by E.S. Reddy

The Satyagraha in South Africa, led by Gandhi a century ago, owes its success, in large measure, to the sacrifice and leadership of Thambi Naidoo and to the “silent suffering” of Mrs Kasturba Gandhi. Their contribution, however, has received little recognition in the writings on the satyagraha.
The satyagraha was confined to the Transvaal from 1906 when the Indian community pledged to defy the humiliating Asiatic Ordinance until it was suspended on May 20, 1911, when Gandhi and Smuts reached a provisional settlement which the government failed to implement.

More than two thousand adult men, in a total population of twelve to fourteen thousand, had gone to prison. A number of Indians came from Natal in solidarity and suffered equally. Most of the satyagrahis were sentenced to hard labour in prison. Many of them lost their property and became paupers.

But this phase of the satyagraha, though extremely significant historically, did not result in the redress of Indian grievances, Instead the Indian community was subjected to more restrictions and harassment. By 1910, the resistance seemed to be petering out, except for a few determined satyagrahis who courted imprisonment again and again.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the eminent Indian leader, visited South Africa in 1912 at the invitation of Gandhi to investigate the position of the Indians. He was received by General Louis Botha, the Prime Minister, and General J.C. Smuts, the Minister of the Interior. He was led to believe that the three pound tax was the main grievance of most Indians in the Natal, and would be abolished.

In January 1913, after Gokhale left, Gandhi closed the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg and moved to the Phoenix Settlement in Natal. Soon the Indian community was confronted with two serious challenges. 1. The government denied that it had promised to abolish the three pound tax.

2. Ruling on an appeal from the decision of an immigration officer who refused entry to Mariam Bai, who arrived in Cape Town with her husband, Judge Malcolm Searle of the Cape Supreme Court said that marriages performed according to a religion which allowed polygamy—that is, all Mahomedan and Hindu marriages—would not be recognised in South Africa. The Natal Government had, in the 1890s, imposed an exorbitant tax of three pounds a year on every Indian who had completed five years of labour under indenture, as well as his wife and children over the age of 16. The intention was to force free Indians to enter into further indenture or return to India. The indentured labourers had been promised freedom and land after indenture and many of them worked hard as market gardeners and developed Natal. They were now subjected to an onerous tax that they could not afford. The enforcement of law became stricter over the years and non-payment of the tax became a criminal offence leading to imprisonment.
Gandhi's newspaper, Indian Opinion, had repeatedly denounced the tax and publicised the suffering it caused. It had become intolerable and resistance had become imperative by the time Gandhi moved to Natal.

The Searle ruling had enormous implications. If it had prevailed, almost all married Indian women would legally be treated as concubines and their children as illegitimate; they would have lost the right of inheritance and the right to enter South Africa. The government ignored repeated appeals for a legislative remedy.

These two issues affected most of the Indians all over South Africa. While shocking, they also provided an opportunity to mobilise the community in united resistance, by encouraging the workers to strike and the women to offer satya-graha.

According to Pragji Desai, who went to prison many times, Gandhi came to Johannesburg and immediately called a meeting of about a dozen old passive resisters who had proved their mettle in the satyagraha in the Transvaal. He quoted from memory the gist of what Gandhi said:

“The legality of our marriages and the three pound poll tax have become religious questions to me… They involve the honour of our great country… I know that the spirit of the community is at its lowest ebb, but that does not worry me… I certainly want every one of you to join the struggle. But this time my conditions are very strict. If you wish to line up with me, you must first of all forget your wife, children and other members of the family…”
He continued that if no one else joined him,

“…I will fight till the end of my life, and will get the three pound poll tax and the marriage act repealed. I must do or die. I am also considering whether our womenfolk should take part in the struggle or not. Their own honour is also at stake. Up till now we have not asked them to join the struggle. I ask your opinion on this question too. I should now like to know your own decision.”

All those present said “yes” without hesitation. The meeting decided, after a full discussion, that women should be invited to participate in the struggle and court imprisonment.1

Gandhi did not expect many to offer satyagraha. He wrote to Gokhale on June 20, 1913: “So far as I can judge at present, 100 men and 13 women will start the struggle. As time goes, we may have more.”

In the Transvaal many wives of the satyagrahis volunteered. They had been anxious for years to join their husbands in resistance and share the suffering for the honour of India. It was decided that they would court arrest by hawking without permit and, if they were not arrested, go to Newcastle in Natal to persuade the mine workers to strike.

Gandhi then went to Phoenix and spoke to the inmates, especially women. Kasturba, his wife, was the first to volunteer, despite her poor health.2 Indian Opinion (October 1, 1913) reported:

“The ladies [in Phoenix] were allowed to join the struggle after great effort was made by them to take part in it. When Mrs Gandhi understood the marriage difficulty, she was incensed and said to Mr. Gandhi: ‘Then I am not your wife, according to the laws of this country.' Mr Gandhi replied that that was so and added that their children were not their heirs. ‘Then,' she said, ‘let us go to India.' Mr Gandhi replied that that would be cowardly and that it would not solve the difficulty. ‘Could I not, then, join the struggle and be imprisoned myself?' Mr Gandhi told her that she could but that it was not a small matter. Her health was not good, she had not known that type of hardship and it would be disgraceful if, after her joining the struggle, she weakened. But Mrs Gandhi was not to be moved. The other ladies, so closely related and living on the Settlement, would not be gainsaid. They insisted that, apart from their own convictions, just as strong as Mrs Gandhi's, they could not possibly remain out and allow Mrs Gandhi to go to jail.”

The first batch of satyagrahis—12 men and four women—went from Phoenix to the Transvaal border on September 15, 1913; they were arrested for crossing the provincial border without permits. Three of the women—Mrs Kasturba Gandhi, Mrs Chhaganlal Gandhi and Mrs Maganlal Gandhi—were from the Gandhi family and the fourth, Ms Jayakunwar Mehta, was the daughter of Pranjivan Mehta, a friend of Gandhi in London. They were sentenced on September 23 to three months with hard labour.

Satyagraha began in the Transvaal on September 29 when Manilal Gandhi, Pragji Desai and S.B. Medh went out hawking in Johannesburg. Twelve women, with six babies in arms, crossed the border to Free State and were not arrested. They came back without permits to Vereeniging in the Transvaal and hawked but were again not arrested. They then proceeded to Newcastle in Natal according to plan. Thambi Naidoo, the veteran satyagrahi, led them on their mission to persuade workers to strike. The twelve women included the wife and mother-in law of Thambi Naidoo and the sister-in law of Mrs Thambi Naidoo. All of them were Tamils, except for Mrs Bhawani Dayal.

Thambi Naidoo, born in Mauritius, was a leader of the Tamil community who was prepared for any sacrifice in the struggle for the honour of India. He was one of the founders of the Transvaal Indian Congress in 1893, a year before the Natal Indian Congress was established by Gandhi. He led a delegation to the Johannesburg Town Council when he was only 19. He was one of the few Indians who saw President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic (later Transvaal) to petition against the law restricting Indians to segregated localities. When Gandhi established the British Indian Association in the Transvaal, the TIC phased out and Thambi Naidoo became the lieutenant of Gandhi. He was the hero of the satyagraha in South Africa during which he went fourteen times to prison. Gandhi wrote to Gopal Krishna Gokhale on December 6, 1909:

“… perhaps the bravest and the staunchest of all (Indians in jail) is the indomitable Thambi Naidoo. I do not know any Indian who knows the spirit of the struggle so well as he does… He has sacrificed himself entirely…”
He escorted the women to Newcastle, and took them around the railway barracks and the coal mines to exhort the Indian workers to strike. He addressed thousands of people at meetings in the coal-mining area.

The strike was in full swing when Gandhi rushed to Newcastle on October 20. “The appearance of the brave ladies simply acts like a charm and the men obey the advice given them without any great argument being required,” reported Indian Opinion on October 22. The workers had already heard of the imprisonment of Kasturba and other members of the Gandhi family. The strike spread like wildfire after Gandhi arrived.

The Transvaal women were charged on October 21 under the Vagrancy Act. They admitted that they had come to Newcastle to advise the mine workers to suspend work until the government promised to repeal the three pound tax. They were sentenced on the same day to three months with hard labour, and taken to the jail in Maritzburg where the Phoenix women were incarcerated.

Thambi Naidoo followed Gandhi in the Great March and led 300 strikers to the Transvaal border. He then went to the Transvaal and came back to Natal with seven more women, including Valliamma, the teenage martyr of the satyagraha.

When Gandhi was arrested on November 9, about 5000 workers were on strike: 300 of them had been jailed and about 3000 were in the Great March. After his imprisonment the strike spread to sugar plantations where over 15,000 went on strike, and then to municipal and harbour workers. Indian Opinion wrote on March 4, 1914, that Thambi Naidoo worked ceaselessly night and day among the indentured labourers in the mines. It was to him and his party that was largely due the credit for the strike on the mines.3 Curiously enough, while the women were arrested, he was not. He remained in charge at Newcastle when Gandhi proceeded on the march. “…after the arrest of the strikers on the commencement of the strike on sugar estates, be came down to Durban, where, with his usual tireless energy, he was everywhere. He was also instrumental in bringing about the strike in Maritzburg and was arrested while addressing a mass meeting there.4 He was brought to Durban and detained in custody pending the hearing of his case, as he declined to give an assurance that he would refrain from taking further part in the passive resistance movement. He was subsequently released on one hundred pound bail and, eventually the charge against him was withdrawn.”

While the strike, the largest general strike in South Africa until then, shook the government, the sacrifice of Kasturba was to help secure a settlement.

The brutal treatment of the workers and the harsh sentences on the women had outraged public opinion in India. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, “the lion of Bombay” who had not supported the satyagraha until then, roared after the arrest of the women that “his blood boiled at the thought of these women lying in jail herded with ordinary criminals, and India could not sleep over the matter any longer.” There were demands for an impartial investigation into the treatment of the striking workers and satyagrahis. Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, in an unusual move, publicly expressed his sympathy with the satyagrahis and conveyed to the South African and British governments the strength of feeling in India.

To appease Britain and to divide the Indian community, the South African Government set up an Indian Grievances Commission on December 11 to inquire into the causes of the strike and the disturbances in connection with it. Sir William Solomon, a respected judge, was appointed Chairman. The two other members were Ewald Esselen and J.S. Wylie, two prominent advocates, who were both notoriously anti-Indian. The Indian community, at meetings all over the country, protested against the composition of the Commission and called for the addition of two members acceptable to the Indians.

On the recommendation of the Commission, Gandhi was released from prison on December 18. He addressed mass meetings of Indians on December 18 in Johannesburg and December 21 in Durban. Both meetings adopted resolutions to boycott the Commission as it was constituted without consulting the Indian community. The Durban meeting adopted three resolutions calling for the boycott of the Commission, unless the government acceded to the request for the addition of two members acceptable to Indians and the release of all passive resisters in prison. If the government refused to comply with these requests, the third resolution declared, the community would be obliged at once to prosecute the struggle with renewed vigour and deter-mination.

In his address to the meeting, Gandhi said that if the government does not grant the requests, “all of us, on the first day of the New Year, should be ready again to suffer battle, again to suffer imprisonment and march out. (Applause.)… That is the advice we give to our free and indentured countrymen-to strike, and even though this may mean death to them, I am sure it will be justified.”

Gandhi expected that about 5000 people would commence the march and that their ranks may swell to 20,000 people.5

Gandhi conveyed the views of the community to General Smuts on December 21, but the government rejected the demands of the community.
Lord Ampthill from London and Gokhale from India strongly urged Gandhi not to boycott the Commission and to abandon the renewal of passive resistance. Gandhi replied to them that the community could not go back on its pledge – although there is no evidence of a vow as in 1906, but only resolutions. Pressed further, he informed them that the mass of the people were so indignant that if any attempt was made to advise acceptance of the present Commission, they would kill the leaders. Gokhale appreciated Gandhi's position and, though ill, was almost in daily contact with Gandhi while pressing Lord Hardinge for appro-priate action.

Gandhi was faced with a dilemma. Abando-ning the march would be resented by the Indian community while proceeding with it would alienate sympathy in Britain and India he had cultivated over many years, including that of Lord Hardings. Moreover, there was likelihood of violence by Europeans and the government if resistance was resumed.6

In the midst of these events, Kasturba and her party of satyagrahis were released from prison on December 22. The Indian community had planned a huge procession in Durban to welcome them. But that had to be abandoned as Kasturba came out emaciated.

Describing the heroism of the women satyagrahis, Gandhi wrote in Satyagraha in South Africa:

“The women's bravery was beyond words. They were all kept in Maritzburg jail, where they were considerably harassed. Their food was of the worst quality and they were given laundry work as their task. No food was permitted to be given them from outside nearly till the end of their term. One sister was under a religious vow to restrict herself to a particular diet. After great difficulty the jail autho-rities allowed her that diet, but the food supplied was unfit for human consumption. The sister badly needed olive oil. She did not get it at first, and when she got it, it was old and rancid. She offered to get it at her own expense but was told that jail was no hotel, and she must take what food was given her. When this sister was released she was a mere skeleton and her life was saved only by a great effort…”
The “sister” was obviously none other than Kasturba.

Gandhi had to deal with the critical stage of the satyagraha while nursing Kasturba who was hanging between life and death.

On December 27, he received two messages which provided a solution for his dilemma. One was a message from Gokhale that Lord Hardinge was sending a senior civil servant, Sir Benjamin Robertson, to South Africa to assist the Indians and was asking the British Government to secure adjournment of the meetings of the Commission. The other was a surprise:

a telegram from Miss Emily Hobhouse, appealing to him as a “humble woman” to postpone the march for fifteen days.

Miss Hobhouse had opposed the war against the Boers, and went to the concentration camps where Boer women and children were kept in such deplorable conditions that 27,000 women and children died. Her courageous campaign against the war, braving denunciation that she was a traitor, had much to do with the end of the war and the efforts at reconciliation between the British and the Boers. For Gandhi, who had been seeking support of persons with influence on the Boers, her message was a godsend. He wrote in Satyagraha in South Africa: “The Boers looked up to her with great respect and affection. She was very intimate with General Botha…”

According to Raojibhai Patel, Gandhi consulted his colleagues on the appeal of Miss Hobhouse and decided to postpone the march by fifteen days. Whether it was due to the appeal of Miss Hobhouse or the telegram from Gokhale or both, a crisis was averted. Gandhi was able to announce, at a public meeting in Maritzburg on the same day, that important negotiations were proceeding in connection with the grievances of the Indians and that the march might not take place until January 15.

The papers of Miss Elizabeth Molteno in the archives of the University of Cape Town explain the intervention of Miss Hobhouse.7

Miss Molteno, a member of one of the most prominent families in the Cape, had also opposed the Anglo-Boer War and went to live in London for several years. She became a friend of Emily Hobhouse and met Gandhi during his visit to London in 1909.

Returning to South Africa, she bought a cottage in Ohlange, near Phoenix, and took a keen interest in the Indian struggle. She went to see Kasturba on her release and spent a long time with her enquiring about her health and the conditions in prison. She sent a message, through her friend Alice Greene, to Emily Hobhouse who had come to South Africa to attend the unveiling of a memorial to Boer women in Bloemfontein but had to remain in Cape Town because of illness.

This is how Alice Greene described the origin of the telegram to Gandhi:
“She (Miss Hobhouse) was sitting up on her couch... I told her I had sent off a telegram to Gandhi and that you had suggested her sending one too. She instantly took pencil and paper and wrote down a long telegram which I sent off... She sent it to Maritzburg to catch him at the mass meeting this afternoon. It was to the effect that her personal sympathy was intense but that she would venture to advise patience. It would not do to alienate sympathy and even endanger the very cause itself. Could he not wait until the meeting of Parliament before having recourse to further resistance? Even yet English women had not achieved full freedom. She used much gentler language than this, but that was the gist of it. She told him also that everything was being followed with much sympathy and feeling.”

When Gandhi agreed to the postponement of the march, Miss Hobhouse wrote a long letter to General Smuts recalling her special connection with India through her uncle. She said that as a woman without a vote, she sympathised with other voteless folk as the Indians. She then pressed him to meet and talk to Gandhi:

“You see January 15 is the date now proposed for another march. Before then some way should be found of giving private assurance to the leaders that satisfaction is coming to them. Their grievance is really moral... never will governmental physical force prevail against a great moral and spiritual upheaval. Wasted time and wasted energy, dear Oom Jannie...”

General Smuts could not possibly ignore an appeal from her. On his invitation, Gandhi went to Pretoria on January 9. C.F. Andrews, who accompanied Gandhi to Pretoria, wrote:

“There can be no doubt that during the days that followed the influence of Miss Hobhouse with the Boer leaders did much to pave the way to a reconciliation. While we were in Pretoria she wrote again and again both to Mr. Gandhi and myself. She thus kept herself in touch with the whole negotiations and took part in them.”8

Gandhi was surprised to see a great change in the attitude of General Smuts. Negotiations were delayed by a railway strike but soon after it ended, a provisional agreement was reached quickly and signed on January 22.

Gandhi and Kasturba went to Cape Town in mid-February to bid farewell to C.F. Andrews and to follow the developments on the Indian question. Kasturba's condition deteriorated and gave cause for grave concern.
Miss Molteno and Miss Greene frequently visited the Gandhis at the home of Dr A.H. Gool where they stayed and enquired about her health. Miss Moletno introduced Gandhi to many influential personalities. She arranged for the Gandhis to meet Miss Hobhouse who was staying at Groote Schuur, the residence of Prime Minister Louis Botha. There they met Mrs Botha, as well as Mrs Gladstone, wife of the Governor-General, who were both friendly and considerate.

Gandhi had written many times to General Botha for an interview but without success. But a few days after meeting the Gandhis, Miss Hobhouse invited Gandhi again for a discussion at Groote Schuur—and General and Mrs Botha joined them.

When the Indian Relief Bill came before Parliament it was reported that Prime Minister Botha threatened to resign if the Bill was not passed.9 Why did he take the adoption of a Bill to end injustices to a small, voteless and vulnerable community as a matter of vital importance? Was he thinking of Miss Hobhouse and the meeting with Gandhi which arose out of the “silent suffering” of Kasturba?

When Miss Hobhouse died, Gandhi wrote in an obituary in Young India on July 15, 1926:

“She played no mean part at the settlement of 1914...
“Let the women of India treasure the memory of this great Englishwoman.”


1. Pragji Desai, “Satyagraha in South Africa” in Chandra-shanker Shukla (ed.) Reminiscences of Gandhiji. Bombay: Vora & Co., 1951.

2. Gandhi made an error in Satyagraha in South Africa, written from memory in prison many years later, in stating that he had spoken to Kasturba after other women in Phoenix had agreed to court imprisonment. He wrote to Gokhale on April 19, 1913: “Mrs. Gandhi made the offer on her own initiative…” Raojibhai M. Patel, an inmate of the Ashram and a member of the first batch of satyagrahis from Phoenix, was present during the conversation between Gandhi and Katsurba. He wrote in Gandhiji ki Sadhana (second edition) that he had pointed out the error to Gandhi and that Gandhi agreed, after consulting Kasturba, to correct the text.

3. He addressed a mass meeting in Maritzburg on December 22 and 5000 workers went on strike the next day.

4. Cable to Gokhale, December 26, 1913.

5. C.F. Andrews, who had been sent by Gokhale to South Africa to assist the Indians, informed Gandhi that Europeans had told him: “If the Indians go out again, there will be shooting.” C.F. Andrews, “Mr Gandhi and the Commission” in Modern Review, Calcutta, July 1914.

6. Please see my article “Some Remarkable European Women who Helped Gandhiji” in E.S. Reddy, Gandhiji: Vision of a Free South Africa. Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1995. It may be accessed at http://www. mkgandhi.org/ebks/Gandhijis_vision_of_free_south_africa-.pdf

7. C.F. Andrews, “Mr. Gandhi at Phoenix” in Modern Review, Calcutta, May 1914.

8. Gandhi said in a speech in Kimberley on July 2, 1914: “General Botha, it must be admitted, has done much for us, seeing that, for the sake of a community as docile as the Indians, he threatened to resign if the Bill was not passed.”

The author, a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, was the Director of the UN Centre Against Apartheid for more than 20 years. He has been a close friend of many leading figures in the African liberation struggle.

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