Satyagraha on Natal’s Coal Mines

Kalpana Hiralal


The Satyagraha campaign of 1913 was the first mass protest by Indians in South Africa. Well over 20,000 men, women and children participated in the struggle against discriminatory measures. Defiance took several forms: individual acts of hawking without a licence, defying immigration laws, and protests on the coal mines. This article charts the mine owners’ response to the Satyagraha movement on the coal mines in the Natal Midlands. Indian workers were not striking to address traditional grievances: higher wages, better working conditions or housing. Their grievance was political, centred mainly on the £3 tax, and they felt the compulsion to heed Gandhi’s call to cease work. In most instances, the striking miners aimed at co-operation rather than confrontation with the government and employers. The strike could have provided an opportunity to the mine employers to declare their opposition to the £3 tax - one of the main grievances of the Indian workers - and persuade the Government to abolish it. But, instead, the employers not only supported the tax but called upon the government for assistance to enforce it, which was not withheld. This paper shows how state and capital collectively joined forces to quell the strike as the proposed tax was mutually beneficial: the state sought to maintain the political status quo of the Indian community and the capitalists were assured of their labour supply. This symbiotic relationship between state and capital mooted during this period characterised the South African economy in the 20th century and had serious implications for worker grievances and labour legislation in ensuing decades.

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