Mandela’s antipathy to the involvement of Indians in the struggle was soon to be shown up as an embarrassing error of judgement.
In 1946 the SA government passed the Asiatic Land Tenure Act, which severely restricted the areas where Indians could live, trade, and buy property. The Indian community was outraged, and launched a two year long campaign to oppose the Act. Mass rallies were held; land reserved for whites was occupied and picketed, and over 2000 volunteers went to jail.
The ANC gave the campaign its full moral support, but it was what the Indian rebellion gave to the ANC that was more important. Mandela, with characteristic honesty, said:
“We in the ANC and Youth League had witnessed the Indian people register an extraordinary protest against colour oppression in a way that Africans and the ANC had not.”
For the first time Mandela saw what real organized resistance looked like, led by people that were prepared to go to jail for their beliefs, reminding him that the freedom struggle was not merely about holding meetings and giving speeches.
Like their role model Mahatma Ghandi some fifty years before, the Indian protests had been non-violent and founded on organized mass action and civil disobedience. The ANC and Youth League gradually embraced this new form of protest, culminating in the Defiance campaign in 1952. During this six month long protest, nearly ten thousand ordinary citizens defied apartheid laws and went to jail. The ANC membership shot up from 20,000 to 100,000, and during this entire period not a single act of violence on the ANC side took place.
Mandela felt a great sense of accomplishment – he personally was arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment, later suspended for two years. He said:
“Fear of prison is a tremendous hindrance to a liberation struggle…I could walk upright like a man, and look everyone in the eye with the dignity that comes from not having succumbed to oppression and fear.”
Mandela had come of age as a freedom fighter, for which he owed a debt of gratitude to the lessons he had learned from the Indians.