co-operation with the African majority, among them Dr. G.M. Naicker and Dr. Yusuf M. Dadoo. The two men were convinced that the South African Indian Congress could only advance in their struggle if they co-operated with national organisations representing African and Coloured people.
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 my father, Mervy Thandray, Nana Sita and others.
Chief Albert Luthuli, inspired by Gandhi, 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. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 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 them specifically citing Gandhi as an influence.
That, Ayesha Fakie, is the proud contribution of our forebears to the common struggle for freedom in South Africa.
And yes, the Indian community, like all others – without exception – has its own share of internally and externally focused prejudices. Much of these were fomented by the forced separation and divide-and-rule tactics of the apartheid government. Some prejudices were rooted in tradition, religion and patriarchy. Valliamma Munuswamy Mudliar, my mother Amina Cachalia, Fatima Meer, my aunt Zainab Asvat, Raheema Moosa, and Pregs Govender, to name but a few, railed against these and organised Indian women.
To say, as Fakie does, that Indians benefited from apartheid is akin to saying the black middle class benefited form apartheid because but for the advent of apartheid Black Economic Empowerment would not have existed. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the majority of the Indian population is and was working class. If their family fortunes improved over the years, it’s a tribute to their prescience, fortitude and sacrifice. It’s hardly a stick with which to beat them.
I, for one, am not about to “confront our complicity” as Fakie suggests. I will celebrate our contribution, the success of Indians under parlous circumstances, and continue to rail against racism and injustice from whatever source – black, white, Indian and coloured. I am certainly not going to subscribe to a fellow traveller of a natty narrative that seeks to self-flagellate and by doing so, unwittingly or by design, plays into the dangerous invective of tribalists, nationalists and populists; that seeks to ignore the contribution of many political and community leaders whom the vast majority of Indians supported – leaders who stood side by side with their African brethren. DM