South African Indians in the LIBERATION STRUGGLE by Nirode Bramdaw

While reflecting on the birth of the African National Congress on January 8th 1912, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi hailed its formation as “the awakening of Africa”.

More than a century ago, Gandhi had already become a world-renowned activist against the forces of Colonialism and oppression, having been involved in organising labour and passive resistance campaigns against the pass laws and immigration restrictions.

He was central to the formation of the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, 18 years prior to the formation of the African National Congress.

In fact, some historians argue that his peaceful revolution and his public calls to the African majority, whom he called “the sons of the soil”, to stand up against the White oppressors, gave rise to the social discontent that eventually saw the formation of the African National Congress.

Mohandas Gandhi with his wife Kasturbai in Johannesburg in 1914.

It is a recorded fact that Pixley ka Seme, who was tasked with convening all the African organisations for the Bloemfontein meeting, held a lengthy meeting with Gandhi in 1911, at which Gandhi shared with him the motives of the passive resistance campaign and the workings of the Natal Indian Congress.

On July 29th 1911, Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion, reported an interview with Seme on the progress of plans for the conference, which was held in Bloemfontein from 8 to 11 January 1912.

The conference established the South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress). The Reverend John Langalibalele Dube of Natal, founder of the Ohlange Industrial School, was elected President in his absence.

Dube then sent a letter to “Chiefs and Gentlemen of the South African Native National Congress” accepting the honour and published it in his newspaper Ilanga lase Natal on February 2, 1912.

The following year, saw the passing of the Native Land Act and 1913 was also the year of passive resistance by African, Coloured and Indian people in South Africa.

In June, African and Coloured women in the Free State began passive resistance against a new law requiring them to carry passes. They were supported by the SANNC. The authorities were eventually forced to abandon passes for women.

A few weeks later, in September, the Indian community began resistance, especially against an onerous £3 tax imposed on Indian indentured labourers on the completion of their contracts and the non-recognition of Indian marriages. It developed into a general strike involving tens of thousands of workers in the mines, cane fields, and railways. This campaign was also significant for the participation of women and their heroism.

Passive resistance and participation of women in the struggle for freedom became a common heritage of South Africa and India.

Gandhi was central to the organisation of the Great March of 1913 in which some 6000 Indians walked into the then Transvaal via Volksrust in defiance of the ban on Indians entering the province, thereby courting imprisonment.

One of the more famous martyrs of this campaign was 16-year-old Valliamma Munuswami, who succumbed to the hardship of imprisonment and lost her life as part of this campaign.

In the meanwhile two young medical students had crossed paths in Edinburgh.

After completing his university entrance Gangathura Mohambry ‘Monty’ Naicker enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. It was on the campus of Edinburgh that he encountered another South African medical student, Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo from Krugersdorp; together with whom he was destined to leave an indelible mark on the liberation of South Africa.

The two witnessed first-hand the effects on the depression on the working class in Britain and of the international struggle against fascism. Both Monty Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo learnt valuable lessons about mass struggle from their experiences in Britain.

On their return to South Africa in the mid-1930s Dadoo and Naicker led a campaign that wrested control of the South African Indian Congress from the more cautious and merchant-class leaders, AI Kajee and PR Pather; marking the dawn of a new era of resistance.

monty and dadoo
Dr. Monty Naicker and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo on their return to South Africa.

On being elected Presidents of the Transvaal Indian Congress and Natal Indian Congress respectively, Dadoo and Naicker forged the `politics of alliance’ and together with the African National Congress’ then President, Dr AB Xuma, formed the 1947 Doctor’s Pact, in which the three organisations pledged to work together to overcome the forces of apartheid.

The Pact aimed to “(a) consolidate Indo-African co-operation that had already been forged in the struggle for freedom and emancipation; and (b) endeavor to strengthen further co-operation between the Indian people, the Coloured people and the European democrats.”

In 1950 the racist regime banned the Communist Party and with that promulgated the Suppression of Communism Act, under which several Indian leaders were placed under house arrest. Those included Dawood Seedat, Monty Naicker, JN Singh, Yusuf Cachalia, Yusuf Dadoo, Debi Singh and Cassim Amra.

In 1952 the Mass Defiance Campaign brought together all the forces of liberation against the regime’s unjust laws. Hundreds of comrades were arrested and imprisoned during the campaign.

The launch of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1954 saw long serving Indian union leaders like HA Naidoo, PM Harry, George Poonen and Billy Nair rise into leadership.

mabhida and monty
The SACTU Delegation to the Congress of the People in June 1955. Seen with Monty Naicker is Moses Mabhida (front) and Unionist, Melville Fletcher (right). The `Thumbs-Up’ symbol of resistance (Mayibuye iAfrica!) was banned. You could be jailed for three months if you are caught doing this gesture. The people replaced it with the clenched fist symbol (Amandla Awethu!).


With the Congress of the People in 1955 Indian comrades again came to the fore with North Coast leader Gopalal Hurbans largely accredited with the authorship of the Freedom Charter.

Walter Sisulu and Yusuf Cachalia were the joint secretaries of the Convening Council for the Congress of the People.

This saw the formation of the Congress Alliance which brought together the ANC, the SAIC, the Coloured Peoples’ Congress, the Congress of Democrats (comprising progressive Whites), and SACTU.

phyliss naidoo
MD and Phyllis Naidoo with their children Sadhan, Shah and Sukhthi. Sadhan was killed by an apartheid agent in Lusaka and Shah died in South Africa in an unsuccessful medical operation.

The regime acted vindictively against this new formed unity and arrested as many as 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance. In the famous Treason Trial of 1956 leaders Ahmed Kathrada, Ismail Meer, Chota Motala, Yusuf Dadoo, Kay Munsamy, Billy Nair, MP Naicker and Monty Naicker were detained.

With the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe some Indian cadres were enlisted into the armed struggle. Amongst them rank Indres Naidoo, Reggie Vandayar and Sirish Nanabhai. They were arrested, severely tortured and sentenced to a decade in prison each.

In Natal Billy Nair and Ebrahim Ebrahim were the regional command of MK. In the first sabotage in Natal of the 18 arrested, 9 were Indian cadres. Arising out of this arrest Billy Nair was given a 20-year sentence, Ebrahim Ebrahim 15 years and Nato Barbenia 16 years. Others also imprisoned included Sunny Singh, George Naicker, Siva Pillay, Kay Moonsamy and Kisten Dorasamy.

In the Rivonia Trial, Ahmed Kathrada was given a life sentence and in the ‘Mini Rivonia Trial’ that followed, Mac Maharaj, Lalloo Chiba, MD Naidoo, M Pather and Salim Essop were also imprisoned.

The ANC continued to organize in exile and formed the Revolutionary Council with Oliver Tambo as its chairman and Yusuf Dadoo as the vice-chairman.

Others in exile that played a yeoman role included Abdul Minty, MP Naicker, Phyllis Naidoo, Kader Asmal, Essop Pahad and Aziz Pahad.

On the sporting front George Singh played a significant role with Hassan Howa in ensuring South Africa’s isolation from international sport. MN Pather and Morgan Naidoo also rose to the leadership of SACOS and were disciplined cadres and effective leaders.

1971 saw the revival of the Natal Indian Congress with Mewa Ramgobin, Rabi Bagwandeen, George Sewpershad, Paul David and Ela Gandhi playing a pivotal role.

In the 70s the regime became increasingly brutal and saw to the death in detention of young MK cadre Ahmed Timol, whilst his comrades Mohammed Essop and Amina Desai were detained.

The 70’s also saw the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement in which Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper played a leadership role. Rounded up in the regime’s clampdown on the BCM were several activists including Fatima Meer, Govin Reddy, Yunus Carrim and Lloyd Padayachee.

pmb activists
Pietermaritzburg activists lead a service delivery and rates protest in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile the NIC had set up civic formations to take on the regime around service delivery – especially housing, for which the Indian community were held in a ruthless grip of unending rentals. Taking this battle to the door of the state were community activists Pravin Gordhan, Sharm Maharaj, Roy Padayachie and Yunus Mahomed.

These activists played a leading role in organizing the Indian community against the sham Tricameral Parliament in which less than 10% of the population voted.

In the Transvaal, the campaign against the Tricameralists was led by Mohammed Valli Moosa, Ismail Momoniat, Feroze Cachalia and Azhar Cachalia. This young batch of cadres worked under the guidance of Essop Jasat, Cassim Saloojee, Ramlal Bhoola, Lalloo Chiba and Reggie Vandayar.

dr goonam
Anti apartheid activist Dr Kesaveloo Goonam speaks at an Anti-Tricameral Election Rally.

With the growth of civic structures, the Anti-SAIC Conference in Johannesburg in 1983 a decision was taken to bring as many local, civic, community and other organisations under one national umbrella. Extensive preparations were made for the launch of the United Democratic Front which had 600 affiliates and made one of its main objectives, to oppose the Tricameral Elections.

Those Indian comrades amongst the UDF leadership included Judge Zac Yacoob, Prof Jerry Coovadia, George Sewpershad, MJ Naidoo, Farouk Meer and Paul David.

The NIC in the meantime had become the ground for internal dissent, which saw the departure of older comrades MJ Naidoo and Ramlal Ramesar.

The 1980s marked Botha’s Rubicon Speech and the liberation struggle had to endure even stiffer opposition.

MK Natal commanders Ebrahim Ebrahim and Billy Nair on their release from Robben Island and their return to Durban, being welcomed by activists S’bu Ndebele and JN Singh (right).

The reaction to this was MK’s Operation Butterfly which included cadres Ivan Pillay, Mo Shaik, Abba Omar, Pravin Gordhan and Dr Vijay Ramluckan.

At this time also the state carried out attacks on installations across our borders and killed MK cadres Lenny Naidoo and Krishna Rabilal amongst scores of others.

Iqbal Shaik was a very successful MK cadre and had operated effectively for more than a decade without being arrested.

derrick naidoo
MK cadre Derek Naidoo who was arrested for Operation Butterfly and imprisoned on Robben Island.

Vijay Ramlakan, Derek Naidoo and Jude Francis were arrested and incarcerated on Robben Island. Yusuf Akhalwaya and Prakash Napier were MK cadres who operated for over 2 years before being killed in an explosion.

Ismail Aboobaker and Mac Maharaj provided excellent strategic leadership to the younger MK cadres.

The mass campaign was given a huge thrust with the inclusion of Cosatu in defiance campaigns and under the leadership of then General Secretary Jay Naidoo, the liberation struggle gained in leaps and bounds.

With the unbanning of the ANC and the coming together of the regime and the liberation movement for negotiations, Pravin Gordhan emerged as the chair of Codesa and the ANC counted in its negotiation ranks the talents of Kader Asmal, Mac Maharaj, Mohammed Valli Moosa and Dullah Omar.

In the first democratically-elected cabinet of South Africa were Jay Naidoo, Essop Pahad, Mac Maharaj, Dullah Omar, Kader Asmal, Mohammed Valli Moosa and Aziz Pahad. The Speaker of the first democratic parliament was Frene Ginwala and the first Chief Justice was Ismail Mohamed.

thumba pillay
Retired Judge Thumba Pillay with Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale at a Diwali celebration in Durban.

The overall contribution by the Indian community to date has been very significant – in fact one that far outweighs the small size of the population.

The Indian community has produced outstanding leaders of the ANC and individual Indians continue to make a very meaningful contribution to the reconstruction and development of South Africa.

As this is to be encouraged into the future, so too should the role of the Coloured and white communities in ensuring a democratic dispensation in South Africa. Every effort must be made to forge this non-racilaism that the ANC is founded on, every day and in every way.

By Nirode Bramdaw, writer, author and Honorary Consul of the Republic of Mauritius in Durban


Photographs from the Bramdaw Archives


  1. Nirode
    Its wonderful to keep history alive.
    Let’s revisit The Leader archives.
    Let’s not forget your gran, Sarawati, who kept The Leader alive under difficult circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good work, Nirode. This is a beginning and a good one, as it covers in broad brush strokes, the central role of Indian S Africans in the struggle. The full history of the SA Indian role in the liberation of SA has yet to be written. I pray that it is done soon to dispel notions of stereotype and to get across this vital information. In the absence of information, the vacuum created is filled with speculation and mischief making!

      I was fortunate to find a copy of a very thick book called “Cutting Through the Mountain”, the story of the Jewish contribution to the struggle. Yet in comparison, there were a relatively small number of Jewish activists, whereas Indians numbered in their thousands. Some believe that the Indians, relative to the small size of its population, contributed the largest component of activists of any population group! I believe that this is not so far from the truth.

      It is a history of resistance that has to include some of first acts of resistance of the over 16 000 Indian slaves at the Cape. In the 1800s more than 300 participated in a protest strike near Malmesbury. Eight leaders were tortured to death by having their flesh gouged out with red hot-metal tongs! Importantly, there were thousands of acts of sabotage by individuals and groups who destroyed tools and used a range of go-slow tactics against the plantation owners.

      The Black Consciousness era threw up a host of Indian activists on all the campuses and gave rise to a range of self-help organisations that played a catalytic role in political consciousness raising. Hundreds, if not thousands groomed in this era, swelled the ranks of the UDF and the MDM.

      Then there is the role of the those in exile who carried the struggle to the global stage so effectively, creating the very first international movement of resistance against Apartheid SA.

      I pray that whatever publication that emerges does not fall into the trap of regurgitating the names of a the ‘popular’ leaders at the expense of those many thousands who gave so much ‘muscle’ to the struggle. These were the backroom workers in far-flung corners of the planet who worked tirelessly, cutting support for Apartheid and building solidarity across continents.

      My observations must be seen, not as criticism, but as a guiding voice of an elder committed to democracy at every level. Perhaps the Heritage Centre can put together a team to contribute to such a publication. I am prepared to help.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Many thanks for your constructive input Prits. This article was commissioned by the ANC in 2012 on their Centenary Year. I had space constraints so as you correctly surmised, its a broad brushstroke effort. I welcome any further inputs from those I may have omitted in order to do a more comprehensive account and perhaps a book like the one the Jewish community has done.


    2. Hi Nirode

      Great work!! The picture of Ebrahim Ebrahim, Billy Nair and Sbu Ndebele was taken in 1991 when Ebrahim Ebrahim was released after his second spell on the Island. I am with EB now and he confirms this.

      Billy Nair was released in February 1984.

      Best wishes


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Many thanks for the correction Ravin. Please give Comrade EB my regards and best wishes!


    3. Thanks Chico. Saraswati Bramdaw was a legend and also let’s not forget the role of Hansjee Patel in The Leader heritage!


  2. Thank you for the informative history the Indian community played.
    l sincerely hope this article, with many other literature and books should be disseminate to the ANC youth and schools to educate them the role the Indian community played in liberating this country.
    Well done

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Greetings

    A very important contribution and history that needs to known. Its importance and contribution to our history should be included in the school syllabus.

    Thank you Nirode.

    Kind regards

    Minesh Bhugwandeen

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this article indicating the contributions, involvement, strategies, catalyst, vision and unselfish incorporation of all races for a struggle to achieve a common unification of all people in this land. it is unfortunate the young blacks are not aware of the contribution by Indians and with a selfish sense of entitlement exclude other race groups on the basis that the struggle was overcome only by them. It is sad a need for extensive education and reminder is required.


  5. Well Presented and Documented facts of our Stalwarts that sacrificed their own lives for Freedom !
    Well done Nirode Bramdaw


  6. Lots to learn from our history. Thank you for this article. The walk to our freedom was hard on our ancestors. Will always treasure being an Indian.

    Thank you for this.


    1. Dear Nirode, Thank you for the well written article, It is very sad that the present ruling government does not acknowledge the positive contributions made by Indians in this country. The Indians are treated as second class citizens notwithstanding the entrenched democratic and equal treatment entrenched in the constitution. Such articles should be articulated as extensively as possible and frequently as possible. This will remind now and again leaders and interested persons and also the younger generation of all races. This should also be highlighted at educational institutions. The world needs to talk extensively of noble qualities for peace , tolerance , love , ethics and moral values depicted by people by Ghandijee. All the best. B Daya

      On Fri, 10 Jun 2022 at 12:58, 1860 Heritage Centre <> wrote:

      Reena Govender commented: “Lots to learn from our history. Thank you for > this article. The walk to our freedom was hard on our ancestors. Will > always treasure being an Indian. Thank you for this.” >

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well documented.I totally agree that the youth must know of the challenges,difficulties and hardships the Indians had to endure to make SA a true democracy.The present govt. and leaders must remember the history.


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