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Home / India News / Satyagraha in South Africa

Satyagraha in South Africa

Gandhi’s views and writing as a young lawyer in a nation torn by apartheid continues to be the most bitterly contested part of his legacy with a growing cohort of activists and academics coming to see Gandhi as not liberating but as a racist who looked down on local residents.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2020, 06:17 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mohandas Gandhi (center) sits with co-workers at his Johannesburg law office in 1902.
Mohandas Gandhi (center) sits with co-workers at his Johannesburg law office in 1902. (National Gandhi Museum)

A young lawyer of 24, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in Durban in early 1893 to serve as counsel to a local merchant. In June that year, he was asked to travel to Pretoria which required him to first travel to Pietermaritzburg and then take another connection.

On the train, Gandhi was seated in the first-class compartment when a white man entered the compartment, recoiled at the sight of a brown man, and summoned railway officials. Gandhi was ordered to go to the van compartment as the officials harshly told him that “coolies” were not allowed in the first-class compartment. Gandhi resisted, producing his ticket and refusing to budge , only to be pushed out of the train, his luggage tossed at the station after him, in Pietermaritzburg.

Also read: Gandhi: The chronicler

“It was winter and the cold was extremely bitter. My overcoat was in my luggage but I didn’t dare ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered,” Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth.

This incident is almost universally described as the moment of the Mahatma’s political awakening. And yet, his travails didn’t end there.

Gandhi continued his journey on the next day, but when he made it to Charlestown and had to take a stagecoach, he was made to sit with the coachman on the box outside because the white conductor and passengers wouldn’t have it otherwise. A scuffle ensued with the conductor soon after and Gandhi was beaten up; the blows stopped only after some other passengers intervened.

Today, if the world views Gandhi as a civil rights icon who freed India and birthed a unique form of political protest that reverberates even today, much of it is owed to South Africa, and the humiliation that sparked his political awakening there.

Contested legacy

And yet, his views and writing as a young lawyer in a nation torn by apartheid continues to be the most bitterly contested part of his legacy with a growing cohort of activists and academics coming to see Gandhi as not liberating but as a racist who looked down on local residents.

Gandhi’s time in South Africa came into sharper focus on the eve of his 150th birth anniversary last year when the Johannesburg City Council debated a motion to remove his name and statue from the city centre.

The motion — along with leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which has demanded the removal of statues and memorabilia connected to the English colonialist Cecil Rhodes because of his racism — said Gandhi was prejudiced in his treatment towards Black South Africans, routinely used the pejorative term Kaffirs and viewed Indians as being superior to them.

Also read: When Gandhi stood trial for sedition

“Ours is one continuous struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness,” Gandhi told a meeting after spending three years in South Africa.

The petition — brought by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party — acknowledged that Gandhi undertook efforts to understand the local people and that his views changed in latter years.

“In this view, Gandhi is branded as a“reformed racist”, who despite having positively transformed and shed his early prejudice against Africans— does not deserve to be forgiven,” wrote Eric Itzkin, the author of Gandhi’s Johannesburg: Birthplace of Satyagraha, in the Hindustan Times.

In some ways, this reconfiguring of Gandhi’s history is not new. In India, academics and Dalit activists have for long questioned his views on untouchability and said his clashes with Dr BR Ambedkar underlined his problematic views on caste.

But many others studying Gandhi have called for a more nuanced debate on the matter. Writing in the Hindustan Times, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, a senior professor at the history department of the University of the Western Cape and the great-grand-daughter of Gandhi, noted that the debate on social media ignores the changes Gandhi went through in subsequent years when he sought to travel third class in trains to get a taste of what Africans experienced.

In defence of Gandhi

She pointed out that Indian Opinion — a newspaper Gandhi started — published news about African grievances, restricted land rights and daily discrimination. Gandhi’s final campaign in 1913, which drew Indian women to become passive resisters for the first time, was inspired by the struggle of African women against the Pass laws (which stipulated that Africans in urban areas had to carry a Pass on their person or face prosecution).

Itzkin noted that Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg from 1903 to 1913 was a formative period during which time he developed the philosophy of satyagraha.

In his landmark speech to the Young Men’s Christian Association, delivered in Johannesburg on May 18, 1908, Gandhi spoke of his vision of an inclusive, multiracial society in South Africa: “If we look into the future, is it not a heritage that we leave to posterity that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen?”

In his article, British historian David Arnold noted that Gandhi’s time in South Africa was marked by his faith in the empire and its sense of justice. And yet, it didn’t stop him from demolishing the moral authority of the empire in his 1909 book Hind Swaraj.

“There was nothing moral about railways or Western-style colleges and hospitals. There was nothing moral about people starving; about taxing salt; about the violence that underpinned the Raj. Gandhi punctured the moral balloon of British rule in India and it never recovered from that spectacular deflation,” he wrote.

In South Africa, too, many now say it’s important to see Gandhi’s whole persona, his early missteps and his later contribution — a fact underlined by the massive loss of the EFF motion, 226-20. And, of course, none other than Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by Gandhi, also defended him.

Itzkin wrote that Mandela was aware of the racist statements made by Gandhi when he was young but in an article in 1999, argued that the Mahatma must be forgiven those prejudices, and be judged in the context of the time and circumstances.

“We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become the Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice,” Mandela wrote.

After all, as Dhupelia-Mesthrie noted, who can claim at 45 to be the same person they were at 24?

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