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
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