The Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act

In response to the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, and to prevent the Asiatic community of South Africa suffering intolerable humiliation, Gandhi developed the concept of satyagraha.

Indians occupied an uncertain place in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them were from India, and considered themselves to be British subjects. As a result, they expected to be treated as any other citizens of Empire, and be accorded the same rights. Unfortunately, South Africa was not an enlightened place at the time. The Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, passed in its final form in 1908, demanded of all Asiatics (including Indians and Chinese) that they submit to a process whereby they would provide a thumb-print, in addition to their personal details, for registration. If they failed to do so, they would not be given the right to trade. In addition, those not in possession of a registration certificate could be summarily deported from the country, or fined on-the-spot.

It threatened the livelihoods of all Asiatics in South Africa. But, more than anything else, it was a humiliation: Gandhi noted, for example, that only criminals were usually required to give their thumbprints.

In the book, Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi outlines how he developed the concept of Satyagraha in South Africa. In the following section, he provides a summary of the nature and content of the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, which he later renamed the "Black Act." The extract also provides a useful description by Gandhi of why the "Black Act" was resisted - on the grounds of the safety of the Indian community, and to prevent the Asiatic community of South Africa suffering an intolerable humiliation.

"Every Indian, man, woman or child of eight years or upwards, entitled to reside in the Transvaal, must register his or her name with the Registrar of Asiatics and take out a certificate of registration. The applicants for registration must surrender their old permits to the Registrar, and state in their applications their name, residence, caste, age, etc. The Registrar was to note down important marks of identification upon the applicant's person, and take his finger and thumb impressions.

"Every Indian who failed thus to apply for registration before a certain date was to forfeit his right of residence in the Transvaal. Failure to apply would be held to be an offence in law for which the defaulter could be fined, sent to prison or even deported within the discretion of the court. Parents must apply on behalf of their minor children and bring them to the Registrar in order to give their finger impressions, etc. In case of parents failing to discharge this responsibility laid upon them, the minor on attaining the age of sixteen years must discharge it himself, and if he defaulted, he made himself liable to the same punishments as could be awarded to his parents."

- Gandhi, M. Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedebad. Translated from the original Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai, p66

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"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now"
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, 1908
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to extract information from a document, photographs and an extract from Gandhi's speech at the burning of registration certificates in 1908. They will be able to explore the motives of the Transvaal government in issuing passes to male Indians over the age of eight, and the bitter feelings it stirred up among the Indian community. Learners will be introduced to Gandhi's political philosophy - satyagraha - which can be translated as "the force which is born of truth and love, or non-violence".

Lesson plan
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