South African Apartheid
South Africa
Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhiji in South Africa

M.K. Gandhi, a lawyer, came to South Africa in 1893 to fight a case. Indians in South Africa comprised of the Memen Muslims, the Indian merchants but mainly the indentured laborers who were brought here after 1890 by the white settlers to work on the sugar plantations. They were uneducated, knew very little English and faced racial discrimination. Gandhiji himself was subjected to this discrimination when he was thrown out of the train for traveling alongside the whites.

Gandhiji’s struggle:

  • Gandhiji knew that till the time Indians remain unorganized they would remain deprived. Thus to give them the power of collective voice, he began to organize them as a collective He also began educating them.
  • He was to leave South Africa after completion of his court case but the Indians pleaded that he stay and he did due to moral responsibility. He was the only Indian who was western educated and understood the legal intricacies.
  • Franchise Amendment Bill of 1894 sought to disenfranchise the Indians. The Immigration Law Amendment Bill of 1895 stated that Indians must return to India at end of their contract, or they would have to be re-indentured (bound by contract i.e. bonded labor) for two more Anyone who refused would be charged an annual tax of £3 (called Poll Tax). Under such circumstances, Gandhiji began his struggle for Indians in South Africa.
  • Constitutional struggle (1896 to 1906): This included use of tools like petitions and prayers to the government. Gandhiji formed the Natal Indian Congress and started a newspaper named Indian Opinion to highlight conditions of Indians and to plead for necessity of
  • Extra-constitutional but non-violent struggle (1906-1915): The constitutional methods failed to persuade the government to end discrimination faced by Indians. Gandhiji, thus, developed a novel method called Satyagraha. It included tools of passive resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. A Satyagrahi was to be truthful, non-violent and fearless. He must be ready to accept suffering and should love the evil Hate should be alien to the nature of Satyagrahi and it was to be through love that the evil doer would be won over by making him realize the injustice inherent in his actions.


  1. Satyagraha against Registration Certificates (1906-1914): In 1906, the Asiatic Law Amendment Act (or the Black Act) was passed by It was a humiliating law forcing Indians in Transvaal to register with the ‘registrar of Asiatics,’ submit to physical examinations, provide fingerprints, and carry a registration certificate carrying fingerprints at all times. Otherwise, Indians and other ‘Asiatics,’ could be fined, imprisoned, or deported. Gandhiji asked Indians and other Asians to violate the Black Act. A Passive Resistance Association was formed. The registered Indians were not to carry the RCs while unregistered Indians were not to get registered. Soon, the prisons were overflowing with Satyagrahis. Feeling incompetent in dealing with this novel form of struggle, the government promised that it will repeal the Black Act and release the prisoners if Indians agree to voluntarily register themselves. Gandhiji accepted this and was first to register. The government introduced a bill to ratify the voluntary registrations but refused to repeal the Black Act. Cheated by the government, Gandhiji publicly burnt the certificates in a giant fire as a symbol of resistance and resolve.
  2. Satyagraha against Immigration Laws: The Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act, 1907, placed restrictions on Indians entering the Transvaal from other provinces. Most Indians lived in the province of Natal, but wanted access to the more prosperous province of Transvaal for better work The Indians courted arrest by violating the immigration laws by moving to Transvaal. Indians in Transvaal resisted by hawking without a license. Many Indians were arrested and many deported from Transvaal. Gandhiji himself was jailed in October 1908. Soon the prisons were overflowing.
  3. Tolstoy Farm (1910) : With an unrelenting Government, soon the fatigue developed among the To continue the movement and keep up the spirit of the masses, Gandhiji setup the Tolstoy farm with monetary help of a German architect, Hermann Kallenbach. Muslim League, Indian National Congress and even the Nizam of Hyderabad sent funds. The Tolstoy farm housed Satyagrahis and taught them self sustainance through skill development and self-help. They were educated and given moral education. Meanwhile, Indians from Tolstoy Farm continued to go to Transvaal without permits.
  • Arrival of Gokhale (1912): The movement which was in a passive phase received a boost from the arrival of Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1912. The government promised to Gokhale that the discriminatory laws against Indians will be removed soon, but the promise was not kept and this event provided energy for resumption of the Satyagraha in 1913. Gokhale advised Gandhiji to oppose the Poll Tax along with the Black Act.
  • Poll Tax campaign (1913): Gandhiji initiated a peaceful campaign against the poll tax (an annual tax of 3 pounds under the Immigration Law Amendment Bill of 1895). This campaign took a mass character as many workers joined
  • 1913 Supreme Court Judgment: It invalidated all marriages not conducted as per Christianity and not registered with the This judgment attacked the freedom of religion of Indians and made all Muslim, Hindu and Parsi marriages illegitimate. At this point of the struggle, women joined the campaign in large numbers.
  • Final Countdown: Indians illegally started crossing into Transvaal against the immigration Even Kasturba Gandhi participated and was arrested. Soon, all the Indian workers in South Africa (miners, railway workers) were contacted and mobilized by Gandhiji.
  • With a group of 2000 workers, Gandhiji organized a march violating the immigration laws. They were arrested many times during the march but they resumed it every time they were released from the jail. The repression from the police was appalling and the conditions in prison were harsh (starvation, whipping, made to dig stones). Soon after, all Indian mining and plantation workers went on a
  • K. Gokhale traveled across India to mobilize Indian opinion. Finally, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge (1910-1916) condemned the actions of the South African government and thereafter talks were held between Gandhiji and the South African government.
  • Victory: The government conceded to the major demands of Gandhiji regarding poll tax and the registration certificates. The Indian marriages were solemnized and the Government agreed to treat the question of Indian immigrants in a sympathetic This brought about a successful end to the struggle spearheaded by Gandhiji in South Africa and he came to India in 1915.
  • Indian passive resistance campaign of 1946-48 in South Africa was in response to the Smuts government’s introduction of the Asiatic Land Tenure Act (also called Ghetto Act), which severely restricted the rights of Indians to own or occupy

A few Africans, Coloureds, and whites participated in this campaign and were imprisoned along with Indians. The campaign laid the groundwork for cooperation between African and Indian organizations, particularly the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses and the African National Congress.

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