The Indians in South Africa had long lived under the shadow of government policy that considered them as aliens against whom it was legitimate to discriminate. In one of their exchanges, Jan Smuts told Gandhi bluntly, ‘Your civilisation is different from ours. Ours must not be overwhelmed by yours. That is why we must go in for legislation which must in effect put disabilities on you.’ Yet the government did not have a free hand. Commonwealth ties, pressure by the government in India and the Indian Agent in South Africa, and after 1945 the United Nations, together with local Indian protests and resistance, all put pressure on successive governments. The result was a policy towards Indians that was confusing and contradictory, and satisfied no one.
The government’s ideal solution would have been wholesale repatriation, but in the early 1920s an average of only 2 500 Indians left per year. At that point there were some 141 000 Indians living in Natal and 15 000 in the Transvaal. To placate the voters the Smuts government intended to segregate Indian trade and landownership, but he refused to give the Natal provincial government its way when it passed an ordinance abolishing the Indian municipal franchise. After 1924 the new Pact government passed the ordinance into law. The Indians were now completely disenfranchised.
In 1927 Dr D.F. Malan, on behalf of the Pact government, unexpectedly signed the Cape Town Agreement with the government of India. It offered some hope to Indians, although it was decidedly ambiguous. On the one hand, the Union government undertook to introduce a scheme of assisted emigration to India; on the other, it committed itself to settle the Indian question in a manner that ‘would safeguard the maintenance of Western standards of life in South Africa by just and legitimate means’.
It stated that the Union government ‘like every civilised Government’ had the duty to take all viable steps ‘for the upliftment of every section of their permanent population’. It further asserted that the ‘considerable section of the Indian community who will remain part of the permanent population should not be allowed to lag behind other sections of the population’.
To give effect to ‘upliftment’, the government undertook to launch an inquiry into the ‘admittedly grave situation’ of Indian education and to improve the facilities for Indians at the South African Native College in Fort Hare. It also would investigate housing and sanitary conditions in Durban.
Critics pointed out that in signing the agreement Dr Malan implicitly made the promise of upliftment conditional on growing numbers of Indians leaving. The latter did not happen, and discrimination continued but it was no longer possible to state categorically, as Malan did in 1922, that the Indians were an alien element. Using gaps in the law and the contradictions in the system of oppression, the Indians managed to take what chances there were. G.H. Calpin in his book Indians in South Africa, published in 1949, noted:
Indians in South Africa often wonder whether it is not a disadvantage to be British subjects. They still feel, however, that to be British subjects in South Africa is preferable to being British subjects in India. Indeed after the Cape Town Agreement they settled down with a sense of security they had never before enjoyed . . . Some might have very vague ideas of what constituted Western standards of life, and the European example was not always good, but there was no doubt of their willingness no acquire the qualifications set for them and meet the demands made on them.
Education played a major role in the efforts at upliftment and private Indian initiatives formed an extraordinary part of the progress that was made as a result of education and training. Christian missionaries had started the first school for Indians in 1869, but schools established by the Indian community soon exceeded the number of mission schools. It was the Indian community that provided the local funds for their schools under the grants-in-aid system – unlike the coloured and black communities who relied on churches and missionary societies, and the whites who received their education virtually free from the state.
In the first half of the twentieth century four-fifths of the Indian schools in Natal were state-aided but the Indian community provided the sites and building for the schools. It was strong community support that made possible the establishment in 1930 of Sastri College, the first Indian high school in Natal. A large donation by Hajee M.L. Sultan went a long way to the founding of a technical college.
Despite the Cape Town Agreement, discrimination continued. The Durban City Council passed an ordinance denying Indians the right to purchase land the municipality owned.
Municipalities refused to issue trading licenses. The civilised labour policy was used to reduce the number of Indians employed on the railways from 3 000 in 1920 to 500 in the decade after the Pact government came to power. In the Transvaal the policy was a jigsaw puzzle making it very difficult for Indians to know where, outside their own ‘locations’, they could live, trade and own property. Yet despite the obstacles they could progress, particularly in Natal where Indians could own property anywhere from the early 1940s.