“You gave us Gandhi, we gave you the Mahatma”, Nelson Mandela is said to have remarked when talking to one of his Indian friends. Obviously, he was referring to the young Gujarati barrister who went to South Africa and after being subjected to racial humiliation launched the unprecedented ‘passive resistance’ and ‘Satyagraha’ movements against the white minority government there.
Africa’s Gandhi, Nelson Mandela — known affectionately by his clan name “Madiba” — died at the age of 95 on Friday, pushing the globe into a state of mourning. He was the icon of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and a colossus of 20th century politics. Speaking at the HT Leadership Summit on Friday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “A giant among men has passed away. He was a true Gandhian.” Singh’s heartfelt statement only reaffirmed the unsaid connect between Mandela and Gandhi.
READ: Anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela dies at 95
Mandela was born in 1918, four years after Gandhi had left South Africa — so they never met. But as a young man, he had known about the Gandhian movement directed against the racist government. In his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Mandela mentioned how the passive resistance movement led by Dadoo and Naicker to oppose the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946 influenced him. “They reminded us that the freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action, and above all the willingness to suffer and sacrifice”, Mandela wrote.
Like Martin Luther King Jr, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Mandela was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ and ‘satyagraha’ as effective political tools for use by unarmed victims of a powerful opponent. Later, however, he had to alter the techniques to suit the South African circumstances.
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This file photo from 1994 shows Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jerry Holt, File)
It looks like South Africa worked as the umbilical cord that bound two of the most admired icons of the 20th century and a great leader of the Third World during the difficult cold war years. Gandhi’s acquaintance with the problems of South Africa, Nehru’s international outlook and the presence of a large number of people of Indian origin in South Africa made the Congress take notice of the things happening in South Africa even after Gandhi had left that country.
In 1946, a year before independence, the interim government of India was formed and Nehru became its Prime Minister. Under his leadership the interim government severed trade relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Subsequently, India imposed a complete diplomatic, commercial, cultural and sports embargo on South Africa.
India had consistently worked to put the issue of apartheid on the agenda of the UNO, Nonaligned Movement, the Commonwealth or any other international or regional organization.
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Beginning 1960 the African National Congress maintained an office at New Delhi. It functioned as the ‘de facto’ Embassy of the majority people of South Africa.
India resumed formal diplomatic and consular relations with the government of South Africa in November 1993 after Mandela was released from prison and the stage was set for him to take over as the first President of the democratically elected majority government of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President on May 10, 1994. He visited India in August the same year.
Four years earlier, the government of India had celebrated the impending release of Mandela from 27 years of prison life by conferring Bharat Ratna-the highest civilian honour on Mandela, only the second non-Indian to receive this award. The first was Khan Abdul Gaffur Khan, another Gandhian who chose to continue to work in his native North West Frontier which became part of Pakistan.
Former South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison in 1994. (Getty images)
The close collaboration between India and South Africa which is reflected in many areas is the fruit of the seeds which were sown during the Mandela days. The Red Fort Declaration of 1996, the Tshwane Declaration of 2006, formation of IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) – considered a successful example of South-South collaboration and the inclusion of South Africa into BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) – all testify to the all-weather friendship of India and South Africa.
Mandela’s connection to India just missed being far more intimate. ‘When Hope and History Rhyme’ is the autobiography of Amina Cachalia published in March 2013 – a month after the death of the author at 83. Amina and her husband Yusuf Cachalia, both of Indian origin, were ANC activists and very close to Mandela. They were in Delhi heading the ANC desk in exile when Mandela was in prison. The book reveals that Mandela was in love with Amina.
Her children Ghalib and Coco confirm that their mother had confided to them that Mandela proposed to marry her after he had become South African President. Yusuf had died and Mandela’s marriage with Winnie had been dissolved. For some reason, Amina chose not to accept the proposal. Had Cupid been more helpful, an Indian born woman would have been the first lady of truly independent South Africa.
(The author is a professor of African history. He lived in Africa for nearly 20 years.)
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