Freedom through education and sacrifice

The radical leadership of the Natal Indian Congress under Dr Monty Naicker actively supported student protests for access to education. The street marches by Indian schoolchildren were remarkable acts of defiance and courage in the face of a repressive state. 1946. Picture: SS Singh Collection

The radical leadership of the Natal Indian Congress under Dr Monty Naicker actively supported student protests for access to education. The street marches by Indian schoolchildren were remarkable acts of defiance and courage in the face of a repressive state. 1946. Picture: SS Singh Collection

Published Apr 28, 2024



"You can lose everything, but never your education."

Those words are as familiar as dhall and rice on a Monday in an Indian home. As we look back on these 30 years of democracy, education was one of our nation's priorities.

Phyllis Naidoo, awarded the Order of Luthuli by the President of the Republic for her stellar role in the struggle for South African freedom, used to peer out of the window of her ground floor Umbilo Road flat.

"Look at those children with school bags. that is the fruit of our democracy," she would holler.

Sure enough, millions of children enjoy free and compulsory state school since 1994 which their parents or grandparents were denied. To use the race language, which defines our history, the overwhelming majority of those children are black African.

Was it any different for Indian Africans? History is a great teacher in answering that question. The colonial masters on the plantations, mines, railways and domestic service since 1860 did not care about the education of Indian indentured workers or their children.

In the early years, Western schools were few and far between if not non-existent. Let's not make the mistake of assuming indentured Indians were uneducated. Quite the opposite. Learning in the ancient languages of Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu and their related dialects was quite advanced. There were those also well-school in sciences like ayurveda, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, agriculture and engineering.

Think back to the language classes over the generations in dusty back yards or cramped halls with slates and chalks. Written, spoken, performance, art and culture from these heritages were kept alive by people who gave freely of their time and expertise.

Ancient learning in medicine was carried down the line whether castor oil to clean the gut or rolling a baby in a sari on the floor to relieve it of colic. Planetary alignments especially the phases of the moon told people when to plant or when not to go out fishing. Astrology and psychology combined to offer relief from demons of all sorts as well as gave motivation on one's life path.

While these heritages were rich and varied, in the colonial and apartheid setting, Western education was prized as the ticket out of poverty and oppression.

Extended families saved their meagre funds to send at least one child to school in the hope that sacrifice would enable others to follow once the educated one found work. Few realise that it was only in 1961, one hundred and one years after the first Indian indentured workers arrived in Natal that this community was recognized as having a right to citizenship and the benefits of state schooling.

Pupils of the Clare Estate Indian School, Durban, 1909. The School was opened in 1902. Mr Coopsamy, a local resident, erected the building. The school primarily catered to the educational needs of the children of those who worked in the sugar mill. The first principal was Mr BJ Phillip. Picture: SS Singh Collection

Strangely enough, that came with the apartheid Nationalist Party of DF Malan and Hendrik Verwoerd breaking away from the British Commonwealth to declare a republic. Prior to that it was left to the religious organisations and individuals to build modest schools.

Before 1961, the policy of successive governments was repatriation - being sent back to India. JE Corbett in an MA thesis on the Cape Town Agreement notes: "Agitation against the expanding Indian free population grew. Thus in 1895 a law was passed, attempting to retain the benefits of indentured labour, while discouraging Indians from settling permanently in the Colony. A £3 tax was imposed on all Indians who failed to re-indenture or return to India on the expiry of their term of indenture. In 1896 an Act was passed in effect excluding Indians from the franchise, though they were not specifically mentioned. In 1925 they were to be excluded from the Municipal franchise as well. They thus became politically impotent."

A popular slogan among European right wingers was: “Don’t give Indians the vote, give them the boat.”

By 1929, schools like Carlisle Street Indian School, Depot Road Government Indian School, Tongaat Fairbreeze Government-aided School, Umdloti Indian School, and Pietermaritzburg York Road- Government Indian School were permitted to write the standard six examinations. The only high school for In- Indians in the 1930s was Sastri College. Picture: Dorasamy Ganesan Collection

Names that come up under the repatriation discussions are like those of the Rt. Honourable Sir VS Srinivasa Sastri CH PC, Agent-General of the Government of India and one steeped in the traditions of Empire. Had the repatriation policy that he was part of negotiating been successful, Indians might have been shipped en masse to Borneo or Brazil if unable to return to their ancestral Indian villages.

It fell to public spirited individuals like the colonial-born lawyer of indentured origins like Albert Christopher, Mauritian immigrant PR Pather, the businessman AI Kajee and similar people to encourage Indians to obtain a Western education in the battle against repatriation. Very few schools were in existence. Sastri College was established in 1929 but restricted to Indian boys.

Christopher spearheaded a number of educational organisations. A tribute to Hajee ML Sultan, benefactor of the technical college that was to bear his name records: “The establishment of the Worker’s Congress by Advocate Albert Christopher in 1928 marked the launch of a powerful forum which assisted many Indian people in gaining qualifications, especially in technical and commercial skills.”

Afternoon classes by voluntary teachers started in August 1929 at the Carlisle Street Government Indian School, and evening classes at the Hindu Tamil Institute in Cross Street. The later second President of India and Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan OM, laid the foundation stone of the Institute.

The marble plaque recording that historic moment in still lodged in the outside wall of the building. There were adult classes at the St. Aidan’s Mission School. Present day volunteer teachers who selflessly give up their time to offer additional classes follow in that great tradition going back almost a century.

Phyllis Naidoo under house arrest in Durban with her three children Shah (left window), Sadhan( middle window) and Sukhthi( baby), 1971. Picture: Phyllis Naidoo Collection, Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Christopher invited Dr BM Narbeth, the Principal of the Natal Technical College (now merged with ML Sultan Technikon to form the Durban University of Technology), to visit the classes. Encouraged by their efforts, the highly respected Narbeth drafted a report for the Minister of Education which led to him assisting an Indian Technical Education Committee that planted the seed for the later ML Sultan Technical College.

The college was open to all irrespective of race. One of the archive pictures shows Hajee Sultan presenting a certificate to African women students. Regrettably, the college was threatened with closure when apartheid separate education laws were passed forcing it to limit access to Indian students. Waves of Indian students were able to graduate with critical technical skills enabling their families to leap out of poverty within a generation.

Similarly, the founding in 1961 of the University College for Indians on Salisbury Island, later to become the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) provided greater opportunities for higher education. Prior to that a small number of students able to obtain the necessary funds studied locally at among others the universities of Fort Hare, Rhodes, Witwatersrand and Cape Town.

Picture 4: The “University College for Indians, Durban” was founded on Salisbury Island in the Durban Harbour in 1961. The university was temporarily housed in buildings that were used during the Second World War for naval purposes and subsequently for accommodating Hungarian refugees. In the first year, 114 students were enrolled, taking a daily ferry to the island and back. It evolved into the University of Durban-Westville with a modern campus opening in Reservoir Hill on 12 May 1973.

Founder of the Chatsworth Hospice, Mr CN Pillay obtained his medical degree from Wits. He was a contemporary of President Nelson Mandela and Ismail Meer at the university. Chemistry professor, Herby Govinden, graduated with a PhD from Rhodes and taught at Fort Hare.

Among his students was Umkhonto weSizwe Chief of Staff, Chris Hani. UDW was initially boycotted by progressive sections of the Indian community opposed to separate apartheid education.

That position shifted towards using the university as a “site of struggle” with the Black Consciousness Movement activists Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper and Dennis Pather among others at the head of those campaigns. They laid the groundwork for the student radicalism that was to follow the 1976 Student Revolt and the deepening crisis of the apartheid state in the 1980s.

Among the milestones in the transformation of UDW from an apartheid institution into a truly South African university was the appointment of Professor Jairam Reddy as the first black vice-chancellor and principal.

He served in that role between 1990 and 1994 which was a crucial period in the transition to democracy. Not only did his leadership advance the curriculum transformation already underway in the latter 1980s but he also opened its doors to returning exiles and activists.

The first conference of the African National Congress after its banning in 1960 was held on the UDW campus with Reddy receiving Mandela and the organisation’s leadership on several occasions. The birth pangs of the transformed university were painful as were its teething years but Reddy courageously stayed the stormy course.

Under his stewardship radical and internationally renowned scholars joined the staff, student access was widened and the university’s position as an intellectual home of the Left grew. The baton was handed to his successors Doctors Marcus Balintulo, Mapule Ramashala and Saths Cooper. The latter oversaw the transition to the current University of KwaZulu-Natal in the merger with the University of Natal.

Picture 6: Founding member of the Black Consciousness Movement, Strinivasa Rajoo "Strini" Moodley is seen embracing Sathasivan "Saths" Cooper one of the so-called “SASO( South African Students’ Organisation) nine” student leaders arrested in 1974 for their anti-apartheid activities. Picture: Bramdaw Collections at the 1860 Heritage Centre.

UDW’s impact in creating an Indian professional and middle class cannot be underestimated. The children of indentured, farm and factory workers graduated and were almost without exception the first in their families to obtain such qualifications.

At a time when bursaries were few and far between families took on massive debt to get their children educated – the parents of the authors included. UDW could count more than a handful of ministers in Madiba’s first cabinet, among senior public servants and ambassadors in 1994.

Thirty years is a short time in the life of a democracy. Whatever our attitude towards the conduct of those presently in power, let us cherish that opportunities and dignity that comes with freedom and democracy was denied to so many for so long.

The community of Indian origin can justifiably be proud that in every sphere – education, business, government, the professions, social movements - it has been able to contribute to a better life for all. History has come a full circle but every celebration throws up new challenges to water the tree of freedom and guard it against threats.

Kiru Naidoo manages the Made in Chatsworth market and Selvan Naidoo serves as the volunteer curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre. Their books are available at The authors may be contacted on 0829408163.

Kiru Naidoo

Selvan Naidoo