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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Fifty Years Ago: Indian Women’s Demonstration in Pretoria on Human Rights Day 1963

Sunday 29 December 2013


by E.S. Reddy


Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1963, police unleashed dogs against Indian women who came to Pretoria in a peaceful demonstration to present a petition to the South African Government against the Group Areas Act.

People in South Africa were perhaps too preoccupied to pay sufficient attention to this crime of the apartheid regime—two months after Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the people were charged in the Rivonia Trial. There was no international reaction as the news was hardly reported abroad.

I had been appointed in March that year as the Principal Secretary of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. I did all I could to promote condemnation of apart-heid and escalating repression, arms embargo against South Africa and denunciation of the Rivonia Trial by the United Nations. But by the time I received South African newspapers reporting the Indian women’s demonstration, the UN General Assembly had concluded discussion of apartheid in South Africa and delegates were preparing to return home. There was little I could do except to include a brief account of the event in the next report of the Special Committee.

I was outraged by the event and it has remained in my memory since then. I admired the heroism of the women who participated in the demonstration, knowing fully well the inhumanity of the apartheid state. Their courage reminded me of the bravery of the Indian women in 1913—of Kasturba and other relatives of Gandhi, and of two Muslim women who discarded the purdah to defy racist oppression, and were sentenced to three months with hard labour. And of some forty Indian women from the Transvaal who exhorted the Indian workers of Natal to stage an unprece-dented general strike to protest against an unjust and cruel tax; they also suffered three months with hard labour with Kasturba under miserable conditions in the Maritzburg Women’s Prison. And of the heroines of the 1946 Indian passive resistance, some of whom participated in the 1963 demonstration.

In tribute to them, I have put together the information I could collect on the demons-tration of December 10, 1963 so that this event in the heritage of the people of South Africa, and of Indian women in that country, is not forgotten. I wish to thank the late Mrs Amina Cachalia and Gabriele Mohale at the Wits University library for providing me with most of the newspaper clippings which form the basis of the account which follows.

The demonstration was led by Dr Zainab Asvat, daughter of Ebrahim Asvat, a well-to-do merchant who courted imprisonment in the satyagraha of 1906-14. He remained a militant all his life and served as the Chairman of the Non-European United Front in the Transvaal in the late 1930s, with Dr Yusuf M. Dadoo as the Secretary. Zainab herself left her medical studies to join the passive resistance in 1946 as a member of the first batch and remained undaunted though bleeding from assault by the White hooligans. Her sister and brother-in-law—Amina Cachalia and Yusuf Cachalia—could only watch in silence as women got together in Fordsburg for the ride to Pretoria; they had been served stringent banning orders a few months earlier.

The day after the demonstration Zainab herself was served with banning orders. She had to go into exile in London.

There were other women in the demonstration whose families had similar history of heroism. To mention only two, there was Manonmoney Naidoo, wife of an adopted son of Gandhi and member of a family which participated in the freedom struggle for five generations. And Maniben Sita, daughter of the great Gandhian Nana Sita, whose family too contributed several freedom fighters.

It has been the privilege of the Indian community that not only individuals and but families participated in the struggle for freedom of all the people of South Africa.

1963—A Year of Crisis

1963 was a crucial year in South African history.

The apartheid Parliament enacted the “90-day law” authorising the regime to detain people incommunicado for 90 days at a time without access to families or lawyers. Hundreds of people suspected of underground activities against the regime were detained. They were at the mercy of policemen of the “Special Branch” who had been trained in torture.

The regime hoped to extract confessions and suppress the underground movement—especially Umkhonto we Sizwe of the ANC which had been responsible for several hundred acts of sabotage at government buildings and other installations, as well as Poqo, associated with the Pan Africanist Congress, which resorted to violence in the Cape.

The regime achieved some successes. Poqo was dealt a heavy blow and many of its members were hanged. Leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe were captured at Rivonia on July 11. Mandela, the leader, had already been in prison since early August 1962. The regime brought them to trial in October 1963 under the “Sabotage Act” which provided for the death penalty.

The Group Areas Act was being enforced, uprooting communities of non-White people from their homes in order to remove non-Whites from the centre of cities and towns, and segregate them by “race”. The Indian people suffered most under this Act. Many Indians were traders or were employed by the traders. They could carry on little trade in the segregated Indian locations.

Members of the Indian community in the Transvaal observed November 15, 1963 as “a day of anguish and sorrow in thousands of homes”. A statement issued in that connection said that Indians were entering “a moment of crisis” caused by the Group Areas Act and that it was “a solemn and religious duty to say that mass uprooting of people, no matter what colour, is against all moral and religious scruples”.

More than one hundred Indian school children in Johannesburg were caned for having stayed away from classes on November 15.

Earlier that year, the Government Indian High School in Johannesburg was closed in order to force the Indian families to move to Lenasia. A parents’ committee, with Ahmed Kathrada as secretary, set up the Central Indian High School—with a faculty including several leaders of the liberation movement— and many of the students later became prominent in the liberation struggle at home and abroad.

The regime was at the same time creating separate institutions for different sections of the population in order to entrench White domination. The Africans were to have “parlia-0ments” for each ethnic group in scattered reserves combined into what came to be called “bantustans”. The Coloured people and the Indians would have their councils. These councils would have very limited powers while the White Parliament would continue to rule the country.

The Indians were traditionally against such apartheid institutions. They denounced token representation by Whites in the Parliament, which was offered to them in the “Ghetto Act” of 1946, and it had to be abandoned, while Africans and Coloured people took part in elections for similar representation. No Indian could be found serving on the Advisory Board proposed by the government in 1946, while African leaders continued for many years to serve on the Natives’ Representative Council, an advisory body.

The regime recognised that it could not hold elections for an Indian Council because of opposition of the community. Instead, it called over a hundred handpicked Indians to a meeting on December 10-11 to “consult” on the setting up of an Indian Council composed of members nominated by the regime. The meeting was held in Laudium, a segregated location for Indians in Pretoria, and was opened by W.A. Maree, Minister of Indian Affairs.

The Demonstration

The Transvaal Indian Women’s Association called on women to go to Pretoria on Tuesday, December 10, to demonstrate against the imposition of the Group Areas Act and the conference with unrepresentative Indians.

That date was chosen as it was the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 and was proclaimed as the Human Rights Day. The delegation of South Africa was one of the few who did not vote for that historic document.

On December 9, the Association sent a letter to the Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, requesting an interview. It said that the Group Areas Act and “the policy of apartheid in relation to the Indian people” was causing grave concern and agitation in the Indian community.

“As mothers and women we face a bleak future.

“Under the Group Areas Act our people are being deprived of their homes, means of livelihood and property.

“Hundreds of families in Johannesburg, Pretoria and other parts of the province are living under notice and the force of law is being applied to drive us into isolated ghettoes....

“The policy of Group Areas is bringing misery, loss of self-respect and human dignity, poverty and squalor.

“We have no confidence in the Minister of Indian Affairs. He is impotent to redress our just and legitimate grievances. Instead of meeting the demands of the Indian people he is looking for ‘yes-men’ and stooges to implement the policy of apartheid against our unanimous wishes.”

About five hundred Indian women from all over the Transvaal, some carrying babies, arrived in Pretoria on December 10, on what was called a pilgrimage, wearing white saris as a sign of mourning. They met at a temple in the Asiatic Bazaar for prayers. They said in the prayers:

“Oh, God, grant us understanding, wisdom, guidance and love. We have gathered here to beseech Thee, God, to give us strength against unjust laws that deny us human dignity and self-respect.”

Several policemen were seen moving among them and taking notes.

After the prayers, the women went to the Union Buildings in buses. Each woman carried a letter to the Prime Minister with her signature. It read:

“The ruthless application of apartheid is causing grave concern to our people. Its implementation in the form of group areas, job reservation and other measures involves loss of homes, impoverishment and assault on our dignity and self-respect.

“As a woman, I request you to take steps that will restore security to a people whose only ‘crime’ is colour and race.

“Significantly, my representation to you is on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day. A change of policy on your part might even restore confidence and respect for our country throughout the world.”

Police tried to prevent the women from leaving the buses. But many of them managed to break through the police cordon shortly after noon and rushed to the West Gate of the Union Buildings leading to the offices of the Ministers.

When Mrs. Z. Saley of Krugersdorp was running to the Union Buildings, a police dog knocked her to the ground and she fainted.

Finding the gate locked, the women threw their memoranda through the gate and began to sing and shout slogans asking to see the Prime Minister. They were perhaps unaware that the Prime Minister was in Cape Town.

Police warned them to move to the other side of the road. They moved and sat down under the trees on that hot day. Soon, the police brought reinforcements and about ten police dogs with their handlers.

The dogs grabbed and pulled the saris of the women and several saris were torn.

“Mrs. Hava Saloojee, a 40-year-old Johannes-burg woman, said she was bitten by a dog on the right arm. Miss Tilly Shireen, a deaf and dumb girl from Nigel, had a scratch on the left foot after a dog had leapt on her.

“Another dog leapt and pulled Miss Sayboon Motala, of Johannesburg, by her dress. But she escaped unscathed.

“A woman who was being pushed in the stomach pleaded: ‘Please, I am expecting. Don’t push me around like that.’

“Miss Hajara Asvat was arrested as the woman was entering the grounds of the Union Buildings. But later, she was released after her name and address had been taken by the police.

“The women generally, remained calm and restrained and chanted: ‘We just want to see Dr Verwoerd.’” (Post, December 15, 1963).

The women left after 2.00 pm and returned to their buses.

E.S. Reddy, an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations for many years, served in the UN Secretariat for 35 years since 1949. From 1963 to 1984 he was the UN official in charge of action against apartheid, first as the Principal Secretary of the Special Committee Against Apartheid and then as the Director of the Centre Against Apartheid; he turned the Centre into an indispensable resource for the anti-apartheid movement.

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