DEVI RAJAB South African Indian Women in the Struggle: From pots to politics

1917 marks the end of indenture proclaimed by the Viceroy of India a century ago, finds us still struggling with its aftermath. Little is known about this period in the lives of our ancestors. Who were we as a people outside of a stereotype? Today we are labelled as the people of the Guptas, rich capitalists involved in state capture. But history reveals another face and this is why it is so important to clear fact from fiction. The contribution of South African Indians in the struggle against apartheid is not widely known in contemporary South Africa today particularly among the youth. Even less recognised is the part played by Indian women in the struggle. Little is known of their role in the Indian resistance movements as they fought alongside their men to change the course of history. As recently as 1996 when the Indian Government honoured a young 16 year old martyr of the South African freedom struggle, Ms Valliammah Munusamy Moodaliar who died soon after her imprisonment for resisting apartheid, few South Africans knew her story. Buried in the Braamfontein cemetery she lies unrecognised not far from where President Mandela unveiled a memorial stone to Enoch Sontonga, composer of the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelele’ iAfrika.

Valiamma from Aunty Ela
Ms Valliammah Munusamy Moodaliar

According to Professor Uma Mesthrie, the exclusive political focus and neglect of social history has given rise to a situation where only a small fraction of the Indian population has been acknowledged. As women did not play a formal role in the Indian political organisations at least until the late 1930s, their presence in history books and in collective memories remains noticeably absent. Indeed, the widely prevalent image of the Indian woman as being a passive and traditionally subservient dependent supported the general non acknowledgement of her valuable contributions.

It was Gandhi the revolutionary leader who brought a dramatic change in the role and status of Indian women in South Africa and in India when at his bidding they came out in large numbers from the shelters of their homes to play their part in the struggle for freedom of their respective countries. Indian women first entered the struggle in 1913 by way of an open invitation from officials of the Satyagraha Association to join their men in retaliation to the Searle judgement which invalidated all non-Christian marriages. By a stroke of a pen all Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian marriage rites were declared null and void. This meant that all married Indian women in South Africa were reduced to the status of concubines whilst their progeny were classified illegitimate and deprived of all their rights of inheritance. Understandably the cause was an emotive one on the grounds of the social and moral implications for Indian families. The honour of India’s womanhood had been insulted. The ruling started a storm of protest especially since it imposed additional legal disabilities on Indian women, who were roused in great numbers to join Gandhiji’s passive resistance campaign. In uncharacteristically strident behaviour the women relinquished their traditional roles as homemakers to join the struggle against their oppression. And in doing so they startled contemporary observers in the process.

In 1913 the year of the mass resistance of African and Coloured women of the Orange Free State against passes, Indian women joined the last stage of the Satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Behind the scenes however were numerous unsung heroines who are deserving of recognition and honour. The first to join were the women, mainly Tamil speaking from Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal. With babies in their arms they entered the struggle and sought arrest despite the risks of imprisonment and physical hardship to such participation. Close behind them followed the women from Phoenix Settlement who were mainly Gujarati. Muslim women also joined the struggle. The issues at stake were the abolition of the 3 pound tax which directly affected the indentured labourer, the permit system and the immigration law which prohibited Indians from moving between provinces and the non-recognition of marriages solemnised in India by religious rites.

In the struggle that followed, women played a glorious part. A batch of women from Tolstoy farm crossed the border into Natal in defiance of the immigration law which prohibited Indians from moving between provinces. When left unhindered by the authorities they went as instructed by Gandhi to the mines and urged the indentured labourers to stop work. They succeeded in inducing some 3000 to 4000 miners in the Newcastle area to go on strike. On the 23rd September, 1913 according to plan, sixteen women were arrested for crossing the border and entering the Transvaal without permits. They were tried and sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour in Pietermaritzburg jail.

Among the group were Kasturba Gandhi, two of their close relatives who lived in the Phoenix settlement, Mrs Kashi Chaganlal Gandhi and Mrs Santok Maganlal Gandhi and Miss Jayakunvar Mehta daughter of a close friend of Gandhi. Of note also was the contribution made by an illiterate mother of five children, Mrs L Govender who took the lead in organising local women against the black market in food. The Guardian reported: “Mrs Govender …is symbolic of a growing political consciousness of the Indian working class women in Natal…..”

These events stirred the heart of the Indian community in South Africa and in India. The women’s bravery was beyond words. In jail they were harassed, poorly treated and abused. Their food was of the worst and their dietary taboos were largely ignored. Many grew ill in the process and one brave 16 year old died of a fever a few days after her release on the 22nd February 1914. Gandhi recalls her thus in his book, “Satyagraha in South Africa”:[i]

“ How can I forget her? Valliama R Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only sixteen years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold” Recalling his conversation with her he recounts:

“Valliamma, you do not repent of having gone to jail?” I asked

“Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested.”she said.

“But what if it results in your death” I pursued.

“ I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland ?

The contributions of these brave women have to be seen in the context of the historical and social period in which they lived. Set against this backdrop their struggle takes on an even greater importance. That these women resisters helped to transform the Satyagraha into a powerful mass resistance movement in which ten thousand people from a small community went to prison and 60 000 workers went on strike in what was described as the largest general strike in South Africa at that time, is truly remarkable. The major demands on which the Satyagraha struggle had been waged were conceded to the Indians thus declaring the campaign a victory. The role that women played in this intervention was a source of great pride to the community and a victory for women generally.

Once more the women came to the fore again in response to a national call to join the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946 when the Government passed the segregationist Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act that effectively prohibited Indians from procuring land in controlled areas.


Addressing a gathering of about 800 women at the Avalon cinema in Durban in June 1946, a Passive Resister, Ms Zainab Asvat who had been arrested the previous night and released later, unwavering in purpose ignited the fervour of the crowd thus: “ Let us pledge that we shall continue the task which we have undertaken. We have sown the seed of our struggle; let it not perish; let us water it with our heart’s blood; let us pledge:‘ long live resistance’

Speaking in Tamil, Mrs Veeramah Pather, who took part in the Passive Resistance at the time of Gandhi said that though individuals would disappear from the mortal scene, the struggle would go on. Speaking in Urdu, Ms Khatija Mayat urged all Indian women to heed the call of the Transvaal and the Natal Indian Congress to support the battle against the Ghetto Act. The Indian people were virtually at war with the South African Government, declared Dr K. Goonam. Ms Zohra Meer, a representative of the Indian Women’s Action Committee appealed to all , the womenfolk in particular to join in the struggle and play their part.

Ms Z Gool of Capetown stated, “ South Africa is witnessing the real beginning of a national struggle which is still in it’s infancy. Therefore I plead to the women to come out boldly, because without them, our struggle will be weakened”.[ii]

In response to these calls hundreds of men, women and even children went to prison. In turn their determination in the face of brutal assaults spurred the community thus swelling the ranks of volunteers. From the point of view of its effect on Indian women the Passive Resistance Campaign was an important politicizing event.

The Indian community in South Africa has much to thank their womenfolk for the valuable and crucial role that they played towards the liberation of their people. In relinquishing their traditional role to don the mantle of resistance, they sacrificed their material comforts for a higher order principal so succinctly captured in the words of the great Valliamah “……who would not want to die for one’s own motherland?”

Dr Devi Moodley Rajab (Writer, psychologist and journalist)



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