The case having been concluded, I had no reason for staying in Pretoria. So I went back to Durban and began to make preparations for my return home. But Abdulla Sheth was not the man to let me sail without a send-off. He gave a farewell party in my honor at Sydenham.
It was proposed to spend the whole day there. Whilst I was turning over the sheets of some of the newspapers I found there, I chanced to see a paragraph in a corner of one of them under the caption ‘Indian Franchise’. It was with reference to the Bill then before the House of Legislature, which sought to deprive the Indians of their right to elect members of the Natal Legislative Assembly. I was ignorant of the Bill, and so were the rest of the guests who had assembled there.
I inquired of Abdulla Sheth about it. He said: ‘what can we understand in these matters? We can only understand things that affect our trade. As you know all our trade in the Orange Free State had been swept away. We agitated about it, but in vain. We are after all lame men, being unlettered. We generally take in newspapers simply to ascertain the daily market rates, etc. what can we know of legislation? Our eyes and ears are the European attorneys here.’
‘But’ said I, ‘there are so many young Indians born and educated here. Do they not help you?’
‘They!’ exclaimed Abdulla Sheth in despair. ‘They never care to come to us, and to tell you the truth, we care less to recognize them. Being Christians, they are under the thumb of the white clergymen, who in their turn are subject to the Government.’
This opened my eyes. I felt that this class should be claimed as our own. Was this the meaning of Christianity? Did they cease to be Indians because they had become Christians?
But I was on the point of returning home and hesitated to express what was passing through my mind in this matter. I simply said to Abdulla Sheth: ‘This Bill, if it passes into law, will make our lot extremely difficult. It is the first nail into our coffin. It strikes at the root of our self-respect.’
‘It may,’ echoed Sheth Abdulla. ‘I will tell you the genesis of the franchise question. We knew nothing about it. But Mr. Escombe, one of our best attorneys, whom you know, put the idea into our heads. It happened thus. He is a great fighter, and there being no love lost between him and the Wharf Engineer, he feared that the Engineer might deprive him of his votes and defeat him at the election. So he acquainted us with our position, and at his instance we all registered ourselves as voters, and voted for him. You will now see how the franchise has not for us the value that you attach to it. But we understand what you say. Well, then, what is your advice?’
The other guests were listening to this conversation with attention. One of them said: ‘Shall I tell you what should be done? You cancel your passage by this boat, stay here a month longer, and we will fight as you direct us.’
All the others chimed in: ‘Indeed, indeed. Abdulla Sheth, you must detain Gandhibhai.’
The Sheth was a shrewd man. He said: ‘I may not detain him now. Or rather, you have as much right as I to do so. But you are quite right. Let us all persuade him to stay on. But you should remember that he is a barrister. What about his fees?’
The mention of fees pained me, and I broke in: ‘Abdulla Sheth, fees are out of the question. There can be no fees for public work. I can stay, if at all, as a servant. And as you know, I am not acquainted with all these friends. But if you believe that they will cooperate, I am prepared to stay a month longer. There is one thing, however. Though you need not pay me anything, work of the nature we contemplate cannot be done without some funds to start with. Thus we may have to send telegrams, we may have to print some literature, some touring may have to be done, the local attorneys may have to be consulted, and as I am ignorant of your laws. I may need some law books for reference. All this cannot be done without money. And it is clear that one man is not enough for this work. Many must come forward to help him.’
And a chorus of voices was hears: ‘Allah is great and merciful. Money will come in. Men there are, as many as you may need.
You please consent to stay, and all will be well.’
The farewell party was thus turned into a working committee. I suggested finishing dinner etc. quickly and getting back home. I worked out in my own mind an outline of the campaign. I ascertained the names of those who were on the list of voters, and made up my mind to stay on for a month.
Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect
An Autobiography, (1959), pp. 100-01