Gandhi threatened the South African Government during the first and second decades of our century as no other man did. He established the first anti-colonial political organisation in the country, if not in the world, founding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. The African People's Organisation (APO) was established in 1902, the ANC in 1912, so that both were witnesses to and highly influenced by Gandhi's militant satyagraha which began in 1907 and reached its climax in 1913 with the epic march of 5,000 workers indentured on the coal mines of Natal. That march evoked a massive response from the Indian women who in turn, provoked the Indian workers to come out on strike. That was the beginning of the marches to freedom and mass stay-away-from-work which became so characteristic of our freedom struggle in the apartheid era. Our Defiance Campaign of 1952, too, followed very much on the lines that Gandhi had set.
So in the Indian struggle, in a sense, is rooted the African. M.K. Gandhi and John Dube, first President of the African National Congress, were neighbours in Inanda, and each influenced the other, for both men established, at about the same time, two monuments to human development within a stone's throw of each other, the Ohlange Institute and the Phoenix Settlement. Both institutions suffer today the trauma of the violence that has overtaken that region; hopefully, both will rise again, phoenix-like, to lead us to undreamed heights.
During his twenty-one years in South Africa, Gandhi was sentenced to four terms of imprisonment, the first, on January 10, 1908 to two months, the second, on October 7, 1908 to three months, the third, on February 25, also to three months, and the fourth, on November 11, 1913 to nine months hard labour. He actually served seven months and ten days of those sentences. On two occasions, the first and the last, he was released within weeks because the Government of the day, represented by General Smuts, rather than face satyagraha and the international opprobrium it was bringing the regime, offered to settle the problems through negotiation.
On all four occasions, Gandhi was arrested in his time and at his insistence - there were no midnight raids, the police did not swoop on him - there were no charges of conspiracy to overthrow the state, of promoting the activities of banned organisations or instigating inter-race violence. The State had not yet invented the vast repertoire of so-called "security laws", that we had to contend with in our time. There was no Terrorism Act, no "Communism Act", no Internal Security Act, or detentions without trial. The control of the State was not as complete; the Nationalist police state and Nationalist ideology of apartheid were yet to be born. Gandhi was arrested for deliberately breaching laws that were unjust because they discriminated against Indians and violated their dignity and their freedom. He was imprisoned because he refused to take out a registration certificate, or a pass in terms of the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act (TARA), and "instigated" others to do likewise.
When apartheid was still in its infancy, we too, like Gandhi, organised arrests in our own time through the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, but by the end of the sixties, the violence of the State had reached such intensity that passive resistance appeared futile. We were literally pulled out of our beds and dragged into prison. Our Defiance, instead of bringing relief, provoked the Government into passing the so-called security laws in a bid to dam up all resistance. This should not mislead the reader into thinking that Gandhi's resistance did not provoke harsh measures against him and his followers. The Indians suffered terrible reprisal - they were deported to India and several groups spent time navigating back and forth, between the ports of Bombay and Durban in third class steerage because they refused to disembark in India, insisting they would only do so on their mother soil, South Africa.
Most of those deportees had in fact been born in South Africa and India was for them, a foreign country. Others like Ahmed Cachalia and E.I. Asvat lost their lucrative businesses and were forced into insolvency by their white creditors, not because their businesses were not doing well, but because they resented their 'defiance' and forced them to liquidate their assets and pay them back. Others had their property auctioned, just so that the government could extract the fines the satyagrahis refused to pay for defying unjust laws. Gandhi himself was treated with utmost indignity on several occasions, the like of which was not heaped on us. On two occasions, while being moved from Volksrust to Johannesburg and Pretoria respectively, he was marched from the gaol to the station in prison garb, handcuffed, with his prison kit on his head. Those who saw him were moved to anger and tears. For Gandhi, it was part of his suffering, part of the struggle against inhumanity.