M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 1
THE BATTERIES ON THE REEF
October, 1908. This is written in Johannesburg. The Fort, used as the prison, with its great mounds of earth, originally piled up by the Dutch after the Jameson Raid, and garrisoned to overawe the City, crowns the hill above. The pleasure grounds of "The Wanderers" lie below, while between and over the lines of gum-trees which guard "The Wanderers", one can see the towers and roofs of Johannesburg. The distant scene is mellowed by a haze of smoke, and the sounds of the City hardly reach so far as this. But even now the roar of the Batteries along the Reef, like the roar of surf breaking on a distant shore, attracts the ear. At night it comes nearer. On some cold nights when the wind blows from the Mines, the sound is like the roll of thunder, as though the rocks and sands and surf were battling with each other for victory down there on "The Wanderers". That roar never ceases. On calm, hot, sunny days it almost dies; it sinks away into a lazy hum like the drone of bees in the clover. But it is always there. The Batteries of the Reef are never still. Night and day, and every night and every clay, without rest, the crushing of the great machinery goes on, and the rocks and stones and sand yield their golden treasure in response.
This is a strange City. In many respects a wonderful City. So young, and yet so old. The problems of vice and poverty which perplex those aggregates of humanity, whose experiences cover ten centuries, are all here. A young form, and a jaded heart. Then the population is so diverse. The other day an accident happened just in front of me, and a small crowd gathered. It was an ordinary crowd in a very ordinary street. As I reached it, a young Italian Priest mounted his bicycle and rode away. A Chinese followed. The few who remained were nearly all of different nationalities. A tall Indian, probably a Pathan, some Kaffirs, and two white people—one Dutch, the other a Jew. It is this cosmopolitan character of the population which forms at once the attractiveness and perplexity of the place. There is no cohesion, there is no monotony.
Problems, which are essentially problems of Johannesburg, appear on every hand—race, colour, education, crime, religion—each in turn presents its own peculiar difficulties, and clamours to be solved. Surely of all places this is the most perplexing, and perhaps the most fascinating. Few live here long without loving it. But amidst the many questions which have appeared in the City since its foundation, there is one which stands out in curious and unique relief, and has done so for a long time. That is, the Passive Resistance movement of the Asiatics.
For some eighteen months, the Asiatic community, which numbers throughout the Transvaal about 10,000, naturally a loyal and law abiding community, has been in revolt against the Government. The Asiatic Law Amendment Act, which was built on the theory that the Asiatics had inaugurated a wide-spread fraudulent traffic in "permits," and was consequently a criminal community, to be legislated against as criminals, awakened intense indignation amongst them. They clamoured for proof of this traffic but were refused. They appealed to have the charges investigated by a Judge of the Supreme Court, but the appeal was ignored. They had no parliamentary vote, and no representation in Parliament, so nothing remained but either to give the outward sign of the criminal in registration—which was the impression of the digits—or resist the Law. They decided on resistance. Fortunately, their leader was a refined, gentle, chivalrous man, a disciple of Tolstoi, and the resistance took the form of "Passive Resistance". Since then, Johannesburg has been a battle-ground on which issues, which will affect the whole Empire, have been fought out, and the battle is still raging. Now, as I write, the authorities are sending numbers of Indian hawkers to imprisonment in the Fort, for carrying on their trade without a licence. Of course, they applied for a licence, and tendered their money, but because they would not register under insufferable conditions, their money was returned, and they are being prosecuted and sentenced to seven and fourteen days with hard labour in the Fort for a breach of the Law. We can see them frequently marching up the dusty road in batches—handcuffed and guarded—the Passive Resisters of Johannesburg.
At the beginning of the year, there were over two hundred in the gaols at one time. Since then, there have been readjustments—a compromise—a promise made and evaded by he Government—a new Bill with new insufferable conditions—and once more, that patient, dignified, persistent Passive Resistance, so that the number threatens again to rise as high.
Johannesburg is very apathetic about it. The "colour prejudice," which is intensely strong with a majority of the white population, makes this spot a difficult battleground on which to fight out such issues. Then we have so many conflicting interests—trade considerations, political interests, racial antipathies, and no one knows what besides. So Johannesburg as a whole looks with apathy on the action of the Government, and with unconcern on the sufferings of the men—while those who pity and sympathise hardly dare speak their thoughts.
And so the Batteries thunder on—political greed, injustice, racial prejudice, and the selfishness of trade; the crushing Batteries of the Reef, hammering and pounding under their enormous weight, the helpless Asiatic community. Sometimes the sound of it dies away to a whisper—again it rises to a roar—but it never ceases—and the result? Well, we shall see. But the leader himself has no doubt of the issue. I said yesterday to him: "My friend, it is likely to be a long struggle—England is careless, and the Government here is like iron." "It doesn't matter," he replied, "if the trial is long, my people will be purified by it, and victory is sure to come." Yes, the work of the Batteries is to find the gold.