Mod­ern lessons from the Doc­tors’ Pact

Sev­enty years after it was signed, the Doc­tors’ Pact – a doc­u­ment that har­nessed com­mon­al­ity be­tween op­pressed South Africans – still has a lot to teach us in mod­ern-day SA, write and

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In March 1990, anti-apartheid strug­gle vet­eran Wal­ter Sisulu spoke at an ANC rally in Le­na­sia. Sisulu cap­tured the legacy of the 1947 Joint Dec­la­ra­tion of Co­op­er­a­tion, or what would be­come known as the Three Doc­tors’ Pact. He said: “Our com­mon des­tinies were con­firmed in 1947 ... Our lead­ers agreed then that the fu­ture of the In­dian and African peo­ple, as with all op­pressed com­mu­ni­ties, was in­sep­a­ra­ble.”

The Doc­tors’ Pact – which marked its 70th an­niver­sary on March 9 – was a land­mark agree­ment signed be­tween the lead­er­ship of the ANC, the Transvaal In­dian Congress (TIC) and the Na­tal In­dian Congress (NIC). The TIC and NIC jointly con­sti­tuted the SA In­dian Congress. The pact was signed by AB Xuma, Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker – in­ci­den­tally, all three pres­i­dents of the re­spec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions were doc­tors.

The pact was signed be­cause the or­gan­i­sa­tions had “re­alised the ur­gency of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the non-Euro­pean peo­ples and other demo­cratic forces for the at­tain­ment of ba­sic hu­man rights and full cit­i­zen­ship for all sec­tions of the South African peo­ple”. It fur­ther­more aimed to lay the ba­sis for prac­ti­cal co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the or­gan­i­sa­tions over the suc­ceed­ing years. This very prac­ti­cal­ity, in ret­ro­spect, is one of the rea­sons that made it a land­mark agree­ment.

The Doc­tors’ Pact was a vi­sion­ary doc­u­ment. It pre­ceded the Free­dom Char­ter by eight years, but was sim­i­lar in that it cre­ated a foun­da­tion of com­mon­al­ity. While the 1955 Free­dom Char­ter cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of peo­ple about what a united, fu­ture South Africa could look like, the Doc­tors’ Pact har­nessed the com­mon­al­ity of strug­gle be­tween the op­pressed, in ef­fect en­vis­ag­ing the pro­gres­sive ideals that fu­ture strug­gle pol­i­tics would en­gen­der.

It called for full en­fran­chise­ment of all South Africans, for equal eco­nomic opportunities and recog­ni­tion of African trade unions, the re­moval of land re­stric­tions and the pro­vi­sion of ad­e­quate hous­ing, free and com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion, the guar­an­tee­ing of free­dom of move­ment, and the re­moval of all dis­crim­i­na­tory laws. It also called for “non-Euro­pean” peo­ples in South Africa to be treated in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional law. It pledged “the fullest co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the African and In­dian peo­ples”.

The Doc­tors’ Pact must be un­der­stood within its his­tor­i­cal con­text. It was signed one year ahead of the as­cen­dancy of the racist Na­tional Party to power. This would have pro­vided ac­tivists at the time with a head start of sorts in pre­par­ing for what would be al­most half a cen­tury of leg­is­lated apartheid.

The pact was also adopted within a pe­riod that marked a dis­tinct change of tac­tics of the sig­na­tory or­gan­i­sa­tions. The ANC, TIC and NIC had un­der­gone sig­nif­i­cant ide­o­log­i­cal shifts dur­ing the years pre­ced­ing the pact. All three or­gan­i­sa­tions saw a far more pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship emerg­ing.

While the Doc­tors’ Pact was meant to mo­bilise both po­lit­i­cal will and mass ac­tion, it was also a fire­fight­ing tool. The dark­est hour of African-In­dian re­la­tions in the coun­try is un­doubt­edly the 1949 Dur­ban ri­ots. The ex­treme con­se­quences of non-co­op­er­a­tion be­tween African and In­dian peo­ple was that of death and de­struc­tion. The events of 1949 would have pro­pelled the lead­er­ship of the three or­gan­i­sa­tions to deepen their work­ing re­la­tion­ship.

The fol­low­ing years saw a gen­eral im­prove­ment in race re­la­tions be­tween African and In­dian peo­ple.

This was most marked dur­ing the 1950s, ahead of the state crack­down on op­po­si­tion dur­ing the 1960s.

The spirit of non­ra­cial co­op­er­a­tion was nur­tured through­out the early 1950s, most no­tably in the 1952 De­fi­ance Cam­paign and the 1955 Congress of the Peo­ple. This cam­paign had a last­ing im­pact through the adop­tion of the Free­dom Char­ter, which has shaped our Con­sti­tu­tion. Other fo­cal points of non­ra­cial ac­tiv­ity in­cluded the 1956 Women’s March, the Trea­son Trial and the for­ma­tion of Umkhonto weSizwe.

The pact served as a “guid­ing star” in the 1980s, pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text to the boy­cott of the pup­pet Tri­cam­eral par­lia­men­tary elec­tions.

The im­por­tance of the Doc­tors’ Pact on the na­ture of the an­ti­a­partheid strug­gle can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. In other an­ti­colo­nial move­ments through­out the con­ti­nent, In­di­ans were of­ten deemed to be the “mer­chant class”, largely sep­a­rated from the broader strug­gles of African peo­ple. The Doc­tors’ Pact pro­vided the foun­da­tion that en­sured that th­ese no­tions were not en­trenched in South Africa.

The rel­e­vance of the Doc­tors’ Pact for to­day is that it tells us that vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship is an es­sen­tial qual­ity to fos­ter­ing unity. At the time when the pact was signed, so­ci­ety was deeply seg­re­gated, but it took lead­ers who would look be­yond th­ese bar­ri­ers to de­velop an al­ter­na­tive vi­sion.

The sec­ond les­son that we can learn from the Doc­tors’ Pact is the im­por­tance of the recog­ni­tion of com­mon strug­gles. Sim­ply put, “an in­jury to one is an in­jury to all”.

In South Africa to­day, there are many is­sues that im­pact us col­lec­tively as a na­tion. Th­ese in­clude un­em­ploy­ment and poverty, a lack of ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, in­equal­ity, cor­rup­tion, and crime, among oth­ers. The Doc­tors’ Pact teaches us that col­lab­o­ra­tion – not only across race, but across all di­vides – is es­sen­tial to achiev­ing broader ob­jec­tives.

The Doc­tors’ Pact re­mains as im­por­tant to­day as it was in the past in curb­ing racial ten­sion and pro­mot­ing non­ra­cial­ism. To­day, th­ese ideals are best en­cap­su­lated in our Con­sti­tu­tion. On­go­ing aware­ness and ed­u­ca­tion about the Con­sti­tu­tion is es­sen­tial to en­sure that poli­cies do not merely re­main on pa­per, but be­come part of lived ex­pe­ri­ences. The pact pro­vided a plat­form and struc­ture that could ef­fec­tively reach out to the grass­roots. To­day, in the wake of racial ten­sion and xeno­pho­bic vi­o­lence, sim­i­lar mech­a­nisms – reactive and proac­tive – should be con­sid­ered.

The an­niver­sary of the Doc­tors’ Pact comes a few days ahead of Anti-Racism Week (March 14 to 21). The week aims to en­cour­age all who live in South Africa to #TakeOnRacism. The cam­paign is hosted by the Anti-Racism Net­work SA, which is spear­headed by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nel­son Man­dela foun­da­tions and in­cludes some 60 dif­fer­ent or­gan­i­sa­tions which have com­mit­ted them­selves to tack­ling the scourge of racism.

It is broad-based, col­lec­tive ini­tia­tives such as th­ese that con­tinue the spirit of the Doc­tors’ Pact.

It is our hope that South Africans ac­tively sup­port such cam­paigns and har­ness their col­lec­tive po­ten­tial to tackle con­tem­po­rary is­sues.

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IN­JURY TO ONE... The Doc­tors’ Pact re­mains as im­por­tant to­day as it was in the past in curb­ing racial ten­sion and pro­mot­ing non­ra­cial­ism

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