M. S. Prabhakara
The revival of the Natal Indian Congress — an admittedly sectarian structure geared to protect and promote sectional interests — is bound to be seen as a revival of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘separatism,’ key words in apartheid ideology.
For over seven years, low political theatre under the guise of high legal morality involving the highest leadership of the African National Congress and the government led by the very same ANC has gripped the political imagination of South Africans and others. Its denouement, for the present, is the resolve of the ANC National Executive Council to ‘recall’ Thabo Mbeki as President, in effect sack him. Given this context, it is natural that the recent proposal to revive the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), a structure moribund for over 20 years and for all practical purposes a political corpse that should have been buried long ago, has not received much attention even in South Africa except in newspaper supplements catering for South African Indian readership.
What impact, if any, a revived NIC will have on the little over one million highly diversified South African citizens of Indian origin (about 2.5 per cent of the total population), let alone the country as a whole, is not clear. One thing is clear, though. The revival of an admittedly sectarian structure geared to protect and promote sectional interests is bound to be seen as a revival of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘separatism’, key words in apartheid ideology. It will also be seen as a rejection of non-racialism, the spirit and substance of the liberation struggle and the construction of a democratic South African state, whose converse promoted by the apartheid regime when it was trying to reinvent itself was multi-racialism.
Why these ‘Indian’ Congresses of the Natal and the Transvaal, also founded by Gandhiji, over a century ago, were not dissolved after April 1994 remains one of those unanswerable questions. There was a proposal to dissolve the NIC in June 1992, by when democratic transition was in place, though the apartheid regime had plans and an agenda to obstruct the process using the patronage structures it had created like the tricameral parliament, into which sections of the coloureds and Indians had been co-opted. The proposal was, however, opposed by Farouk Meer, an NIC leader and veteran of the liberation struggle, on the ground that “the NIC had a role to play in frustrating the NP’s efforts to court Indian support.” (Gandhi’s Legacy: The Natal Indian Congress, 1894-1994 by Surendra Bhana, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1997, P. 147).
Interestingly, the present proposal to revive the NIC has been mooted by Fatima Meer, another well-known leader of the liberation struggle and widow of Farouk Meer. In clarifying her proposal, Ms Meer sought to link it with her reading of the present political situation — the ‘disillusionment’ of many South Africans “with the current divisions within the ANC, which is witnessing a bitter power struggle between President Thabo Mbeki and party chief Jacob Zuma.” (The Times of India, August 6, 2008).
While ruling out the need for a separate political party to serve the interests of South African Indians, Ela Gandhi, another ANC stalwart and granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, nevertheless supported Ms Meer’s proposal on the ground that there was no ‘authentic organisation … to give voice for the Indian community’.Sharp response
The proposal has evoked sharp response from other South African Indian leaders like Mewa Ramgobin, as well as the ANC in which the Indian community has been historically well represented at all levels — indeed ‘over-represented’ during the Nelson Mandela years. According to Ramgobin, the South African Indians did not need a separate organisation since the Constitution of democratic South Africa fully protected minority interests and rights. “Many Indians participated in the struggle for democracy which we have now attained. Reviving the Congress would be a contradiction of what we all fought so hard for.” However, reports from South Africa suggest that the proposal has not met with universal opposition from the South African Indian community, yet another indication of its highly diversified character.
The NIC was founded by M.K. Gandhi, then a mere barrister yet to attain the stature of a Mahatma, on August 22, 1894. It was admittedly an exclusively Indian organisation geared to protect and advance the interests of Indians, indeed the trading community, in the province of Natal. Gandhiji’s struggle involving peaceful resistance and petitioning was always addressed to the British rulers from whom, as “a loyal subject of the empire,” he expected justice and fair play. A decade after Gandhiji returned to India, the NIC, along with the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC, formerly the Transvaal British Indian Association) and the Cape British Indian Council (later Cape Indian Congress), formed the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), though the NIC and the TIC retained their individual identities.
The NIC, which led the Passive Resistance campaign of 1946 that was to be the model for the peaceful stage of the ANC’s protests, also took part in joint struggles with the ANC in the Defiance Campaign of 1952, in the years following the coming to power of the National Party in May 1948, marking the refinement of the British policy of segregation into institutionalised apartheid — the highest stage of colonialism, South African style, and a higher state of resistance to it than mere passive resistance.
The SAIC became part of the Congress Alliance led by the ANC and included the South African Coloured People’s Organisation as well as individual (white) communists who, with the banning of the Communist Party of South Africa in 1950, had no political organisation of their own and so constituted themselves as the Congress of Democrats. This Congress Alliance effectively led the peaceful protest against apartheid till 1960, when, following the Sharpeville massacre, the ANC and other people’s organisations were banned. It played an important role in organising the Congress of the People (Johannesburg, June 25-26, 1955) that adopted the Freedom Charter, a foundational document of the liberation struggle. The date of its adoption, June 26, is now formally inscribed in the country’s official calendar as Freedom Day.
With the revival of internal resistance following the Soweto uprising, Indian participation in democratic structures like the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement also revived. Its most notable contribution to the struggle during this period was the mobilisation of opposition to moves by the apartheid regime to co-opt the Indian community like the South African Indian Council, a nomenclature deceptively similar to the SAIC and, more materially, to the tricameral parliament that envisaged and indeed brought into existence an exclusively ‘Indian’ parliament called the House of Delegates.
The point of recalling this history is that once the NIC and the TIC made a common pact with the ANC with the signing of the famous Dadoo-Naicker-Xuma pact (TIC-NIC-ANC) of March 1947, the very rationale of a separate political mobilisation along race lines disappeared. Nevertheless, while joint struggles were launched, the organisational structures continued to exist separately because of the peculiar exigencies of the South African situation. Given the reality of strict racial segregation in colonial South Africa under the British, all political mobilisations by the oppressed who together constituted an overwhelming majority were necessarily sectional. Their ideologies too were sectarian.
Indeed, even the ANC with its commitment to non-racialism was in practice an exclusively African organisation for the first 57 years of its existence though almost from the very beginning its support base was broader, more inclusive. It was only at its second Consultative Conference at Morogoro, Tanzania (April-May 1969), that the ANC admitted to its general membership non-Africans; and another 16 years had to pass before it resolved at the third Consultative Conference at Kabwe, Zambia (June 1985), to allow non-Africans to serve on its executive, that is in leadership positions. That such exclusivism persisted in the ANC for nearly 14 years after the adoption of the Freedom Charter, whose very first formulation proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…,” is just one of the complex verities surrounding issues of race and class in South Africa.
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