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The Mahatma of South Africa

You gave us Gandhi, we gave you the Mahatma,” Nelson Mandela is said to have remarked once while talking to one of his Indian friends.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2013 23:46 IST
Jyotirmoy Pal Chaudhuri
Jyotirmoy Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Nelson Mandela,death of Nelson Mandela,South African

You gave us Gandhi, we gave you the Mahatma,” Nelson Mandela is said to have remarked once while talking to one of his Indian friends. Mandela was obviously referring to the young Gujarati barrister who went to South Africa and, subjected to racial humiliation, launched an unprecedented movement of ‘passive resistance’ and ‘Satyagraha’ against the white minority government there. Gandhi, the ‘Coolie barrister’ of 1893 left South Africa for India about 21 years later and took charge of the Indian National Congress. By that time he was known all over the world as Mahatma Gandhi.

It is interesting to note that the first political activity of Jawaharlal Nehru was also connected to South Africa. After completing his education in Britain in 1912, Nehru began practising law at the Allahabad High Court. He did not like the work and agreed to work for the Congress. One of his first assignments was to collect funds for the passive resistance movement, which Gandhi was leading in South Africa.

Mandela, born in 1918, four years after Gandhi had left South Africa, never met Gandhi. 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 mentions how the passive resistance movement led by Dadoo and Naicker to oppose the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946 influenced him. Later, however, he had to alter the techniques to suit South African circumstances.

South Africa thus 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.

Congress leaders realised that the independence of India would remain incomplete unless other colonised countries were also liberated.

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, the Non-aligned Movement, the Commonwealth and other international or regional organisations.

In 1960, the African National Congress opened 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 by conferring the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour on Mandela. He was 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.

The close collaboration between India and South Africa which is reflected in many areas is the fruit of the seeds sown during the Mandela days. The Red Fort Declaration of 1996, the Tshwane Declaration of 2006, the 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. The autobiography of Amina Cachalia, When Hope and History Rhyme, was 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. The book reveals that Mandela was in love with Amina. Mandela had proposed to her after he had become South Africa’s 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.

First Published: Dec 06, 2013 23:41 IST