By Zaakirah Vadi
June 13 this year marked the 70th anniversary of the campaign. A commemorative event will take place on June 18 at the protest site in KwaZulu Natal. Kathrada, who had left school in his matric year to assist with the campaign, is expected to attend the programme.
While commemorating historical occasions is important, passive resistance should not just be relegated to bookshelves and yearly events. History is useless if lessons are not learnt from it.
The campaign – an overview
June 1946 was not first time that this mode of struggle was employed as a strategy against unjust racial laws in South Africa. In the early 1900s, Mahatma Gandhi lead South African Indians in a satyagraha protest against discriminatory laws imposed on the Asian population.
The 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign may have drawn on Gandhi’s ideology, but it was the start of a far more radical approach to protest that would characterise the remainder of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Luke Spiropoulos, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s researcher, says that the campaign started as a response by an “increasingly militant” South African Indian Congress movement to new laws specifically aimed at divesting Indians of property, livelihoods and rights of residence and representation. “This was just one in a long line of legislation designed to squeeze the Indian population. Alongside the more general attitude of the state to Black people across the country, the reaction of the community, led by Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo, was both cumulative and intense.”
Resistors from the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses would march to and occupy municipal land in central Durban. On June 13, 1946, 15 000 people marched to the location and a select group of 17 resisters – 10 men and 7 women – set up camp. The resisters were attacked by white racists, while the police stood and watched.
Despite the attacks, Spiropoulos states that “thousands visited the camp and hundreds – from across races – enrolled as resisters in the spreading protest action across the country. Eventually, the government began to arrest protesters, sentencing them to prison, hard labour and flogging – and yet the resistance continued.”
The campaign lasted until 1948 by which time some 2000 people had been charged. “But, the unity this programme had created completely undermined the workability of the legislation it was intended to counter – this was a victory.”
The impact of the campaign on the liberation struggle
The Passive Resistance Campaign had far reaching consequences for the liberation movement. It did more than just mobilise and politicise ordinary South African Indians. It was the catalyst for non-racial struggle throughout the following decades. “The support, especially from figures such as Dr AB Xuma, was the effective basis for the alliance of the Congress Movement and would later come to influence the thinking behind the ideology of non-racialism,” explains Spiropoulos.
The campaign set the stage for the signing of the 1947 Doctors’ Pact between Dadoo, Naicker and Xuma that would see cooperation between African and Indian people in the struggle for freedom.
The protest served as a ‘preface’ for the 1952 Defiance Campaign. It also set in motion events leading up to Congress of the People, where the visionary document that enshrined the concept of non-racialism – the Freedom Charter – was drawn up.
Importantly, the Passive Resistance Campaign provided a platform for activists to interact on a day to day basis across racial boundaries. For one such activist, Ahmed Kathrada, it was during this period that he would meet Walter Sisulu, forming a lasting friendship that would carry them through years of incarceration on Robben Island.
“The 1946 campaign saw a distinct shift from deputations to mass protest, which became a hallmark of the Congress Movement’s activities,” explains Neeshan Balton, Director of the Kathrada Foundation.
“It is from these embers that the ANC Youth League would produce a set of firebrand leaders, amongst them Nelson Mandela, who would initiate the arms struggle in the 1960s. In the South African Indian Congress, the leadership of Dadoo, Naicker, Ismail Meer, Zainab Asvat and others during this period, would inspire generations of activists in ensuing years.”
Contemporary relevance of the campaign
In today’s still highly polarised society, the lesson of cooperative struggle across racial and other divides remains sacrosanct.
Issues such as poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment cannot be tackled if people are not prepared to work together. On a macro level, this would involve rekindling the spirit of non-racialism that defined the Congress Movement within government, mass based organisations and corporations. But on a micro level, it would mean infusing the principle of joint cooperation in communities: in neighbourhood crime fighting structures, local sports clubs, in school SGBs and SRCs, and in university structures.
It would require a recommitment to the ideals set out in the Constitution, at both an individual and group level.
Passive resistance as a form of empowerment
As a mode of struggle, passive resistance has the remarkable ability of empowering those who are often most marginalised in society. Take for example, the passive resistance of one of the most celebrated figures Islamic history, the 6th century African slave, Bilal, who passively defied his brutal master, or the striking symbolism associated with Rosa Parks of the American Civil Rights Movement.
In the case of the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign, the participation and leadership of females was particularly powerful. It was a precursor to the strength displayed at the 1956 Women’s March, as well as the current importance given to gender-representivity in political and other structures.
One may have come across the names of Zainab Asvat, Fatima Meer and Manibhen Sita. But there were others – Surayakala Patel, Cissy Gool, Gadija Christopher, Fatima Seedat – who should remain an inspiration to both female and male activists today.
Passive resistance a relevant protest tactic
The #FeesMustFall protests last year breathed new life into student activism. It saw young people across race and class – reminiscent of the Congress Movement– jointly calling for a more equitable society. It was a defining moment for post-apartheid South Africa.
However, elements of violence have crept into the movement, and coupled with often violent service delivery and demarcation protests, is increasingly being criticised for inflaming the already tense political and economic climate. While there is debate about the legitimacy of violence, the negative impact of the destruction of public infrastructure and substantial financial implications are undeniable.
If anything, the Passive Resistance Campaign shows us that protest does not have to be anarchist in nature to be impactful or radical. Activist Saul Alinksy in his book Rules for Radicals says that “any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people”. The 1946 campaign also teaches us the most important aspect of mass mobilisation: that leaders should not use tactics that isolate them from their rank and file membership, as well that of broader society. As Alinksy states, “For the real radical, doing “his thing” is to do the social thing, for and with people”.
There are certain moments in struggle that stand out, both capturing the imagination of people and defining the course of history. Take for example the famous image of the Tiananmen Square ‘Unknown Protestor’ passively standing before military tanks, the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement, or the self-immolation of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi. In South Africa, the Passive Resistance Campaign is undoubtedly one such moment.
While the 17 passive resisters may have had, as Spiropoulos states, “modest intentions” at the start of the campaign, their actions catapulted the South African struggle into decades of mass mobilisation, inspiring and influencing activists up to the dawn of democracy. We would do their legacies a disservice by forgetting what their ‘active resistance’ teaches us.
* Zaakirah Vadi is the Communications Officer for the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. She writes in her personal capacity.
– This piece was first published in The Star.