The campaign was launched in September 1913. The first resisters were women who crossed over from the Transvaal into Natal, while women from Natal crossed over into the Transvaal. The Natal women were the first to be arrested, and outraged Indians flocked to join the cause. The Transvaal women were not arrested, so they went to Newcastle and persuaded workers to go on strike.
Gandhi went to Newcastle and spoke to the striking miners, whose employers had turned off the water and lights in their compounds.
On 13 October a meeting was held in Newcastle, and Gandhi was represented by veteran passive resister Thambi Naidoo, who was also president of the Johannesburg Tamil Benefit Society. The meeting formed a passive resistance committee, and Naidoo tried to get workers at the railways to go on strike, but failed. Naidoo was arrested, but was released on 15 October, when the committee addressed 78 workers at the Farleigh colliery. The workers went on strike, were arrested and warned to return to work on 17 October. They refused, and within a week the strikers swelled to 2000. Within two weeks, between 4000 and 5000 workers went on strike. Gandhi, Thambi Naidoo and labour activist CR Naidoo moved around the area, urging workers to join the strike.
On 23 October Gandhi announced that he would lead a march of workers out of the compounds and that they would seek arrest. The plan was to lead more than 2000 strikers across the border into the Transvaal, stopping at Charleston. The march was set to take place from 6 November.
Coalmine owners then sought a meeting with Gandhi, and Gandhi met with them on 25 October at the Durban Chamber of Commerce. Gandhi explained to them that the strike was a response to the government’s failure to uphold its promise to Gokhale to repeal the £3 tax. The mine owners consulted with government, which denied that they had promised to repeal the tax, and planned to issue an ultimatum for the workers to return to work. On the day, 6 November, before the ultimatum could be communicated, Gandhi led 200 strikers and their families on the march to Charleston. The next day, Thambi Naidoo led a further 300 strikers towards the border. Another column of 250 left the next day, and after a few days some 4000 strikers were on the march for the Transvaal.
The strikers were supported by Indian businessmen, who arranged for food to be distributed along the length of the march. The strike was costing the organisers about £250 a day for distributing a minimal diet of bread and sugar. Money was also sent from India to support the strikers.
The strike spread to the south of Natal by the beginning of November, and by the 7th the strike was effectively underway, joined by about 15000 workers in spontaneous fashion. Workers at South African Refineries, Hulett’s Refinery, Chemical Works, Wright’s Cement and Pottery Works, and African Boating, among others, joined the strike.
Many strikers congregated in townships and some went to Gandhi’s Phoenix settlement. However most, according to Swan, remained in their barracks, refusing to work. Swan also notes that the strikers were unorganised, and motivated by rumour and unconfirmed reports of support from Gokhale, among other reasons.
Meanwhile the marchers were on the move. They went first to Charleston, on the Transvaal-Natal border 60km from Newcastle. They were given 1,5 pounds of bread and some sugar, and told to submit to the police if they were beaten, to behave hygienically and peacefully, and not to resist arrest. They arrived without incident, and were fed with food donated by local businessmen and cooked by Gandhi.
Gandhi informed the government of their intention to continue into the Transvaal, and called on them to arrest the strikers before they arrived, but Smuts calculated that the strike would dissolve before long, and he decided on a policy of non-intervention. Gandhi decided that if the strikers were not arrested, they would march to Tolstoy Farm in Lawley, 35km southwest of Johannesburg, covering 30 to 40km a day.
The marchers then crossed the border into Volksrust, just 2km from Charleston, and proceeded to Palmford, a further 14km away, where Gandhi was arrested. He appeared in court in Volksrust but the judge allowed for bail, which Kallenbach paid, leaving Gandhi free to join the marchers.
When the marchers arrived at Standerton, Gandhi was again arrested, this time by a magistrate. Again he was freed. Two days later, on 9 November, Gandhi was arrested yet again.
On 10 November the government arrested the marchers in Balfour and put them on a train to Natal. Gandhi was arrested on three occasions during the march, and on 11 November he was sentenced nine months’ hard labour. Within a few days, Polak and Kallenbach were also arrested and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.
By the end of November, the strike was also coming to an end, and workers began returning to their places of employment.
The strike – by about 20 000 Indian workers in total – paralysed sections of the economy of Natal, especially the sugar industry, and questions arose regarding law and order exercised by the authorities. Rumours that black workers were poised to join the strike sent shivers through the province. Police were sent in and some workers were shot and killed.
Reactions to the strike and march stung the government, especially those of Imperial Britain. Lord Harding, the British viceroy in India, delivered a speech in Madras, India, in which he lashed out at the South African government and demanded a commission of inquiry. The British government also expressed its disapproval, and Lord Harding sent his envoy, Sir Benjamin Robertson, to South Africa to placate local opinion about the Indian question in South Africa.
The government released Gandhi, Kallenbach and Polak on 18 December 1913, and announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Gandhi was opposed to the appointment of two of the members of the three-man Soloman commission, but Smuts ignored his objections. Gandhi announced that he would lead a mass march on 1 January 1914, but when white railway workers went on strike, Gandhi withdrew his threat, reasoning that to continue would be against the spirit of Satyagraha.
Smuts and Gandhi entered into a series of meetings to resolve the Indian question – after Smuts had declared martial law while dealing with the railway strike. Acknowledging that Indians saw Smuts as having broken his word after the 1911 negotiation, Smuts insisted that the pair pore over every word so that no misinterpretation was possible. On 30 June, they concluded their agreement, which became law in the form of the Indian Relief Bill.
The agreement gave recognition to Indian marriages, abolished the £3 tax and all arrears accruing from it, set 1920 as the deadline for new Indian immigrants and limited the movement of Indians from one province to another.
Gandhi’s detractors launched attacks on him, but Gandhi was satisfied that they had achieved what they had set out to do, and deferred the winning of further freedoms to a later date.
Gandhi left South Africa for England on 18 July 1914, never to return again. However he would continue to have an interest in South African affairs, and would meet with Communist Party leader Yusuf Dadoo years later when the latter went to India to gather support for Indian struggles in South Africa.